The Conditions of Splitting the Rainbow | Book Review: «The Future of Whiteness» by Linda Martín Alcoff

Like many whites, I did not come to realize I was “raced,” or white, in the same way that that a non-white child would have. That is, I was not brought up to know that I was, in the systems I moved through, living under the aegis of whiteness. Of course, I knew that I was the palest kid all throughout elementary and middle school—often one of only a handful of white kids in the Denver Public School system classroom, where whites account for less than a quarter of the districts population, and nearly seventy percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. [1] Until we moved to Washington before I began high school, I had no real conception of being white any differently from non-whites; my whiteness did not set me apart, it was merely one among many differences. Of course, it is about this time (high school) that we begin to learn about all sorts of ways in which we are different, and often then try our best to suppress those differences lest we find ourselves unable to curry favor with others. The process of socialization is a strange one. None of this is to say that I was “color blind” as a child (and especially not now), nor to express my own non-complicity in the systems of racist exclusion that criss cross America. It is well documented that ignorance of racial inequity is almost wholly the sole provision of whites—the “top” in this uneven racial configuration. A large portion of my ignorance was due to my privilege in that regard.

Funnily enough, the high school I went to when we moved here to Washington was so lacking in diversity as to make race that much more “invisible.” Out of the two hundred some odd in my class, probably close to thirty students were non-white. After two years, I left for the local Community College, where I became involved with an activist group on campus (more awareness activist than the rallying type, we were a club funded by the school after all) and spent my time working and being in the Diversity and Equity center (one of the much-derided “college safe spaces”). Here I became (of my own volition too!) an “SJW” in the parlance of some contemporary circles. [2] Welcome to the culture wars.

In the years since—the two of them—social justice issues seem to have gained in mainstream visibility and, importantly, acceptance (even if often only lip service to). We went from the nation’s first black president to, well, Trump. In many ways, the present discussions surrounding race are nothing new—but it seems that the (white) vanguard is less successful now than most any point in the past at keeping up the pretense of separate superiority. We see a growing association between being white and racism—the white exceptionalism Alcoff identifies and relates to wishful eliminativism—taking hold among white liberals (and many social justice advocates otherwise). But this kind of forced ignorance only papers over the materiality of race: to proclaim everyone equal in the face of inequality is an astoundingly good way to ensure that inequality perpetuates.

Something that Alcoff addressed a few times was the ultimately quotidian nature of race: it is not only an idea or paradigm lofty in peoples minds and conceptualized by lone academics in cobblestone rooms, but a lived practice of small everyday interactions. Changing these will take time, and more than simple theoretical clarifications. Perhaps a hidden upside to this is that things can be changed by all of us, acting on the small everyday, eventually leading to a structural shift. Despite knowing that systems are always changing and being renegotiated, it is deceptively difficult to actually pinpoint how, when, or why they do change. Even in something as (relatively) specific as American conceptions of race, a complete theory of everything involved seems too much to ask for. “Things are complicated.”

_The Future of Whiteness_ seems to me an important book in getting out of the circular “racism-is-bad-but-race-then-let’s-forget-the-whole-thing-except-for-oppression-I-guess-now-what” loop that is white exceptionalism in both its nationalist and more fair-minded variety. Even though “race talk” has moved to become more mainstream (even if, like trans* rights, it moves there to massive backlash) it has not become easier for people in general to bring up the subject of race—liberal and conservative alike…well, perhaps less easy for the liberal-minded who are afraid of saying the wrong thing. If the one common solution that can connect many of these books together is Appiah’s assertion[^3] that we will all more or less have to learn to live with each other, then we can hope for a more peaceful system of intolerance. If, as it feels sometimes, we stand on the brink of some abhorrent few years of violence and chaos…I’d rather work to inhabit the first option of this false binary, thank you very much.

The first thing you do is forget that I’m black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m black.
—Pat Parker, For The White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend (Alcoff p51)

It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.
—Arthur C. Clarke

…I believe the real is synonymous with the political. That is, it’s what you have to deal with, one way or the other.
—Samuel R. Delany, Silent Interviews (p163)

[^1]: Denver’s history of race in school is familiar to many US cities, with “white flight” after desegregation taking the majority of white students to schools outside Denver or to private institutions, and was the site of some especially aggressive redlining by banks and other institutions. However, Denver continues to bus children across town, ensuring a relatively stable level of diversity within those public schools—it just happened that many of the white diversity (if that makes sense) had moved. «Statistics from >

[^2]: Originally I thought this term to be a label people assigned themselves, and was somewhat put off by what I felt to be its unnecessarily aggressive tone (don’t tell white people you’re a race warrior! they’ll flip shit!). Later on I learned it was a pejorative. I wonder at its origin sometimes.

[^3]: Kwame Anthony Appiah “Cosmopolitanism”