By Marilyn Frye
From Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism (The Crossing Press 1992)
This essay is the latest version of something I have been rewriting ever since my essay “On Being White” was published in The Politics of Reality. In a way, this is that first essay, emerging after several metamorphoses.
“On Being White” grew out of experiences I had in my home lesbian community in which I was discovering some of what it means for a woman, a feminist, to be white. These were very frustrating experiences: they played out and revealed the ways in which the fact that I am white gave unbidden and unwanted meanings to my thought and my actions and poisoned them all with privilege.
An intermediate version of this work, delivered at various colleges and universities around 1984-86, began with the following account of my attempts to come to grips with the fact of being white in a white-supremacist racist state, and with some of the criticism my first effort had drawn.1
Many white feminists, myself included, have tried to identify and change the attitudes and behaviors which blocked our friendly and effective comradeship with women of color and limited our ability to act against institutional racism. I assumed at first that these revisions would begin with analysis and decision: I had to understand the problems and then do whatever would effect the changes dictated by this understanding. But as I entered this work, I almost immediately learned that my competence to do it was questionable.
The idea was put to me by several women of color (and was stated in writings by women of color) that a white woman is not in a good position to analyze institutional or personal racism and a white woman’s decisions about what to do about racism cannot be authentic. About conscious raising groups for white women, Sharon Keller said to me in a letter, “I think that there are things which white women working together can accomplish but I do not think that white women are in the best positions usually to know what those things are or when it is the right time to do them. It would go a long way …for white women to take seriously their [relative] helplessness in this matter.” White women’s analysis of their own racism has also often been heard by women of color as “mere psychologizing.”…To be rid of racism, a white woman may indeed have to do some introspecting, remembering and verbalizing of feelings, but the self-knowledge which she might achieve by this work would necessarily produce profound change, and there are many reasons why many white women may not want to change. White women’s efforts to gain self-knowledge are easily undermined by the desire not to live out the consequences of getting it; their/our projects of consciousness-raising and self-analysis are very susceptible to the slide from “working on yourself” to “playing with yourself.” Apparently the white woman herself is ill-situated for telling which is which…
All of my ways of knowing seemed to have failed me–my perception, my common sense, my good will, my anger, honor and affection, my intelligence and insight. Just as walking requires something fairly sturdy and firm underfoot, so being an actor in the world requires a foundation of ordinary moral and intellectual confidence. Without that, we don’t know how to be or how to act; we become strangely stupid; the commitment against racism becomes itself immobilizing. Even obvious and easy acts either do not occur to us or threaten to be racist by presumptuous assumptions or misjudged timing, wording, or circumstances. Simple things like courtesy or giving money, attending a trial, working on a project initiated by women of color, or dissenting from racist views expressed in white company become fraught with possibilities of error and offense. If you want to do good, and you don’t know good from bad, you can’t move.2 Thus stranded, we also learned that it was exploitive and oppressive to ask for the help of women of color in extricating ourselves from this ignorance, confusion, incompetence and moral failure. Our racism is our problem, not theirs.3
Some white women report that the great enemy of their efforts to combat their own racism is their feelings of guilt. That is not my own experience, or that is not my word for it. The great enemies in my heart have been the despair and the resentment which come with being required (by others and by my own integrity) to repair something apparently irreparable, required to take responsibility for something apparently beyond my powers to effect. Both confounded and angry, my own temptation is to collapse–to admit defeat and retire from the field. What counteracts that temptation, for me, seems to be little more than willfulness and lust: I will not be broken, and my appetite for woman’s touch is not, thank goodness, thoroughly civilized to the established categories. But if I cannot give up and I cannot act, what do Will and Lust recommend? The obvious way out of the relentless logic of my situation is to cease being white.
The Contingency of Racedness
I was brought up with a concept of race according to which you cannot stop being the race you are: your race is an irreversible physical, indeed, ontological fact about you. But when the criteria for membership in a race came up as an issue among white people I knew, considerations of skin color and biological lineage were not definitive or decisive, or rather, they were so precisely when white people decided they should be, and were not when white people wanted them not to be. As I argued in “On Being White”4, white people actively legislate matters of race membership, and if asserting their right to do so requires making decisions that override physical criteria, they ignore physical criteria (without, of course, ever abandoning the ideological strategy of insisting the categories are given in nature). This sort of behavior clearly demonstrates that people construct race, actively, and that people who think they are unquestionably white generally think the criteria of what it is to be of this race or that are theirs to manipulate.5
Being white is not a biological condition. It is being a member of a certain social/political category, a category that is persistently maintained by those people who are, in their own and each others’ perception, most unquestionably in it. It is like being a member of a political party, or a club, or a fraternity–or being a Methodist or a Mormon. If one is white one is a member of a continuously and politically constituted group which holds itself together by rituals of unity and exclusion, which develops in its members certain styles and attitudes useful in the exploitation of others, which demands and rewards fraternal loyalty, which defines itself as the paradigm of humanity, and which rationalizes (and naturalizes) its existence and its practices of exclusion, colonization, slavery and genocide (when it bothers to) in terms of a mythology of blood and skin. If you were born to people who are members of that club, you are socialized and inducted into that club. Your membership in it is in a way, or to a degree, compulsory–nobody gave you any choice in the matter–but it is contingent and, in the Aristotelian sense, accidental. Well then, if you don’t like being a member of that club, you might think of resigning your membership, or of figuring out how to get yourself kicked out of the club, how to get yourself excommunicated.
