Saturday, April 26, 2008

saturday book rec : the heart of whiteness

One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness. It would just be so interesting for all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness. In far too much contemporary writing—though there are some outstanding exceptions—race is always an issue of Otherness that is not white: it is black, brown, yellow, red, purple even. Yet only a persistent, rigorous, and informed critique of whiteness could really determine what forces of denial, fear, and competition are responsible for creating fundamental gaps between professed political commitment to eradicating racism and the participation in the construction of a discourse on race that perpetuates racial domination.

--bell hooks

Robert Jensen is the author of three recent books, each of which demonstrates that normal and seemingly healthy American lives are actually anything but normal and healthy. For one thing, instead of being the norm, their modes of “normal” thought and behavior are those of a small, insulated, and relatively well-off percentage of the world’s population. And instead of being “healthy,” ordinary American thought and behavior take forms that are debilitating and destructive, both to “ordinary” people and to those they unwittingly inflict themselves upon.

In Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (published last year), Jensen writes self-consciously, as a man, of the growing acceptance of pornography. He argues that the increasingly abusive, misogynistic behavior depicted in much of today's porn helps to convince men that abuse of actual women is okay. In Citizen of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004), Jensen writes as a self-conscious citizen, clarifying the moral responsibilities of individual Americans who contribute (through their tax payments, voting practices, consumer purchases, and other actions) to the latest wave in their country’s bloody history of global racist abuse and rapacious resource-grabbing.

In his books and many other writings and appearances, Jensen continually does what amounts to an un-American thing—he faces up to the repressed histories and ongoing abuses of so-called normal, healthy living. In The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, published in 2005, Jensen writes as a self-conscious white person, detailing his own efforts to resist his culture’s messages that he should simply relax and enjoy his good fortune. Jensen simply can’t do that, though, because his hand so firmly grasps his proverbial moral compass. In terms of race, that compass steadily guides him toward action that counters the effects of his white training on himself and others.

Because Jensen has done so much work toward understanding the norm in its many guises, what he has to say about it (in this book, about the norms of whiteness), will strike many other white people as bizarre, outlandish, or downright offensive. “I believe that love matters in this world,” Jensen writes in his introduction, reasonably enough. But then he goes on to say, “I don’t think that white people should love their whiteness. Better for everyone, I think, if they take a shot first at hating it.”

Jensen often makes such blunt statements, claims that many ordinary people would find absurd. In this case, they might think that Jensen hates white people themselves, people who are guilty of nothing more than the simple coincidence of having been born with white skin. However, understanding Jensen’s statement that way requires decontextualizing it, and then reacting with a knee-jerk unwillingness to find out why another white person would say such a thing. Jensen goes on to explain that he doesn’t “mean that white people should hate themselves for having white skin, something they were born with.” Instead, they should acknowledge that they “live in a white supremacist society and benefit from white privilege. We should hate that fact . . .”

In five main chapters, Jensen explains in detail many of the ways that white people, including himself, live their whiteness. The ways that especially concern him are those that most white people prefer not to acknowledge: they send their children to schools that remain highly segregated and relatively overfunded; they’ve been trained to fear people of color and feel superior to them; they let vague feelings of racial guilt halt them from doing anything about racial injustice; they complain about affirmative action for people of color without understanding the affirmative action otherwise known as white privilege; they accept a whitewashed, romanticized version of their country’s history and their own people’s part in it; they deny themselves meaningful interaction with non-white people, often simply in order to avoid the possibility of doing or saying something racist; and much, much more.

Jensen frequently pauses amidst his candid assessments of white people and white supremacist institutions to acknowledge his own part in them. He describes, for instance, feeling superior to black colleagues, listening to racist jokes, and doubting the abilities of non-white colleagues because they’re non-white. White readers brave enough to resist their trained oblivion by grappling with their own whiteness will find some comfort in Jensen’s willingness to demonstrate with his own slip-ups how hard such work can be. Not that Jensen has much interest in comforting his white readers. He believes instead that dealing honestly with whiteness—having, that is, some of one’s fundamental illusions about oneself and one's society shattered—can be, and should be, anything but comfortable.

