George Yancy, Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

W.E.B. Du Bois famously described the consciousness of African Americans as double, as always seeing oneself through the eyes of another — both subject and object, a subject under subjection and an object of objection. It is a powerful articulation of the relationality of race and racism. But as relational, it can be turned around. A comparable double consciousness for white people would be to see themselves through the eyes of those beset and marginalized by white privilege, those dispossessed by white racialization, those racialized by white supremacist society as “other.” For whites to see themselves through those others’ eyes would not only make them racial objects for themselves, but would grant a subjectivity to the subjected, a subjectivity that subjection is designed to deny.

It is just such an inversion that the title expression of Prof. George Yancy’s book, Look, a White!, is designed to foster. When white identity becomes an object for itself, it loses its transcendence and is brought down to earth. No longer can it claim to be simply human because it becomes subject to the very division that white people have foisted on humans in the process of making themselves (and separating themselves off as) white. Thus it inverts the racializing expression that for Frantz Fanon had become iconic of his exclusion, his dehumanization, his total otherness as black in white European society, when he overhears a child say, “Look, a Negro.” It is not that Yancy wants white people to feel the “otherness” that black people do at white hands (and eyes), but he wants them to be aware that that they are othering, and to stop.

Race is something that white people are taught early on to look for in other people. It is one of the first things to notice, though that priority is itself supposed to go unnoticed. We white people, upon encountering someone perhaps a little off-white, want to know if they are Latino or Arab or Persian or Pakistani or whatever (which Patricia Williams calls “racial voyeurism” (111)). In suggesting the use of “Look, a white,” in everyday affairs, each time one sees one, Yancy “flips the script.” He wants white people to notice the priority of their noticing, while shifting the onus to noticing whiteness.

But why is this important? Noticing is different from recognizing. Recognition grants being first, and encounters individuality within it. Noticing characterizes first, and grants being (already generalized) through that. It is an action that distances. It is generally discernible as an action by those noticed, though not by those noticing. Yet it lurks as an act by which our cultural identity as white people is defined. And Yancy wants us to look at ourselves doing it. The purpose of doing so is to “challenge the socially constructed privilege and power of the white gaze” (110).

In short, this is a book of inversions – an inversion of Duboisian double consciousness wherein whites might see their whiteness as others see it, of Fanon’s moment of awareness inverted to become a moment of awareness for whites, and Yancy’s “flipping of the script” of noticing. Inversion is an effective demonstrative procedure. The women’s movement showed us its power with respect to the alleged neutrality and universality of male pronouns. If one substituted female pronouns for the male in a text, the transformation of meaning immediately disabused the male pronoun of any pretension to universality.

But can the structure of racialization be inverted, or simply turned around? Let me present two propositions that deny this possibility. First, black people and white people in the US live in different worlds because black people live with and have to defend themselves against white supremacy every minute of their lives, and this is not something that white people face, confront, or have to do. It is a daily and worldly disparity, the creation of which is the problem. And it is part of that problem that the white mythos of race lays the onus of this problem on black people. And this invokes the second proposition. Race is not inherent in humans; it is something that one group of people (whites) does to others, through which process they define themselves as white. That is, race is a complex of social actions, a verb rather than a noun. The verb is “to racialize.”

These two propositions are fairly fundamental. Their origin lies in the colonialist invention of race and whiteness as a socio-administrative instrumentality. Yancy alludes to this origin in a nice account of a black Caribbean philosopher’s (Kamau Braithwaite) critique of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A die-hard white supremacist might think that black people want supremacy, and need to define themselves through the subjugation of whites, but that would be because that is the only way he or she can think. For some people, the emptiness of historical hypothesis (i.e. a hypothetical history) is the only available argument.

Ultimately, the demonstrative power of inversion only goes so far. Underneath it, Yancy’s implicit goal is to bring the activities and the processes of racialization to a halt. But the book itself is about pedagogy. The student and the classroom are its real subject matter. Its goal is an awareness of cultural being. If Yancy turns his title into a pedagogical tool, a functional icon to be applied in a variety of circumstances, its purpose is to get people to see the unseen. And also to neutralize the demands white society puts on white people to perform their white identity as if it were transcendent, as if they were simply human and not the racializers. In other words, its iconicity is designed to quash the possibility of white people saying “I didn’t do that,” “that’s not me,” “that’s not who I am.” For that purpose, inversion works. The mirror becomes a powerful instrument. Yancy wields it not to teach per se, but to set up a situation, a conceptual environment in which people can learn via their own trajectory. The point is to bring them to the act of looking, to see themselves and their whiteness as anything but natural. After all, no one is born white; one is made white by white supremacist society, just as one is not born black but is made black by white surpemacist society.

However, there are limitations to this strategy. Cultural structures lurk behind such a learning process, silently out of sight. The “cultural,” after all, is what goes without saying. It is the matrix in which people are embedded, or rather governed by what anthropology calls “the mythic.” Whiteness exists. Otherwise one could not see it in the mirror Yancy holds up. Its three modes of existence, as a cultural structure, an identity, and a race, are all mythic. Its cultural existence is as white supremacy, a structure of self-entitlement and a self-rationalized use of violence for the purposes of domination. Supremacy is always mythic, indeed fictional beyond the structures of violence and hierarchical domination it can establish for itself. As Yancy says, “Whiteness [is] a form of power, privilege, and historical terror” (78). White people don’t have to act supremacist in order to represent their mythic supremacy. In simply walking around, their faces serve as icons for it. To ignore that fact constitutes participation in the structure of racialization. The alternative is to do what one can to tear that structure down. But that is a subject slightly beyond the purview of this particular book.

