The possessive investment of whiteness

I’m reading George Lipsitz’s book The possessive investment of whiteness right now.  Basically, institutionalized public policy and individual prejudices create a system or societal norm that privileges whites in the U.S. Here’s a quote:

The belief among young whites that racist things happened in the distant past and that it is unfair to hold contemporary whites accountable for them illuminates broader currents in our culture. These young people associate black grievances solely with slavery, and they express irritation at what they perceive as efforts to make them feel guilty or unduly privileged because of things that they did not do personally. They feel innocent individually and cannot conceive of a collective responsibility for collective wrongs. The claim that one’s own family did not own any slaves is intended to end the discussion. It is almost never followed by proposals to find the white families whose ancestors did own slaves, to track them down and make them pay reparations. The disavowal of responsibility for slavery never acknowledges how the existence of slavery and the exploitation of black labor after emancipation created opportunities which penalized blacks and benefited whites who did not own slaves. Rather, it seems to hold that, because not all white people owned slaves, no white people can be held accountable or inconvenienced by the legacy of slavery. This argument does not address the long histories and contemporary realities of segregation, racialized social policies, urban renewal, or the revived racism of contemporary neoconservatism. On the contrary, as Christopher Fisher recognized in his remarks, articulation of one’s own imagined discomfort with being “picked on” and “blamed” for slavery is the real injury, one that in his mind gave him good reason to bomb homes, deface synagogues, and plot to kill black people.

Unfortunately for our society, these young whites accurately reflect the logic of the language of liberal individualism and its ideological predispositions in discussions of race. In their apparent ignorance of the disciplined, systemic, and collective group activity that has structured white identities in U.S. history, they reflect the dominant views in their society… (21)

Group interests are not monolithic, and aggregate figures can obscure serious differences within racial groups. All whites do not benefit from the possessive investment in whiteness in precisely the same ways; the experiences of members of minority groups are not interchangeable. But the possessive investment in whiteness always affects individual and collective life chances and opportunities. Even in cases where minority groups secure political and economic power through collective mobilization, the terms and conditions of their collectivity and the logic of group solidarity are always influenced and intensified by the absolute value of whiteness in U.S. politics, economics, and culture. (22)

I have to think about this more.

5 thoughts on “The possessive investment of whiteness”

  1. Hi there,

    You chose the crux of Lipsitz’ argument, and it is a thought-provoking one, isn’t it? I find his ideas compelling, his reasoning thorough, his observations smack on. The idea of reparations makes me uneasy even though I am one of the masses whose family was not even in this country during the time of slavery. But they were in the U.S. at the time of racism if I can use that term (i.e., after slavery). At some level (probably due to student loan debt or Social Security insecurities) I identify with the horror of finding oneself culpable and responsible for reparations regarding liberties I did not take. Just getting by seems such an accomplishment to me. Yet would I be doing what I am doing if I had not had the benefit of whiteness? The odds are against it. To be frank, though, reparations from enslavement would not be taken directly from my miniscule means. I am in favor of “disciplined, systemic, and collective group activity” to enable our society to recover from and refund our and our progenitors’ return on racism. Feel free to remind me of that when I complain, but I will stick with it as long as bright people such as Lipsitz continue to make sense of it for me. He is very comfortable to talk with, by the way, extremely generous and engaged in conversation and intellectual exchange.

  2. Thanks for the comment! The Educators for Social Justice, a graduate student org within the college of education here at the U of Washington, are trying to get Lipsitz here to give a talk next Fall. It’s good to hear that he’s personable.

    I’ve only gotten through chapter 3 so far, but it’s already left me wondering how does one start to take personal responsibility for all this? I mean, it’s so easy to become apathetic out of necessity–as in, “I don’t watch the news because it depresses me”–or apathetic out of libertarianism–as in, “I just live my life and do no harm.” I used to feel this way; I just want to be left alone and I also will make sure I don’t do anything active to mess with anyone else’s life. But it is very clear that a whole bunch of people following that creed is not enough, that what we need is people actively combating societal problems rather than passively caring. Yet, a part of me just wants to push it away because fighting the good fight seems too daunting and too depressing.

    I apologize if this makes no sense. This is hard stuff and I’m still trying to make something out of my fragmented thoughts.

    Anyway, Lipsitz’s book is one of the two common books for the college this year. The other book is Ellen Brantlinger’s Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage. Maybe the two together can help me start to think about this stuff in a constructive way that moves beyond hopelessness and anger (at others, at me, at the situation).

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