All shades of a wide white world

October 19, 2007

'Whiteness studies' provides new ways of thinking about race inequalities through examining privilege. John Preston explains. In Don DeLillo's novel White Noise , the author imagines a new academic field called "Hitler studies". When I tell my friends I am working with ideas from whiteness studies their spluttered reactions indicate that I may as well be working in DeLillo's ultimate politically incorrect field. Before they start looking for the swastika tattoos, I have to reassure them that whiteness studies is a critical discipline that questions the hidden privileges of "whiteness".

In liberal academia, fewer colleagues flinch, but whereas the field has received a favourable but by no means uncritical reaction in the US, it is largely regarded with disdain in the UK. In America, two noted professors of labour history - Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger - have written extensively on the topic of whiteness, and an emerging critical discipline (critical race theory) is interrogating white privilege and white supremacy in education through the works of scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings and Zeus Leonardo.

Although whiteness studies has been applied and interrogated in the US for a number of decades, the reaction to it here has been less sanguine. Indeed, in a footnote to his paper Education Policy as an Act of White Supremacy: Whiteness, Critical Race Theory and Education Reform , David Gillborn, head of policy studies at the Institute of Education, tells how he was asked by a white professor whether his desire to identify white supremacy at work in education policy was a sign of insanity.

Similarly, when I suggested at a recent conference that "white privilege" should be implicated in racist practices in special educational needs, I was informed that practitioners were "not ready" to hear such arguments. When - usually middle-class and liberal - white people are not ready or think that white supremacy is associated with the British National Party or the Ku Klux Klan only then we are in danger of denying racism in our everyday experiences and practices.

It is a dangerous conceit for academics to imagine that racism exists only outside the academy - perpetrated by uneducated white people. Writing about "whiteness", especially if white (as I am), is a risky business, and one should expect to receive heavy criticism. Whiteness studies has been accused of centring on white people (by Rosa Hernandez Sheets), of allowing whites to assuage their guilt (by Sara Ahmed) and of lacking adequate articulation with theories of class or gender. Autobiographical writing by whites on white identity and guilt can lead the hardiest liberal to reach for the vomit bucket. In addition, white authors can have it both ways by adopting positions against whiteness while being firmly ensconced within its privileges. However, outside this solipsism and self- loathing, whiteness studies can demystify racist practices and even give directions for political change.

In my field, education, whiteness studies provides new ways of thinking about race inequalities. Differential educational achievement between racial or ethnic groups is sometimes blamed on cultural differences. Focusing attention on institutional racism in schools, or the ways in which white people (both students and teachers) use "white racial preference" in allocating resources and time, replaces a reactionary emphasis on deficit with examining how power is implicated in maintaining white privilege.

Whiteness studies also enables us to understand the historical and contextual circumstances through which the category "white" is established. The terms "white trash" (in the US) and "chav" (in the UK) are used by some lecturers as shorthand descriptors for white working- class students, as my work shows. Those on the periphery of whiteness because of their class position are hence pathologised as being "differently" or "intermediately" white, suggesting (as Alistair Bonnett has pointed out) that we are returning to a re-racialised conception of the white working class. However, flexible whiteness should not lead us to accept that white privilege has been tempered. Significantly, modern nationalist parties are attempting to turn the marginalisation of working- class whites to their advantage by making claims of reverse racism.

This political manoeuvre by the Far Right alerts us to the dangers of whiteness studies overemphasising identity politics rather than racism.

The worst thing that could happen to the critical study of whiteness is that it become institutionalised as the latest way in which academics discuss "race". I therefore hope that British cynicism encourages a version that is fully aware of contradictions and ironies.

Provocatively, for some working in the field, whiteness studies should be the discipline that destroys itself. The editors of the US journal Race Traitor , for example, seek the abolition of the racial category "white" and the privileges that arise from it. If misinterpreted, this radical position really sounds like "Hitler studies" but to merely "trouble" whiteness is, for white academics, to benefit from retelling our own privilege.

John Preston is senior lecturer in citizenship and education at the University of East London. His latest book Whiteness and Class in Education is published by Springer, £69.

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