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Challenges of Critical Whiteness Studies

Ina Kerner

Let me start by stating in which way I find that the academic project of Critical Whitness Studies[1] points the way ahead – not only in general, but specifically concerning a context like Germany. I’d like to mention two interrelated issues.

First, Critical Whiteness Studies have shown that hegemonic conceptions of German-ness, of belonging to the German nation, as far as body images go are mostly white. The predominant understanding of the nation is still based on homogeneity concerning outer appearance as well as ethnicity and religion. So racism often functions by attempts to de-legitimize people who are not considered white as far as their status as proper German citizens and as members of the German nation go.

Second, Critical Whiteness Studies have strongly criticized such notions of a white Germany. This critique consists of several aspects. To begin with, the claim has been made that the idea of a white German citizenry is empirically unjustified – due to the country’s colonial past, but also due to immigration. Furthermore, the exclusive notion of the nation has been criticized on normative grounds for its racist effects, which lead both to patterns of stratification and to forms of exclusion. And finally, it has been claimed that the hegemonic whiteness of Germany is not seen and problematized by most white Germans. This has lead to the call for self-reflective practices, for the creation of a white self-understanding on the part of white Germans, especially of their – or I should probably say: our – acknowledgment that being considered white in Germany comes with a lot of privileges.

Because of these achievements I think that Critical Whiteness Studies are both academically and politically of high importance. This importance doesn’t imply that this field of scholarship didn’t invite questions and further elaborations, though – on the contrary. In what follows I would like to make an attempt at this, focusing on two aspects.

- First, the notion of whiteness that is used in this field of scholarship.

- Second, the conceptualization of racism and white privilege that is employed here.

Concerning the first point, or in the first part, I will begin with looking at how whiteness has been conceptualized in Critical Whiteness Studies literature both in the U.S. and in Germany. I will then argue that racial categories spring from racist discourse, cannot be stripped of their naturalizing effects by a mere act of defining them as social constructions and should therefore be employed as scarcely as necessary, and always with care – and I should probably add: especially by people who are categorized as white, and therefore on a day-to-day basis have to fear the least from being racially marked.

Concerning the second aspect, which I will address in the second part, I will argue that there is a tendency in Critical Whiteness Studies scholarship to reduce one of its basic insights, namely that racism privileges those whom it doesn’t discriminate against, to an individualized notion of privilege – which goes hand in hand with a notion of power that is restricted to being seen as a resource, as something that can be possessed. I will argue that this conceptual decision doesn’t allow us to capture racism as a complex problem with multiple dimensions – and that in its current state, Critical Whiteness Studies might therefore not be a sufficient tool to undo racism.

1. Notions of Whiteness

If we follow Gabriele Griffin and Rosi Braidotti, then the European debate on issues of whiteness that started proliferating in the 1990s was centered “on the need to mark that colour (…) and to begin the process of establishing whiteness as a racialized position” (Griffin/Braidotti 2002: 231). This resonates with what has been formulated by authors who have helped to push Critical Whiteness Studies in other contexts before, for instance in the U.S. If we look, for example, at the very first paragraph of Ruth Frankenberg’s 1993 monograph White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, we can read:

“My argument in this book is that race shapes white women’s lives. (…) [W]hite people and people of color live racially structured lives. (…) [A]ny system of differentiation shapes those on whom it bestows privilege as well as those it oppresses. White people are ‘raced’ just as men are ‘gendered.’” (Frankenberg 1993: 1).

Frankenberg explicitly situates this statement in terms of place and time – her study examines, she states, “white women’s place in the racial structure of the United States at the end of the twentieth century” (ibid.). Accordingly, right there in the introduction to her book she presents us with a mini-history of racial thinking in the U.S.[2]

What is interesting about this from a European perspective is that even though Frankenberg explicitly favors an understanding of “race” that is socially constructed (cf. ibid: 11), she still refers to whiteness as a racial category as if it was beyond doubt who belongs to it and who doesn’t. In fact, she doesn’t present us with any criteria or at least considerations that help us understand how she assessed the whiteness of the 30 white women that she interviewed for her study. Even though Frankenberg took great effort in having a diverse group of interviewees in terms of age, class, region of origin within the United States, sexuality, family situation and political orientation (cf. ibid: 23; 245), she apparently presupposed to know who was white and who wasn’t.

