Sunday, October 7, 2007

Theory of Systemic Whiteness


Theorist: Chithra KarunaKaran
Member Anti White Supremacy Task Force (AWSTF)
National Women's Studies Association (NWSA)

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Note: The core criterion for the robustness (or weakness) of any theory in the social sciences is whether or not that theory can be applied to explain a range of instances of behavior, mental processes, symbol systems, social structures, power.

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Whiteness is a race-centered supremacism widely acknowledged as historically entrenched, institutionalized, pervasive, persistent and permanent in contemporary U.S. society. Whiteness in this theory is construed as lived experience, not an unlived theoretical abstraction and it is unequal lived experience with unequal consequences for whites and persons of color.

My Theory of Systemic Whiteness, deriving from Critical Race Theory (CRT), focuses on the everyday materiality of organizational arrangements, inviting critical consideration of structures, processes, mechanisms, policies and practices and the actors who participate in and shape them, operating within and across the U.S. nation-state macro-micro structure. Actors, meaning individuals have agency and therefore are necessary to be held accountable -- the theoretical emphasis here on organizations does not absolve or exempt individuals operating within them and shaping them. This theory gives consideration to recruitment into whiteness, performed whiteness, performed resistance to whiteness, performative production of whiteness, collegial whiteness, color-on-color whiteness, trumping identities in whiteness, schemas of whiteness.

Because this is a lived theory and therefore a work in process, it is by no means complete or exhaustive and never will be. I hope some will consider it and reshape it through discursive action. I owe these thoughts mainly to the struggle of others of color, who have struggled harder and sacrificed more than I ever have.

This Theory of Systemic Whiteness gives axial importance to Power, especially the inequitable distribution of racialized Power and advances critical consideration of race-centered supremacism as three-fold -- System, Structure, Ideology:

1) A STRUCTURE that replicates and enforces race-centered supremacism across:

a) microstructure (civil society organizations and service organizations such as schools, churches, hospitals, systems of higher educations, the media

b) macrostructure (the nation-state, the government, intra-state, state-state, bilateral, multilateral interfaces

2) A SYSTEM of (un)earned privilege, representing an expanding range of benefits and entitlements adhering to white skin, developed and maintained through coded assertion of, and subscription to, race-centered supremacist beliefs and practices

3) An IDEOLOGY of supremacism, a set of beliefs underscored by routinized, “normal” everyday practices, openly expressed only under extreme organizational arrangements (KKK, neo-Nazi), but more generally held covertly, that advance and support exclusionary, discriminatory, concealed, unmarked and normatized practices vs. collective, interdependent, transparent, inclusive, particularized and decentralized powersharing practices.

Recruitment into Whiteness: Because Whiteness is systemic, structural and ideological, it cannot sustain itself wholly through the membership of finite or shrinking or scattered collectivities of race-centered supremacist individuals. Its influence, stability and concerted attempts at permanence depend on continuous recruitment from historically disenfranchised, disadvantaged, oppressed groups. Additionally, Systemic Whiteness recruits from individuals and collectivities who subscribe to obsolete or discredited or newer supremacist belief systems but who are looking for continuing political relevance by exercising power through membership in dominant whiteness – example creationists, Zionists, fundamentalist Christians, patriarchy-centered support groups.

Performed Whiteness: The everyday materiality of organizational arrangements in the U.S. nation-state micro-micro structure affords numerous opportunities for observation and subsequently, critical consideration of the structures, processes, mechanisms, roles and actors within such organizational arrangements. What is Performed Whiteness in these organizations?

By performed whiteness I mean a constellation (or merely a unit) of race-centered supremacist organizational structures, processes and mechanisms that offer support to an individual or collectivity or both, to uphold thoughts and implement acts which preserve supremacist norms and that cause harm to oppressed individuals or groups. The individual performs whiteness within a white supremacist structure.

Because whites regardless of gender own and exercise unearned, unmarked privilege, they are the foremost practitioners and performers of whiteness both as individuals and as collectivities in U.S. society.

Performing Whiteness by persons of color offers an opportunity for such historically excluded and therefore disadvantaged individuals and groups to reject or deny their collective history of oppression and to win personal access into the dominant, supremacist group through acts by whites of tokenizing, gatekeeping, silencing, invisibilizing, marginalizing, exoticizing, by persons of color demonstrating their loyalty and commitment to upholding the dominant whiteness system by performing the dictated norms of Systemic Whiteness, developed and enforced by whites.

Examples of Performed Whiteness:

Instantiations of performed whiteness can be found at all levels of the macro and microstructure in the U.S. nation state. This is precisely why my theoretical focus on the everyday materiality of organizations arrangements and the actors within them, offers such fertile ground for investigative inquiry. Through recruitment into Whiteness performance, the U.S. nation-state whiteness macrostructure readily demonstrates its resilience by incorporating into whiteness, members of historically disadvantaged groups. Examples of such successful recruitment (even if temporary) are the following:

Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and Alberto Gonzales each representing an historically disadvantaged collectivity.

