Monday, March 19, 2007

The Heart of Whiteness - Robert Jensen

RIOT RANT and I both just read a short book by Robert Jensen called The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege. I had high hopes for this piece because it was recommended to me by some folks from an organization in our neck of the woods that strives to be antiracist, and I think, is on the right track.

Whiteness doesn't so much confront race, racism, and white privilege as it does skim those issues. What disappointed me most about the piece is that I wanted more from him; I never felt like Jensen fully acknowledges just how secure his own position of privilege is. He says, "I am white and male, educated and trained in research and writing, materially comfortable in a stable job with status that gives me considerable control over how I use my time" (50). I applaud that. But I wanted him to go further and say that he has the luxury to tell his own personal stories, and focus on his own anger and fear. Most of us don't have the time for that.

I can't get past two things above all others: 1) Jensen's insistence on calling people of color "non-whites", and 2) his story about feeling superior to an African Amercian man he was working with on a professional panel, and admitting as much in the moment with tears in his eyes. Dude, get a grip on yourself. For #1, I can't see that we're confronting much, or examining our privilege much when we start from a place of defining our terms based on white supremacy in the first place. "I'm white, you're non" does not work. No matter how he explains his reasons behind this choice, it is always for me him setting whiteness as the standard against which he's measuring everyone -- you either are or you're "non." For #2, Jensen seems to believe that these issues are much more about him that they are. Who automatically assumes their superiority? Only an upper middle-class (or better) straight white dude if you ask me.
Moreover, who else among us would think that it was ever okay to tell the man we felt superior to -- with TEARS IN OUR EYES -- that we had those feelings? What audacity!

Beyond those two biggies for me, I found Jensen's gloss over homophobia and his quick nod to his feminist work pretty simplistic. Too simplistic. Give me Cornel West over this guy any day of the week. Thank goodness, a recent West speech was played on Democracy Now the day RIOT RANT and I were discussing Whiteness and feeling pretty frustrated by the book. It ( helped me regain my perspective -- West reminds us that to care about institutional violence and what he calls "social misery," we must always already care about all of it. We must challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and oppression of all kinds. We must examine our own privilege in relation to others -- not tell our own stories like they are unique and valid enough for other people to hear about and nod along with. Our own stories are important, but they aren't the only thing.

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