I suggest reading this as a symptom: A symptom of the pervasiveness of race thinking in the United States. It is almost a matter of common sense, it seems, who qualifies as white and who doesn’t.

One could rightfully argue now that Frankenberg’s supposedly evident and thus quasi-natural ascription of whiteness is in no sense worse than what people who are not considered white have to deal with on a daily basis – being racially marked. And one could further argue that people of color – the term itself assumes that white people were of none – aren’t only racially marked all the time, but often discriminated against in connection with this racial marking. So one could conclude that Frankenberg already knowing who is white isn’t really a problem – rather, it might be a matter of poetic justice.

I find such a conclusion a bit too easy – unfortunately. If we consider that throughout history race thinking, within the U.S. and without, has mostly been closely tied to racism, we might want to think twice before embracing critical approaches that quasi-naturally employ racial categories. And understanding “race” as a social construction is not a sufficient solution here. For the power of racial categories and ascriptions – which have always been constructions and always will – lies in their naturalizing effects. So when Critical Whiteness Studies in the U.S. can be understood as reworking the racial category “white”, adding a sense of non-justified privileges to the connotations that are in place there already, they might be politically highly valuable – nevertheless, they don’t only ground on a system of racial differentiations that is rooted in modern race theory, they also reproduce it, too.[3] Now sometimes, in the course of antiracist work, reproducing racial categories is unavoidable. But the unavoidability of something doesn’t automatically render it unproblematic. So I would like to suggest that we have this in the backs of our minds when thinking about what happens when we do Critical Whiteness Studies in Europe, or, to be more precise, in Germany.

If Griffin and Braidotti are right, and European Critical Whiteness Studies really attempt to establish whiteness as a racialized position, than we should probably ask whether this goes in the right direction; especially since here – and we can at least say this for contemporary Germany – racial categorization systems have much less importance for public and social life than in the United States. Griffin and Braidotti themselves hold that it wouldn’t – not because they express uneasiness with race thinking as such, but because they hold that in Europe the position of whiteness didn’t sufficiently explain some of the kinds of racism that have been taking place here. The examples that they give are Nazi anti-Semitism and atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnian women (cf. Griffin/Braidotti 2002: 231) – we could also add so-called Ausländerfeindlichkeit, xenophobia directed against migrants, especially former guest-workers and their offspring in Germany, and current anti-Muslim tendencies in several European countries. There is – as Etienne Balibar has prominently stated – racism without races (cf. Balibar 1991). So at least concerning these forms of racism, we might conclude that the re-racialization of the European anti-racist discourse that Critical Whiteness Studies attempt is unhelpful at best, and misleading at worst.

So which kinds of racism are Critical Whiteness Studies in Germany, for instance, reacting to? How is whiteness conceptualized in Critical Whiteness Scholarship that reacts to the German context? There are several suggestions that have been put forward here, and I won’t be able to address all of them. What is noteworthy, though, is that many of these accounts seem to share a certain hesitancy concerning the question of who is white and who isn’t. In Europe with its long history of forms of racism as well race theories that work beyond the black/white dichotomy – which isn’t to say that Europe didn’t as well have a long history of forms of race theories and racism that work exactly with it – it’s apparently not a matter of common sense who should be counted as white and who shouldn’t. So how do German Whiteness scholars react to this? Maureen Maisha Eggers, for instance, suggests the gradation of different types of whiteness, with forms of “super-whiteness” – like Aryan whiteness – at the hegemonic center of racialized power structures. According to her, racialized power structures therefore don’t only stratify between white and non-white, but also between different shades of white (cf. Eggers 2005: 20). This suggestion, which distinguishes positions of whiteness not so much in terms of color but in terms of power, resonates with an understanding of whiteness that Eske Wollrad has proposed. According to her account, whiteness is a system of racist hegemony, a position of structural privileges, a mode of experience, as well as a specific, change-able identity (cf. Wollrad 2005: 21). It had nothing to do with skin color or other bodily features, since it was a political category; nevertheless, it constituted itself in the realm of processes of racial constructions and re-constructions (cf. ibid: 127). Here, too, the category “whiteness” is clearly meant to depart from the racist and mostly biologized systems of racial categorizations that we know from both race theories and racial politics. But when it’s not supposed to have anything to do with skin color or other bodily features, why then use the term whiteness, which in processes of racial constructions and re-constructions throughout the history of Europe and its colonies and former colonies has almost always been used to name a group that was not only seen to share skin color and other bodily features, but also those character traits that were valued at the highest? Is it possible to use an explicitly racialized category without reproducing racial categorizing? I, for my part, doubt it – and therefore hold that we should be aware of the advantages as well as of the disadvantages if we do so. And I think that something similar goes for Eggers’ suggestion to differentiate different shades of white. If we suppose that these are to differentiate, e.g., people from Turkey or other Mediterranean countries, Jews without African ancestors, and others who in Nazi Germany wouldn’t have counted as “Aryan” from the latter, we should ask what we gain, when subsuming these groups and the different types of racism that have been directed against members of these groups under the racialized umbrella term of “whiteness”.[4]

European Critical Whiteness Studies have brought colonial and postcolonial racism on the research agenda – and especially for Germany, which until very recently has reacted to its own colonial past too often with blatant amnesia, this has been very important. But it seems that sometimes European Critical Whiteness Studies have tried to establish a racialized vocabulary as the new master trope for criticizing racism as such. I find this problematic for two reasons. First, it is unspecific. If we look at islamophobia, for instance, the arguments given are in fact culturally framed. To understand how islamophobia works, it thus seems much more promising to carefully analyze the modes according to which it functions than to apply racialized vocabulary and to state that Muslims in many European countries are underprivileged when compared to white Christians, for example. Second, given how problematic race thinking has always been, I think that we should use it as little as possible. So if there are forms of racism that can be analyzed and criticized without referring to and thus reproducing racialized categories, then this seems the most promising way to go.

One could object now that the key reason for using the term whiteness in critical analyses of current forms of racism is normative. It marks white people as well as notions of whiteness that have been developed by white communities or groups for matters of self-representation as privileged – privileged in relation to people of color and to hegemonic perceptions of their communities or groups, which are usually not provided for by themselves. Thus, it is a suitable tool for criticizing hegemonies, especially hegemonies that lead to racism.

I would follow such an argument up to here. But I would still argue that we should be careful not to racialize cultural phenomena. And there are non-racialized concepts that we can alternatively use when addressing racist effects of culturally framed hegemonies, those that are, for instance, based on religion, or on a specific notion of a national identity. One is in the title of this conference: Occidentalism. Another one has been proposed by Birgit Rommelspacher in the mid 1990: Dominanzkultur, culture of dominance (Rommelspacher 1995). Especially the latter term is very broad and serves to address multiple, intersecting situations in which differences are constructed in unjust ways and diversity is made into social hierarchy.[5] Clearly, culture of dominance is a term that refers to forms of differentiation that are culturally framed. So maybe for those cases in which it is meant to be an encompassing umbrella term we could expand it to white culture of dominance to subsume the concerns that Critical Whiteness Studies have put forward. If we did this, it would imply, though, to indeed use whiteness as a term that predominantly refers to color and origin, and not to aspects like religion, ethnicity and citizenship status.

2. White Privilege and Notions of Racism

Reporting on how she perceived an event called Women and Foreigners – Racism/Sexism which was part of the Bremen Women’s Week in 1990, so over a decade and a half ago, Claudia Koppert, apparently somewhat startled about how this event went, observed what she called “well-intentioned repentance”; to be more precise, she observed well-intentioned repentance on the part of white feminists when confronted with the critique of black, Jewish and migrated women that feminism in Germany was predominantly a white, non-Jewish, German affair (cf. Koppert 1990: 50). Koppert had nothing against this critique. What she was struck by was the readiness of the accused to adopt quick-fix measures to change their mindsets – their wish to quickly make good for their mistakes. A “scary kind of perfectionism” she reported, driven by the wish to undo a feeling of guilt. Now Koppert – and this is her most interesting point, I think – interpreted this perfectionist readiness as reflecting a misconception of the relation between individuals and structural racism – a misconception in so far as it was based on the assumption that the individual is responsible for systemic forms of injustice, and that changing her own way of thought would be a way out of this charged situation. By confusing the structural and the personal dimension of racism, we may reformulate this observation, white feminists attributed a kind of agency[6] or, what is more, power over societal processes to themselves, that they in fact didn’t have – and tried to get rid of this power, gain moral purity, by psychological measures.

When we look at the body of Critical Whiteness scholarship that has come out in German-speaking countries within the last few years, we can see similar tendencies. Here, too, the structural dimension of racism often seems to be translated into personal dispositions and interactions exclusively; hence, critical self-reflection on the part of whites and functioning, fair interactions of black and white people on a personal, day-to-day basis are taken to already be the solution to problems of racism in Germany. This is a problematic tendency; and I would like to explain why.

First of all, too much is expected from individual self-reflection and the individual change of perceptions. Racism, it seems, is reduced to perceptions, mindsets, emotions and personal interaction; it is assumed that if white people manage to get rid of their stereotypes and fears concerning others whom they consider different from themselves, racism would cease. Again, I don’t want to question that these kinds of practices are important and can be effective; what I would like to stress, though, is that matters may unfortunately be more complicated than this.

To show why and in which way matters may be more complicated, I suggest to heuristically distinguish three different, but interrelated and mutually reinforcing and reproducing dimensions of racism: First, an epistemic dimension, second, an institutional dimension, and third, a personal dimension – the term personal hereby rather referring to “person” than meaning “private”. Let me explain what these dimensions refer to.

The epistemic dimension predominantly refers to discourses and knowledge, but also includes images and symbols.

The institutional dimension refers to institutional settings that effect structural forms of stratification, discrimination and exclusion.

The personal dimension, finally, refers to attitudes and/or perceptions, but also to the identity and/or subjectivity of people – both of those who belong to dominant and those who belong to minoritized social groups; furthermore, the third dimension refers to personal actions and interactions.

When I suggested that the three dimensions interrelate and possibly reinforce and reproduce one another, I mean that gendered racist discourse, for instance, can be inscribed in institutions, which then might produce discriminating effects; it can also have effects on processes of subject formation, which might lead to the reproduction of more racist discourse, or to racist acts with effects on subjects, but also on institutions – etc. So among the effects of holding that the relation between the three dimensions is one of multiple interrelations, is the impossibility to grasp racism by looking at – or attempting to change – only phenomena relating to one dimension by itself; even though I would not argue that such looks and attempts cannot be of major value. But let’s return to German Critical Whiteness Studies, having these dimensions in mind.

When reading Critical Whiteness scholarship, it sometimes seems that critical self-positioning on the part of whites was more or less the solution to problems of white/black-racism in Germany. I hold that this overestimates the personal dimension – and de-emphasizes that there might be much more to be done, things that by far transcend the possibilities of individual acts and individual change. Because if we assume that racism has the three dimensions that I have suggested, then undoing racism requires much more than personal attempts to give away or share one’s privileges. It includes reworking racist assumptions, images, stereotypes and ascriptions on a societal level, in other words replacing racist knowledge by non-racist knowledge; it also includes undoing institutionalized forms of racism and their effects, like exclusive immigration and citizenship laws, or structural forms of discrimination; and finally, it includes the need for subjects who don’t reproduce the above.

So in fact, when employing such a more-dimensional account of racism, a whole new, and actually broadened concept of white privilege suggests itself. In the light of the three dimensions that I have mentioned, white privilege cannot be reduced to a resource, something that individuals have or don’t have, like a weightless, invisible knapsack full of maps, codebooks, visas, clothes and blank checks (cf. McIntosh 1989) that they carry with them on their way through life – even though such resources can surely be part of it.[7] Rather, white privilege entails two more aspects.

First, and this refers to the institutional dimension of racism, the structuring of parts of the way through live itself, like elevators for some where others have to climb the steps, or like tunnels and bridges with restricted access based on group membership.

Second, referring to the epistemic dimension, a reformulated notion of white privilege entails the structuring of societal perceptions about who will make it far on this way through life and who won’t, perceptions of who is supposed to get ahead, and who is supposed to stay behind. In general, I hold that such perceptions aren’t necessarily mirrored in people’s self-perceptions and identities – but they nevertheless influence the elements, the range of possibilities that each of us has for constructing our identities or our relations to ourselves.[8] Therefore, they can have great influence on the ways in which we want to and can live our lives.

If we adopt this less individualized, and unfortunately more pessimistic notion of racism and white privilege, it becomes clear that these forms of injustice cannot be undone by mere acts of making them visible and by personal endeavors of sharing that might follow from such acts. Instead, larger scale societal change is needed to undo these wrongs, change that affects institutions, societal patterns of thought and representation as well as individual mindsets. Therefore, I hold that white self-reflection attempting the change of white self-perceptions can never be the final or sufficient political goal of Critical Whiteness Studies. Rather, it should be considered as one possible starting point within broadly defined antiracist efforts that address and attack the other dimensions as well. Surely this is a very demanding task. But as long as there is racism, quick and easy solutions don’t seem to be on offer.



Amesberger, Helga/ Halbmayr, Brigitte 2005: Race/"Rasse" und Whiteness - Adäquate Begriffe zur Analyse gesellschaftlicher Ungleichheit? In: L'Homme. Europäische Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft 16(2). 135-143.

Appiah, Anthony/ Gutmann, Amy 1996: Color Conscious. The Political Morality of Race. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Balibar, Etienne 1991: Is There a 'Neo-Racism'? In: Balibar, Etienne/ Wallerstein, Immanuel: Race, Nation, Class. Ambigous Identities. London - New York: Verso. 17-28.

Eggers, Maureen Maisha 2005: Ein Schwarzes Wissensarchiv. In: Eggers, Maureen Maisha/ Kilomba, Grada/ Piesche, Peggy/ Arndt, Susan (Hg.): Mythen, Masken und Subjekte. Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster: Unrast. 18-21.

Frankenberg, Ruth 1993: White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Griffin, Gabriele/ Braidotti, Rosi 2002: Whiteness and European Situatedness. In: Griffin, Gabriele/ Braidotti, Rosi (Hg.): Thinking Differently. A Reader in European Women's Studies. London - New York: Zed. 221-236.

Kerner, Ina 2005: Forschung jenseits von Schwesternschaft. Zu Feminismus, postkolonialen Theorien und Critical Whiteness Studies. In: Harders, Cilja/ Kahlert, Heike/ Schindler, Delia (Hg.): Forschungsfeld Politik. Geschlechtskategoriale Einführung in die Sozialwissenschaften. Wiesbaden: VS. 217-238.

Kerner, Ina 2007: "Rassen", Körper, Identitäten: Kontingente Bezüge. In: Diehl, Paula/ Koch, Gertrud (Hg.): Inszenierungen der Politik. Der Körper als Medium. München: Fink. 123-140.

Koppert, Claudia 1990: Deutsch, weiß, christlich: Wie leben wir damit? Zur Moral der Demoralisierten. In: beiträge zur feministischen theorie und praxis 13(28). 45-54.

Lorey, Isabell 2007: Weißsein und Immunisierung. Zur Unterscheidung zwischen Norm und Normalisierung. In:

McIntosh, Peggy 1989: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In: Peace and Freedom 49(4). 10-12.

McWhorter, Ladelle 2005: Where Do White People Come From? A Foucaultian Critique of Whiteness Studies. In: Philosophy & Social Criticism 31(5-6). 533-556.

Rommelspacher, Birgit 1995: Dominanzkultur. Texte zu Fremdheit und Macht. Berlin: Orlanda.

Wollrad, Eske 2005: Weißsein im Widerspruch. Feministische Perspektiven auf Rassismus, Kultur und Religion. Königstein/Ts.: Helmer.

[1] Paper presented at De/Konstruktionen von Okzidentalismus, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 21-23 June 2007.

[2] Frankenberg distinguishes three stages: In the first stage, race was constructed as a biological or essentialist category, and white people were seen as biologically superior, which served to legitimize practices like settler colonialism and slavery. In the second stage, from the 1920s, the biological understanding of race was supplemented, and sometimes even replaced, by an ethnic, a cultural and social understanding of racial differences, which went hand in hand with color-blind, or, in Frankenberg’s own term, “color- and power-evasive” politics. The third stage, finally, began in the late 1960 and can be characterized by as a move back to notions of racially defined differences, this time, though, formulated by radical antiracist and cultural nationalist movements in their attempt to analyze and critique racial inequality and to signal autonomy – Frankenberg characterizes this move as “race cognizance” (cf. Frankenberg 1993: 13ff.).

[3] For a more detailed account of this argument, see Kerner (2007).

[4] For a similarly sceptical account concerning racial terminology within Critical Whiteness Studies see Amesberger/Halbmayr (2005).

[5] For a more detailed suggestion to use the concept of Dominanzkultur in relation to questions of whiteness in Germany, see Kerner (2005).

For a critical account of the notion of agency envoked by current Critical Whiteness Studies scholarship, see Lorey (2007: 8).

[7] For a similar critique, see McWhorter (2005).

[8] For such an account concerning „racial identities“, see, for instance, Appiah (1996)

Ina Kerner