But this strategy of “separation” is vulnerable to a variety of criticisms. A white woman cannot cease having the history she has by some sort of divorce ritual. Furthermore, the renunciation of whiteness may be an act of self-loathing rather than an act of liberation.6 And disassociation from the racegroup one was born into might seem to be an option for white folks, but seems either not possible or not politically desirable to most members of the other groups from which the whites set themselves off.7 This criticism suggests that my thinking of disassociating from membership in the white fraternity is just another exercise (hence, another reinforcement) of that white privilege which I was finding so onerous and attempting to escape. All these criticisms sound right (and I will circle back to them at the end of the essay), but there is something very wrong here. This closure has the distinctive finality of a trap.
In academic circles where I now circulate, it has become a commonplace that race is a “social construction” and not a naturally given and naturally maintained grouping of human individuals with naturally determined sets of traits. And the recognition of race as non-natural is presumed, in those circles, to be liberatory. Pursuing the idea of disassociating from the race-category in which I am placed and from the perquisites attached to it is a way of pursuing the question of what freedom can be made of this, and for whom. But it is seeming to me that race (together with racism and race privilege) is apparently constructed as something inescapable. And it makes sense that it would be, since such a construction would best serve those served by race and racism. Of course race and racism are impossible to escape; of course a white person is always in a sticky web of privilege that permits only acts which reinforce (“reinscribe”) racism. This just means that some exit must be forced. That will require conceptual creativity, and perhaps conceptual violence.
The “being white” that has presented itself to me as a burden and an insuperable block to my growth out of racism is not essentially about the color of my skin or any other inherited bodily trait, even though doctrines of color are bound up with this status in some ways. The problem then, is to find a way to think clearly about some kind of whiteness that is not essentially tied to color and yet has some significant relation to color. The distinction feminists have made between maleness and masculinity provides a clue and an analogy. Maleness we have construed as something a human animal can be born with; masculinity we have construed as something a human animal can be trained to–and it is an empirical fact that most male human animals are trained to it in one or another of its cultural varieties.8 Masculinity is not a blossoming consequence of genetic constitution as lush growths of facial hair seem to be in the males of many human groups. But the masculinity of an adult male is far from superficial or incidental and we know it is not something an individual could shrug off like a coat or snap out of like an actor stepping out of his character. The masculinity of an adult male human in any particular culture is also profoundly connected with the local perceptions and conceptions of maleness (as “biological”), its causes and its consequences. So it may be with being white, but we need some revision of our vocabulary to say it rightly. We need a term in the realm of race and racism whose grammar is analogous to the grammar of the term ‘masculinity’. I am tempted to recommend the neologism ‘albosity’ for this honor, but I’m afraid it is too strange to catch on. So I will introduce ‘whitely’ and ‘whiteliness’ as terms whose grammar is analogous to that of ‘masculine’ and ‘masculinity’. Being whiteskinned (like being male) is a matter of physical traits presumed to be physically determined; being whitely (like being masculine) I conceive as a deeply ingrained way of being in the world. Following the analogy with masculinity, I assume that the connection between whiteliness and light-colored skin is a contingent connection: this character could be manifested by persons who are not “white;” it can be absent in persons who are.
In the next section, I will talk about whiteliness in a free and speculative way, exploring what it may be. This work is raw preliminary sketching; it moves against no such background of research and attentive observation as there is to guide accounts of masculinity. There is of course a large literature on racism, but I think that what I am after here is not one and the same thing as racism, either institutional or personal. Whiteliness is connected to institutional racism (as will emerge further on in the discussion) by the fact that individuals with this sort of character are well-suited to the social roles of agents of institutional racism, but it is a character of persons, not of institutions. Whiteliness is also related to individual or personal racism, but I think it is not one and the same thing as racism, at least in the sense where ‘racism’ means bigotry/hate/ignorance/indifference. As I understand masculinity it is not the same thing as misogyny; similarly, whiteliness is not the same thing as race-hatred. One can be whitely even if one’s beliefs and feelings are relatively well-informed, humane and good-willed. So I approach whiteliness freshly, as itself, as something which is both familiar and unknown.
