chapter  11
24 Pages

Interrogating "Whiteness," (De)Constructing "Race"

My title reflects several trends in contemporary cultural and literary studies. Because these trends involve exposing the hidden assump­ tions we make concerning racialized identities, they have far-reaching

theoretical and pedagogical implications. The first phrase, "Interro­ gating 'Whiteness/" refers to the recent demand for an analysis of "white" as a racialized category. Toni Morrison, for example, calls for an examination of "whiteness" in canonical U.S. literature. What, she asks, are the implications of "literary whiteness"? How does it function in the construction of an "American" identity? Arguing that a "criti­ cism that needs to insist that literature is not only 'universal' but also 'race-free' risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist," she urges scholars to examine the hidden racial dis­ course in U.S. literature.1 Similarly, some educators have begun em­ phasizing the importance of developing critical pedagogies that examine how "whiteness" has (mis)shaped knowledge production in U.S. culture. According to Henry Giroux and Peter L. McLaren, the tra­ ditional Western view "of learning as a neutral or transparent process" is inaccurate and prevents us from recognizing the highly political, racialized nature of all pedagogical methods. They maintain that

bell hooks takes this demand for an interrogation of the relation­ ship between "whiteness" and cultural dominance even further in her discussion of "white" theorists' exclusive analysis of the racial Other. According to hooks, "Many scholars, critics, and writers preface their work by stating that they are 'white,' as though mere acknowledgment of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, [and] direction." Because she believes that this unquestioned acceptance of "whiteness" distorts contemporary cultural studies, she challenges "white" theorists to incorporate an analysis of their own racialized identities into their work:

These calls for an interrogation of "whiteness" cannot be dismissed as the latest scholarly fad in academia's publish-or-perish game. As Kobena Mercer and other contemporary theorists have argued, "white­ ness" and its "violent denial of difference" serve a vital function in masking social and economic inequalities in contemporary Western cultures.4 By negating these people-whatever the color of their skinwho do not measure up to "white" standards, "whiteness" has played a central role in maintaining and naturalizing a hierarchical social sys­ tem and a dominant/subordinate world view.