Whiteness as Racial Categorization

Anthropology 111: Women in a Cross-Cultural Perspective
G. Joseph, Instructor
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier
From a class where the instructor did not encourage free expression. This is as carefully neutral a review of Frankenberg's White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness and Walker's "Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells" as I could manage for her.

In the book White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, the author, Ruth Frankenberg, interviews 30 white women to gain their perspectives on racism and how it affected their lives. She uses a gender/race combination as the primary critical qualifier in her interviewee selection process, and states up front that she is merely trying to start the necessary dialog of cultural exploration, rather than defining it. Subsequent to this, she comes to several conclusions.

She first lays out her definition of 'whiteness:'

  1. a location of structural advantage, of race privilege,
  2. a 'standpoint' from which white people can view themselves, others, and society, and
  3. a set of usually unmarked and unnamed cultural practices (p. 1).

She apparently uses this definition to shape her interview questions. Later, she defines three general 'repertories' or categories of reaction to her questions on racism. She labels these as follows:

  1. essentialist racism, with an emphasis on race difference as based on hierarchies, and terms of biological inequality,
  2. color- and power-evasion, where on the surface it appears that there is no racist thought or power imbalance, and thus blame for any inequalities must be placed on those that have failed to achieve; a viewpoint which in reality continues to propagate racism by ignoring it and its effects, and
  3. race-cognizant, where class- and nation-based paradigms for understanding race and racism are created (p. 14).

Frankenberg goes on to examine how racism appears in the various aspects of the interview conversations. Two quick examples: she believes that lack of remembrance of domestics of color indicates such an overwhelming power imbalance between the parts of the parent and the domestic that childhood memories initially do not even remember the domestic as possessing color. She also explores interracial relationships, referring to historical contexts and notions of race superiority and purity to explain still powerful hostility to both interracial relationships and 'mixed' children. She makes several interesting conclusions on how race affects and is affected by culture, and how white women's lives are affected by the dominant culture (and the implied racism) with which they grew up.

Frankenberg concludes her book with chapters that explore her belief that 'whiteness,' as a dominant part of this culture, needs to be examined and understood more clearly, rather than being viewed as the undefined norm from which everyone starts. Instead she postulates that it should become a known and bounded set of cultural beliefs, as this would hopefully remove it from the status of dominant norm, and place it on a more equal footing with other cultures that have better known boundaries.

In the short piece "Advancing Luna - and Ida B. Wells" Alice Walker relates an experience in her life. She seems ambiguous as to her own feelings and beliefs concerning this incident, a rape of a white friend by a black man, which seemed to slowly erode her friendship with the white woman. Consequently she appears unclear as to what exactly she is trying to accomplish by writing this incident down. For example, she includes multiple endings: a version created entirely by her, and a version based on some information she received years later. By her personal ambiguity one can perceive some of her own internal dilemmas. Should her friend have screamed, and thus condemned innocents as well as the guilty to suffer? Should she herself write about it, and perhaps feed negative stereotypes about her race? Is her view of the world simply too naively optimistic? Does the ends justify the means? No concrete answers are given, and it appears Walker is attempting, in her own way, to initiate dialog, however poorly articulated, on a taboo subject, much like Frankenberg does in her book.

In comparing the two reading assignments, I found myself feeling rather unsympathetic to both authors. Some of Frankenberg's assumptions seem to me to be based essentially on the fact that she is looking for racial reasons for everything. This is not to say that racial injustice and power imbalances are not a problem in this culture, merely that to me they appear to be two of many such problems. To blame them alone seems simplistic. Furthermore, it appears that Frankenberg articulates the answer to her perceived problem - and then fails to realize what she's done! She mentions repeatedly that 'the personal is political,' and discusses 'race-cognizant' as a state that should be aspired to in one's efforts to eradicate racism. This appears to be something an individual must do. However, later in the book she seems to view individual efforts to be doomed to failure; to feel that racism cannot be eradicated unless the society itself does so. Yet what is a society but a collection of individuals?

Walker's personal dilemma was rather sad to read about, although she seems to recognize this. There does seems to be some guilt mixed in with her ambiguity when she writes about her need for forgiveness and guidance as to whether she should lie or not concerning the race of the rapist, and the slow decay of the friendship due to her friend's unwanted revelation. She concludes with an almost aggressive lack of conclusion, so much so that one is left wondering if any of this sordid little story is true, or merely a fictional framework based on some tiny piece of truth from her own life, within which questions on race and truth can be asked -- a framework which Walker can use to dissolve any possible lingering personal guilt for occurrences within her own life.


Last Updated: Mon, Mar 27, 2000