The Opposite of Whiteness

“The Opposite of Whiteness”
Presentation to Whiteness/Whitemess : Creative Disorders and Hope
Wellington, May 15th 2010
Danny Butt – danny at

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak understands the colonial subject through the psychoanalytic notion of foreclosure. The colonised is not simply rejected, but a trace is registered the body as it is expelled. She quotes Freud: In foreclosure, “the ego rejects the incompatible idea together with the affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all”.

It is not just that the idea of the native is rejected, but the feeling that is generated by them is also rejected. So a psychological defense must be made against the idea and the affect returning. This explains why the question of indigeneity or the racial basis of colonisation is not simply a matter for logical discussion about rights. The actual well-being or relative socio-economic or legal status of oppressed peoples has no real bearing on the psychoanalytic functioning of the person that has been raised in racial dominance and expects dominance. The very presence of the discussion also raises in the settler-colonist the spectre of emotions (of fear, for example) that have been rejected, and the lengths to which a psyche will go to avoid bad feelings are profound.

Scholars of whiteness have correctly pointed out that the specificity of this response and rejection has more to do with white culture than indigenous culture or ethnic others; and that this is worthy of investigation. As Richard Dyer describes his project, it involves looking at:

the racial imagery of white people – not the images of other races in white cultural production, but the latter’s imagery of white people themselves. This is not done merely to fill a gap in the analytic literature, but because there is something at stake in looking at, or continuing to ignore, white racial imagery. As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.

We can perhaps look at this project as filling the gap of anthropology by turning anthropological methods on ourselves. In a way, it makes sense. But what if the problem is not in the gap, but in the method? I think this might explain why whiteness studies has not become a widespread solution in the role of decolonisation, In this paper, I outline three reasons – the privelege of whiteness studies, the appropriation of identity-based activist methods; and the divisive nature of the discourse among whites. Sara Ahmed points out that “the project of making whiteness visible only makes sense from the point of view of those for whom it is invisible.” For everyone else it is already obvious, in need of escape rather than creation and surfacing.

The fantasy of transcendence of the material situation which Dyer, to his credit, desperately wanted whiteness studies to avoid is unfortunately situated in the very terms he uses to bring whiteness studies into being: looking at ‘not the images of other races in white cultural production, but the latter’s imagery of white people themselves.’ But can or should whites learn from other white writing the imagery of other races about ourselves? In some respects this might seem to address the understandable expressions of tiredness among people of colour about the labour of having to “educate” whites who don’t get it. We should indeed take responsibility for ourselves. But the creation of a white learning cycle which excludes non-white others seems an unfortunate repetition, which perhaps misses the point that the most important transformation for white culture is to engage in the slow labour of learning to find one’s role in a language or world created by others.

For me, Ahmed’s intervention is decisive. While the aim of this gathering is certainly worthwhile, I am troubled when the conference info states, “We are asking how through our creative work, can we ‘see’ ourselves and our positionalities in order not to be ‘neutral’ or ‘passive participants’ in conversations around identity and power.” This seems a rather alarming affirmation of our capacity for self-knowledge, what Ahmed calls “express[ing] white privilege in the very presumption of the entitlement to learn or to self-consciousness…” She notes that “studying whiteness can involve the claiming of a privileged white identity as the subject who knows.” If anything, we have been engaged in the project of self-knowledge for too long, sequestering other people into what Fanon called our “spiritual adventure” of colonisation. As Ahmed puts it, “we cannot simply unlearn privilege when the cultures in which learning take place are shaped by privilege.”

Secondly, I think it is problematic for whites to appropriate the methods of ethnic identity-formation and self-knowledge that have been fought for and against by people of colour with very different accountabilities and consequences to our own. Especially not in the name of equality; and especially when all the (residual) structures and value systems in society are set up for us. Whatever our formation of white radicality is, it is not generated out of a reflexive understanding of the racial power structures in our society born out of our lived experience in the same way as people of colour.

Marx and Engels diagnosed processes of class-formation and class-consciousness among the working classes as having an objective character dictated by the structure of the economic system. The processes by which the downwardly-mobile bourgeois could become conscious of the structure of a capitalist economy is very different from the mechanisms that bring class-consciousness to the working classes. It is not that bourgeois political radicalisation can’t happen, it’s just that it’s different. Similarly, race means something different for us in a larger social structure and I believe that there is no point in attempting to find a shared movement with people of colour along racial lines.

This sensitises us to a third problem in whiteness studies, a more fundamental gap between white anti-racism and political movements founded by people of colour. Non-white struggles have often been to foster consciousness in a larger group about the possibility of collective political action. However, white anti-racist action is dissident in nature, attempting to draw a line between the good anti-racist whites and the racist white culture which is our inheritance. There is no “natural” alliance that can be appealed to or fostered here, as the process of identification must involve a dis-identification with a spontaneous white identity to accept the possibility of other identifications.

However the comfort level toward the presence of others (what we might call cosmopolitanism) is unevenly distributed along class lines in white culture. Cosmopolitanism is officially reserved for those with cultural capital; while patriotism (anti-cosmopolitanism) is consciously fostered by the ruling classes for everyone else. While my dis-identification with white culture can eventually be mobilised in, for example, a funded trip to a UN-meeting in Tehran, there is no benefit for the white working classes in giving up what they understand as the little privilege they have to learn to adapt to the ways of the Other. One of the notable things about the activists of colour I know is their commitment to taking their people with them. But on the white left it seems that our commitment to full engagement with our people has a fundamentally different character where we want to escape. The study of whiteness as a skill or field for self-knowledge is potentially a class wedge that paradoxically reduces the likelihood of widespread white support toward for anti-racist agendas.

