What does it mean to be a white person producing knowledge on race and racism, and potentially profiting off such analyses?
By Harley Wong
With the bold text “The Image of Whiteness” superimposed on a family portrait of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s children on the front cover, “The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization” seems to promise a daring and thought-provoking read. However, while reading it, I instead found myself needing to adjust my expectations: first to account for a white editor, and then to account for the targeted audience of white readers.
The collection of photographs and interviews was released during the New York Art Book Fair in September 2019, with a discussion panel. I was excited to attend an event that, judging solely by its name, I believed would offer a fruitful exploration on the historical role of photography in justifying colonialism and contemporary interventions by photographers of color. The title spoke directly to my background in art history and postcolonial theory.
Daniel C. Blight, a white London-based writer, opened the panel by reading his introduction to the book, providing a basic overview on the fabrication of whiteness and its tangible violence. After recovering from my initial impatience that a white man stood at the helm of this publication deconstructing whiteness in visual culture, I eagerly waited for the people of color who flanked Blight to initiate a more nuanced conversation on race and whiteness that would hopefully push beyond generally accepted truths within the bubble of critical race studies. But my optimism was quickly dashed and replaced with agitation when I realized that we were half-an-hour into the event and the only people who had been allowed to speak were two white men.
The panel made me wary of the content and depth of “The Image of Whiteness,” but the publication’s interview format cleverly avoids many flaws commonly seen in white allied attempts to “pass the mic.” Instead of soliciting essays from contributors, Blight interviews historian David Roediger, sociologist Yasmin Gunaratnam, writer Claudia Rankine, writer/artist Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, and philosopher George Yancy to share their range of perspectives on whiteness. Consequently, Blight resists a more extensive editorial role that would allow him the authority to alter the language, word choice, tone, content, and radicality of critical race theories produced by BIPOC. Although his specific white and male standpoint still shapes the narrative on whiteness through his interview questions, he also acts as a mediator between the assumed white reader and his non-white collaborators to theoretically intercept the brunt of white rage.
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In Blight’s interview with Roediger, they discuss the possible moments in U.S. history when the concept of whiteness was created, while Gunaratnam speaks to the U.K.’s history of colonialism and settler-colonialism. The following portion with Rankine covers “Stamp”, her collaboration with photographer and film-maker John Lucas that explores the potentiality of people of color to re-inscribe the tenets of whiteness. In his interview, Wolukau-Wanambwa elucidates whiteness as the socialized norm from which Blackness must deviate, and the publication concludes with Yancy, who calls for white people to accept a death to white hegemony and notions of white innocence—a concept he names “white symbolic death.”
I see “The Image of Whiteness” as a rare text; a white man producing literature on race for a white audience without intentionally or unconsciously justifying a colonialist, imperialist, or white supremacist regime.
The abundant 18th and 19th-century studies that claimed the biological basis of white supremacy, race science or more aptly deemed scientific racism, is just one of many examples in which discussions of race within white groups of power occur at the expense of people of color, especially Black people. Compared to this extreme, there is nothing blatantly wrong in the book, except perhaps that it does not go far enough.
Blight explains in an October email, “As the majority of discussions of whiteness happen in an academic context, it is an attempt to make key ideas from whiteness studies more accessible, and importantly visual.” As a result, the interviews and accompanying photos in “The Image of Whiteness” are brief entry points not necessarily meant to delve deeply into the multilayered topic of whiteness and the role of visual culture in perpetuating or subverting white supremacy.
While critical race theorists, such as Edward W. Said and Anne Anlin Cheng, expound and untangle their experiences as people of color for those who move through the world at a similar intersection of identities, “The Image of Whiteness” does not offer theoretical frameworks for people of color. Blight confirms, “This is a book first and foremost for white people.” As a result, many BIPOC may already be familiar with the concepts in “The Image of Whiteness” simply from existing in capitalist and white supremacist spaces. With the exception of Rankine’s portion exploring blondeness as a means of assimilating, I found the interviews lacked the specificity to propose new information or ways of thinking.
I emphasize that “The Image of Whiteness” is a publication for white audiences in order to juxtapose the work with white author Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”, which I see as beneficial for white readers and BIPOC. Through her use of “us” and “we,” DiAngelo explicitly addresses white people and implicates herself in her critiques of whiteness so comprehensively that it was a bit jarring for me to read as a person of color. A close examination of Blight’s word choice suggests he participates in a different form of self-conceptualization: “We benefit from having white skin whether we are aware of this privilege or not, which means white people must work to accept that they are sutured to whiteness and that removing those stitches is a lifelong pursuit rather than a single, narcissistic point of arrival” (italics are my emphasis). Blight uses “we” when addressing white people who already see themselves as on the path or open to becoming what he later calls anti-racists. When referring to white people who resist racial consciousness, he uses “they.”
By distinguishing himself and others from the broader group of white people, Blight platforms white anti-racists and the possibility of redemption in a manner that evades responsibility. DiAngelo recognizes, “White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” While Blight notes that becoming an anti-racist or ally is a continuous development, not a self-determined title to wear as a badge of honor, he contradicts himself a few pages later: “We must continue to identify as white—to announce ourselves to people of colour as white anti-racists, apostates to our own race—and we must do so in the form of a continual, symbolic suicide.” Blight places his calls for white people to kill their internalized (and externalized) white supremacy and willful ignorance within a narrative of white redemption that relies heavily on virtue-signaling. He plays into respectability politics in his gentle appeals to white people, while DiAngelo, on the other hand, condemns white fragility with such unapologetic ferocity that, despite being a white woman, she validated my experiences as a person of color.
Considered within the larger Western structure of knowledge production that preferences white perspectives, “The Image of Whiteness” creates space for whiteness in the hopes of reforming it and I am unsure of the efficacy of this.
The burden of holding white people accountable should not rest solely on BIPOC, and at the same time, what does it mean to be a white person producing knowledge on race and racism, and potentially profiting off such analyses? Self-described white anti-racist scholars who expose systemic racism in a manner that is palatable for other white people are more likely to be applauded in academia, awarded grants, and diversity hired into university or other institutional positions. The desire for information and education on racism to come through a white or white-adjacent lens and coax white feelings is in itself oppressive.
So what should white people do? As if responding to this, the publication closes with Yancy’s calls for symbolic white death on the path of enlightened racial consciousness. However, I do not believe that educating oneself and listening to BIPOC to achieve symbolic white death is enough, especially when self-described anti-racist white allies are welcomed and ushered into positions of power intended for or better served by BIPOC. White allyship, as Gunaratnam states in her interview, is incomplete if it does not involve standing between BIPOC and targeted acts of racial violence. Perhaps a white redemption arc necessitates a willingness to render oneself physically vulnerable to white supremacy and white rage in the place of BIPOC.
Harley Wong is an arts writer based in New York. She is particularly interested in the legacy of colonialism in visual culture. Her writing has also appeared in Hyperallergic and Sartle: Rogue Art History.