As may be clear by now, Jensen’s basic argument, which is that white people benefit immorally from the rapacious practices of an increasingly racist, abusive, greed-inspiring system, and that they have a basic human responsibility to do something about these facts, will be a hard sell for most Americans, including many non-white ones. It can take an ordinary person a long time to realize what gets covered up and ignored in the process of learning and accepting many social norms.

As I’ve written before, the term “white supremacy,” for instance, is hardly even in the vocabulary of most white Americans, even though the briefest consideration of ongoing and increasing racial disparities would demonstrate how relevant the term still is. Most whites also don’t think their whiteness privileges them, and even if they will admit that general American institutions and their practices have racist effects, both in America and abroad, they still have trouble connecting their own actions, and inaction, to those effects. Nevertheless, for those willing to listen, the concise, straightforward logic of Jensen’s argument is difficult to deny.

Jensen ends by declining to offer what such books usually offer, a bulleted list of suggested actions. He explains that solutions are always contextual, that they “depend on the specific problems we face in the world in a given time and place.”

Nevertheless, Jensen does go on to describe what amount to steps that white people can take, both to better understand their own whiteness and to counteract its effects. His closing suggestions actually can be gathered into a bulleted list:

  • “The first step for whites is simple: to acknowledge that we are white people living in a white-supremacist society.”
  • The second step is to realize that America doesn’t have problems with people of color; those people are considered a problem because white people think so. White people are the problem, then, and they need to acknowledge that.
  • “As we struggle with how to confront systems of power and privilege, we should go toward that which most frightens us.”
  • Work “to equalize resources for all students and end de facto educational apartheid.”
  • Find “a place in organizations run by non-white people, fitting ourselves into the agendas that they have set.”
  • Seek “ways to connect across racial lines in a society that for many of us is still largely segregated in housing and social patterns.”
  • Go forward “with passion and a sense of commitment in what one is fighting for, while at the same time being realistic about just how much one really understands a complex world.”

The Heart of Whiteness is direct, concise, and jargon-free (and even inexpensive). It's also, for truly open-minded, open-hearted readers, utterly convincing. I would offer my own conclusion, but Jensen says something near the end of his book that is said, like the rest of the book, so much better than I could say it:

We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness. Strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white. Steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be the problem?”

UPDATE: Check the "comments" for a note from Robert Jensen regarding this review.


  1. This book is in my Top 10. I recommend it to every white person I know. Thanks for drawing some attention to it!

  2. PS--Robert Jensen sent me an email this morning, and he kindly consented to my reproducing it here:

    Macon: Wow, thanks so much for this. I am grateful for the positive comments, of course. But I'm also so glad to see you set that book in the context of the other two.

    I first saw your blog a few weeks ago and have really enjoyed it. Are you getting good responses to it?

    One of the most important tools we have to deal with white supremacy is humor, directed not at non-white people but at ourselves. Thanks to "Stuff White People Do" for making me laugh.

    Thanks for all you do.


    I am of course grateful in return for all of the inspiring, motivating work that Robert Jensen does. I wrote back to him that I am getting good responses to this relatively young blog (both in the comment sections and in other email messages), and that a sort of nourishing community seems to be forming here.

    Toward that goal, I welcome any and all further expressions of whatever thoughts or feelings I manage to provoke in you.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Macon D. I would like to add to your list of books that take a critical look at whiteness: Ruth Frankenberg's 1993 White Women, Race Matters: the Social Construction of Whiteness.

  4. Thanks Susan, I agree, Frankenberg's book certainly is an especially lucid account of some ways that whiteness is lived. I hope to get to it as a Saturday Book Rec.

  5. I would really like to get some insight into what seems to be a growing hatred (amongst caucasians) for President-elect Obama. I understand he will require a small military force of some 8000 law enforcement officials for his protection on Inauguration Day. If this doesn't speak volumes about the pervasive sense of "white entitlement" I don't know what does.

  6. Greetings,

    I am a non-white male and I host a radio program exclusively focused on the System of Racism/White Supremacy. I interviewed Mr. Robert Jensen just a few weeks ago. It was very interesting. He illustrated that the most accurate term for people who are not White in a System of White Supremacy is "VICTIM OF WHITE SUPREMACY". Check the show out if you have a free moment.


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