Book Review: The Future of Whiteness

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I don’t like to overuse the term “must read” but Linda Martin Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness (2015, Polity) is a must-read. We live in the era of white reaction to non-whites getting equal rights, and changing demographics – by 2050 white Europeans will no longer be a majority – have created a frenzy of over-reaction on the right, and some problems on the left too, as Bernie Sanders found out when Black Lives Matter upstaged him and demanded to be heard.

When we see white supremacists courted by a major political party, and groups openly touting “white slavery” and “white genocide,” it is past time white people take a good, hard look at what is going on, and think, perhaps for the first time, about what being white means, what it has meant in the past, and what it will mean in the future.

Whiteness means something. But what? And how many people want to even approach the question – or what any answer entails?

future-of-whitenessAs Alcoff writes, “This is a book about a topic many would rather avoid.” It is not an easy subject, racism, particularly when we are assured by the same political party courting white supremacists that we live in a post-racist world (there is a left-wing version of post-racialism too, she argues). There is a lot of white-splaining going on over at Fox News – by white men. I’m a white man, and this offends me.

How does a white male – of all demographic groups – get to tell non-whites how they should feel?

Alcoff points to the election of Barack Obama and to “a white reaction that can take some pretty hysterical forms.” It is easy to see why; as she points out, “holding a significant majority within a nation has granted whites the ability to believe in the legitimacy of a white-dominated government.”

I would argue that it goes further than this, to a white “Christian” government. Andrea Tantaros, for example:

“And it was quite a leap… to point to a shooting and somehow link that to women not being able to get abortions,” Tantaros opined. “They had not released information and people were already indicting an entire religion, Christian white Republican, before we even got details.”

“Christian White Republican” is a new religion, apparently, or is it a new race? Or can they somehow be divided into their constituent parts?

Unfortunately, though interested in class and race, Alcoff is not interested in the religious equation, and you won’t even find it in the index of her book, and I think she missed an opportunity here.

The subject at hand, I have to admit, is potent enough, and that would make for another book altogether. So we have a “Sturm und Drang” as she says, on the right, but we can’t overlook that we also have a white-dominated left. And white liberals, she says, “remain uncomfortable in broaching the topic, while white conservatives generally try to disguise their racial references, though the disguise is often so ineffective as to be a joke.”

This is an uncomfortable topic for liberals and progressives as well, much as we might want to deny it. I know the suggestion made me uncomfortable in reading it, but it forced me to re-examine my own reactions. Alcoff says that “the extreme unabashed right wing dominates race-talk, while all others, including the left, the liberals, and the moderates, largely maintain race avoidance.”

And that was what Bernie Sanders, for example, was accused of – ignoring systemic racism. He had been invited to speak about Social Security and Medicare. His response was a “racial justice platform” that then won praise from the BLM movement. Alcoff doesn’t address Sanders or Black Lives Matter specifically, but they seem excellent examples of the forces she is addressing.

And Alcoff says we need to talk about this, and she calls the left’s tendency to separate class from race unhelpful in this regard. I thought about this, and I do think it is true that we tend to do that. She points out that “If race is basically an illusion – or a mere ideological overlay that mystifies reality, as it is on this mainstream left view – then the demographic changes make no real difference, only a difference at the level of ideology.”

From the point of view of a liberal, this means that at the very best, even if we are not part of the problem, we are also not part of the solution. And it is obvious Alcoff thinks we are part of the problem. This is not a matter of “both sides do it” but I think more of “one side does it” and “the other doesn’t adequately address it.”

Alcoff moves on to a discussion of whiteness, what it is, what it means, and its history, and history shows that whiteness as “movable” boundaries, as she puts it; Irish and Italians have both had to earn their white status, and she points out that even today southern Europeans and Jews are only “borderline” whites.

It’s a bet of a mess isn’t it, this “white” thing? In fact, whiteness is a “historical and social construct” rather than a “singular idea” and it has changed and continues to change. She talks about labels and the changing nature of social identities (given society itself is changing). She employs categories from around the world, including Yugoslavia after its break up, the Mason-Dixon line, and Rwanda, and offers us a brief history of “race” and a discussion of “class.”

This is no easy read and it should not be, given the complexity and importance of the subject. It is important we understand these things so that we can intelligently discuss them. These are concepts it is often difficult for us to wrap our thoughts around, even assuming we can come to some agreement on terms.

Alcoff’s chapter on white exceptionalism is particularly important today, and here she employs William Faulkner to illustrate our contradictory attitudes towards race and white supremacy. Being a philosopher, it is hardly surprising that we should also meet here Newton and Goethe and discussions of universalism versus purity.

This is a book that will make you think, and it would have very little value if it simply validated existing attitudes. Because whiteness is not an unchallenged default, this is a subject that should receive our undivided attention. I cannot recommend this book enough. It will challenge your thinking, and I can think of no higher praise.