Click to go to the Subscriber Log In Page
Go to menu with buttons for all pages on BC
Click here to go to the Home Page
Est. April 5, 2002
February 23, 2017 - Issue 687

The Mysterious Uniform: 
and a
Progressive Future 
Book Review

"Whiteness has confounded every social movement
because it declares who is relevant and who is not. 
The labor movement is a case in point.  Some of the
most militant of white trade union leaders saw the
working class as white, rather than inclusive, a point
that is actually relevant to debates that have taken
place in the aftermath of the November 2016 elections."

Linda Martin Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015), 223 pages)

There are few better moments in recent US history than now that a comprehensive analysis of the construction of race, racism and whiteness could emerge. For that alone Dr. Alcoff should be applauded. The Future of Whiteness examines one of the thorniest issues facing the USA as a whole and progressive movements in particular. Specifically, how to understand the phenomenon of whiteness and its role in the construction of the USA and its role—if any—in the development of transformative movements.

The Future of Whiteness is part philosophy and part historical analysis, the result of which is a ‘heavy’ read. This is not a book for someone to pick up for a quick look at race and the USA. Instead, this is a book which, like a good wine, one must sip and savor before moving on too quickly.

Alcoff sets out to situate whiteness in the development of US capitalism. Though having no biological basis, Alcoff convincingly argues that it exists as a real identity with a particular history that cannot be ignored. At the heart of her argument is the notion that whiteness is not something that can or should be ignored nor should it be something that one treats as imaginary, i.e., a magical view that people of European descent can awaken one morning and proclaim that they are no longer “white.”

There is another piece of her argument which, at least for this writer, was not so convincing. She argues that there is, or at least can be, something called “whiteness” that is separate and apart from racism. It is this that we shall focus upon in this review.

First, Alcoff is correct that whiteness is not imaginary. It was connected to the construction of “race” as a means of ensuring oppression and social control over the larger population by a ruling elite during the era of developing capitalism.

Second, Alcoff makes the essential argument that race—and whiteness—are subject to evolution over time. One can see this in the very notion of who has been considered, in the last 300+ years, to have been white and who has not. In the early days of colonial America, English, French, Germans and Nordics certainly fell into the category of “white.” Irish and many other people of European origin, however, found themselves in a racial twilight zone or, as some theorists have argued, became ‘provisional whites.’

The category of “white” has always been ambiguous. Mexicans, in the aftermath of the US war of aggression against Mexico, found themselves identified legally as “white” by the treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo, though they have never been treated as white and never granted racial privileges through a relative differential in treatment along the lines of European immigrants.

Additionally, and quite interestingly, debate ensued over time as to which European populations should be considered white. Among the most ironic of such populations has been Armenians whose land of origin is located in the Caucus Mountains.

As Alcoff notes, “…[W]hiteness…does not need to be a meaningful biological category for it to designate a social and historical category with sometimes unwanted and irrational effects.” [p.21] This approach is important in refuting both those who, in liberal fashion, argue that they cannot or do not “see” race as well as those who, for ideological reasons, argue that we can either dispense with the category or personally reject it outright.

To reject whiteness or to pretend that one is no longer “white” rejects history and responsibility, perhaps one of the strongest of Alcoff’s arguments. Understanding whiteness means understanding a particular and peculiar history of race, racism and empire. More importantly, it means taking responsibility for that history.

Yet, here is where things get complicated in reading Alcoff. While her arguments regarding the history of whiteness are clear and incisive, she takes a further step that complicates the matter. Specifically, she argues that whiteness, as an identity, can be separated from race and racism. In other words, that a future is possible where “whiteness” or “white” is simply a matter of identification. It is with this that we take issue.

It is always difficult, unless one is in the realm of science fiction, to argue about what might unfold. In that sense, Alcoff may certainly be correct about the future of whiteness. Nevertheless, her argument gets caught in the net of her own presentation of history and also engages in something akin to a leap of faith.

In the terms under which we understand “race” and “whiteness” today, there were no “white people” prior to 1492. It was the Reconquista in Spain and the driving out of the Moors and the Jews that transformed the Iberian Peninsula from a multi-ethnic and multi-religious collection of states, into a “white” Christian kingdom. The identity of Spain, specifically, was entirely wrapped up in the expulsion of two groups that were seen to be incompatible with the vision of Isabelle and Ferdinand, i.e., the Moors and the Jews. In the case of Spain, what would come to be understood as whiteness merged with Christianity and was later exported to the Western Hemisphere when the Spanish and Portuguese began their invasion of the “Americas.”

The second key development in the construction of race—though not, initially, whiteness—was the English invasion and occupation of Ireland. Contrary to the annexation of Scotland, the English destroyed the Irish ruling class, expelled the indigenous Irish from the best land, banned their language, and introduced a settler population particularly, though not exclusively, into what we now know as “Northern Ireland.”

The English experience in Ireland came to be directly relevant to their approach in the 13 North American colonies. They declared the indigenous Irish to be an inferior race, treating them accordingly. There was no exit for the indigenous Irish. It was not something that would change after a generation; one’s children did not become liberated from racial ‘inferiority.’ It was a perpetual state.

