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The Struggle to Define and Reinvent Whiteness: a pedagogical Analysis Joe L. Kincheloe


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The Struggle to Define and Reinvent Whiteness: A Pedagogical Analysis

Joe L. Kincheloe Source: College Literature 26 (Fall 1999): 162- .

 In the emerging sub-discipline of whiteness studies scholars seem better equipped to explain white privilege than to define whiteness itself. Such a dilemma is understandable: the concept is slippery and elusive. Even though no one at this point really knows what whiteness is, most observers agree that it is intimately involved with issues of power and power differences between white and non-white people. Whiteness cannot be separated from hegemony and is profoundly influenced by demographic changes, political realignments, and economic cycles. Situationally specific, whiteness is always shifting, always reinscribing itself around changing meanings of race in the larger society. As with race in general whiteness holds material/economic implications - indeed, white supremacy has its financial rewards. The Federal Housing Administration, for example, has traditionally favored housing loans for white suburbs instead of "ethnic" inner cities. Banks have ensured that Blacks have severely limited access to property ownership and capital acquisition compared to Whites. Unions over the decades following World War Two ignored the struggle for full employment and universal medical care, opting for contracts that provided private medical coverage, pensions, and job security to predominantly white organized workers in mass production industries. Undoubtedly, there continue to be unearned wages of whiteness. Indeed, critical multiculturalists understand that questions of whiteness permeate almost every major issue facing Westerners at the end of the twentieth century: affirmative action, intelligence testing, the deterioration of public space, and the growing disparity of wealth. In this context the study of whiteness becomes a central feature of any critical pedagogy or multicultural education for the twenty-first century. The effort to define and reinvent the amorphous concept becomes the "prime directive" of what is referred to here as a critical pedagogy of whiteness (Keating 1995; Nakayama and Krizek 1995; Fiske 1994; Gallagher 1994; Yudice 1995; Kincheloe and Steinberg 1997).


In the multicultural context a critical pedagogy of whiteness theoretically grounds a form of teaching that engages students in an examination of the social, political, and psychological dimensions of membership in a racial group. The critical imperative demands that such an examination be considered in relation to power and the ideological dynamics of white supremacy. A critical pedagogy of whiteness is possible only if we understand in great specificity the multiple meanings of whiteness and their effects on the way white consciousness is historically structured and socially inscribed. Without such appreciations and the meta-consciousness they ground, awareness of the privilege and dominance of white Northern European vantagepoints are buried in the cemetery of power evasion. Neither our understanding that race is not biological but social or that racial classifications have inflicted pain and suffering on nonWhites should move us to reject the necessity of new forms of racial analysis.
The white privilege of universalizing its characteristics as the "proper ways to be" has continuously undermined the efforts of non-Whites in a variety of spheres. At times such universal norms have produced self-loathing among individual members of minority groups, as they internalize the shibboleths of the white tradition - "I wish my eyes were blue and my hair blond and silky." Invisible white norms in these cases alienate non-Whites to the point that they sometimes come to live "outside themselves." A pedagogy of whiteness reveals such power-related processes to Whites and non-Whites alike, exposing how members of both these groups are stripped of self-knowledge. As Whites, white students in particular, come to see themselves through the eyes of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and indigenous peoples, they begin to move away from the conservative constructions of the dominant culture. Such an encounter with minority perspectives moves many white individuals to rethink their tendency to dismiss the continued existence of racism and embrace the belief that racial inequality results from unequal abilities among racial groups. The effects of a critical pedagogy of whiteness can be powerfully emancipatory (Tatum 1994; Frankenberg 1993; Alcoff 1995; Sleeter 1995).

