«GENERAL THEMES Laughing White Men TIMOTHY J. LENSMIRE University of Minnesota OVELIST AND ESSAYIST RALPH ELLISON thought that at the heart of white ...»
Laughing White Men
TIMOTHY J. LENSMIRE
University of Minnesota
OVELIST AND ESSAYIST RALPH ELLISON thought that at the heart of white racial
identity is a joke. A wretched one. The joke is that white Americans—in their break from
Europe and its high culture, in their pursuit of the ideal of equality rather than hierarchy—end up fearing that they are inferior. This fear leads to scapegoating rituals and stereotypes, in which white Americans project their fear onto people of color, imagine them to be inferior, and reassert social hierarchy.
Ellison scrutinized various scapegoating rites, from ones where the scapegoat was literally sacrificed, as in lynching, to ones where the victim was sacrificed, symbolically, with stereotypes, as in blackface minstrelsy and racist humor. Ellison believed that white people desperately needed stereotypes, needed them continuously. Why? Ellison (1953/1995) thought that these stereotypes were much more than “simple racial clichés introduced into society by a ruling class to control political and economic realities” (p. 28). He thought that these clichés were certainly manipulated to that end, but that their significance went deeper. For Ellison, Whatever else the Negro stereotype might be as a social instrumentality, it is also a key figure in a magic rite by which the white American seeks to resolve the dilemma arising between his democratic beliefs and certain antidemocratic practices, between his acceptance of the sacred democratic belief that all men are created equal and his treatment of every tenth man as though he were not... Perhaps the object of the stereotype is not so much to crush the Negro as to console the white man. (pp. 28, 41) In other words, as white people, we need stereotypes of people of color to give us relief from the strain of participating in and benefiting from a society that at every moment disregards a founding principle—that all people are created equal. Stated differently, racial stereotypes enable white people to continue believing in democracy even as they betray it. Thus, for Ellison, at the core of white racial identities is a dilemma, a conflict, ambivalence—a belief in, a desire for, equality in America, poised against the evidence, all around us, of massive inequality.
The complex social production of white racial identity is the focus of my article. The joke— the large American version articulated by Ellison, as well as its small, everyday manifestations in Journal of Curriculum Theorizing ♦ Volume 27, Number 3, 2011 102 Lensmire ♦ Laughing the lives of white people—provides the occasion for exploring some of the conflicts and complexities of white racial identity.
Drawing from a larger ethnographic interview study conducted in a small, rural, white community in the Midwest of the United States, I examine how Frank, a high school teacher, experienced being white. I pay particular attention to Frank’s descriptions of two white spaces or cultures in which he said he participated: one that he called a “basement culture” or “subculture,” characterized by laughter and racist and sexist humor, and another that he described as more formal and “politically-correct.” Despite significant differences between these two spaces, for Frank, neither provided a place for the honest expression and exploration of what white people thought and felt about race.
If, as a growing number of scholars and activists argue (Conklin, 2008; Jupp & Slattery, 2010; Lowenstein, 2009; Thandeka, 2001; Trainor, 2002; Winans, 2005), our previous conceptions of white identity have too often hurt rather than helped in our critical and anti-racist pedagogies with white people, then my work contributes to a more nuanced and helpful portrait of whiteness and white racial identity that we might draw on in our social justice efforts. My purpose in this article, then, is to describe and theorize white identity in ways that avoid essentializing it, but that at the same time never lose sight of white privilege and a larger white supremacist context.
Methodological and Theoretical Background
Frank was part of a larger ethnographic interview study of race and whiteness in a rural community in Wisconsin (see Lensmire, 2010a; 2010b). The study involved open-ended, indepth interviews with participants who ranged in age from 18 to 83 years of age and included people pursuing (and retired from) a range of occupations, including farmer, factory and office worker, nurse, student, and educator. In the larger study, data analysis in relation to Frank focused on how being white for Frank was very much intertwined with ways of thinking and feeling that he had learned growing up in rural Wisconsin.
I interviewed Frank twice, for a total of more than four hours. My interviews with Frank and other participants began with questions about experiences with (or stories that they had heard about) early conflicts between the German and Polish immigrants who first settled this community (informed by Matthew Jacobson’s  historical account of the hierarchies and struggles among different white ethnic groups, well into the early 20th century, as to who were the good white people and who were not). Then, inspired by Thandeka’s (2001) work, I asked participants to try to remember the first time that they noticed they were white, or that being white somehow mattered or was important. From there, we moved on to explorations of how they and their community had interacted with or responded to people of color in various situations and across different historical events, including 1) hiring recent Hmong and Mexican immigrants to work on local farms and 2) the controversy surrounding Ojibwe efforts in the 1970s to claim their fishing rights, guaranteed by 19th century treaties with the US government, on nearby lakes and rivers (Loew, 2001).
Challenging large-scale surveys that indicate that white people’s attitudes toward people of color have changed, for the better, since the civil rights era, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2001, 2003;
Bonilla-Silva & Forman, 2000) argues, instead, that a rather racist and recalcitrant ideology still characterizes white people’s thinking and feeling. What has changed, according to Bonilla-Silva Journal of Curriculum Theorizing ♦ Volume 27, Number 3, 2011 103 Lensmire ♦ Laughing (2003), is white discourse about race. White people have taken on a new style of talk, a “language of color blindness” which “avoids racist terminology and preserves its mythological nonracialism through semantic moves such as ‘I am not racist, but,’ ‘Some of my best friends are...,’ ‘I am not black, but,’ ‘Yes and no,’ or ‘Anything but race’” (p. 70).
I am persuaded by Bonilla-Silva’s argument that a colorblind racism is the current racial ideology that sustains racial inequality in the United States. I also believe that Bonilla-Silva’s interview studies (along with the work of Ruth Frankenberg ) are among the most important empirical research we have for making sense of whiteness and race in the United States. However, I do want to mark a difference in perspective, in assumptions, between my and Bonilla-Silva’s works.
Bonilla-Silva (2003) interprets “incoherent talk,” long pauses, contradictions, digressions, as evidence of an underlying racism. Such an interpretation seems, at times, quite reasonable. At other times, it seems that his interviews may have tapped into a deeper ambivalence that needs to be theorized and understood. In other words, I argue that surface contradictions and ambiguity might be less a weak cover for an underlying, straightforward racism in need of hiding, and more the expression of a deeply conflicted, ambivalent white racial self (Lensmire, 2008; Lensmire & Snaza, 2010).
My theoretical framework is grounded in critical whiteness studies (Delgado & Stefancic, 1997; Du Bois, 1935/1992; Dyer, 1997; Lipsitz, 1995; Lott, 1995; Morrison, 1992; Roediger, 1991; Rogin, 1992). Robyn Wiegman (1999) identifies three “schools” that represent different “trajectories of inquiry” within critical whiteness studies: the race traitor school, the white trash school, and the class solidarity school. My own work has been most influenced by the writings of labor historians and cultural critics in Wiegman’s last school, which she reads as attempting to rethink the “history of working-class struggle as the preamble to forging new cross-racial alliances” (p. 121). For me, the significance of this work lies in its ability to help us understand the historical changeability and contingencies of whiteness, even as it keeps a steady eye on racial power relations and hierarchies (Jacobson, 1998).
My work is motivated by the demands of pedagogy and politics, by the press of the question of what is to be done to work more effectively with white people in anti-racist and social justice efforts. US society remains white-supremacist in its structures and practices, notwithstanding the election of our first black president. Individual white racism flourishes, whatever the new, colorblind racetalk that grew up in response to the civil rights movement (and that Bonilla-Silva so ably documents). My attention to complexity and ambivalence at the core of white racial selves is not meant to distract from these realities.
However, my worry is that, within anti-racist pedagogies and research, white people have too often been positioned, have been addressed—in Elizabeth Ellsworth’s (1997) sense of ‘Who does this pedagogy think you are?’—as nothing but the smooth embodiment of racism and white privilege. And that this positioning, this address, in turn, leads to more resistance by white people to our anti-racist efforts.
I am not alone in this worry. Hilary Conklin (2008) and Karen Lowenstein (2009), for example, have raised concerns about how research on white future teachers tends to essentialize whiteness and white racial identity. Thandeka (2001) and Amy Winans (2005) have noted how the angry and resistant white person has become, in Jennifer Trainor’s (2002) words, a “familiar figure” in anti-racist and critical pedagogy literatures—a figure that, for Trainor, implies a “troubling disdain for students that is anathema to critical pedagogical goals and to the respect for students that has been a core tenet” of critical teachers (p. 632).
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing ♦ Volume 27, Number 3, 2011 104 Lensmire ♦ Laughing Maurice Berger (1999) suggests that the temptation to essentialize white racial identities is not just a problem in research and writing on race in education, but an ever-present danger in the larger field of whiteness studies. For Berger, the challenge is “how to advocate the idea of whiteness as a useful classification for examining white power and prestige without ignoring its limitation in defining and describing its subjects” (p. 206).
Cameron McCarthy (2003) sums up my worries about past work and my hopes for my own.
He notes that educational research has represented whiteness as a sort of “deposit, a stable cultural and biological sediment that separates whites from blacks and other minorities” (p. 131).
And he has called on educational theorists and researchers to conceptualize whiteness and race as
historically and socially variable:
You cannot understand the social, cultural, or political behavior of any group by looking at their putative racial location to the exclusion of a more complex examination of their social biographies and the complex and constantly changing social context of the modern world in which we live. (p. 132) I turn, now, to Frank and the social contexts within which he grew up, learned, lived, worked, and struggled; within which he created (and had created for him) his white racial identity.
Two White Spaces Much of Frank’s talk about white people and white selves was organized in terms of up and down. For Frank, white people seemed to talk and move in two primary realms or spaces: a high space in which you needed to be “politically-correct” and a low space in which, as Frank put it, things took on “a whole different tone.” The relationship of these two spaces, for Frank, was such that things not allowed in the high space got pushed down into the low one.
As Frank discussed the protests against proposed immigration laws that occurred across the US on May 1, 2006, as well as conversations about these protests within his high school, he
characterized the high space this way:
You have to be politically-correct about everything. My goodness, if I say the wrong thing or have a thought out loud... you’re not allowed to, out loud, question, have a conversation because everyone—‘My God, I might get sued, I might lose my job.’ You would think that people in a break room would be able to have a comfortable conversation about—‘This is why I really feel that they’re actual, illegal aliens. I feel good calling them illegal aliens because they are breaking the law and there should be a consequence. I don’t get to break the law’—but you can’t have that conversation if you’re a white person because people might think I’m a racist. You can see these guys on TV. They’re being so cautious about the way they talk because one slip is going to be used against them forever. Everything will come tumbling down so that—the person may not actually be racist. They may just be trying to work through their thoughts but they are not allowed to do that in public.
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing ♦ Volume 27, Number 3, 2011 105 Lensmire ♦ Laughing For Frank, the high space restricts honest exchange. It precludes him from having conversations in which different positions would be expressed and sorted through. The threat of being labeled a racist stifles not just racist talk, but other talk that might not be racist, but could be labeled that way.