To begin to get a picture of what whiteliness is, we need to invoke a certain candid and thoughtful reflection on the part of white people, who of course in some ways know themselves best; we also need to listen to what people of color perceive of white people, since in some ways they know white people best. For purposes of this brief and preliminary exploration, I will draw on material from three books for documentation of how white people are as presented in the experience of people of color. The three are This Bridge Called My Back9, which is a collection of writings by radical women of color, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center10, by Black theorist bell hooks, and Drylongso11, which is a collection of narratives of members of what its editor calls the “core black community.”12 For white voices, I draw on my own and on those I have heard as a participant/observer of white culture, and on Minnie Bruce Pratt.
Minnie Bruce Pratt, a feminist and a white southerner, has spelled out some of what I would call the whitely way of dealing with issues of morality and change.13 She said she had been taught to be a judge–a judge of responsibility and of punishment, according to an ethical system which countenances no rival; she had been taught to be a preacher–to point out wrongs and tell others what to do; she had been taught to be a martyr–to take all responsibility and all glory; she had been taught to be a peacemaker–because she could see all sides and see how it all ought to be. I too was taught something like this, growing up in a small town south of the Mason-Dixon line, in a self-consciously christian and white family. I learned that I, and “we,” knew right from wrong and had the responsibility to see to it right was done; that there were others who did not know what is right and wrong and should be advised, instructed, helped and directed by us. I was taught that because one knows what is right, it is morally appropriate to have and exercise what I now would call race privilege and class privilege. Not “might is right,” but “right is might,” as Carolyn Shafer put the point.14 In any matter in which we did not know what is right, through youth or inexpertise of some sort, we would await the judgment or instruction of another (white) person who does.
White people are bolder because they think they are supposed to know everything anyhow. (97)
White men look up to their leaders more than we do and they are not much good without their leaders. (99)
White people don’t really know how they feel about anything until they consult their leaders or a book or other things outside themselves. (99)
White people are not supposed to be stupid, so they tend to think they are intelligent, no matter how stupidly they are behaving. (96)
The possibility [they] were not the best spokespeople for all women made [them] fear for [their] self-worth. (13)
Whitely people generally consider themselves to be benevolent and good-willed, fair, honest and ethical. The judge, preacher, peacemaker, martyr, socialist, professional, moral majority, liberal, radical, conservative, working men and women–nobody admits to being prejudiced, everybody has earned every cent they ever had, doesn’t take sides, doesn’t hate anybody, and always votes for the person they think best qualified for the job, regardless of the candidates’ race, sex, religion or national origin, maybe even regardless of their sexual preferences. The professional version of this person is always profoundly insulted by the suggestion that s/he might have permitted some personal feeling about a client to affect the quality of services rendered. S/he believes with perfect confidence that s/he is not prejudiced, not a bigot, not spiteful, jealous or rude, does not engage in favoritism or discrimination. When there is a serious and legitimate challenge, a negotiator has to find a resolution which enables the professional person to save face, to avoid simply agreeing that s/he made an unfair or unjust judgment, discriminated against someone or otherwise behaved badly. Whitely people have a staggering faith in their own rightness and goodness, and that of other whitely people. We are not crooks.
Every reasonable black person thinks that most white people do not mean him well. (7)
They figure, if nobody blows the whistle, then nothing wrong has gone down. (21)
White people are very interested in seeming to be of service …(4)
Whitefolks can’t do right, even if there was one who wanted to…They are so damn greedy and cheap that it even hurts them to try to do right. (59)
A child is trick-or-treating with her friends. At one house the woman, after realizing the child was an Indian, “quite crudely told me so, refusing to give me treats my friends had received.” (47)
I used to be a waitress, and I can still remember how white people would leave a tip and then someone at the table, generally some white woman, would take some of the money. (8)
The lies, pretensions, the snobbery and cliquishness. (69) We experience white feminists and their organizations as elitist, crudely insensitive, and condescending. (86)
White people are so rarely loyal. (59)
Whitely people do have a sense of right and wrong, and are ethical. Their ethics is in great part an ethics of forms, procedures and due process. As Minnie Bruce Pratt said, their morality is a matter of “ought-to,” not “want to” or “passionately desire to.” And the “oughts” tend to factor out into propriety or good manners and abiding by the rules. Change cannot be initiated unless the moves are made in appropriate ways. The rules are often-rehearsed. I have participated in whitely women’s affirming to each other that some uncomfortable disruption caused by someone objecting to some injustice or offense could have been avoided: had she brought “her” problem forth in the correct way, it could have been correctly processed. We say:
She should have brought it up in the business meeting.
She should have just taken the other woman aside and explained that the remark had offended her.
She should not have personally attacked me; she should have just told me that my behavior made her uncomfortable, and I would have stopped doing it.
