Speakers attempt to grasp the elusive concept of whiteness during symposium

Last Thursday, following a lunch with students and visits to various classes, three professors participated in a debate titled “Theorizing Whiteness” in Lawrence Hall. In the well attended debate, sponsored by the English department, panelists tackled issues surrounding notions of whiteness.

Wahneema Lubiano, an associate professor of literature at Duke University, was the first panelist to speak at the standing-room only discussion. Lubiano focused her talk on how whiteness opens and closes discussions on race. She argued that even though topics such as whiteness and critical race theory have only recently been institutionalized, they have always been taught informally at conferences and lectures, as African-American studies was before it was institutionalized.

Lubiano said that whiteness generates “productive” anger in the field of African-American studies, but sometimes the anger can shut down conversation altogether. Quoting Mike Hill she said, “Whiteness comes too easily now,” Lubiano argued that by singling out whiteness and studying it, we are giving it the same privilege that we are also trying to take away.

The second panelist to speak was Sharon Willis, an associate professor of modern languages and cultures at the University of Rochester. Her presentation focused on the implications of race in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction. After showing a short clip from the film, she proceeded to examine the movie from a Freudian perspective. “[T]hrough white men’s identifications with them, black men, become icons. . .the identifications maintain an aggressive edge: the white subject wants to be in the others place without leaving his own,” she said.

Grant Farred, an associate professor of English, who also helped sponsor the lecture, felt much the same way, saying afterwards that the white character, played by Tarantino, “develops a sort of ‘cool’ by being married to an absent black woman.” Willis argued that the white characters want to be linked to black characters in this movie because black men are equated with “cool” popular culture.

Dave Roediger, chair of the american studies program at the University of Minnesota was the third panelist to speak. Roediger has authored several books on the subject of whiteness including Wages of Whiteness (1991) and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (1994). Roediger, like Lubiano, quoted writer Amoja Three Rivers saying, “White people have not always been ‘white’. Nor will they always be ‘white’. It is a political alliance. Things will change.” He pointed out that race was merely a social construct and that there was no scientific basis for it.

The final thoughts came from Kristin Carter-Sanborn, an assistant professor of English at Williams. She continued Roediger’s idea that race was a historically determined and context specific set of alliances. With this in mind, she analyzed the recent film Pleasantville. “The film claims to satirize. . .middle-class white suburban 1950s values as a disease of homogeneity or repression,” she said. Yet, she argued, the racial echoes of the early civil rights movement are deployed during the movie only to later disappear. The “white audience is asked to identify with color without having to identify too closely with colored people.”

After the panel discussion, the floor was opened up to a question and answer session, followed by a reception in the Stetson faculty lounge, where students and professors continued the discourse in a more informal setting. Farred commented that the high attendance at the presentation “showed the level of interest but also the way in which Williams is a confining paradigm, the way in which it enables and restricts conversations about whiteness.” According to Carter-Sanborn, “This marks the beginning, not the end, of a conversation on whiteness. Whiteness will get theorized whether or not we theorize it.”

After the discussion, Professor of English Shawn Rosenheim noted that whiteness is not a “natural category,” but has only emerged as a “tool for consolidating the power of the dominant class over people of color.”