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Scott Stillar, our guest blogger this week, is a PhD candidate in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His doctoral thesis will discuss the role of raciolingustic ideologies in the reproduction of globalized white supremacy via English language standardization in post-secondary ESL contexts. His other recent work includes analyses of the reproduction of racist ideologies within online gaming communities and the demarcation of white public space via geosemiotic discourses.
Echoing the sentiments of James Weldon Johnson (1912), there are few things I am more certain of than the fact that People of Color understand whiteness better than white people. Considering this, difficult questions arise regarding the role of whites and the performance of scholarship on race. Are white race scholars even necessary? What can they actually contribute that hasn’t already been said? As a white male whose scholarship focuses on intersections of race and language, I genuinely struggle with these questions. What I can say with a degree of certainty, however, is that race scholarship performed by whites has several inherently problematic paradoxes.
The paradox of imperative racism
I believe it is not controversial to say racism is endemic to whiteness. Now, this does not mean that hate is an essential element of the white body. Rather, complicit participation in and benefaction from a society built upon the foundations of settler colonialism and systemic racism tethers whiteness to racism. As a simple matter of habitus, I believe no amount of education can wholly erase the many acquired prejudices and internalized ideologies implicit in the lived experience of whiteness. Thus, one paradox of whites performing scholarship on race is the problem of racists investigating race. Conversely, I do contend that there may be value in redirecting the white gaze in upon itself. As a personal example, when engaging with literature on the notion of white fragility (DiAngelo, 2019), it resonates with me not only because I witness it in others, but also because I experience it within myself. In fact, I draw many of my strongest indictments of whiteness from my reflections on the ever-present racist ideologies fossilized within me.
The paradox of centering whiteness
One of the most common comments or criticisms I receive on my work interrogating the discursive reproduction of white supremacy is that it centers whiteness. Considering the white body from which my work derives and the inescapable biases inherent to qualitative work, this is always a fair point. In fact, I am quite certain such criticism applies to this piece. However, considering that the problem of white supremacy is “the problem of whiteness” (Hartigan, 1997), a paradox emerges. On one hand, centering whiteness essentially puts the needs, desires and feelings of white people above the existential harm that continues to be enacted upon People of Color. On the other hand, in order to effectively confront the problem of whiteness, we must center our metaphorical crosshairs on the ideological and discursive engines that reproduce white supremacy. Thus, as problematic as it may seem on the surface, there is a case to be made that any discourse which aims to deconstruct and dismantle white supremacy may benefit from strategically, yet carefully, centering an analytical lens upon whiteness to some degree. Sadly, this is much easier said than done, as all too often miscalibrated attempts to do so end up straying into the territory of white saviorism and/or white apologia.
The proximity paradox
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) uses the term “discursive buffers” to describe the practice of whites claiming proximity to People of Color in order to distance ourselves from racism. It is otherwise known as the “I have a Black friend” defense. Within the realm of race scholarship, however, this problematic phenomenon is surprisingly common for whites. In my experience, these discursive buffers often manifest as “origin stories” where white scholars attempt to legitimize themselves via transformative tales of their lived experience, such as an off-the-cuff reference to the diverse background of one’s partner or an account of the multi-racial setting in which one was raised. Admittedly, few people are more guilty of this than I and my tale of 15 years living as an ethnoracial minority outside of the US. However, I feel the paradox lies within the fact that these discursive buffers are also somewhat important, as they can index an emotional investment in our work rather than simply seeing race scholarship as a strictly intellectual endeavor. Unfortunately, when taken too far, these discursive buffers have been known to give rise to problematic issues such as disingenuous racial presentation and unreflexive appropriation of language and culture.
The employment equity paradox
As I near the end of my PhD studies and prepare for entry into the job market, I do so with the knowledge that academia has a major problem in its lack of equitable representation of minoritized ethnoracial groups, especially Women of Color. The image above indexes this problem specifically within the realm of race scholarship and hiring practices of universities. Upon seeing the above image on social media, a feeling of dread overcame me at the paradox surrounding my career aspirations. Specifically, I came to the realization that if I am to find employment within a university, it would equate to a lost opportunity for a scholar from a marginalized background, who unlike me, has an embodied understanding of race and racism. Additionally, I realized that my career aspirations may equate to the reproduction of the institutional racism which I aim to confront in my career. While I struggle with this paradox, I also recognize I must avoid thinking of complex issues in zero-sum terms. However, considering the limited number of employment opportunities, it is all but impossible not to reflect on my own role in reproducing the problem of inequitable representation within the academy.
White scholars’ over-representation in nearly every department and discipline within academia reminds us of the continued legacy of European settler-colonialism and its maleficent impact upon the minds and bodies of marginalized ethnoracial groups. Understanding this, white race scholarship can be seen as a colonial transgression into spaces where our presence has the potential to do harm. At the same time, as white scholars such as Robin DiAngelo have shown, simply being white does not preclude one from making valuable contributions to discourses on race. Ultimately, I have no solutions to the many paradoxes and contradictory complexities involved in race scholarship. However, I do believe that white scholars, especially myself, need to strive for more efficacious fostering of vigilant reflexivity and maintain an unremitting critical learner stance, lest we reproduce our ancestors’ countless transgressive injustices.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
DiAngelo, R. J. (2019). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Books.
Hartigan, J. (1997). Establishing the Fact of Whiteness. American Anthropologist,187-204
Johnson, J. W. (1912). The autobiography of an ex-coloured man. New York: Hill and Wang.