She should take this through the grievance procedure.
By believing in rules, by being arbiters of rules, by understanding agency in terms of the applications of principles to particular situations, whitely people think they preserve their detachment from prejudice, bias, meanness and so on. Whitely people tend to believe that one preserves one’s goodness by being principled, by acting according to rules instead of according to feeling.
We think white people are the most unprincipled folks in the world… (8)
White people are some writing folks! They will write! They write everything. Now they do that because they don’t trust each other. Also, they are the kind of people who think that you can think about everything, about whether you are going to do, before you do that thing. Now, that’s bad for them because you can’t do that without wings …All you can do is do what you know has got to be done as right as you know how to do that thing. White people don’t seem to know that. (88)
…he keeps changing the rules …Now, Chahlie will rule you to death. (16)
Authority seems to be central to whiteliness, as you might expect from a people who are raised to run things, or to aspire to that: belief in one’s authority in matters practical, moral and intellectual exists in tension with the insecurity and hypocrisy that are essentially connected with the pretense of infallibility. This pretentiousness makes the whitely person simultaneously rude, condescending, overbearing and patronizing on the one hand, and on the other, weak, helpless, insecure and seeking validation of her or his goodness.
White people have got to bluff it out as rulers… [they] are always unsure of themselves. (99)
No matter what Chahlie do, he want his mama to pat him on the head and tell him how cute he is. (19)
…[I]n a very real sense white men never grow up. (100)
Hard on the outside, soft on the inside. (99)
Socially …juvenile and tasteless. (99)
No responsibility to others. (70)
The dogmatic belief in whitely authority and rightness is also at odds with any commitment to truth.
They won’t tell each other the truth, and the lies they tell each other sound better to them than the truth from our mouths. (29)
As long as they can make someone say rough is smooth, they are happy …Like I told you, whitefolks don’t care about what the truth is…It’s like when you lie but so much, you don’t know what the truth is. (21)
You simply cannot be honest with white people. (45)
White feminists have a serious problem with truth and “accountability.” (85)
And finally, whitely people make it clear to people of other races that the last thing the latter are supposed to do is to challenge whitely people’s authority.
[W]e are expected [by white women] to move, charm or entertain, but not to educate in ways that are threatening to our audiences. (71)
Though they expected us to provide first hand accounts of black experience, they felt it was their role to decide if these experiences were authentic. (11)
Often in situations where white feminists aggressively attacked individual black women, they saw themselves as the ones who were under attack, who were the victims. (13)
Most white people–anyways all the white people I know–are people you wouldn’t want to explain anything to. (67)
No wonder whitely people have so much trouble learning, so much trouble receiving, understanding and acting on moral or political criticism and demands for change. How can you be a preacher who does not know right from wrong, a judge who is an incompetent observer, a martyr who victimizes others, a peace-maker who is the problem, an authority without authority, a grownup who is a child? How can someone who is supposed to be running the world acknowledge their relative powerlessness in some matters in any politically constructive way? Any serious moral or political challenge to a whitely person must be a direct threat to her or his very being.
Whiteliness and Class
What I have been exploring here, and calling “whiteliness,” may sound to some like it is a character of middle class white people, or perhaps of middle class people whatever their race; it may sound like a class phenomenon, not a race phenomenon. Before addressing this question more deeply, I should just register that it is my impression, just looking around at the world, that white self-righteousness is not exclusive to the middle class. Many poor and working class white people are perfectly confident that they are more intelligent, know more, have better judgment and are more moral than Black people or Chicanos or Puerto Ricans, or Indians, or anyone else they view as not-white, and believe that they would be perfectly competent to run the country and to rule others justly and righteously if given the opportunity.
But this issue of the relation of whiteliness to class deserves further attention.
Though I think that what I am talking about is a phenomenon of race, I want to acknowledge a close interweaving and double-determination of manifestations and outcomes of race and of class, and to consider some of the things that give rise to the impression that what I’m calling whiteliness may really be just “middle-class-iness.” One thing that has happened here is that the individual who contributed to the observations assembled in the preceding section as a “participant observer” among white people (viz., the author of this analysis) is herself a lifelong member of the middle class. The whiteliness in which she has participated and about which she can write most vividly and authentically is that of her own kin, associates, and larger social group. This might, to a certain extent, bias that section’s description of whiteliness toward a middle-class version of it.
Another reason that what I am calling whiteliness might appear to be a class character rather than a race one is that even if it is not peculiar to whites of the middle classes, it is nonetheless peculiarly suitable to them: it suits them to their jobs and social roles of managing, policing, training and disciplining, legislating and administering, in a capitalist bureaucratic social order.