WHITE REASON: THE COLONIAL POWER OF WHITENESS


While no one knows exactly what constitutes whiteness, we can historicize the concept and offer some general statements about the dynamics it signifies. Even this process is difficult, as whiteness as a socio-historical construct is constantly shifting in light of new circumstances and changing interactions with various manifestations of power. With these qualifications in mind we believe that a dominant impulse of whiteness took shape around the European Enlightenment's notion of rationality with its privileged construction of a transcendental white, male, rational subject who operated at the recesses of power while concurrently giving every indication that he escaped the confines of time and space. In this context whiteness was naturalized as a universal entity that operated as more than a mere ethnic positionality emerging from a particular time, the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a particular space, Western Europe. Reason in this historical configuration is whitened and human nature itself is grounded upon this reasoning capacity. Lost in the defining process is the socially constructed nature of reason itself, not to mention its emergence as a signifier of whiteness. Thus, in its rationalistic womb whiteness begins to establish itself as a norm that represents an authoritative, delimited, and hierarchical mode of thought. In the emerging colonial contexts in which Whites would increasingly find themselves in the decades and centuries following the Enlightenment, the encounter with non-Whiteness would be framed in rationalistic terms - whiteness representing orderliness, rationality, and self-control and non-whiteness as chaos, irrationality, violence, and the breakdown of self-regulation. Rationality emerged as the conceptual base around which civilization and savagery could be delineated (Giroux 1992; Alcoff 1995; Keating 1995).
This rationalistic modernist whiteness is shaped and confirmed by its close association with science. As a scientific construct whiteness privileges mind over body, intellectual over experiential ways of knowing, mental abstractions over passion, bodily sensations, and tactile understanding (Semali and Kincheloe 1999; Kincheloe, Steinberg, and Hinchey 1999). In the study of multicultural education such epistemological tendencies take on dramatic importance. In educators' efforts to understand the forces that drive the curriculum and the purposes of Western education, modernist whiteness is a central player. The insight it provides into the social construction of schooling, intelligence, and the disciplines of psychology and educational psychology in general opens a gateway into white consciousness and its reactions to the world around it. Objectivity and dominant articulations of masculinity as signs of stability and the highest expression of white achievement still work to construct everyday life and social relations at the end of the twentieth century. Because such dynamics have been naturalized and universalized, whiteness assumes an invisible power unlike previous forms of domination in human history. Such an invisible power can be deployed by those individuals and groups who are able to identify themselves within the boundaries of reason and to project irrationality, sensuality, and spontaneity on to the other.
Thus, European ethnic groups such as the Irish in nineteenth-century industrializing America were able to differentiate themselves from passionate ethnic groups who were supposedly unable to regulate their own emotional predispositions and gain a rational and objective view of the world. Such peoples - who were being colonized, exploited, enslaved, and eliminated by Europeans during their Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras - were viewed as irrational and, thus, inferior in their status as human beings. As inferior beings, they had no claim to the same rights as Europeans - hence, white racism and colonialism were morally justified around the conflation of whiteness and reason. In order for whiteness to place itself in the privileged seat of rationality and superiority, it would have to construct pervasive portraits of non-Whites, Africans in particular, as irrational, disorderly, and prone to uncivilized behavior (Nakayama and Krizek 1995; Stowe 1996; Alcoff 1995; Haymes 1996). As rock of rationality in a sea of chaos and disorder, whiteness presented itself as a non-colored, non-blemished pure category. Even a mere drop of non-white blood was enough historically to relegate a person to the category of "colored." Being white, thus, meant possessing the privilege of being uncontaminated by any other bloodline. A mixed race child in this context has often been rejected by the white side of his or her heritage - the rhetorical construct of race purity demands that the mixed race individual be identified by allusion to the non-white group, for example, she's half Latina or half Chinese. Individuals are rarely half-white.
As Michel Foucault often argued, reason is a form of disciplinary power. Around Foucault's axiom, critical multiculturalists contend that reason can never be separated from power. Those without reason defined in the Western scientific way are excluded from power and are relegated to the position of unreasonable other. Whites in their racial purity understood the dictates of the "White Man's Burden" and became the beneficent teachers of the barbarians. To Western eyes the contrast between white and non-white culture was stark: reason as opposed to ignorance; scientific knowledge instead of indigenous knowledge; philosophies of mind versus folk psychologies; religious truth in lieu of primitive superstition; and professional history as opposed to oral mythologies. Thus, rationality was inscribed in a variety of hierarchical relations between European colonizers and their colonies early on, and between Western multinationals and their "underdeveloped" markets in later days. Such power relations were erased by the white claim of cultural neutrality around the transhistorical norm of reason - in this construction rationality was not assumed to be the intellectual commodity of any specific culture. Indeed, colonial hierarchies immersed in exploitation were justified around the interplay of pure whiteness, impure non-whiteness, and neutral reason.

Traditional colonialism was grounded on colonialized people's deviation from the norm of rationality, thus making colonization a rational response to inequality. In the twentieth century this white norm of rationality was extended to the economic sphere where the philosophy of the free market and exchange values were universalized into signifiers of civilization. Once all the nations on earth are drawn into the white reason of the market economy, then all land can be subdivided into real estate, all human beings' worth can be monetarily calculated, values of abstract individualism and financial success can be embraced by every community in every country, and education can be reformulated around the cultivation of human capital. When these dynamics come to pass, the white millennium will have commenced - white power will have been consolidated around land and money. The Western ability to regulate diverse peoples through their inclusion in data banks filled with information about their credit histories, institutional affiliations, psychological "health," academic credentials, work experiences, and family backgrounds will reach unprecedented levels. The accomplishment of this ultimate global colonial task will mark the end of white history in the familiar end-of-history parlance. This does not mean that white supremacy ends, but that it has produced a hegemony so seamless that the need for further structural or ideological change becomes unnecessary. The science, reason, and technology of white culture will have achieved their inevitable triumph (MacCannell 1992; Nakayama and Krizek 1995; Alcoff 1995; Giroux 1992).


