Thursday, July 24, 2008

fail to give credit to non-white people for understanding whiteness

I recently realized that in writing this blog, I haven't done enough to acknowledge many of my sources for information about white folks and the ongoing reality of white supremacy. So I should pause in my writing of this blog to say something that I haven't said often or fully enough--my understanding of the ways of white folks is fundamentally informed by the knowledge and insights of non-white people.

To put it as simply as I can: understanding white people has been a matter of life or death for non-white people, so many of them have come to understand a lot of things about white people, and about how race operates in society, that most white people don't know.

As I write about whiteness, and as I work against it in my daily life, I continuously draw on what amounts to an ongoing tradition, an especially African American tradition, of analyzing and recording the ways of white folks. In order to give some credit where credit is due, I added a subtitle to this blog from a favorite book of mine, The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes. He's a writer whose work continues to receive accolades for his insightful and artful depictions of black feelings, thought, and behavior, but virtually no recognition for his equally penetrating insight into white feelings, thought, and behavior.

Today I'm also offering, much later than I should have in the course of writing this blog, the following list of materials that have especially informed my understanding. These writings generously offer non-white knowledge about the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of white folks, and about white supremacy and hegemony. White folks especially should read (or watch) some of them, and listen, and incorporate them into their understanding of themselves and their own racialized positions in the world.

There isn't room here for me to list all such works, nor to describe each of them, so I've added links to other online sources for each, when I could find them. This list is by no means complete. I'm sure it also fails to give enough credit to non-white writers on whiteness who are not African American. If you know of any more works that could appear on this list, please let me know, either in a comment or via email (unmakingmacon at gmail dot com), and if they clearly fit, I will add them. I'll also add any work that occurs to me later.

[Thanks to Tim Wise for suggesting a post of this sort. And by way of returning the favor: Tim is requesting help with a book he's writing, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and Whiteness in the Age of Obama. You can go here for more information, including how to point him to potentially useful materials.]

Damali Ayo, How to Rent a Negro (2005)

James Baldwin, "Stranger in the Village" (1955); The Fire Next Time (1963); "Going to Meet the Man" (short story, 1965); "The Price of the Ticket" (1985)

Valerie Babb, Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture (1998)

Mia Bay, The White Image in the Black Mind African-American Ideas about White People, 1830-1925 (2000)

Octavia Butler, Kindred (novel, 1979)

Shakti Butler, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible (film, 2006)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Passing of Grandison" (short story, 1899)

Eldridge Cleaver, "The White Race and Its Heroes" (1968)

Vine Deloria, Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1995)

W.E.B. DuBois, "The Souls of White Folks" (1920)

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

Cheryl I. Harris, "Whiteness as Property" (1993)

bell hooks, "Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination" (1992)

Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (short stories, 1933)

Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee (novel, 1948)

Michelle T. Johnson, Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace (2004)

Chang-rae Lee, Aloft (novel, 2004)

Joseph Marshall III, "White Lore" (1998)

Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (1997)

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970); "Recitatif" (short story, 1983); Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)

Adrian Piper, "Cornered" (art installation, 1988); "Passing for White/Passing for Black" (1992)

David Roediger, Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White (anthology, 1999)

Danzy Senza, Caucasia (novel, 1998)

George Schuyler, Black No More (novel, 1931)

Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (1979)

Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Race, Money and God in America (2000)

Melvin Van Peebles, Watermelon Man (film, 1970)

Richard Wright, Savage Holiday (novel, 1954)

Frank H. Wu, Yellow (2002)

George Yancy, What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question (2004)


  1. Macon, you said, "Understanding white people has been a matter of life or death for non-white people..."

    Wow. That really hits a chord with me and summarizes so succinctly what blacks have and still go through. Thank you.

  2. I am honestly not trying to be snarky with this comment...but I have a post idea for Stuff White People Do: Use "non-white" when referring to people of color.

    It centers whiteness and keeps "white" as an element of the identities of both white people and people of color. Sometimes I use non-white, but I try to avoid it because it feels like an institutionalized/socialized (?) component of racism...

  3. As I write about whiteness, and as I work against it in my daily life

    how do you work against whiteness in your daily life?

  4. I loved hot to rent a negro..even though it was serious I found that I was laughing out loud. It spoke to the ways in which we understand race.

  5. Thanks for posting this list. It's very helpful!

  6. You can try what Thandeka herself suggested: always call white people "white". And no need to use "non-white" or "black" or anything like that - they are just people! See how that changes your perception of things.

  7. Interesting list. I would add:

    James Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time"

    LeRoi Jones, "Blues People"

    The second one is about the history of black music but he says quite a bit about the sensibilities of white people along the way.

  8. Kit, I'm glad you liked what that sentence summarizes. It's certainly something white folks rarely realize.

    Eric, not to be snarky, but this blog is all ABOUT centering whiteness. There are good ways and bad ways of doing that, granted, but I'm hoping to help center whiteness in white self-consciousness, where it's too often taken for granted (or else misapprehended). Sometimes I use POC or people of color, but usually not when I'm going against my white training by focusing on whiteness.

    jw, I work against whiteness, or white supremacy, in my daily life in many ways, first of all by doing what abagond suggests, or sort of suggests--always trying to think of white people AS white, including myself (Thandeka's suggested experiment of always verbally labeling white people "white" is indeed hard to keep up--I get her point already, for one thing, but for another, it just drives other white folks nuts, and for me at least, that's hard to work with--I still do it sometimes, though). I also take time during the day to talk to white folks about various manifestations of white supremacy, and at the end of many days I often pause to count my racial blessings. I also work with a parents' group that's trying to diversify local schools, and my own effort there is specifically geared toward pushing curricular offerings away from an entrenched, fundamentally Eurocentric perspective. And my professional life is specifically about challenging white supremacy at institutional levels. And I do more, including "daily" work on this blog, one of several forms of writing in which I counter white supremacy.

    renee, I thought Rent a Negro was funny as hell too, and that Ayo's project on reparations was also a good poke in the white eye, for those who understood it as such.

    And thank you for the recs, Abagond, I'll certainly look into them.

  9. abagond wrote: You can try what Thandeka herself suggested: always call white people "white". And no need to use "non-white" or "black" or anything like that - they are just people! See how that changes your perception of things.

    Thanks, abagond, for sharing the above.

    From now on, as a person, I am going to do this.


    In pretty much all of the fiction books that I have read, written by a white person, any character who is not white (be the character the "normal" white WASP or an ethnic white), is only described by their colour or nationality. So, with black persons, they are only described as black. There is no description of that black person's skin colour or hair texture or facial features. A Chinese person is the Chinese person; again, no description of how that person looks. But a white person is rarely identified as white. Usually, every nuance of that white person's physical being is described: hair colour, facial features, hair length, even skin colour (which is ironic, given that there are so few shades of white skin as compared to the many, many, many shades of black and brown and yellow skin).

  10. George Schuyler, Black No More (novel, 1931)

    Interesting list. With perhaps a few exceptions, it explains why we (you and I) come at this from very different angles.

    Back to the list... Schuyler makes it even more interesting. I'm wondering what you drew/draw from Schuyler or what you credit him for.

  11. Schuyler wrote that novel before his turn toward conservative views. It's a wide-ranging satire that in part exposes the fantasies of white skin favortism, and of the concept of race itself. I don't find all of what it seems to say convincing.

  12. abagond, thank you for suggesting Baldwin's book, The Fire Next Time. I'd forgotten just how powerful it is, and yes, it clearly does belong on the list.

    I have a copy of Jones' book now and look forward to it.

    Thanks again.


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