Friday, April 10, 2009

saturday book rec : the heart of whiteness

Here's another in this week's series of one-year-anniversary re-posts; this book review first appeared here last April.

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 in 2007), 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 that undergird so-called normal, healthy living. In The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, published in 2005, Jensen writes as a self-aware 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 just lighten up, 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 (and 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--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?”

[Check the original comments for a note from Robert Jensen regarding this review.]


  1. Jensen says,

    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?”

    Has Nquest read this quote? Of course, there is power and influence for those that receive affirmation and those that, having rejected self-affirmation, find moral superiority in affirming the superiority of the "other."

    Whiteness may not be "special," but what makes the rejection of whiteness and the adoption of the "other" special...? Nothing.

    Jensen seems to be projecting. He wants to negate his "whiteness" and strip himself of any self-affirming qualities and then assumes that other whites should or would. But WHY would they?

    Because the fact of the matter is that in 2009 the "white supremacist" paradigm is largely psychological warfare conducted by white liberals and black supremacists.

  2. Thanks Macon! Adding this to my research/to read list.

  3. You're welcome Lorraine!

    Thordaddy, are you really only in your Thirties? You remind me so much of that proverbial old dog that can't learn new tricks.

    You clearly haven't read this review carefully, let alone Jensen's succinct and revelatory book, and yet you dismiss it all as another example of "psychological warfare conducted by white liberals and black supremacists." How myopic and delusional! As always with you, it's hard to know just where to even start. ("black supremacy"? wtf? No--don't answer that.)

    No, rejecting the socially induced sense of self-affirmation and self-confidence promoted in us by being categorized as "white" (and for some of us, as "male") should not entail "adoption" of the other. I don't think Jensen is necessarily promoting the "rejection" of whiteness either--he wouldn't deny that he is categorized as, and perceived as, "white." So he can't flat out reject that. But he can--and others can--come to a greater sense of what it means to be categorized as white, and of how "whiteness" still functions more broadly. And then work to counteract that, because, just for starters, the realization chafes against one's moral conscience. You've been reading here for awhile now, but you still insist on blinding yourself to all of this.

    Jensen seems to be projecting.

    Ach. The irony. The sad, horrible irony.

    You need to read more carefully if you're going to keep commenting here, Thordaddy. Your comments are not registering even the most rudimentary understanding of this blog's contents. I'm seeing less and less reason for letting you take part in the conversations about the posts here if you won't even acknowledge and address what they actually have to say.

  4. Macon,

    Why would I need to read his review when HIS own words suffice?

    You can continue to try and reinterpret what one says, but the "retraining" is right there in his own words.

    We should not affirm ourselves.

    Does this mean we shouldn't "affirm" anyone or just ourselves? What principle undergirds this COMMAND?

    We should negate our whiteness.

    Does this only apply to whites or does it apply to blacks, browns, etc.? Again, what is the principle that legitimates this COMMAND?

    Strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white.

    WHY? What principle necessitates this? Although, the implication is that Jensen was raised to think he was special because he was white. Does this experience mirror the majority of whites in this country???

    Steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people.

    Jensen asks us to gain a better understanding, but there are NO definitive principles that undergird his enlightened thinking. What are his principles that would concince one to follow these drastic and life-altering COMMANDS?

    We should learn to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be the problem?”

    The implied assumption is that we are born "problems" and yet Jensen gladly puts himself out there as some kind of solution thereby gaining some weird kind of moral superiority. Doesn't this view lend credence to the idea that Jensen is fundamentally a "white" supremacist?

    But again, what principles does Jensen stand on in pushing these radical views?

  5. Has Nquest read this quote?

    Yes, and I've read well before Macon ever posted it. What's your point?

    Note: I find the bulk of Jensen's quote problematic. Also, I can't relate to the "corky" (all but the last sentence) but it never was meant for me anyway.

    The only part that's relevant to me, the only part that is of interest to me is the question at the end of the quote because I agree -- that kind of White self-examination seems necessary.