Another interesting point in this connection is that the definition of a dominant race tends to fasten on and project an image of a dominant group within that race as paradigmatic of the race.15 The ways in which individual members of that elite group enact and manifest their racedness and dominance would constitute a sort of norm of enacting and manifesting this racedness which non-elite members of the race would generally tend to assimilate themselves to. Those ways of enacting and manifesting racedness would also carry marks of the class position of the paradigmatic elite within the race, and these marks too would appear in the enactments of race by the non-elite. In short, the ways members of the race generally enact and stylistically manifest membership in the race would tend to bear marks of the class status of the elite paradigmatic members of the race.
I do not think whiteliness is just middle-class-ness misnamed. I think of whiteliness as a way of being which extends across ethnic, cultural, and class categories and occurs in ethnic, cultural, and class varieties–varieties which may tend to blend toward a norm set by the elite groups within the race. Whatever class and ethnic variety there is among white people, though, such niceties seem often to have no particular salience in the experience people of other races have with white people. It is very significant that the people of color from whose writings and narratives I have quoted in the preceding section often characterize the white people they talk about in part by class status, but they do not make anything of it. They do not generally indicate that class differences among white people make much difference to how people of color experience them.
Speaking of the oppression of women, Gayle Rubin noted its “endless variety and monotonous similarity.”16 There is great variety among the men of all the nationalities, races, religions and positions in various economies and polities, and women do take into account the particulars of the men they must deal with. But when our understanding of the world is conditioned by consciousness of sexism and misogyny, we see also, very clearly, the impressive and monotonous lack of variety among “masculinities.” With my notion of whiteliness, I am reaching for the monotonous similarity, not the endless variety, in white folks’ ways of being in the world. For various reasons, that monotonous similarity may have a middle-class cast to it, or my own perception of it may give it a middle-class cast, but I think that what I am calling “whiteliness” is a phenomenon of race. It is integral to what constructs and what is constructed by race, and only more indirectly related to class.
Feminism and Whiteliness
Being whitely, like being anything else in a sexist culture, is not the same thing in the lives of white women as it is in the lives of white men. The political significance of one’s whiteliness interacts with the political significance of one’s status as female or male in a male-supremacist culture. For the white men, a whitely way of being in the world is very harmonious with masculinity and their social and political situation. For white women it is, of course, all very much more complicated.
Femininity in white women is praised and encouraged but is nonetheless contemptible as weakness, dependence, feather-brainedness, vulnerability, and so on, but whiteliness in white women is unambivalently taken among white people as an appropriate enactment of a positive status. Because of this, for white women, whiteliness works more consistently than femininity does to disguise and conceal their negative value and low status as women, and at the same time to appear to compensate for it or to offset it.
Those of us who are born female and white are born into the status created by white men’s hatred and contempt for women, but white girls aspire to Being and integrity, like anyone else. Racism translates this into an aspiration to whiteliness. The white girl learns that whiteliness is dignity and respectability; she learns that whiteliness is her aptitude for partnership with white men; she learns that partnership with white men is her salvation from the original position of Woman in patriarchy. Adopting and cultivating whiteliness as an individual character seems to put it in the woman’s own power to lever herself up out of a kind of nonbeing (the status of woman in a male supremacist social order) over into a kind of Being (the status of white in white supremacist social order). But whiteliness does not save white women from the condition of woman. Quite the contrary. A white woman’s whiteliness is deeply involved in her oppression as a woman and works against her liberation.
White women are deceived, deceive ourselves and will deceive others about ourselves, if we believe that by being whitely we can escape the fate of being the women of the white men. Being rational, righteous, and ruly (rule-abiding, and rule enforcing) do for some of us some of the time buy a ticket to a higher level of material well-being than we might otherwise be permitted (though it is not dependable). But the reason, right, and rules are not of our own making; the white men may welcome our whiteliness as endorsement of their own values and as an expression of our loyalty to them (that is, as proof of their power over us), and because it makes us good helpmates to them. But if our whiteliness commands any respect, it is only in the sense that a woman who is chaste and obedient is called (by classic patriarchal reversal) “respectable.”