Within the framework of this theory we could ask the question Who is the whitest male with "the bluest eye?" The answer could be Condoleeza Rice. Rice has orchestrated the policy on Iraq in collusional alliance with white supremacist males (Cheney, Bush) bent on appropriation of resources and exercise of expansionist power.

Paul Wolfowitz was one of the chief architects of the "shock and awe" strategy of invasion and occupation that maimed and killed unnamed and untold numbers of Iraqi civilians. Apparently, he wanted to outdo the shock and awe Holocaust strategy of Hitler's Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen which killed members of his oppressed group. For performing flagrant whiteness in Iraq he was rewarded with the Presidency of the World Bank, a self-described world poverty alleviation organization controlled by the U.S. He resigned in disgrace after revelations that he authorized illegal exorbitant salary raises and perquisites for his girlfriend while he was head of an organization purportedly trying to help millions of the world's poorest who subsist on less than a dollar a day.

Albert Gonzales, the child of migrant workers justified violation of the Geneva Accords on secrecy and torture and justified indefinitely holding so called enemy combatants without charges or trial in Guantanamo. He resigned faced with pressure resulting from his politicizing of firings of U.S. prosecutors.

It is clear from these examples individual persons of color can and do perform Whiteness because Whiteness is larger than the individual, whiteness is a system, a structure and an ideology of supremacist, dominant and therefore unequal power that has been racialized for centuries in the U.S. nation-state and even before its establishment as a nation-state. However, the participation of the person of color in whiteness performance is from a subordinated position of unequal power.

Collegial Whiteness: Organization norms of so-called collegiality, example “be a team player” “go along to get along” “don’t rock the boat” “let us be allies” are overt or covert codes to enforce and perpetuate a racialized supremacist status quo. These codes are used to establish organizational sub-units, for example a Conflict Resolution Committee or an Oversight Committee even a Cultural Diversity Committee or some such mechanism, to deflect focus from the content of racialized conflictive discourse to a focus on the ‘style’ or ‘tone’ of the whiteness-resistive discussant of color. White players in organizations then are afforded the opportunity to become the arbiters of such ‘tone’ or ‘style’. In fact “The Angry Black Woman” is constructed as the epitome of anti-collegiality. The overt objective of collegiality is to build cohesive organizations sometimes expressed as “building community.” The coded or covert objective is to stifle racialized dissent and resistance to supremacist practices which accrue power to whites. In my theory, I construct Collegiality as the undesirable (for persons of color) outcome of organizational supremacist norms. Instead, diachronic, oppositional, resistive, power-wresting strategic discursive action along with the implied threat of force, is the goal of performed resistance by persons of color, to systemic supremacist whiteness.

In the civil rights struggle, the strategy of nonviolence by Martin Luther King needed the vital complement of implied threat of force (“by any means necessary”) by Malcolm X. In the pioneering nonviolent ‘satyagraha” (truth force) strategy of Mahatma Gandhi, the intimidatory threat of armed militant action against the British empire was provided by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and numerous groups of revolutionaries drawn from among subordinated religious, linguistic ethnic and socially ostracized minorities who were not formally within the Hindu caste structure. At the same time the Hindu caste structure provided shelter from British occupation through social ostracism of the occupiers.

Color-on-Color Whiteness: Persons of color recruited into Whiteness performance discredit the collective memory of oppressed groups within which they previously held membership, denying their groups' self-initiated right of honorable and equitable redress of their oppression. Whiteness performance by persons of color damages and impedes the collective goal of persons of color of overturning their oppression. Generally, the problem of color-on-color whiteness performance is encountered in organizations at the level of the individual rather than the collectivity. This is because the supremacist whiteness strategy of recruitment into its ranks is through a process of divide and rule whereby a few susceptible individuals of color are tokenized, marginalized, exoticized into whiteness performance. However, this does not exempt these individual actors of color from culpability in colluding in systemic whiteness at the expense of their oppressed group.

Performing Resistance to Whiteness: Behaviors of performed resistance to whiteness will include acts that contest and attempt to dismantle whiteness structures and mechanisms in the face of concerted opposition by privilege-wielding whites and their surrogates and recruits who will by definition include persons and collectivities of color. Persons and collectivities of color are at all times performing some degree of resistance to systemic whiteness.

Performing resistance to Whiteness will logically entail significant but temporary sacrifice of power, prestige and status for whites (especially white males but also white females) who have automatic enrollment in the Whiteness system. However, to resist this automatic enrollment in Whiteness does not necessarily remove the white individual or the white group from the conferment of privilege. Unearned privilege continues and may even be enhanced under Systemic Whiteness, a temporary setback may result (though not necessarily) from such resistive performance by whites. Example a white male who speaks out against white privilege now becomes an authority on white privilege, even though women of color have been naming white privilege and have been resistive for centuries and therefore are the authentic authorities on white privilege because they have direct experience of being oppressed by white privilege. The unearned, unmarked privilege of whites continues even when, even as, they perform resistance to whiteness.

