The Black Lives Matter movement has forced Americans of all colors to think about race and how it affects everything from politics and policing to our daily interactions. For Hunter College professor of philosophy Linda Martín Alcoff, race is something she has been reflecting on since growing up in segregated, small-town Florida in the late-1960s as the light-skinned daughter of parents of Panamanian and Irish descent.
“It’s painful to pass, because you hear white people say all this garbage you don’t want to have to hear,” Alcoff recalls. “I never had the luxury of thinking that race was not important.”
The author of numerous books that explore the intersection of race, gender and class, Alcoff has become an increasingly prominent public voice on these topics that are such a fraught part of life in the United States in the early 21st century.
In her latest book, The Future of Whiteness, she explores what the coming decades may hold for this country’s largest racial group as it loses its majority status.
Don Jackson: What is whiteness and what motivated you to write this book at this time?
Linda Martín Alcoff: Whiteness is a historically formed racial identity, like all other racial identities. It’s meanings and its boundaries have changed over time and will undoubtedly continue to change. What is distinct about whiteness from other racial formations is that it has been supported and protected by white-dominated governments around the world to get special privileges, so that whites had an easier time to become citizens, work, build or buy homes, vote and stay out of prison. These privileges were justified on the basis of racist ideologies about racial hierarchies, ideologies that affected the formation of white identity, getting inside people’s heads. Thus whiteness has both an objective empirical aspect and a subjective psychological aspect.
However, racist ideology is not the only ingredient that has gone into the formation of white identity “on the ground,” so to speak. Most whites come from immigrant families fleeing destitution or persecution. Most today still live modest lives, and millions are living in poverty or near-poverty. Many whites struggle with discrimination based on sexuality, disability, gender, religion and so on, yet here too their whiteness affects their options for survival. We have to find a way to talk about the complexity of whiteness, without either downplaying racism or simplifying whiteness into one seamless racist ideology. Whiteness is not going to wither away, nor can it be abolished by individual acts of disavowal. I wrote the book to offer a realistic way to think about what whiteness is that can keep its complexity in view and is neither fatalist nor naïve about its future.
We are in a critical, historical moment. By 2042 whites will be the largest plurality but no longer a majority of the United States. When presidents talk about the American people, the American people are going to change. My book provides a way to think about what race and whiteness means that doesn't go back to the old biological views that all scientists and most people today reject.
Who do you think most needs to read your book now?
Anybody trying to think about social justice and about how to reduce racism needs to think about whiteness. I’m really hoping white leftists will read it because there are a lot of avoidance strategies among white leftists who think that you can talk about class and avoid race. These include but are not limited to: first, thinking that capitalism can be understood apart from race (and gender), second, opposing all concepts of race on the grounds that the biological concepts of race are bogus, and third, believing that the white race can be “abolished,” as if historically formed organic identities can be wished out of existence.
How is understanding whiteness beneficial to all people, especially to efforts by all groups who are involved in seeking a better future for humanity?
There are special challenges to imagining a non-racist multiculturalism in the United States that would include white people. Whiteness has been associated with being the vanguard of the human race, an idea makes it really difficult for whites to see themselves as one among others.
Whiteness is an issue for all oppressed groups as well to think about in terms of how identities can get used politically in nefarious ways. And whites are not the only group whose identity is tied to histories of oppression. We have to become more sophisticated in our thinking.
You mentioned that currently the right only talks about anti-white racism. They do not acknowledge other forms of racism.
There are a striking number of white people who believe that anti-white racism is a big problem in the United States. It’s not the majority of whites who think that, but it’s a sizeable enough number to make you pause. The reasons for this are complicated. Some whites have experiences of being marginalized, of not being the favorite person in the room.
They are wrong because the material and political advantages still accrue more to whites than to others, but it still tells us something about the way people experience their lives and their society that we can respond to and learn from.
Ted Allen, the author of The Invention of the White Race, is known to have said “Don't call me white.” And I've also met quite a few other Europeans who are very uncomfortable with being called white.
I respect Ted Allen’s work and his contribution very much but I do disagree with his view on this matter. It's not up to us what race we are. No matter what you call yourself, you will still be seen and treated as a certain racial group. Your political commitments do not determine your racial identity. What determines your racial identity is history and the way you are seen in your society.
The historian David Roediger is quoted in your book saying that race concepts are “ontologically empty.” Is this criticism valid or useful?
Roediger says that because he's a good historian and he knows whiteness was created out of a set of laws and practices orchestrated by the U.S. government. It was fomented by the 1 percent to get the 99 percent divided among themselves, and to get white workers to believe that their interests were more aligned with the white power structure than with people of color. Roediger is arguing that the interests of white workers are not with the white elite but with other people of color struggling for economic justice. So whiteness is ontologically empty in the sense that there are no cross-class shared white interests. But his mistake is in thinking that identity categories are constructions solely from the top down and those of us at the bottom only have the choice of accepting or rejecting these. That's not actually true. Black and brown people, and Asian-Americans and Native Americans, have had a major role in changing how our identities are understood.
I think identities are best understood as both top-down and bottom-up, and the ways in which the top tries to control us is affected by what we do. They know they have to accept a certain amount of multicultural rhetoric because we're just not going to accept the old biological racist argument. So they changed their laws and rhetoric in response to what we do.
During the 1970s and ’80s, you were part of a group that resisted and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Some of your colleagues were severely beaten and even raped when discovered. How did you and your colleagues find the courage to face such violence and intimidation and what made you stand up to them in the first place?
I think people had different motivations. There were people of color who were certainly involved, and Jews who were involved. And white Vietnam vets who had suffered through the lies of white vanguardism. There were certainly white people who were involved who just did not like the fact that the Klan presumed to speak for them. It's one thing to just say the Klan doesn't speak for me but you have to show it.
It's not going to have an effect if you just say it in your living room, you have to go public in one way or another. And in that period, as I write about in the book, the Klan really was a serious menace. This was a period of Klan resurgence that had started during the Civil Rights Movement and had grown and they were engaging in brazen acts of murder in broad daylight and getting away with it. If you were in a major city in the South like Charlotte or Atlanta you were fairly safe, but if you needed to travel between Charlotte and Atlanta and you were not a white person or your whole group wasn't white, you had to take precautions. You couldn't travel at night and you had to be careful where you stopped for gas. It was rural terrorism.
The Klan has long had a bad effect on social movements. If you wanted to challenge class inequality in the United States you had to address racism then, and you have to address it today. Because racism is the primary way in which the working class gets caught up in fighting each other.
So what ultimately, then, do you see as the future of whiteness?
Well, I do think that there will continue to be a political polarization among white people and it's pretty extreme. I don't think that's going to go away, but I think that the demographic changes will change the realistic options, for example to live or work in a white-only space.
It is true that there's a lot of thinly disguised racism out there among liberal whites. Yet a sizeable number of whites will continue to reject vanguardist ideas and will realize that they need to learn how to get along in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world. Almost half of white people today are significantly trying to be anti-racist. I hope my book will help.