It is commonly claimed that the Women’s Movement in the United States, this past couple of decades, is a white women’s movement. This claim is grossly disrespectful to the many feminists whom the label ‘white’ does not fit. But it is indeed the case that millions of white women have been drawn to and engaged in feminist action and theorizing, and this creative engagement did not arise from those women’s being respected for their nice whitely ways by white men: it arose from the rape, battery, powerlessness, poverty or material dependence, spiritual depletion, degradation, harassment, servitude, insanity, drug addiction, botched abortions and murder of those very women, those women who are white.17
As doris davenport put it in her analysis of white feminists’ racism:
A few of us [third world women] …see beyond the so-called privilege of being white, and perceive white wimmin as very oppressed, and ironically, invisible… [I]t would seem that some white feminists could [see this] too. Instead, they cling to their myth of being privileged, powerful, and less oppressed…than black wimmin… Somewhere deep down (denied and almost killed) in the psyche of racist white feminists there is some perception of their real position: powerless, spineless, and invisible. Rather than examine it, they run from it. Rather than seek solidarity with wimmin of color, they pull rank within themselves.18
For many reasons it is difficult for women (of any intersection of demographic groups) to grasp the enormity, the full depth and breadth, of their oppression and of men’s hatred and contempt for them. One reason is simply that the facts are so ugly and the image of that oppressed, despised and degraded woman so horrible that recognizing her as oneself seems to be accepting utter defeat. Some women, at some times, I am sure, must deny it to survive. But in the larger picture, denial (at least deep and sustained denial) of one’s own oppression cuts one off from the appreciation of the oppression of others which is necessary for the connections one needs. This is what I think Cherrie Moraga is pointing out when she says:
Without an emotional, heartfelt grappling with the source of our own oppression, without naming the enemy within ourselves and outside of us, no authentic, non-hierarchical connection among oppressed groups can take place.19
If white women are not able to ally with women of other races in the construction of another world, we will indeed remain, defeated, in this one.
White women’s whiteliness does not deliver the deliverance we were taught it would; our whiteliness interferes with our ability to form necessary connections both by inhibiting and muddling our understanding of our own oppression as women, and by making us personally obnoxious and insufferable to many other women much of the time; it also is directly opposed to our liberation because it joins and binds us to our oppressors. By our whitely ways of being we enact partnership and racial solidarity with white men, we animate a social (if not also sexual) heterosexual union with white men, we embody and express our possession by white men.
A feminism that boldly names the oppression and degraded condition of white women and recognizes white men as its primary agents and primary beneficiaries–such a feminism can make it obvious to white women that the various forms of mating and racial bonding with white men do not and will never save us from that condition. Such a feminist understanding might free us from the awful confusion of thinking our whiteliness is dignity, and might make it possible for us to know that it is a dreadful mistake to think that our whiteliness earns us our personhood. Such knowledge can open up the possibility of practical understanding of whiteliness as a learned character (as we have already understood masculinity and femininity), a character by which we facilitate our own containment under the “protection” of white men, a character which interferes constantly and (often) conclusively with our ability to be friends with women of other races, a character by which we station ourselves as lieutenants and stenographers of white male power, a character which is not desirable in itself and neither manifests nor merits the full Being to which we aspire. A character by which, in fact, we both participate in and cover up our own defeat. We might then include among our strategies for change a practice of unlearning whiteliness, and as we proceed in this, we can only become less and less well-assimilated members of that racial group called “white.” (I must state as clearly as possible that I do not claim that unbecoming whitely is the only thing white women need to do to combat racism. I have said that whiteliness is not the same thing as racism. I have no thought whatever that I am offering a panacea for the eradication of racism. I do think that being whitely interferes enormously with white women’s attempts in general to be anti-racist.)
Disaffiliation, Deconstruction, Demolition
To deconstruct a concept is to analyze it in a way which reveals its construction–both in the temporal sense of its birth and development over time and in a certain cultural and political matrix, and in the sense of its own present structure, its meaning, and its relation to other concepts. One of the most impressive aspects of such an analysis is the revelation of the “contingency” of the concept, i.e. the fact that it is only the accidental collaboration of various historical events and circumstances that brought that concept into being, and the fact that there could be a world of sense without that concept in it. The other very impressive thing about such analyses is what they reveal of the complex and intense interplay of construction of concepts and construction of concrete realities. This interplay is what I take to be that phenomenon called the “social construction of reality.”
In combination, the revelation of the historical contingency of a concept and the revelation of the intricacy of interplay between concept and the concrete lived reality give rise to a strong sense that “deconstruction” of a concept simultaneously dismantles the reality in whose social construction the evolution of the concept is so closely involved. But things do not work that way. In the first place, analyzing a concept and circulating the analysis among a few interested colleagues does not make the concept go away, does not dislodge it from the matrix of concepts in the active conceptual repertoire even of those few people, much less of people in general. In the second place, even if the deconstructive analysis so drains the concept of power for those few individuals that they can no longer use it, and perhaps their participation in the social constructions of which that concept is a part becomes awkward and halting (like tying your shoelaces while thinking directly about what you are doing), it still leaves those social constructions fully intact. Once constructed and assimilated, a social construct may be a pretty sturdy thing, not very vulnerable to erosion, decay, or demolition.20 It is one thing to “deconstruct” a concept, another to dismantle a well-established, well-entrenched social construct. For example, Foucault’s revelations about the arbitrariness and coerciveness of classifications of sexualities did not put an end to queer-bashing or to the fears lesbians and gay men have of being victims of a witch-hunt.
