A review of Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture by Vron Ware and Les Back

The commentary in the book is consistently intelligent and informed, featuring wide-ranging references, historical and current, and the tone of the book is austere; but this project seems drenched in a self-conscious piety, a dull redundancy of fact, and oddly calm complaints, that, sometimes, together, create an air of absurdity.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett 

Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture
by Vron Ware and Les Back
University of Chicago Press, 2002.
326 pages. ISBN 0226873420

Out of Whiteness, a collection of essays by Vron Ware and Les Back on an emerging area of cultural focus—the identification of whiteness and its varied maneuvers and meanings—introduces itself with a discussion of Melville’s great white whale, and the book ends with a visit to the room where Anne Frank hid. The writers want to investigate the “awesome internal structures” of whiteness (1); and not merely to describe it, but to abolish it, in North America, England, and elsewhere. The early 1990s killing of an innocent black British male that called attention to institutional racism in Britain, in the handling of the crime, is one of the inspirations for this book, as were the explosions of fascist bombs in black, Asian, and gay British neighborhoods. (It is hard not to see this grounding in recent events as a rhetorical gesture typical of scholars who consider themselves activists.) The commentary in the book is consistently intelligent and informed, featuring wide-ranging references, historical and current, and the tone of the book is austere; but this project seems drenched in a self-conscious piety, a dull redundancy of fact, and oddly calm complaints, that, sometimes, together, create an air of absurdity.

I recall someone I worked with being impressed by a glossy magazine article by a well-brought up black man who went undercover in a private white club to see how the other half lived and what that half said about black people when no black person with authority was around. What did the detective find? Old-fashioned prejudice. I found the idea of the article uninteresting and my associate’s enthusiasm for it rather irritating. Did anybody really need more proof that racism exists? African-Americans have been speaking and writing about the ordinary and bizarre difficulties attached to race for more than a century: wasn’t all that testimony noticed, believed? Why do we have to keep pretending as if there’s a place we have to get to and no one has invented the wheel yet? Lack of knowledge or technology is not the problem. Care and commitment, or lack of, may be; but do we really want to find new ways to stir cold hearts? Aren’t developing a practical philosophy and politics—having something to do with economic independence, civic participation (voting), developing one’s own institutions, and rewarding one’s friends and punishing one’s enemies—what the times call for; and have always called for? Well, that’s what I think, and it’s what I thought while reading “Seeing through Skin,” an essay by Vron Ware in Out of Whiteness in which various privileged persons go undercover to see what racism is like: Ray Sprigle, In the Land of Jim Crow, and John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, and Grace Halsell, Soul Sister, pretended to be black in America, and Gunter Walraff, Lowest of the Low, pretended to be Turkish in Germany, and Yoram Binur, My Enemy, My Self, pretended to be a Palestinian in Israel. Guess what? They experienced insult and injury, anger and pain; and they questioned and enlarged their sense of who they were both as whites and fellow travelers (they feel colored). I think we write and talk about race because we don’t have the will and wherewithal to actually do anything about it—we should exile the concept and treat everyone the way we want to be treated, like human beings; but as we’re not going to do that, and as there’s so little left to say about blackness, we’ve begun to talk about whiteness.

Out of Whiteness is divided into nine rather relentless chapters, accompanied by acknowledgements, an introduction, notes, and an index. The first chapter, Vron Ware’s “Otherworldly Knowledge: Toward a ‘Language of Perspicuous Contrast,’” begins with the classic invocation of two worlds, black and white, and the resulting double-consciousness African-Americans experience (participating in two traditions; and becoming one’s own watcher), little having changed, apparently, between the age of W.E.B. DuBois and that of Cornel West, between the beginning of the twentieth century and that of the next. Has anything changed? Yes: “social relations of gender, class, sexuality, and age and emotions such as love, desire, hatred, and jealousy are just as likely to affect one’s lens as the color of one’s skin and racial identification” (17). Score one point for humanity. “On second thought, however, it is also important to acknowledge the mechanisms of segregation that continue to operate both in and beyond the United States” (17), writes Ware. (Ware revives the cliché about how blacks know white people better than white people know blacks. That may have been true at one time, but I don’t think it’s still true. Many white people are not only working and socializing with blacks, they’re reading the research, some of it published in high-profile papers and magazines—and the whites I talk to rarely babble the ignorant stuff about the Other I hear ordinary black people talk, a 1960s rhetoric that ill-fits the twenty-first century.) Ware says, “There is a need to guard against the prospect of a field of study that constructs the people who fall into the category of white as separate and homogenous and that effectively reifies whiteness as being marked on the body,” before advocating blurring the lines (19).

