The Logic of Whiteness

by Ronald A. Kuykendall

The recent fatalities involving black men and white police have a long history, coupled with a pattern of government inaction and unwillingness to take action against white perpetrators and police abuse in cases of violence against African Americans. For example, the failure of conviction or prosecutorial indictment in the fatal incidents involving Trayvon Martin in Miami, Florida; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; and Eric Garner in New York City. The government’s response, if there is a response, is usually the creation of a committee, commission, or task force to investigate and make recommendations or devise new guidelines that are typically not followed. In some cases funding is allocated for special training.

The decisions reached by the authorities surrounding these egregious racial incidents seem to defy logic. They underscore, once again, how little has changed in the relationship of African Americans to the legal system and to the police. These incidents usually generate rallies, marches, and protests and calls for a national dialogue or conversation on racial injustices. For a limited time there is a response from civic organizations, churches, colleges, and universities that sponsor community forums and panels. The fact that we keep having these racist incidents and then hearing about the necessity for dialogue is evidence of some of the complexities of structural racism, but also the limitations of reactive conversations.

Protest leadersThe notion of a national dialogue, or any dialogue, for that matter, presumes that talking about an injustice will somehow clear up the misunderstandings, misperceptions, assumptions, ignorance, alienation, violence, and microaggressions affiliated with racism; that such a dialogue would be a transformative moment. But the idea that within the United States we could actually have a national dialogue on racism is not only illusory. It is a misunderstanding of how whiteness as a racialised identity and its consequences — racialisation and racism — reinforces, perpetuates, and maintains white privilege and the effects of that privilege: white hegemony and white supremacy.

The performance of whiteness, as an institutionalized structure and practice, limits the terms of social interaction and is predicated on the power to grant recognition and legitimacy. In other words, the performance of whiteness exercises the right to impose meaning, and world-view on the racialised other; and so, the performance of whiteness makes the issue of race and racism undiscussable. The very nature and logic of whiteness is antidialogical.

In using the term antidialogical, I am referencing the meaning of that word as used by Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In Pedagogy, Freire asserts that antidialogue is a relationship between self and other, which becomes, in the sense used by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, an “I-It” relation. That is, self sees the other as an object to be dominated, and so the relationship becomes oppressive. To be antidialogical is to exist in a vertical relationship of dominance and subordination. Antidialogical activity impedes communication and reduces the other to the status of a thing. Antidialogue is a means of dominance which dispossesses the other of their testimony and their expressiveness. It is an indispensable tool in the preservation of dominance and oppression, and consequently the preservation of whiteness.

When you think about how the logic of whiteness is performed, that is, the reasoning upon which whiteness is predicated, what stands out is the justification on which whiteness rests: innocence. Whiteness, as a structurally infused practice expressed through racism, self-exonerates, and justifies hostility toward those categorized as inferior. As such, racism, as described by the Tunisian writer on race and colonization, Albert Memmi, is “a defense mechanism and an alibi” (160). It both protects the white perpetrator of racial aggression and hostility and rationalises the imposition of that aggression and hostility.

Consequently, as part of the logic of whiteness, there is the tendency to blame the victims for the crimes of their white oppressors. Hence, the white view of issues and tensions associated with racism focus on African American attitudes and conduct that need to change. Accordingly, whatever difficulties African Americans face are a consequence of their own attitudes and behavior, a failure to adapt to the demands and norms of the dominant white culture.

This blaming the victim argument, popularized in academia during the 1960s, locates racial inequality and African American social pathologies within abnormal or deviant African American cultural traits. These traits are seen as responsible for the development of attitudes and values that limit opportunities or prevent escape from poverty. Through racialisation, this “tangle of pathology” — drug addiction, crime, low educational achievement, and economic problems, reinforced by a weak family structure – is seen to perpetuate abnormal and deviant cultural traits. Thus, the biological referents of nineteenth century racism based on notions of genetic and biological difference have shifted. African American cultural adaptations, rather than racialised inequalities, are now more likely to be seen as responsible for social pathologies and injustices.

This type of reasoning allows many white Americans to speak and think about the “race problem” in ways that remove them from complicity in the system of racial inequality and injustice. As described by William Ryan in Blaming the Victim, whites “are, most crucially, rejecting the possibility of blaming, not the victims, but themselves. They are unconsciously passing judgments on themselves and bringing in a unanimous verdict of Not Guilty” (28). The guilt referred to here is not necessarily indicative of a sense of personal responsibility, but rather defensiveness. It is what Andrew Hacker described in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal as a way of denying “to themselves that the value imputed to being white has injured people who are black” (60).

Consequently, as explained by David T. Wellman, in Portraits of White Racism, white Americans can “be conscious of inequality and injustice without condemning themselves, to recognize a societal problem without implicating the society, and to defend their interests without referring to genes or race” (221). How is this possible? Because, asserts Wellman, “they explain it in terms of the problems of its victims; and they ‘solve’ the problem with solutions that do not affect white people; [instead] the solutions allow white people to recognize the need for change without having that change affect them in important ways [so] they get off the hook and defend their racial privilege as well” (221).

