Saturday, March 30, 2013

Whiteness Supreme: Towson University and Liberal Ironists

A few theses, none too controversial or not said before: Whiteness is a property, a possession, one unevenly distributed across the social terrain. White supremacists tend to have diminished access to the supreme property of whiteness. White supremacy is thus an aspirational politics, one that attempts sticking close to what it imperfectly is in order to become what it should be. It’s an evil, vile reaction to the maldistribution of a mode of social power that cannot not be maldistributed. The effect of the unevenly distributed racial property, white supremacist politics will remain a possibility (and a violently aspirational actuality) so long as whiteness continues to be a possible mode of being social.

I’m offering these theses as a corrective to the dominant ways in which writers and news outlets have been approaching the White Student Union at Towson University. For those who do not know, the WSU (a student group unrecognized by the administration) announced that it would conduct nighttime patrols to protect white people (and, in particular, the “virtue of white Christian womanhood”) from “black predators.” One writer at AlterNet has commented, “It’s like they watched the Birth of the Nation and thought it was a PBS documentary.” Another, at Jezebel, writes, “The Towson University White Student Union (WSU), an allegiance formed of supremely ignorant and bigoted college students, has officially transgressed the border of deeply offensive and trundled into the realm of completely batshit with its decision to form an all-white campus patrol to defend their innocent (white) peers from the threatening threat of black people.” Irony, then, is one of the dominant modes through which the WSU has been presented to, and critiqued for, the public.

Irony has never been a very effective mode of redressing fascism. (Think Charlie Chaplin tossing that globe in the air, and his later regrets over the film.) As I see it, the capacity to be merely ironic about white supremacy derives from two linked causes—or, really, one cause viewed through two lenses. Irony regarding racial supremacist politics requires the distance from the scene that race affords; it requires, in other words, being properly white. Being white here has two vectors, negative and positive. The first condition of possibility for being merely flip with fascism is not being a PoC, one who might be physically attacked by these assholes or subjected to the psychic violence their bile might occasion. The second condition of possibility is the maintenance of an unproblematic relation to whiteness. It seems to me—based on tone and forum; I don’t know their bios—that the writers of the pieces cited above are both geographically and existentially distanced from scenes wherein they would experience a deficit of whiteness. The pieces are enunciated from a position in and around proper whiteness, where a white college-educated person’s access to whiteness goes unquestioned—the urban Northeast. To even begin to analyze white supremacist politics, we need to account for the striations of whiteness, the ways in which a host of social levers—space, class, gender, sexuality—distribute whiteness across the social.

A merely ironic disposition toward white supremacist politics is only available to those who possess whiteness supreme. The desire for whiteness does not make sense to those who have it. Consider Jezebel’s description of the WSU:

This belief [in white superiority] epitomizes a ridiculously antiquated racial hierarchy, in which white men alone are constitutive of civil society — which exists solely for their benefit — and African-Americans are perpetual outsiders who can only benefit the white society from which they are excluded by having their labor exploited, otherwise they're merely a menace to the established order.

White supremacy is here coded as an ideology, a belief. What’s astonishing to me is that the writer’s reduction of white supremacy to ideology actually results in her describing, with some realism, the material structure of a society in which whites (and white men) do reign supreme, do have power concentrated in their hands. Weeks after the murder of Kimani Gray, after which black protestors excoriated police for materializing black exclusion from the social, can one possibly say that blacks—especially in New York—are not outsiders vis-à-vis the white-dominated social? Desirous of patrolling a Baltimore burb with “nonlethal” weapons, the WSU really just wants what white liberals in Bloomberg’s New York already possess—it’s merely that New Yorkers’ property in whiteness is more or less unconsciously embodied, a possession assumed and assured. White supremacists’ desire for the very denegated structure of racial-rule possessed by Northeastern urban whites exposes this structure, and this exposure is managed by irony. This irony doesn’t offer a critique of whiteness, still less a radical attempt to undo it. Rather, such irony merely reinscribes the distance between zones of aspirational whiteness and zones of achieved and non-problematic whiteness, between zones of white supremacy and zones of whiteness supreme. Liberal irony reproduces the structural conditions for white supremacist politics.

My aim here isn’t to pile on this writer; still less (and this should be obvious, but you never know) is it to apologize for white supremacists. It’s rather to say that we cannot treat white supremacist politics in a merely ironic mode without a) reinscribing but denegating whiteness and b) failing to attend to the actual gravity of white supremacist organizing. Sure, the WSU appears clownish, “ignorant,” and silly, “antiquated” and not hep to our post-racial times. They wouldn’t fit in in white Brooklyn. To treat such politics as merely silly, however, is itself a position derived from racial privilege (like it or not, laugh at it or not, white libs, the WSU is out to protect you). Moreover, there is no white supremacist group that does not appear silly, ignorant, or clownish. I promise. Read their websites (I won’t link to them), check out updates on white supremacist actions from your local antifa or ARA group’s blog. They seem ridiculous, vile, and inept. The problem, though, is that three boneheads gathered together do not require much in the way of brains or organizational chops to beat the shit out of the next PoC they happen across. Wade Michael Page (the Sikh temple shooter), for instance, was a white supremacist who travelled with groups as ridiculous and dinky as the WSU. Fascism starts small. White supremacy thrives in the comedic social zone assigned to it by the liberal-dominant, but it takes very little for the farce of white robes, shaved heads, and bad angry music to convert to tragedy. Whether gathering to ineptly organize a political rally, going to a white power punk show, or just having a beer, any gathering of white supremacists poses an immediate threat to people of color. Antifa and ARA direct action people know this, some act on it, and some languish in prison for having so acted.

It’s simple, really: White supremacy isn’t funny, and it can’t be counteracted with irony. Such irony is enabled by the very social structure to which not-quite-white white supremacists aspire. If you’re committed to eradicating white supremacist politics, work toward eradicating whiteness. (That, of course, is less simple.) And, if you’re in Baltimore, stand up to the boneheads.


[Edit: White supremacist comments will be deleted. If you wish to spew nonsense at me, you can email me at Or come by my office hours. I know, I know, emailing is less anonymous than commenting anonymously. My apologies. And (for those interested) I'll have a reading list of good whiteness / critical race studies stuff up soon.] 


Unknown said...

"Whiteness is a property, a possession, one unevenly distributed across the social terrain."

Thank you for this, Chris. I am an anthropologist who works on caste in India. My knowledge of critical race theory is very limited. I found your way of putting this point very useful, though, and since you flagged it as uncontroversial and something others have said before I am hoping you could recommend one or two basic readings (or some sources where this point was first, or best, or most famously made).

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Alex moner said...

This irony doesn’t offer a critique of whiteness, still less a radical attempt to undo it. Towson plastic surgeon