These were the questions that drew me to The Future of Whiteness, a slim volume released last year by renowned philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff. A prominent thinker in the fields of epistemology, feminism, existentialism, and race theory, she is the author of three books and the recipient of many awards, including the Frantz Fanon award for her 2009 book Visible Identities. We talked in her office at Hunter College, under the gazes of Lilya Brik and Frida Kahlo, whose portraits hang on her walls.
ANDREW WADDELL: I came to your book as an educator who thinks a lot about what my whiteness means in the classroom and in life. I know that white instructors can uphold exclusionary aesthetic values that discount writing by students of color. I know I have failed at times to grasp or validate the experiences of my students. But the more I read and learned about whiteness, the more I became convinced that whiteness was not something I could truly “compensate” for, that trying to be one of the “good whites” was the wrong way to go about antiracism, because whiteness itself is the problem — a social identity constituted only by a system of advantages and institutional power. Which is why your book interested me so much, because pretty much from the get-go you push back on some of those ideas and say, “Hey, whiteness is not going anywhere anytime soon. Stop it with your pipe dream. It’s an identity with real content that is capable of adapting. There could be whiteness without white supremacy.” How have you come to this perspective?
LINDA MARTÍN ALCOFF: I think what you describe is so common today. As more and more people are trying to be teachers — and to work in other professions as well — in an increasingly diverse society, they are trying to figure out how to do it effectively without replaying some of the old ideas.
I think growing up in the South during the ’60s was very important. I came to the United States in 1957 or ’58 and grew up in Florida from that point forward. In school, the kids my age were talking about race and the civil rights movement and black power. My sister and I were positioned in the middle of that as Latinas. My sister is darker and she didn’t always get seen as white, and she felt the effects of that in school and in the family. So racism was not something we could avoid. We were living in mostly a white world, with my mother’s family. She remarried and my stepfather is a white Southerner, and so being in this white community, I thought about their relationship to the social revolution that was happening around us.
When I went to college in 1973 I began to meet more white Southerners who were ready to risk their lives for this change that was happening everywhere. People totally dedicated to ending racism as part of a social justice movement that was struggling against capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and sexism. And the question was, how do whites relate to this struggle against racism, which was mostly a struggle against antiblack racism in the South at that time?
That was very much something that we talked about. What is white people’s relationship to this struggle? What do white people have at stake? For me, the issue was not that white people were just liberal allies but that they had a stake in change. Because there are a lot of really poor parts of the South. My mother’s family was sharecroppers. When I visited them when I was 12 years old, that trip really changed my understanding of the United States because my grandfather was one of 16 children, a lot of his siblings were still alive, and they were uneducated and poor, struggling, some of them were illiterate, some of them had dirt floors, and they worked really, really hard.
I sort of gave up on the American Dream during that trip. The poverty in the South was real. It’s something that I felt in my family. To change the South required cooperation across race lines. We weren’t going to get social justice in the South just for whites. That was a lie that the powers that be told, and it wasn’t panning out. So there had to be a coalition across race lines to make social justice in the South, and that required addressing racism. It required learning about the real history of the South and the Klan.
We struggled for many years to fight Klan activity and Klan violence and Klan influence. And white people had to engage in that struggle and were actually more effective because we could go knock on doors that black people couldn’t knock on. I was certainly light enough to participate in that. There was a particular role that white people could play. The Klan was not helping the majority of white people, so there was a direct stake that whites had in thwarting the Klan’s influence.
It was scary work. There was just the constant threat of violence. In 1977 or ’78 we moved to Atlanta, and I was involved in a struggle around desegregation of higher education. We had a demonstration at Atlanta Junior College, which was an 85 to 90 percent black college that served a lot of the poor black kids in the city. The demonstration was majority African American, maybe 20 percent other, and the police came and they charged us and they beat people to the ground with billy clubs. I’d seen it on TV, but I hadn’t really seen it up close. The guy next to me was a Vietnam veteran and he was just getting the shit beat out of him by this cop, and I thought to myself, If I could just get the billy club out of his hand — you know how you think in the split second — and I thought, when he raises it again I’m going to grab it. So I go to grab it, and the guy turns on me and grabs me and starts pushing me. I was six months pregnant at the time with my first son, and this black woman saved my son’s life; she got in between and told the cop, “Look, she’s pregnant,” so he backed off me.
It was an important lesson for me. You hear these stories about how the police react differently to black and brown bodies, but when you see it in front of you, when people have been doing nothing but engaging in a legal demonstration … They were all taken to Grady Hospital that afternoon; there was blood and hair all over the hospital walls. It brought it home to me in a very visceral way, things I kind of knew intellectually and politically, but I saw it and it … it’s painful to be in a situation like that and not be one of the ones targeted. It’s painful to know that friends and comrades and colleagues of yours are going to get vicious treatment and you’re not. And that gives you lots of motivation to make that kind of thing stop happening. These are the kinds of experiences that led me to think about the relationship of white people to these struggles.
Do these experiences serve as a starting point for your philosophical thinking on white identity? Are these the sorts of experiences that make it difficult for you to get on board with any sort of argument about whiteness as only white supremacy?
Yeah. I think the question is, do all white people benefit from white supremacy? And one thing you could ask is, is whiteness constituted by white supremacy in the way some theorists put it today, so that to be white is to have a form of subjectivity that’s imbued with white supremacist ideas? I just think that’s a mistaken view of how subjectivity works, how fluid and changeable it is.