”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The Political Morality of Investigating Whiteness in the Gray Zone” by Les Back features an interview with a white nationalist leader in Britain, Nick Griffin, whose parents were right-wing Tories. It’s said here that working-class white nationalists want to preserve their threatened English culture—fish and chips, old pubs, and cockney music halls (I laughed, then chapters later read Vron Ware’s “Ghost, Trails, and Bones” piece in which apparently better-placed British people want to preserve their English culture—Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Blake, and the Beatles, and as these icons are closer to my own interests I did not laugh. Isn’t that funny?) The most interesting point in Back’s piece is when he argues for deepening the connections between the observer and the observed, acknowledging what they share, how they differ, thereby exposing humanity, facilitating insight. Back sees that he and the white nationalist he’s interviewing are both educated, loving parents, despite their very different politics. Back also sympathizes with a young white man convicted by law for viciously attacking someone while making racist statements. In both displays of empathy, there’s a certain beauty, a beauty of ethics and emotion, even though the objects of empathy are ugly; and I wondered, is that what whiteness studies is going to bring us, crying for killers?

“Seeing through Skin/Seeing through Epidermalization,” the third chapter, an essay I mentioned earlier, features individuals who learn not simply the cruel, disrespectful facts of discrimination, such as being subjected to cultural insult, economic exploitation, and sexual assault; but they learn, as Yoram Binur says, what it means to feel the facts. There are genuine moments of transcendence here, moments worthy of knowledge and appreciation: and those moments do not change the living conditions of tan, brown, and black people.

I’m inclined now, after much initial resistance to its excess of democracy and self-expression (I prefer considered thought, manners, taste, intimacy), to appreciate the internet for its accessibility, for its resources for research, and for its international and multicultural range; and, consequently, I was surprised to learn that the internet is a place of movable, hostile whiteness in “Wagner and Power Chords: Skinheadism, White Power Music, and Subversive Acts” by Les Back. The essay examines the use fascist rock skinhead culture has made of the technology. Skinheads, preoccupied with authenticity and nationality, can be safely racist on the web, sharing their Nazi sympathies, and savoring their appreciation of the thundering noise the Vikings made to gain notice of their gods, and of opera composer Richard Wagner and the chord progressions contemporary music has borrowed from him. Back’s “Syncopated Synergy: Dance, Embodiment, and the Call of the Jitterbug” focuses on jazz, Africa, Harlem, England, Germany, and the sharing of musical pleasure across social boundaries in the early twentieth century. (That Hitler preferred marching to dancing is rather odd though not surprising news.)

“Ghosts, Trails, and Bones: Circuits of Memory and Traditions of Resistance,” among other things, reminded me that people who have no sense of purpose resent people who do—and when young white people resent the organization, movement, and success of blacks, fearing their own obscurity and failure, they are choosing blacks as scapegoats for the failures of (white) parents and (white) governments, who conveyed to them no genuine purpose. Geography, place, cultural heritage (as in books, film, music), and community are very real aspects of identity—and they are much more real to me than whiteness or blackness. However perceptions—of the importance of skin color, of biological difference, of race—can be just as motivating as real things; and so whiteness was a benefit to the Italian and Irish who immigrated to North America and blackness a detriment to the Africans who were brought here against their wills.

“Out of Sight: Southern Music and the Coloring of Sound” is about Muscle Shoals and other music studios and gathering places in the south where Americans of African and European descent came together to make music. Anthony Appiah is quoted as saying we should have a more generous sense of musical culture—and, for instance, not think of jazz, blues, and soul as the music(s) of all blacks whether or not individual blacks like those particular kinds of music (he’s talking about forms of music and particular pleasures, rather than notions of racial essences). The soulful records of people such as the Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin featured the singers supported by white musicians. As this is such an accessible topic, it’s especially worthy of exploration, something most of us are likely to understand. What’s interesting to me is how ideas of class, color, gender, of authenticity and marketability or artificiality, become invested in pop music. We say it’s just entertainment but that’s not how we talk about it even in casual conversation: it represents.

The most significant chapter in the book is probably “Mothers of Invention: Good Hearts, Intelligent Minds, and Subversive Acts” by Vron Ware. It is the fifth essay in the book, but I comment on it last as it seems the most promising, the most useful piece. It asks, what kind of political agency can be derived from whiteness studies? Ware cites writer Lillian Smith (1897-1966), the author of the novel Strange Fruit, who fought white supremacy: she wrote a list of progressive things to do in an “Address to Intelligent White Southerners.” She recommended reading black publications, visiting black institutions, talking about racism with friends, correcting racist language in conversation, writing letters, participating in local community, treating blacks with courtesy and respect, paying black employees fair wages, and finding progressive race-related projects that fit their own temperaments. She suggested that children be trained to be democratic citizens, and that honest textbooks be created to serve them. Smith, as well, suggested intervention when blacks are being disrespected or hurt, and recommended overt political activity. Vron Ware connects Lillian Smith’s decades-old initiative with the more recent Race Traitor journal project of Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, who see whiteness as a private club to which whites can begin to refuse membership. Ignatiev and Garvey published “How to Be a Race Traitor: Six Ways to Fight Being White.” (However, Ware notes that Race Traitor does not emphasize self-education and listening to others.) Race Traitor does recommend identifying with the racially oppressed, and opposing white institutional privilege and frustrating the functioning of such institutions. To me, all that is a real beginning.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.