I really don’t think there’s much language for this. I was struck when listening to Glenn Colquhoun’s excellent presentation yesterday that I had a more developed language for critiquing his privilege as a heterosexual male doctor than celebrating his leadership, when he’s someone who knows more about aspects of his whiteness that I do from my 20 years of studying identity politics, and I think he has a more viable model for framing the intercultural relationship than almost any Pākehā creative practitioner I know. This language imbalance seems characteristic of our predicament.


This is quite a negative account of a field of study that I feel like I should support. But it seems clear to me if the overwhelming characteristic of colonial dominance is that we have monopolised the mechanisms for judgement and ascribing value to all peoples, then developing greater self-knowledge is just going to make the problem worse. I’m not saying I don’t like you, I’m saying that you’re all fantastic in ways that are about your ability to be somewhere other than here.

I’m guessing that even many practitioners of whiteness theory would say that their sensitisation to race and accepting whiteness comes from somewhere else outside of the discourse of whiteness. Encouraging participation in this “somewhere else” seems to me to be the most important work that white people can do in our communities. It is about showing a way to live which can accept a relationship with others that is impure and riven with overarching processes of death and disposession among ourselves and our ancestors, and to engage in these relationships without fear. I believe this is only possible through the formation of genuine relationships of shared political and personal aspiration across difference. And I believe that this involves allowing a lack of control over the terms of that relationship.

There are many paths, and we are fortunate that in New Zealand we have in Te Ao Māori a world made generally accessible to us – an official language we can choose to learn which is not ours (and over which we have no authority) but which is uniquely of this place. And as we do the slow work of finding out who we are in another system, I believe that our whiteness becomes both incredibly obvious yet barely possible to discuss in frames that we are familiar with.

The identification of whiteness then is perhaps something like when one is asked to characterise one’s own family. It is a reflection on who one is, knowing that one could not be different, an understanding of the way we are a thread woven into a larger fabric of culture which we do not author. Ultimately, it is a residual, after the fact analysis that encourages reflection, rather than a prescriptive one that can or should guide action.

As we know from our own familial relationships, there can be time when taking the analyst mode to identify patterns can bring insight. But to talk to my parents or brothers about my relationship to them can also simply generate conflict out of the different conceptions of the relationship. More often, what works is moving the way of relating to territory where the relationship can flourish, a territory which may or may not relate to an existing pattern. The grounds for such a move are not knowable to us, but perhaps they lie in an impulse which is the opposite of self-knowledge, the opposite of whiteness.

I think about the relationship I have with my girlfriend – around her difference my boundaries soften. I am taken out of myself by her and returned to a refracted version of myself at the same time. [Aaron in his karakia kai yesterday helpfully asked the powers that be to keep us soft]. Even though I can talk about this feeling, I can’t actually explain it, and increasingly I believe that any attempts to explain it are counterproductive. The attempts at explanation are also attempts to gain possession of my own dispossession. I want to find the feeling rather than diagnose it, and this occurs through maintaining curiosity and lack of knowledge about what is happening. Or as Judith Butler puts it “We must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are.” In this dynamic we can see a relation to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ethic in Provincialising Europe when says that he wants “to write narratives and analyses that produce this difference – and not transparency in the relation between non-Western histories and European thought.”

If I have developed any comfort level with this difference I can only say that it comes from the feminist movement rather than whiteness studies or its ilk, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of this gathering for me is the grounding in feminist activism among so of our 80% female participants. What I observe here as the commitment to process and inclusivity (whether one wants to be included or not), our physical relationship, and the desire to share and register the experience of self and other are part of a genre of gathering that I associate with Western feminist movements.

Paradoxically, I feel close to home in this genre, and it brings to mind the clearest analogy I can see for a whiteness gathering: that of the men’s group. Men’s groups scare me. I’m not saying that there aren’t principled and well-intentioned men involved with them doing good work, but I have also seen so much appropriation of feminist practice coupled with misogyny result. Men need to support each other, but when our available language is phallocentric I think that we shouldn’t try and name and formalise that support if we don’t want to reinforce our dominance. Better to just do some other kind of activity together – play some basketball, build something, go to the pub. Allow the impossibility of our situation to remain unfixed, to see how the emergent feminist frame will recognise our behaviour. Once we try and describe what we are doing ourselves, dangerous silences are reinforced. A whiteness gathering, with the absence of people who are those who should benefit from the term, scares me for similar reasons, this fantasy of transcendence where we think we can know ourselves.

Manu Meyer quotes the Hawaiian leader Pua Kanahele:

[Knowledge] doesn’t only have to do with intelligence, it has to do with spirituality, it has to do with everything that has lined up before you, and all of the things that are lined up ahead of you. All sorts of coming together to make all of this happen. You, yourself, cannot make any of this happen.

And we, ourselves, can not make the undoing of whiteness happen.

Ahmed, Sara (2004). “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti- Racism”, Borderlands ejournal, Vol 3, No 2, 2004.
Butler, Judith (2004). Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dyer, Richard (1997). White. London and New York: Routledge.
Meyer, Manu (2001). “Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology.” The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs 13(1): 124-148
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.