I am interested, as I suggested earlier in this essay, in the matter of how to translate the recognition of the social constructedness of races into some practice of the freedom these contingencies seem to promise, some way to proceed by which people can be liberated from the concrete reality of races as they are determined by racism. But the social-constructedness of race and races in the racist state has very different meanings for groups differently placed with respect to these categories. The ontological freedom of categorical reconstruction may be generic, but what is politically possible differs for those differently positioned, and not all the political possibilities for every group are desirable. Attempts by any group to act in this ontological freedom need to be informed by understanding of how the action is related to the possibilities and needs of the others.
I have some hope that if I can manage to refuse to enact, embody, animate this category–the white race–as I am supposed to, I can free up my energies and actions from a range of disabling confinements and burdens, and align my will with the forces which eventually will dissolve or dismantle that race as such. If it is objected that it is an exercise of white privilege to dissociate myself from the white race this way, I would say that in fact this project is strictly forbidden by the rules of white solidarity and white supremacy, and is not one of the privileges of white power. It may also be objected that my adoption or recommendation of this strategy implies that the right thing to do, in general, for everyone, is to dissolve, dismantle, bring an end to, races; and if this indeed is the implication, it can sound very threatening to some of the people whose races are thus to be erased. This point is well-made by Franz Fanon in a response to Jean-Paul Sartre, described by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Reading Sartre’s account of Negritude (as an antithesis preparatory to a “society without races,” hence “a transition and not a conclusion”), Fanon reports “I felt I had been robbed of my last chance”…”Sartre, in this work, has destroyed black zeal… “21
The dynamic creative claiming of racial identities (and gender identity) that arose as devices of people’s oppression has been a politically powerful and life-enhancing response of oppressed people in modern and contemporary times. For members of oppressor groups to suddenly turn around and decide to abolish races would be, it seems, genocide, not liberation. (I have a parallel unease about the project of dismantling the category of women, which some feminists seem to favor.)
But I am not suggesting that if white women should try to abandon the white race and contribute to its demolition, then women of other races should take the same approach to their racial categorization and their races. Quite the contrary. Approaches to the matter of dismantling a dominance-subordinance structure surely should be asymmetrical–they should differ according to whether one has been molded into its category of dominance or its category of subordination. My hope is that it may contribute to the demise of racism, if we upset the logical symmetry of race–if Black women, for instance, cultivate a racial identity and a distinctive (sexually egalitarian) Black community (and other women of racialized groups, likewise), while white women are undermining white racial identity and cultivating communities and agency among women along lines of affinity not defined by race. Such an approach would work toward a genuine redistribution of power.
The experience of feminists’ unlearning femininity, and our readiness to require men to unlearn masculinity shows that it is thinkable to unlearn whiteliness. If I am right about all this, then, indeed, we even know a good deal about how to do it.
We know that white feminists have to inform ourselves exhaustively of its politics. We know we have to avoid, or be extremely alert in, environments in which whiteliness is particularly required or rewarded (e.g., academia). We know we have to practice new ways of being in environments which nurture different habits of feeling, perception, and thought, and that we will have to make these environments for ourselves since the world will not offer them to us. We know that the process will be collective and that this collectivity does not mean we will blend seamlessly with the others into a colorless mass; women unlearning femininity together have not become clones of each other or of those who have been valuable models. As feminists we have learned that we have to resist the temptation to encourage femininity in other women when, in moments of exhaustion and need we longed for another’s sacrificial mothering or wifing. Similarly, white women have to resist the temptation to encourage whiteliness in each other when, in moments of cowardice or insecurity, we long for the comfort of “solidarity in superiority,” or when we wish someone would relieve our painful uncertainty with a timely application of judgments and rules.
Seasoned feminists (white feminists along with feminists of other races) know how to transform consciousness. The first break-through is in the moment of knowing another way of being is possible. In this matter of a white woman’s racedness, the possibility in question is the possibility of disengaging (on some levels, at least) one’s own energies and wits from the continuing project of the social creation and maintenance of the white race, the possibility of being disloyal to that project by stopping constantly making oneself whitely. And this project should be a very attractive one to white women once we get it that it is the possibility of not being whitely, rather than the possibility of being whitely, that holds some promise of our rescuing ourselves from the degraded condition of women in white men’s world.
- The working title during that period was “Ritual Libations and Points of Explosion,” which referred to a remark made by Helene Wenzel in a review of my Politics of Reality which appeared in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol.1, No.1, October, 1983. Wenzel said:
“Even when white women call third world women our friends, and they us, we still agonize over “the issue.” The result is that when we write or teach about race, racism and feminism we tend either to condense everything we have to say to the point of explosion, or, fearing just that explosion, we sprinkle our material with ritual libations which evaporate without altering our own, or anyone else’s consciousness.”
And, coming down to cases, she continued: “Frye has fallen into both of these traps.”