Ironically, the mythic nature of whiteness as an identity makes this latter task harder. Where supremacy manifests itself as a vertical hierarchy; white racialized identity pretends to exist on a horizontal plane with other identities (black or African American, Latino or Chicano, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, etc.). It is the verticality of the racial hierarchy that renders white racialized identity mythic, while deluding white people into thinking that any disparity of validity, authenticity, or opportunity with respect to these others is just a personal problem. Yet none of these other identities would need to exist as identities rather than simply ancestries or cultural traditions (such a being of French descent, for instance) if it were not for the necessity to resist the exclusionary violence by which the white hierarchy denigrates, invalidates, and marginalizes those ancestries and traditions.

Finally, and most especially, the idea that whiteness exists as a race is mythic because it pretends that race is something inherent in a person, and not something done to people by white supremacist cultural structures.

Yancy tries to approach this while holding to his pedagogical project. Of the book’s six chapters, four concern the sociology of the classroom. The other two are literary studies. The sociological chapters deal with the ways in which race is simply taken for granted, and not seen by whites – what he calls its “lived density.” He looks at how it is absorbed from early childhood in the very social air we breathe, and how we learn to perform it for others. He projects that sense of density down into the educational process, to disclose the extent to which educational curricula are white oriented. As a black philosopher, teaching Euro-American philosophy in a predominantly white university, he lives the density of this problem. For the average white student, to confront a black person teaching white philosophy means either to include this black professor’s sensibility within the universality that white philosophy reserves for itself, deracializing that sensibility, or grant the differences and defend white philosophy’s pretended universality by translating (rewriting) the thought produced by that sensibility back into the canonical, that is, into “white” terms. In either case, a denial of personhood or subjectivity occurs in the name of imposing whiteness as normative. That is, there is violence in imposing whiteness as normative, even in university curricula.

But violence is always performative. People do it to others, whether they understand that what they are doing is violence or not. That is why it is important to understand the cultural structures that the violence obeys, precisely because it inhabits “what goes without saying.”

Thus, Yancy’s focus is on how white students can begin to extricate themselves from that matrix, to “confront their responsibility in sustaining white racist practices” (76), and to transcend “the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity.” For white people to think in terms of a “universal subjectivity” is not only to impose it, but to dismiss, discard, and discount other subjectivities, the subjectivities that others have had to develop in order to defend themselves against the activities of white domination. Yancy wants these students to see their imposition of white normativity and their simultaneous dismissal of difference (136) as two sides of their participation, in order to come to an awareness through which they will be able to cease such participation.  He hopes that his white students will be able to see how white people enact the moments of a power and privilege they take for granted – that “go without saying” – and perform what is scripted for them culturally,

But this raises a question that is hard to approach, and which Yancy himself crashes against. Where do those scripts come from? Who writes them? What does it mean that there is a performance of whiteness in the first place? And what does it depend on that some performances are benign while others are steeped in violence, terror, harassment, hostility, the power and privilege to express power and privilege? The notion of performance is important for understanding whiteness, because it means there is an audience, others who judge, and who grant membership if their judgment is approving. And conversely, there is a fear on the part of whites that their performance will fall short, just when they need it the most, to gain the approbation of those whose respect they require. There is that other step to go before the mythos of whiteness, residing in that complex of social relations like a “constituted state,” can be cracked.

Ultimately, the book is uneven. One of its literary chapters has real power, the discussion of Braithwaite’s treatment of The Tempest. The other, Yancy’s discussion of the movie White Chicks, is forced. He wants to extract a critique of stereotypes and stereotyping out of the movie. But the movie is a comedy, and comedy relies on play with stereotypes (even wholly successful comedy, like The Sting, for instance). The imagery that Yancy wants to use to make his points about racial stereotypes is there, but it too is forced in the movie’s own terms. Silliness does not deconstruct itself; it is rather a defense against critique.

But perhaps Yancy includes a discussion of this movie because he sincerely does not want white people to feel a sense of guilt for being white. That would only reify the whiteness that he would like them to see and grasp as socially constructed. Guilt would engender a reaffirmation of the mythic aspects of whiteness, as a trait that actually pertains to human beings in their individual reality.

This points to a shortcoming of the book. In dealing with the individual “white mind,” and trying to get it to free itself from its scriptedness and its mythological constructedness, Yancy actually directs attention away from the cultural structures that write the scripts and provide the membership for which proper performances are the dues. Complicity at the individual level must be stopped, which the book tries to do, but the problem of the transformation of a cultural structure remains. White people can see their whiteness and that of others as much as they like, but ultimately the underlying cultural structure that produces and reproduces whiteness in them over and over, from one era of US history to another, must be wholly transformed, with its coloniality effaced and rendered a thing of the past.

Reviewed by Steve Martinot
independent scholar
Berkeley, California
martinot4@gmail.com

 

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