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Why Whiteness Is Invisible

Hernán Vera is coauthor, with Joe Feagin, of White Racism: The Basics (1995). He was a lawyer in his native Chile until exiled by the Pinochet coup in 1973, after which he taught sociology at the University of Florida and authored about ten books and one hundred articles.

George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 224 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Look, a White! was written to share a way of looking at records, new ways of bringing attention to what has become the norm, business as usual. Yancy’s objective is to “name whiteness, mark it,” to share a critical view on it.

This book is a much needed, insightful look at the ideological construct of race. Since the invention of scientific racism in the French academy in the early nineteenth century, race has applied to every group but to whites. Thus, whiteness was made into an invisible trait of racist thinking and definitions.

Yancy opens his book with a brilliant analysis of a short passage from Frantz Fanon in which the famous psychiatrist tells us about his initial amusement when he heard a little boy tell his mother “look, a Negro”—and how this amusement was transformed when the little white boy added, “I am frightened.” For Fanon, the little boy’s statement is “foreshadowing an accusation, one which carries the performative force to constitute the danger which it fears and defends against.” In this way the “look” which points at the black man is by no means benign. Unaware of the complex historical, psychological, and phenomenological implications, the child’s fear becomes intelligible when one realizes that the little boy is learning about the power of racial speech, learning to think and feel about “others.” Fanon, as Yancy points out, teaches us that “the white collective unconscious is not dependent on cerebral heredity”; it is the result of what Fanon called “the unreflected imposition of a culture.”

Look, a White! is a timely book in the United States, a country that has not only denied its racial heritage, but also its current racism, where the ultra-right fringe accuses the nation’s president of alleged foreignness, incompetence, socialism, and a series of other insults.

I started reading this book on the day that a white supremacist killed six attending a religious ceremony. The blog RacismReview put it this way: “It’s happened again. A white man gone mad has walked into a group of people and started shooting. Yesterday, in a suburb outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin a man with ties to white supremacist groups entered a Sikh Temple and opened fire.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center had kept tabs on the gunman, Wade Michael Page, for some time. He was not an isolated actor from a lunatic fringe; white supremacy is a persistent, horrible feature of American life. That extreme expressions of this supremacy—like this shooting, itself inspired by messages circulating in print and online—do kill is only part of a larger problem. Whiteness, woven into the fabric of our society, kills.

This multiple murder came a few days after the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, had stated that the United States and the United Kingdom are “part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage,” thus ignoring the diversity of these countries. These open attacks are made possible by a political culture that allows us to think in nativist terms, and to bemoan what some have called the “browning” of America. Charles Johnson, in his blurb in the back cover of the book, tells us that these are “dangerous essays.” He is right. They point to the pressing need for more white people to educate themselves and start exposing while distancing themselves from white supremacy in all of its many forms.

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