Example of Performed Resistance to Whiteness: Critical Race Theory (CRT) has focused on the numerous attempts especially by Blacks to resist whiteness by performing often street-based struggle against systemic whiteness, to end slavery, claim civil rights and seek enforcement of affirmative action. (In this regard it is important to reiterate the systemic, structural and ideological power of Whiteness and to provide the example that Affirmative Action has mostly benefited white women)

As an example of performed resistance to whiteness, Norman Finkelstein, a white ethnic Jewish male professor defended through writings and public speeches the rights of Palestinians under international law. In contrast, Professor Alan Dershowitz (the white individual) and DePaul University (the organization) performed whiteness by successfully silencing Finkelstein’s (temporary) dissent from systemic whiteness.

Performative Production of Whiteness: The performative aspect alone is not sufficient to ensure salience of whiteness in everyday life. The performance of whiteness within and across social structures and organizational arrangements, from the family to the state, can be viewed not merely as visible acts but acts that will yield production of whiteness that accrues power to the organization and adds value to whiteness for the organization. Whiteness is a value added product and it endows the organization and especially its white leaders but also consenting actors of color with greater power to perpetuate whiteness, reward whiteness performance and punish or invisibilize resistance to whiteness performace.

Trumping Identities In Whiteness: Intersectionality theory is of great value in explaining that all personal and collective identities in all social contexts are also political, that race intersects with gender to produce identity. Yes our identities are intersectional. But what is the historical and political context of feminist intersectional theory? In my CRT-derived theory I construe the U.S. as a racialized patriarchy (Black men were brutalized and excluded, therefore they did not participate in producing U.S. patriarchy), in which white women for long historical periods supported white men's power and continue to do so while carving out some power for themselves. Moreover, the race variable intersects not only with gender but importantly with ethnicity, color, class, religion, income, occupation, citizenship, nationality, disability and other variables. But are these variables of equal weight in the context of the racialized U.S. nation-state? No. Racialized identity is a trumping identity when viewed within an acknowledged pervasive racialized supremacist nation-state construct. Race trumps gender and delivers a double, triple, quadruple jeopardy for persons of color (but not to whites) when it intersects with the above-mentioned identity variables. The “metalanguage” of race-ordered, race-centered U.S. society confers a trumping identity on race.

Schemas of Whiteness: Because Whiteness is a lived system of meaningful racialized codes and symbols, it is capable of being carried around in our heads as a cognitive construct, a map, a pictorial representation of what 'white looks like' but also 'what black looks like' 'what color looks like' 'what oppression feels like" ‘what hate hurts like’. By theorizing Whiteness as a system, comprised of numerous but interrelated schemas of whiteness it is possible to also problematize schemas of whiteness as a complex mental shorthand which we come to rely upon instead of and in place of facts on the ground. Schemas are extremely useful as adaptive mental constructs because they help us to rely on already available and proven impressions and beliefs. But our schemas are not as useful when we are trying to undo attitudes, prejudices and intolerances and attempting to take effective steps to redistribute power to oppressed individuals and groups. In training strategies especially, it is vitally important to unpack and expose schemas of whiteness both for their reliability as well as for their central role in preserving a racialized and “racist status quo.”

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Can the U.S. have an ethical democracy unless we expose, contest and dismantle white power, white racism, white supremacism, white privilege? Not!
The US cannot be an ethical and equitable player in global politics until it recognizes that it will not be allowed to dominate the world with its racialized, supremacist expansionist worldview.
This U.S. regime is inviting pathologized resistance in the form of "terror" from various quarters precisely because of its racialized supremacist predatory acquistive worldview.

The above theory was developed through direct participant observation and oppositional membership during the years 2004 -2007, in a self-described feminist organization, NWSA, and more specifically as a member of its Anti White Supremacy Task Force (AWSTF), composed almost entirely of white feminist members teaching in the feminist academy.

When viewed as applied feminist theory, Systemic Whiteness which is prevalent and pervasive in the feminist academy is seen, through the lens of this theory, to impede the development of transformative feminist thought and practice. White skin privileged supremacist feminists (WSPSF) deter the development of a radical feminism but they cannot hold back or exert influence over radical feminism in Africa, Asia and other parts of the Global South.

This Theory has been extended into a consideration of caste-centered, caste-ordered organizational structures to render a Theory of Systemic Casteness in the Indian nation-state context, nation-states of South Asia and Africa, example Somalia where caste is produced and performed.
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Chithra KarunaKaran
Ethical Democracy As Lived Practice

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