Whatever the complexity of the concept, whiteness, at least one feature is discernible - whiteness cannot escape the materiality of its history, its effects on the everyday lives of those who fall outside its conceptual net as well as on white people themselves. Critical scholarship on whiteness should focus attention on the documentation of such effects. Whiteness study in a critical multiculturalist context should delineate the various ways such material effects shape cultural and institutional pedagogies and position individuals in relation to the power of white reason. Understanding these dynamics is central to the curriculums of black studies, Chicano studies, postcolonialism, indigenous studies, not to mention educational reform movements in elementary, secondary, and higher education. The history of the world's diverse peoples in general as well as minority groups in Western societies in particular has often been told from a white historiographical perspective. Such accounts erased the values, epistemologies, and belief systems that grounded the cultural practices of diverse peoples. Without such cultural grounding students have often been unable to appreciate the manifestations of brilliance displayed by non-white cultural groups. Caught in the white interpretive filter they were unable to make sense of diverse historical and contemporary cultural productions as anything other than proof of white historical success. The fact that one of the most important themes of the last half of the twentieth century - the revolt of the "irrationals" against white historical domination - has not been presented as a salient part of the white (or non-white) story is revealing, a testimony to the continuing power of whiteness and its concurrent fragility (Banfield 1991; Frankenberg 1993; Stowe 1996; Vattimo 1992).
WHAT'S WHITE? WHITENESS AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
As with any racial category, whiteness is a social construction in that it can be invented, lived, analyzed, modified, and discarded. While Western reason is a crucial dynamic associated with whiteness over the last three centuries, there are many other social forces that sometimes work to construct its meaning. Whiteness, thus, is not an unchanging, fixed, biological category impervious to its cultural, economic, political, and psychological context. There are many ways to be white, as whiteness interacts with class, gender, and a range of other race-related and cultural dynamics. The ephemeral nature of whiteness as a social construction begins to reveal itself when we understand that the Irish, Italians, and Jews have all been viewed as non-white in particular places at specific moments in history. Indeed, Europeans prior to the late 1600s did not use the label, black, to refer to any race of people, Africans included. Only after the racialization of slavery by around 1680 did whiteness and blackness come to represent racial categories. Only at this historical juncture did the concept of a discrete white race begin to take shape. Slowly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the association with rationality and orderliness developed, and in this context whiteness came to signify an elite racial group. Viewed as a position of power, white identity was often sought by those who did not possess it. Immigrant workers in the new American industrial workplaces of the mid-nineteenth century from southern and eastern Europe aspired to and eventually procured whiteness, viewing its status as payment for the exploitation of their labor. Such shifts in the nature and boundaries of whiteness continued into the twentieth century. One of the reasons that whiteness has become an object of analysis in the 1990s revolves around the profound shifts in the construction of whiteness, blackness, and other racial identities that have taken place in the last years of the twentieth century.
How are students and other individuals to make sense of the assertion that whiteness is a social construction? How does such a concept inform the democratic goals of a critical pedagogy? Such questions form the conceptual basis of our discussion of whiteness, our attempt to construct a pedagogy of whiteness. In order to answer them in a manner that is helpful to Whites and other racial groups, it is important to focus on the nature of the social construction process. In this context John Fiske's (1993) notion of an ever-shifting and realigning power bloc is helpful. The discourses that shape whiteness are not unified and singular but diverse and contradictory. If one is looking for logical consistency from the social construction of whiteness, he or she is not going to find it. The discursive construction of whiteness like the work of any power bloc, aligns and dealings itself around particular issues of race. For example, the discourse of white victimization that has emerged over the last two decades appears in response to particular historical moments such as the attempt to compensate for the oppression of non-Whites through preferential hiring and admissions policies. The future of such policies will help shape the discourses that will realign to structure whiteness in the twenty-first century. These discourses, of course, hold profound material consequences for Western cultures, as they fashion and refashion power relations between differing social groups. Any pedagogy of critical multiculturalism or of whiteness itself involves engaging students in a rigorous tracking of this construction process. Such an operation when informed by critical notions of social justice, community, and democracy allows individuals insights into the inner workings of racialization, identity formation, and the etymology of racism - an empowering set of understandings. Armed with such concepts, they gain the ability to challenge and rethink whiteness around issues of racism and privilege. In this context questions about a white student's own identity begin to arise (Gallagher 1994; McMillen 1995; Keating 1995; Nakayama and Krizek 1995).

