Monday, March 31, 2008

White, whiteness

There's this thing called the 'white-people's view'. Well, it's not really a thing, it's more like a perspective one has on the people and things around him/her. In a nutshell, the idea is that white people have never been collectively a subject of racism or institutionalized discrimination, and that they look at the world from a privileged position.

Regardless of individual cases (like your John Doe around the corner), white people as a collectivity are in a position of power: they do not need to deal with the complex and intricate consequences of racism. If you want to read more, try this brief
intro to whiteness studies written by Gregory Jay.

The idea of this post is slightly different. It's about my own dilemma with racism and the white perspective. I do not think of myself as white, but at times, I'm forced into it. According to whiteness studies, this is precisely what being white means: not to think of yourself in terms of race, or skin color, to think the world is skin-color-blind in a way. So, I fit the bill pretty well.

On the other hand, as someone interested in how we construct difference - in this case, visible difference based on skin color, facial features and this difficult yet suspicious category called race - I find it hard to accept that one HAS TO fit into a racial model, either empowered or disempowered. I guess one of my problems is that whiteness is, in itself, not a monolith. And as soon as one takes a micro perspective, and looks at the people in this category, lines of power and discrimination (yet not racial, I have to admit) become visible.

The other problem that really bothers me is a sense of historicism in this. Not to say that racial problems do not exist, or that history doesn't matter, I have a feeling that we are forced to bear a cross that is not ours - or let me be blunt, a cross that is not mine. I didn't think too much about race, yes. But I do think about it now. I think of racial discrimination and racialization of power lines in society. Yet, I have a hard time thinking of people as first and foremost defined by their race; so I have a hard time with the application of race to individuals. Maybe I do not make sense: I think people are racist. I think this has to do with a social setting (from education to media, from power relations to institutional configurations), not with an inner racial essence that defines people.

The other day, I attended a workshop on Canadian Native community research practices. And when the presenter said that no white person can do research into a Native community, because only a Native person can truly understand a Native culture, I had a hard time not jumping off my seat. I found it hilarious that the presenter started the presentation by outlining the values which characterize research done from the perspective of indigenous culture: respect, caring and sharing. But why does respect only works within the community and not outside it? Yes, I know about the racialized history of Canadian Natives in a white-Canada. But no, I do not agree that only Natives can and should do research in Native communities, because I do not believe one is born white, or Native, or black or pink for that matter, but one becomes so in one's upbringing. Here, now I said what has bugged me over the weeekend...

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