Whiteness” in the North American context developed over the course of the 1600s as the English ruling elite found itself confounded by periodic uprisings by European and African indentured servants, and challenged on the western frontier by Native Americans/First Nations. As demonstrated in Ireland, race became the materialization of the relative differential in treatment between populations. As others have argued, there is no race, without racism. And it is in this context that whiteness, as a category, comes into existence in order to identify those who are supposedly part of the ruling, superior, and relevant bloc. As such, it has proven to be a highly effective mechanism to ensure social control and relative passivity in the face of brutal forms of oppression.

Whiteness was imposed upon people of European origin, and it was done in a most tyrannical fashion. This was not only or mainly a matter of a re-education of the European population, but rather the putting into place of various institutions and practices in order to reinforce the relative differential in treatment and to ensure that those who attempted to cross the line were punished.

With the advent of the trade in African bodies and the genocidal wars against the Native Americans, race morphed in the 13 colonies and came to be identified with color. It should be noted, however, that in Northern Ireland and Britain, there remains the notion of “anti-Irish racism,” a concept that is, at least at first glance, difficult for people whose origins lie in the global South to accept. Slavery was directly connected with color, i.e., so-called whites could not be enslaved (though they were subjected to indentured servitude). Gun ownership was directly connected with race. Land ownership should be added and, with the advent of the US republic, citizenship.

Whiteness, in effect, became a mysterious uniform which Europeans had thrust upon them. Whiteness replaced ethnic origin as a point of identification but it also became something for which future European immigrant groups frequently fought. Why? Because whiteness was associated with being part of the dominant and privileged culture and society. It was not simply an identity but was a relationship to and with various elements of the population.

Whiteness has confounded every social movement because it declares who is relevant and who is not. The labor movement is a case in point. Some of the most militant of white trade union leaders saw the working class as white, rather than inclusive, a point that is actually relevant to debates that have taken place in the aftermath of the November 2016 elections.

Alcoff correctly notes that individual whites in the USA share a collective history, irrespective of their ethnic origin. They cannot deny that history and pretend that they are something else. They are, for the most part, perceived as “white” by the larger US society. The challenge becomes, how they respond to that perception and the various institutions and practices associated with whiteness.

Alcoff applauds the work of Bob Zellner, a former activist in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Zellner never pretended to be anything other than white, but he was fiercely anti-racist. Yet this is not an argument that convinces us that “whiteness” can at some point in the future be neutral. Rather it is or was a recognition by Zellner of his existing relationship to the State and the history of racist and national oppression that should be highlighted.

Alcoff is correct that racial designations are relative. “Black,” for instance, can under certain circumstances include—in various countries—people of African descent whose ancestors were slaves; South Asians in the Caribbean, former British colonies, and South Africa; and Latinos of various persuasions. In that sense “black” is the color of the racially oppressed, a point that the late South African theorist and activist Steve Biko reiterated. For Biko, a person of African origin, for instance, was not automatically black!

White” is the designation of the global North. It is a designation in opposition to other colors of the rainbow. It was constructed as such. While it is true that it can be used as a descriptive term, in actuality it is a ‘term of art.’ Almost no one, for instance, uses the term “pale faces” to describe people of European origin or pinked skin, both of which would probably be more accurate than “white.”

The South African national democratic revolution, i.e., the anti-apartheid struggle, had much to say about this. They utilized the term “non-racial” to focus upon a practice of anti-racism. They were not speaking about racial blindness but rather a recognition that the entire construction of racial categories was an exercise in oppression and social control. While leftist and progressive “whites” continued to self-identify as white (and did not deny this realtiy), they did so in the context of fighting the system of South African white supremacy. They were recognizing the privileged status they held over so-called Coloreds, Asians and Blacks. But their fight was ultimately for the elimination not only of those categories, but more importantly, the elimination of the institutions and practices associated with those categories.

While Alcoff argues for an anti-racist practice in line with the great freedom fighters of the past, she clings to the notion that there is something in “whiteness” that can be redeemed. It is here that we must part company, though only on that conclusion because the thrust of her overall argument remains timely and powerful.

A final point on the timeliness of her book. In the aftermath of the November 2016 elections, a rather strange argument emerged that suggested that the Democratic Party had spent too much time focused on so-called identity politics rather than on so-called class politics.

Alcoff’s work challenges this approach. So-called identity politics should rather be understood as social justice politics that takes on various forms of oppression that accompany and reinforce capitalism. Those who believe that social justice politics, in this case, anti-racist politics, should take a back seat to some sort of pure alleged class politics miss the entire history of the USA and, therefore, are doomed to elaborate a set of views and strategies that cannot succeed in taking on actually existing capitalism. Alcoff’s analysis helps to highlight precisely this problem and for this we owe her, irrespective of differences on what might be a speculative matter. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of  TransAfricaForum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Mr. Fletcher is also Co-editor of "Claim No Easy VictoriesThe Legacy of Amilcar Cabral". Other Bill Fletcher, Jr. writing can be found at Contact Mr. Fletcher and BC.




is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble