Interview: Whiteness Redux

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-11-02 00:39Z by Steven

Interview: Whiteness Redux

borderlands: e-journal
Volume 3, Number 2 (2004)

Mike Hill, Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies
State University of New York, Albany

Damien W. Riggs
University of Adelaide, South Australia

1. Damien: As a research area that is rapidly growing within ‘Western nations’, how would you understand whiteness studies as both creating the potential for critique, but also the potential for reinforcing the normative status of whiteness?

2. Mike: It’s interesting that you use the word “potential.” Because one of the issues that the whiteness studies phenomena in the US has raised—productively, if painfully—is whether or not humanities research in Western nations is at this moment capable of doing anything significant at all, critical, normative, whatever. Whither whiteness, and with it, whither scholarly books as the most effective basis for political agency? From a historical vantage point this is not a flippant question. We assume that writing leads to what significant social event, exactly? On the whiteness front, we know that writing has lead, well, to more writing, more conferences, additional debate. Do we presume a connection between this relatively recent outpouring of scholarship and progressive mass movements, radical insurgencies, real social change? The relation between humanities knowledge and the masses has I believe never been more confused. But neither has it been more crucial.

…15. Damien: There has been much talk recently, particular within the US and UK, of white people engaging in a movement towards ‘race abolitionism’, and as being ‘race traitors’. Do you think this connects with work in the area of whiteness studies, and in what regards (if any) do you see it as creating the potential for challenging the racialised structures of ‘Western societies’?

16. Mike: That word “potential” again. If we could only measure such a force in some way beyond just saying “yes, this or that provides our one true hope,” or “no, it surely does not.” I’ve been somewhat critical of the race traitor movement in the US on the grounds that it was voluntaristic and prone to all sorts of ontological thefting, to fetishizing the margins, to romantically blackening up, and so on. Maybe these charges were facile, or the underlying logic not so clear. But I still wonder, as I did in an article for Postmodern Culture back in 1997, about programatically performing “treason to whiteness” in order to ensure one’s “loyalty to humanity,” as that historically imperious neo-Enlightenment slogan goes. Humanity is a nice desire. But I wonder if this term, as evoked by the race traitor group, might turn on the way white men in particular are playing out a sense of late-capitalist public disenfranchisement, variously retooling, or really, gearing up their affective relations to colour, for everyone to witness and once again applaud…

…36. Damien: Whilst it is important to recognise the very local ways in which whiteness achieves hegemony, it has also been suggested that there are broader connections between the practices of whiteness in differing countries, particularly through their relation to discourses of empire and imperialism. Where do you see some of the important international connections within the study of whiteness?…

…40. Mike: Enter here the multiracial movement, which maintains an express disavowal of whiteness and, for that matter, disavows allegiance to blackness, our two longstanding oppositional correlates. There are something like sixty multiracial organizations in the US touting the cause of civil rights, self- and state-recognition, full and frank disclosure that the population designated black is mostly mixed race (as if race is a quantifiable set of blood ratios!). As I said, it’s significant that, for them, “white” is a bunk historical fiction. But it’s a horror for the NAACP that so too is “black.” The multiracial activists seek the right to be counted as one would choose, which means the full extension of a civil rights legacy that emphasises self- over observer-enumeration. Race is addressed once again as the matter of getting identity correct in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the state. This time though, the traditional categories of race are exhausted thevery moment that race is embraced.

41. What the old civil rights organization’s realised, especially given the enthusiasm of republican legislators to get multiracial people officially counted, is that the new abundance of race categories threaten to terminate the juridical unity of race altogether. A new and accelerated civil rights lexicon increases the number of race categories that individuals may legally claim. On this order, race is everywhere significant and nowhere identifiable in the old formalist sense. So you have the NAACP’s awkward defence of the one-drop rule of hypo-descent—formerly associated with Jim Crow—as a sort of desperate, ironic collective self-defence against the difficulties implicit in the post-civil rights epoch.

42. This latest process of governing vis-à-vis racial distinction is different from previous civil rights struggles, which tried to liberalise the state and get government justly interested in the racial identities it once denied. Under this new set of protocols, the state has admitted racial interest and with ever greater freedom and nuance. But it has done so in order to rob racial coherency of its former political significance.

43. If you pursue the multiracialism debate to its logical ends, you can start to see how an individual’s right to self-identify, paradoxically, provides an opportunity for racial identity itself to release the state from its previous civil rights obligations. In this way, the state jettisons the most important historical cite of domestic dissent the very moment it presumes to go global. You could say that the neo-nationalist end of liberalism is hereby found dormant in the logic of its once benevolent ends. In effect, all and no race relations exist in the eyes of a racially emancipated state. Multiplicity is unleashed upon identity, and the organizational capacity of government is both maximised and evaporated within the simple act of saying, “I am…”…

Read the entire article here.

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