- For some critical reflection on “wanting to do good,” and on “not knowing how to act,” see “A Response to Lesbian Ethics: Why Ethics?” in this volume.
- Actually, what I think women of color have communicated in this matter is not so harsh as that. The point is that no one can do someone else’s growing for her, that white women must not expect women of color to be on call to help, and that there is a great deal of knowledge to be gained by reading, interacting, paying attention, which white women need not ask women of color to supply. Some women of color have helped me a great deal (sometimes in spite of me).
- Frye, The Politics of Reality (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1983), pp.115-116.
- It is easy for a white person who is trying to understand white privilege and white power in white supremacist states to make the mistake of (selfservingly) exaggerating that power and privilege, assuming it is total. In this case, I was earlier making the mistake of thinking that white domination means that white people totally control the definition of race and the races. Reading bell hook’s Yearning (Boston: South End Press, 1990), I awoke to the fact that afro-americans (and other racialized people) are engaged also in the definition of Black (and other “race” categories); white people have the power to enforce their own definitions in many (but not all) situations, but they are not the only people determining the meanings of race categories and race words, and what they determine for themselves (and enforce) is not necessarily congruent with what others are determining for themselves.
- I want to thank Maria Lugones, whose palpably loving anger on this point made me take it seriously. See “Hablando Cara a Cara/Speaking Face to Face: An Exploration of Ethnocentric Racism” in Gloria Anzaldua, editor, Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Critical and Creative Perspectives by Women of Color (San Francisco: aunt lute foundation press, 1990).
- Singleton, Carrie Jane, “Race and Gender in Feminist Theory,” SAGE, Vol VI, No. 1 (Summer 1989), p.15.
- I am not unmindful here of the anxiety some readers may have about my reliance on a distinction between that which is physically given and that which is socially acquired. I could immensely complicate this passage by shifting from the material mode of talking about maleness and skin colors to the formal mode of talking about conceptions or constructions of maleness and skin colors. But it would not make anything clearer. It is perfectly meaningful to use the terms ‘male’ and ‘white’ (as a pigment word), while understanding that sex categories and color categories are “constructed” as the kinds of categories they are, i.e., physical categories, as opposed to social categories like lawyer or arithmetic categories like ordinals.
- Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua, editors, This Bridge Called My Back: Writing By Radical Women of Color (Brooklyn, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981). I quote from writings by Barbara Cameron, Chrystos, doris davenport, and Mitsuye Yamada.
- hooks, bell, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1985).
- 11. Gewaltney, John Langston, Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America (NY: Random House, 1983). I quote from statements by Jackson Jordan, Jr., Hannah Nelson, John Oliver, Howard Roundtree, Rosa Wakefield, and Mabel Lincoln.
- The people speaking in Drylongso were responding to questions put by an interviewer. The narratives as published do not include the questions, but the people clearly were asked in some manner to say something about how they see white people or what they think white people generally are like. Most of them but not every one, prefaced or appended their comments with remarks to the effect that they did not think white people were “like that” by birth or blood, but by being brought up a certain way in certain circumstances.
- “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” in Yours in Struggle, edited by Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Barbara Smith (Brooklyn: Long Haul Press, 1984).
- For more exploration of some of the meanings of this, see “Response to Lesbian Ethics: Why Ethics?” in this volume.
- Cf. Balibar, Etienne, “Paradoxes of Universality,” translated by Michael Edwards in David Theo Goldberg, editor, Anatomy of Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), pp. 284-85, extracted from “Racisme et nationalism,” in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Classe (Paris: Editions La Decouverte, 1988).
- “The Traffic in Women,” Toward An Anthropology of Woman, ed., Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p.160.
- Carolyn Shafer is the one who brought to my attention the fact that there is a certain contradiction in claiming both that this stage of the women’s movement was created by and belongs to white women and (on the grounds of the generally better material welfare of white women, compared to women of other races in the U.S.) that white women are not all that badly off and don’t really know what suffering is about. If white women were as generally comfortable, secure and healthy as they might appear to some observers, they would not have participated as they have in an enormous movement whose first and most enduring issues are bodily integrity and economic self-sufficiency.
- “The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation with Third World Wimmin,” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, ed., Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981), pp. 89-90.
- This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981), p.21.
- My lover Carolyn was explaining what I do for a living to our coheart Keyosha, and included an account of “deconstruction.” Keyosha, a welder and pipefitter in the construction trades, said that wasn’t a real word and offered “demolition” as the real word for this. Carolyn then had to admit (on my behalf) that all this deconstructing did not add up to any demolition, and a made-up abstract word was probably suitable to this abstract activity.
- 21. “Critical Remarks,” Anatomy of Racism, ed., David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), p.325.
Feminist Reprise thanks KY for her help in readying this article for the site.