Such questioning and renegotiating induces us to consider whiteness in relation to other social forces - non-whiteness in particular. Stephen Haymes (1996) argues that to understand racial identity formation, we need to appreciate the way white is discursively represented as the polar opposite of black - a reflection of the Western tendency to privilege one concept in a binary opposition to another. The darkness-light, angel-devil discursive binarism - like other discursive constructions - has reproduced itself in the establishment of racial and ethnic categories. Through its relationship with blackness, whiteness configured itself as different, as not enslaved, as powerful, as aligned with destiny. In this bizarre manner blackness or Africanness empowered whiteness to gain self-consciousness, often via the racist depiction of the other. Such representations affirm the superiority and power of whiteness - again, its rationality, productivity, and orderliness vis-a-vis the chaos, laziness, and primitiveness of Africans and other non-Whites. Through its relation with Africanism, Whites gained knowledge of themselves as the racial barometer by which other groups were measured. Yet, in our understanding of the diversity within whiteness, this knowledge has meant more to some Whites than to others. Historically, poor whites have undoubtedly reaped the psychological wages of whiteness, but talk of white economic privilege in the late twentieth century leaves them with a feeling of puzzlement increasingly expressed as anger. Thus, to speak of white privilege unproblematically in a pedagogy of whiteness ignores the reality of diversity in whiteness (Fiske 1994; Morrison 1993; Keating 1995).


AVOIDING ESSENTIALISM: THE INSTABILITY OF WHITENESS
Diversity in whiteness demands our attention. Critical scholars must carefully attend to the subtle but crucial distinction between whiteness with its power to signify and white people. The diversity among white people makes sweeping generalizations about them dangerous and highly counterproductive to the goals of a critical pedagogy of whiteness. Indeed, it is not contradictory to argue that whiteness is a marker of privilege but that all white people are not able to take advantage of that privilege. It is difficult to convince a working class white student of the ubiquity of white privilege when he or she is going to school, accumulating school debts, working at McDonalds for minimum wage, unable to get married because of financial stress, and holds little hope of upward socioeconomic mobility. The lived experiences and anxieties of such individuals cannot be dismissed in a pedagogy of whiteness.
How, then, in the study and teaching of whiteness do we avoid essentializing white people as privileged, rationalistic, emotionally alienated people? Understanding the social/discursive construction of whiteness, students of whiteness refuse to search for its essential nature or its authentic core. Instead, critical analysts study the social, historical, rhetorical, and discursive context of whiteness, mapping the ways it makes itself visible and invisible, manifests its power, and shapes larger sociopolitical structures in relation to the micro-dynamics of everyday life. This, of course, is no easy task-indeed, it should keep us busy for a while. Its complexity and its recognition of ambiguity are central to the project's success. Since there is no fixed essence of whiteness, different white people can debate both the meaning of whiteness in general and its meaning in their own lives. Critical multiculturalists believe that such debates should take place in the context of racial history and analyses of power asymmetries in order to gain more than a superficial acquaintance with the issues. Nevertheless, diversity in whiteness is a fact of life, as various white people negotiate their relationship to whiteness in different ways. Yet, whiteness scholarship to this point has sometimes failed to recognize that its greatest problem is the lapse into essentialism.
In its most essential manifestations whiteness study has operated under the assumption that racial categories were permanent and fixed. In their attempt to deconstruct race in this context, essential whiteness scholars tend to reinscribe the fixity of racial difference. The pessimism emerging here is constructed by a form of racial determinism - white people will act in white ways because they are "just that way." A critical pedagogy of whiteness understands the contingency of the connection between rationalistic modernist whiteness and the actions of people with light-colored skin. The same, of course, is true with people with dark colored skin - they may not "act black." They may even "act white." Such anti-essential appreciations are central to whiteness study, as scholars historically contextualize their contemporary insights with references to the traditional confusion over racial delineations. Throughout U.S. history, for example, many federal and state agencies used only three racial categories - White, Negro, and Indian. Who fit where? How were Latino/as to be classified? What about Asians? Originally, the state of California classified Mexicans as white and Chinese as Indian. Later Chinese-Americans were grouped as Orientals, then Asians, then Pan Asians, and then Asian Pacific Americans. Analysis of such categorization indicates both the slipperiness of racial grouping and the American attempt to force heterogeneous racial configurations into a single category around similarities in skin tone, hair texture, and eye shape. Such biological criteria simply don't work in any logically consistent manner, thus frustrating the state's regulatory efforts to impose a rationalistic racial order (Keating 1995; Rubin 1994; Gallagher 1994; Fiske 1994).
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