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White on White 

As Prop. 209 kicks in, whiteness studies draws attention to UC Berkeley

Wednesday, Nov 26 1997
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Perhaps because university ethnic studies programs grew in parallel with the 1960s civil rights movement, Caucasian scholars in those programs traditionally averted their gaze from the ghost in the mirror. Ethnic studies, it seemed, focused on people of any color, so long as the color was not white.

Now, though, some white scholars have focused their lenses on the culture of their own race, and Proposition 209 and other anti-affirmative action measures are beginning to place these so-called "whiteness studies" in an intense media spotlight. So far, that spotlight has seemed to shine most intensely on the University of California at Berkeley, where the first national conference on whiteness was held in April.

"We were just hoping the school newspaper would cover the conference," says Birgit Brander Rasmussen, a Danish student in Berkeley's ethnic studies department. Instead, the conference gained a measure of national media notice that tended to polarize the topic into two shades of unimportant white: Whiteness studies were either a reflection of liberal, Berkeley, bleeding-heart guilt, or a manifestation of white supremacy and pride.

Annalee Newitz, a doctoral student in English, disputes both characterizations.

"I don't think it's navel-gazing," Newitz says. "You have to acknowledge something before you can let it go. Some of the criticism of the conference was legitimate, however. People of color worried that white people were cashing in on their hard work in ethnic studies.

"But there was also a knee-jerk response that white people don't deserve to talk about themselves because we're so bad; we should just donate money to the NAACP and pretend we're colorblind. Or there was an Afrocentric response that only people of color can talk about race."

The media continue to stutter over the definition of whiteness studies, unsure whether to call it a field, a fad, a trend, or a discipline. Most scholars involved in white studies simply describe it as an emerging body of work nestled within the field of ethnic studies.

"It should be a component that complements other kinds of race studies," says Matt Wray, a Ph.D. candidate in Berkeley's ethnic studies program. "That has to happen, because racial categories are relational. If it becomes a field, there's a danger that people will believe it's on equal footing with Latin or African American studies. It's more about understanding than celebration."

Regardless of how it is categorized, researchers say, their work on whiteness is central to the understanding of race and class in America.

"There was this national discussion of affirmative action, with no reference to the privilege of whiteness, although that's what affirmative action is supposed to balance," says Rasmussen, whose doctoral dissertation will examine the ways in which political rights are represented in cultural products. (One of her papers, for example, analyzed racial stereotypes in animated films such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King.)

Fieldwork in whiteness includes research on subjects as diverse as Texan dynasties, chain-saw sculptures, and mallrats. An anthology of essays on lower-class whites titled White Trash: Race and Class in America has gained widespread notice. Co-edited by Newitz and Wray, the anthology displays more verve than your usual scholarly publication, with essays ranging from "Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn" to "The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess."

The book also includes an interview by video artist and critic Laura Kipnis of Jennifer Reeder, a performance artist who created the character of "White Trash Girl." White Trash Girl is an "inbred biological disaster turned superhero" who was flushed down the toilet at birth, but developed in the sewer. "She's an anti-hero," Reeder explains. "She doesn't always fight for truth and justice. She might get into a fight with the fry guy at McDonald's who's been harassing the girl who runs the takeout window."

Wray and Newitz believe that making whiteness visible to whites can help dismantle class barriers. They say they chose white trash as a subject area because it seemed ready-made as a paradigm for illustrating white-on-white class conflict. "The term itself is an amalgam," Wray explains. "White is about race, trash is about class. Race is therefore used to explain class. There's this gentle insistence that having white skin gives you a ticket into racial privilege, but it's not absolute."

Wray and Newitz argue that white trash stereotypes blame the poor for being poor, and solidify a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority for middle- and upper-class minds. And, they note, those stereotypes are powerful. Sitcom stars like Roseanne cash in on trash, and "trailer park" is the term for a recent genre of literature and films.

"The middle class has this fascination and anxiety about falling into a lower social status," says Wray, who reflects on his own childhood and the connection between poverty and religion in the essay "White Trash Religion."

"Poor people develop elaborate strategies for survival that are worthy of study and discussion," he explains. "Why chain-saw art and Spam diets are funny is as interesting as the phenomena themselves."

Newitz, whose doctoral dissertation concerns representations of identity in pop culture, including film, fiction, and indie rock, agrees.

"White trash has become a way to talk about white identity in a non-threatening way, because it's humorous. In that way, it can be dangerous, because it re-creates a lot of stereotypes, and keeps us from thinking about the white people who have power, the people who are not white trash."

Of course, critics of whiteness studies dismiss the discipline as snake oil; a potion that can't cure society's ills and may do some harm. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University, insists that "race as a central guiding truth doesn't help us, it further divides us." Stanley Fish, a Duke University professor of law and English, has also expressed doubts that whiteness studies will help improve race relations in the United States. "If whiteness scholars think they're going to do away with all norms, they'll never do it," he predicted earlier this year.

Noting that white studies has changed rapidly in a short time, Wray says he can't predict its future. But he maintains his faith in the political potency of the subject. "How else do people change [the status quo]?" Wray retorts. "I don't expect the fruits of this to blossom in my lifetime. Changing the way we talk about the world doesn't happen as quickly or directly as war.

About The Author

Denise Dowling

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