Conference Report: The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness
Issue #33, September 1997
On Monday, April 7, the Nationline section of USA Today ran the following blurb, with the headline "On Being White":
Scholars at the University of California at Berkeley are hosting a three day conference this week titled The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. They say it's the first major academic gathering of its kind, reflecting a growing interest in the critical study of white culture. "People have been studying people of color as if white wasn't a color," political science professor Michael Rogin said. "Let's treat white as a color."
That short and confusing blurb sparked a minor media frenzy. As conference organizers, we received 30 media calls over the next two days, most of them from news reporters in search of the white-pride, white-backlash conference at UC Berkeley. When we patiently explained to journalists that this was an anti-racist, multi-racial event, many of them dropped the story, apparently not interested in something as boring as anti-racism. Those who did continue calling and interviewing us, consistently sought to position the conference as the work of guilty white liberals.
For us, the current media frame of race relations became crystal clear: whites who attempt to speak about whiteness as race are either 1) denying white racism and feeling defensive and/or prideful about being white, or 2) feeling guilty about white racism and being white. When we forcefully rejected both of these descriptions of our motivations, reporters often seemed at a loss to make sense of the event. It was as if, since the conference did not fit into either of these poles, its meanings were unintelligible. Yet neither of these positions really does anything to help us understand whiteness and white racism, which was what our conference, in its own modest way, was trying to do. The result of this framing was that few readers got a sense of what the conference was actually like. Our brief comments below are an attempt to clarify some of the intentions behind the event.
Attended by over one thousand scholars, community organizers and concerned citizens from around the country and around the world, this multiracial conference, held at the University of California at Berkeley, investigated "whiteness" as racial identity and explored how it relates to the divisions that plague American social life. For all the media frenzy and controversy, the weekend turned out to be, in the words of a CNN anchorman, "just a serious academic conference"! And that is what the weekend was mostly about: a serious analytical engagement with the forms and meanings of whiteness as a racial identity and a historical and social structure of privilege.
Following the lead of African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and White social critics, conference participants insisted that Americans will never understand, let alone lift, America's curse of race until we all study how white people experience and maintain their social positions in a nation deeply fragmented by inequality. Conference participants argued that the social ramifications of the relatively privileged position of whites need to be better understood and that new insights may lead us to find ways to change the systems that perpetuate social injustice.
The conference featured over 35 presentations from academics and activists who are presently conducting research in this field. Presenters and moderators included Norma Alarcon, Allan Berube, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Michelle Fine, Ruth Frankenberg, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Patricia Penn Hilden, Aida Hurtado, Eric Lott, Walter Benn Michaels, Annalee Newitz, Michael Omi, Fred Pfeil, David Roediger, Michael Rogin, Jose Saldivar, Mab Segrest, and Howard Winant. Troy Duster delivered closing remarks.
The conference, originally intended to last a day, grew into a major, three day event because it addressed a need for probing assessments of the relations that sustain and reproduce advantages for some and disadvantages for others. An important starting point, participants agreed, is to acknowledge that the color of your skin, your gender, and the status of your job (or lack of one) largely determine your place in our society. All too often, whites fail to recognize that their whiteness is a racial category that carries with it a number of unspoken and largely unchallenged social benefits. As recent debates around affirmative action, immigration, and cocaine sentencing make clear, race continues to be a central aspect of American culture and society, even though its significance is not always made explicit. When we do talk about race we rarely talk about whiteness.
As a racial group, whites, even those who are not actively prejudicial or discriminatory, are the passive inheritors of a system of privilege and wealth. That the reality of these privileges is often not accepted or understood is due partly to the fact that this uneven distribution of privilege has been around for so long that no one can be held directly responsible for making it. It is also difficult to understand because not all whites share equally in that privilege and wealth. For many whites, their whiteness is simultaneously an identity of racial advantage and of class or gender disadvantage. Those whites who are homeless or working in a dying steel mill experience their racial privilege differently than do Wall Street bankers or female lawyers. In this way, whiteness is a complex and fragmented identity. Yet, due to the historical legacy of institutionalized racial injustices, all whites derive some benefit from America's racial divisions.
Accordingly, the conference sought to bring together scholars studying whiteness to consider how such work was best done, where it could go and how it connects to anti-racist work inside and outside the academy. We were taken aback by the press attention (which was, like the above, often misleading and sensationalist) and by the massive attendance of activists critical of an academic conference format. But all in all, the tensions and questions that came up were both provocative and productive.
Most presenters seemed to agree that a key issue in studies of whiteness must be the critical and analytical understanding of how whiteness underpins racial division and inequality in the US and in the global economy. Thus, the study of whiteness is both comparative, in that whiteness is understood as one specific race among others, and critical, in that whiteness is generally viewed as a socially-constructed identity which has historically helped to perpetuate social inequalities. It is also decidedly political, as many anti-racist activists speak to issues around whiteness as they appear in community organizing, coalition building, and other forms of political movement.
It is clear from the current social impasses that whites need to find new ways to respond to a world which has historically granted them racial preference. But, what motivations could whites have to forfeit their racial privileges? We believe that one benefit of understanding and researching whiteness is that it can lead whites of all classes to conclude that the social and psychic tolls of social inequality are too costly for whites to sustain. Even the privileged pay for inequality and the psychic and emotional costs are rising. If we too often try to pretend that racial and class inequality does not exist, it is because those divisions are too painful to look at. But, clearly, ignoring or dismissing race and class is not the answer--withdrawal gets us nowhere. Another and more productive option is to reject both guilt and denial and instead make space for ongoing public discussion about the social relations that divide us all.
A webpage for the conference can be found at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~ethnicst/conference/main.html.