    Anytime you're ready to make a substantive point instead of acting like I beat the sh*t out of you (I didn't hit you that hard), let me know.

  6. Also...

    Because the fact of the matter is that in 2009 the "white supremacist" paradigm is largely psychological warfare conducted by white liberals and black supremacists.

    Coherent statements would help.

    Instead of trying to dazzle us with your creative writing and a vocabulary that would make your 1st grade English teacher blush, just come out and tell us how you feel besieged; how you view yourself as a hapless, helpless victim in a "psychological" war with enemies who obviously have the upper hand on you.

    And make sure you get around to explaining your statement and the response [my response] to your statement when you claimed "affirmative action is the attempt to claim we're all really equa." And explanation for why you keep mentioning "black supremacists" is in order.

  7. Hi Macon,

    thank you for this blog. I really appreciate your critical inquiries.

  8. Wow, sounds like an awesome book, thanks Macon. I've encountered his writing online before and always found it powerful, but I didn't know about this book. It's definitely on my list now. Jensen's moral compass really is a powerful one. His invitation to follow him is a generous gesture.

  9. Nquest says,

    I find the bulk of Jensen's quote problematic.

    Problematic...? That would be an understatement. If Robert Jensen were Marcus Jensen and we substituted black for white then you would say this dude was psychologically ill.

    And just because you don't feel it necessary to be "equal" to whites, it does not follow that those that were the motivating force behind the original premise for AA care one wit.

    Clearly, you believe that your perceived status as inferior to whites is an injustice.

    Clearly, you have shown that an increasing number of identity groups are benefitting from AA thereby lessening the value of AA for any one group and especially those it originally sought to benefit.

    Also, your speculative premise for Affirmative Action is "affirmative action. Which is next to telling us nothing.

    So, what is your arguably premise for Affirmative Action? You know, the one that was taking shape over 50 years ago?

  10. I love Robert Jensen. He gets it!

    One of my favorite quotes from the book is: "I want to be able to be a human being instead of a white person."

    He uses the word "human" a lot in his writings. To me, the connotation seems to have less to do with biology and more to do with sociology. It's as if on a social evolutionary scale, when it comes to viewing other people as human beings, some so-called "humans" have a blindspot that prevents them from seeing all people as equal.

    Whether Jensen is writing about racism, sexism, or empire, it seems that the subtext always concerns the lack of justice and equity for the subjugated at the hands of the subjugators.

    I like this quote too: "To be fully human is to reject a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else's pain." It reminds me of the Bantu word for the African philosophy known as "Ubuntu." Ubuntu "defines what it means to be truly human. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others."

  11. If Robert Jensen were Marcus Jensen and we substituted black for white then you would say this dude was psychologically ill.

    ENGLISH!!! Speak English or don't speak (or type) at all.

    First, I didn't say Robert Jensen was psychologically ill, so your question is not only stupid but unintelligible. Second, there is no moral equivalence -- i.e. the situational rationale (and the situational and, indeed, historical circumstances) which prompts Robert Jensen to believe Whites "should not affirm" themselves is not one that exists for your "Marcus" Jensen character. As such, asking what I would say if Jensen was Black is NONSENSICAL.

    You can't switch/substitute oranges for apples when trying to make apple pie, Thordaddy.

    As for the rest of the garbage you scribbled in that post... ROFLMAO!!!

    It's funny how you keep pleading NO CONTEST!!

    I asked you a DIRECT question regarding you mentioning me by name and asking if I had read the quote. Your choice to avoid answering that question shows nothing but weakness on your part. And it's even more weak (and lame) for you to refuse to answer the question then pose another while never stating your reasons for asking the first question.

    I know I hit you but I didn't hit you that hard. I know I didn't hit you that hard for you to fear me the way you do (i.e. act like you're so afraid of answering the simple, basic, direct questions I asked you about THINGS YOU SAY).

  12. Nquest and Thordaddy--give it up, your wrestling match is over here. It's boring and it drives away other commenters.

  13. 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.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code