The Heart of Whiteness

Posted by Melvin Bray on July 10th, 2006 filed in Useful Perhaps

It has often amazed me when I’ve gotten into conversations regarding racial and/or social justice that most of the beige folks I’ve found myself in dialogue with haven’t understood that the defining question of racism is not how one feels about another. That’s a question of prejudice or bigotry. Rather, the defining question of racism is how much power one has (by virtue of social, political, economic, etc. constructs) or exercises to the inadvertent or deliberate advantage or disadvantage of an arbitrarily distinguished group of people. I have had beige folks try to dispute my definition, not realizing that it is even an act of racism for the advantaged to seek to define the terminology of another’s disadvantage. Nonetheless, my response has generally been just to ask my conversation partner what term better describes the power dynamic between dominant and dominated peoples.

You may have noticed that I suggested racism can include acts of power that advantage people as well as those that disadvantage them. Benevolent racists who use their power to the benefit of a racial group, even one other than their own, are no less servicing the existence of a racial order by retaining the power to advantage. The only way to dismantle racism is to relinquish power or, maybe more accurately, to re-democratize power within its various constructed spheres (politics, economics, etc.) on an ongoing basis. I’m talkin’bout way beyond Affirmative Action, baby!

But I digress (why do I sound like Michael Eric Dyson today? :-). What I started this entry to talk about was the intriguing book, The Heart of Whiteness, whose author, Robert Jensen, was interviewed on NPR’s News & Notes last Friday. I look forward to reading it one day. There’s an excerpt from the book at the link for the interview. A quote from the book that really captured my attention articulated the profound paradox that while “race is a fiction we must never accept; race is [also] a fact we must never forget.” That’s powerful stuff.

Jensen talks a lot about white and “non-white” peoples, a catagorization I take exception to because it makes whiteness the frame of reference by which all people are described (I personally favor the designation “people of color”). Still I can appreciate Jensen’s openness in recognizing that he has yet to be completely de-programmed of all the white supremacy that has heretofore been inextricably interwoven in the experiences of anyone raised in the colonized world. I whole-heartedly agree with him that the only way we can transcend race, racism, white supremacy and white privilege is first to acknowledge them.

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2 Responses to “The Heart of Whiteness”

  1. Elane Says:

    I got into an argument with another light-beige friend about racism the other day. She: insisting that we don’t “see” color here on the west coast. Me: insisting that we walk right over it — that the power structures (and internalized assumptions) are still in place, but we don’t name them.

    It came clear to me that class matters a lot — her friends are all upper-middle or upper class, and are thus rendered beige. Reminded me of the 1980s statistic that The Cosby Show was #1 in South Africa, because the Huxtables weren’t “seen” as black.

    It turned out we couldn’t talk about class: she changed the topic.

  2. bRaYtOwN » Where There Is Race There Is Always Privilege Says:

    […] designation of race is to privilege one over another, I am confounded by the thought. Now that the fiction and fact of race exists in our consciousness, is there no way to extricate ourselves from […]

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