This kind of thinking is characteristic of the inverted ethics of institutionalized whiteness, based on an assumption of rightness, and by definition ethics refers to rightness. But such an ethics of whiteness rationalizes the very opposite of right, that is, those qualities that constitute what is correct, just, proper, honorable, and lawful. This inverted sense of ethics has a long history extending back to slavery of attempting to synchronize beliefs and practices, that is, of reconciling contradictory standards of morality. To be more precise, the ethics of whiteness applies the principles of morality differently to people who are black. Therefore, the performance of whiteness acts contrary to rightness, fairness, and human dignity.

The performance of whiteness, according to Steve Martinot in The Machinery of Whiteness, is criminal; that is, racialisation is a criminal activity which criminalizes the racialised while decriminalizing white acts of racialisation — another form of blaming the victim. In order to maintain white privilege and white hegemony the means of control are criminal in light of the constituted law, and the established legal institutions must be suspended when white privilege and white hegemony is threatened. The lawlessness of police, prosecutors, and judges and the unlawful enforcement of the law by these fiduciary agents are common perversions of American legal institutions. They are pivotal to race hierarchies, and therefore endemic to the logic of whiteness.
Am I Next - FergusonBecause the ethics of whiteness subverts justice and fairness, there is an inherent assumption that this inverted ethics is right, and it is because of this that racism can go unacknowledged. As pointed out by Martinot: “When a person can injure others in a criminal manner and still feel him-or-herself to be honest, or innocent, or civilized, it is society’s cultural ethic that legitimizes that feeling” (7). More bluntly, the ethics of whiteness makes this behavior normal, perhaps even natural, even though there is nothing natural about race or racism. No one is born white or black; both are given their whiteness and blackness by a white supremacist society.

White self-decriminalization therefore hampers discussion because it blames the victim and so preserves white domination, making individual acts of racism possible and permissible. White self-decriminalization as an ethical inversion hides behind the assumption of individuality, because individual acts are not systemic. Such an assumption disregards the fact that the meanings individual acts acquire are social meanings, given by others, and that the acts of those of a hegemonic group are thereby endowed with hegemonic meanings. Consequently, as a reflection of white self-decriminalization when a white person acts,the acts represent only the individual but a black person’s acts represent their community.

Therefore, the logic and inverted ethics of whiteness, because it is antidialogical and so engages in a process of domination, make dialogue impossible. To perform whiteness is to be antidialogical. The antidialogical nature of whiteness is therefore a barrier to meaningful dialogue.

What is clear is that we are not going to talk our way out of racism and police violence against people of color. Racism will never be overcome by arguments at the round table. I believe that conviction by argument and reasoning is only possible when it is backed up by overwhelming physical force — a matching of power, not intellects. Persuasion, through dialogue, is unrealistic when you are addressing white privilege and white hegemony, in order to induce whites to abandon their privileged positions.

To expect whites to commit racial suicide is a stupendous presumption. The eradication of white privilege and white hegemony is possible only after the performance of whiteness has been relieved of its freedom to control the decisive instruments of violence. Because whiteness is a form of discourse, and antidialogism is a component of that discourse, antidialogism creates a boundary that excludes and constrains communication – what can and cannot be said, of who can and cannot speak, who must be silent, and whose utterances are unworthy of attention.

The very logic, and inverted ethics, of whiteness, is evidence that dialogical reasoning is insufficient to compel the beneficiaries of white privilege and white hegemony to surrender their power. As British political scientist Harold F. Laski observed in Where Do We Go from Here?, “[W]henever privilege is in danger, it flies into that panic which is the mortal enemy of reason; and it is a waste of time to ask its consideration of arguments that, in another mental climate, it is capable of understanding” (Cox 168).

Works Cited

Cox, Oliver C. Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Modern Reader, 1970. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Seabury Press, 1970. Print.

Hacker, Andrew.Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. Print.

Martinot, Steve. The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2010. Print.

Memmi, Albert. Racism. Trans. Steve Martinot. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 2000. Print.

Ryan, William. Blaming the Victim. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. Print.

Wellman, David T. Portraits of White Racism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1977. Print.

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Ronald A. Kuykendall currently teaches Political Science at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina. His research interests are in the areas of race and radical African American social and political thought. He is the author of Social Crisis and Social Demoralization:  The Dynamics of Status in American Race Relations (2005); he has also contributed to the Journal of Black Studies, The Western Journal of Black Studies, Greenwood Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration (2006), and a chapter in This Country Must Change: Essays on the Necessity of Revolution in the U.S.A. (2009).

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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9 replies

  1. Hi:

    Very interesting article, which I will need to re-read several times to understand better. I am however thinking that much of what is said here could also be said about maleness as well. That thought came to mind when I read about whiteness blaming the victim instead of taking responsibility, and thought of how rape culture is based on the victim being at fault…


    • I’d largely agree. Obviously the topic in question here is whiteness, but any structure of domination (such as patriarchy) works in a similar way. And sometimes those structures overlap.


  2. So it al comes down to raw funky power.,Like a John Wayne film resepect comes after a demonstration of the ablity to hurt someone.


    • Respect does not come because you can hurt someone; it comes from your ability to prevent someone from hurting you.


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