The question, I think, is twofold: What is the relationship of white people to white supremacy; do all white people benefit from white supremacy? And the second question is, can we win white people away from white supremacy in large numbers; are we going to be able to get enough to make social change?
But it seems like “giving up” on white supremacy is not enough. The problem is not personal avowals of white supremacist ideas; it’s the systemic way that white supremacy operates in society. Can we win enough white people away from white supremacy? That seems like an easier question to say yes to than, can we change the material conditions that are the result of white supremacy — the material conditions that perpetuate it?
I think it’s an open question. I don’t think we know the answer to it. We certainly don’t know the answer without trying. History is an amazing story of success and defeat in these kinds of matters. No success is stable, but no defeat is stable either.
One thing I’m convinced about that I think is absolutely true is that the current system is not going to last forever. No system lasts forever. There will be change; the question is what kind of change. So you have to prepare for it, to take advantage of those moments when change can come about, to try to make it happen in ways that are as positive as possible. I don’t think we can get to utopia. It’s always a question of taking advantage of crisis, of being prepared to take advantage of crisis, of having coalitions and organizations and strategies and philosophies that are developed to be able to take advantage of crises and move them in progressive directions.
Let’s return to your question: “Do all white people benefit from white supremacy?” A lot of your work focuses on poor and working-class white people.
I think the political establishment doesn’t know what to do with the white working class and the white poor. The liberal political establishment has decided they don’t need this constituency to vote for the Dem party, they can still win without them. I think that’s a colossal mistake. The question is how to turn the white poor politically. And the key is going to be race. They already get the class issue; they already get poverty. The Brexit vote is a very clear if complicated statement of rejection. It’s a statement of racism and nationalism for some, but it’s also a rejection of the elite power structure that hasn’t benefitted them. I don’t think the white working class is doing fine in Britain; it’s because they’re doing badly that they want a big change from the status quo. So I think the poor workers get the class issue. The support for Trump is based on his claims that he’s going to renegotiate trade contracts, bring back material infrastructure-building, bring back jobs.
It’s hard for me to see how these sentiments can be used to form coalitions across racial lines. The story with Brexit and with Trump seems to be: “We need jobs, there’s a limited number, and we’re white so we deserve them. So kick out the immigrants, the brown people who are ‘stealing’ American jobs, so that white America, or the white working class in Britain, can have jobs again.” Isn’t that the narrative both campaigns [Brexit and Trump] are running with? I can imagine a world in which working-class coalitions are formed across racial lines, but it seems like the opposite thing is happening now.
I think what’s necessary to make that possible is for white people to be able to come to those coalitions as white people and not be viewed as not bringing anything to the table or not having a right to be there. I think realistically it’s not the case that the jobs can be parceled out just to the white population. This is an issue in the United States because at this point there aren’t enough whites to fill the professional managerial class. The majority of one-year-olds in the United States today are nonwhite. They’re not going to go away. We’ve got a working class that is losing ground regularly and is multiracial, and the idea that we’re going to improve the conditions of the working class by curbing immigration, it’s just not going to happen. So any kind of move forward on class dimensions is going to have to figure out how to create that coalition across racial differences, and that means addressing racism, but it also means thinking about how white people are a part of that coalition.
It almost sounds to me like you’re faulting the left or identity politics for creating a hostile environment for white people interested in coming to the table, which surprises me. Am I mischaracterizing your position?
No. I do see identity politics as a solution, not a problem, in this, because identity politics is the idea of taking identity as politically relevant, but if you see whiteness as only negatively politically influential, of course that’s a problem. I don’t. I think it’s got mixed political implications.
I do very much fault a lot of the left and the liberal academic and larger public discourses who have characterized the white working class as hopelessly racist in a way that doesn’t merit any kind of effort at coalition work. I think there has been an abandonment and an essentializing.
You know, I get it, I grew up in the South, I know what people are capable of; it’s scary, and it’s hard to address. I think bringing white people to the table poses different and greater challenges than bringing anybody else to the table. I’m very clear about that. It’s not about multiculturalism in which we all bring our own backgrounds and experiences and identities and make peace with each other. To bring white people into a pluralistic space like that requires more work because of the long history of vanguard ideas about whiteness and the ways in which white people often aren’t aware of their own ignorance of other cultures and their own history of colonialism and imperialism and racism.
And I do think, in terms of white people’s relationship to white supremacy, I do think all white people have benefitted from white supremacy, but I also think they’ve ultimately been hurt by white supremacy. So it’s mixed. Du Bois talks about this, and I absolutely agree: you get a psychological benefit from all this constant cultural affirmation of being the smartest and the best and the most advanced. So there’s definitely a psychological benefit. And there’s been a real economic benefit as well for most white people to some extent, even if it’s comparatively small; you still get a comparative advantage, which is now eroding I think. So white supremacy has provided some things. But if it’s a comparative economic advantage in which you get 50 cents more an hour or a dollar more an hour, it’s really not doing you much good when your children can’t go to college and you don’t have healthcare, etc. I think in the long term white supremacy has helped keep the South poor for all Southerners and has disadvantaged workers from being able to be part of a collective struggle that could renegotiate terms on a stronger footing. It’s been a mixed blessing. Since the 1970s it’s been getting worse and worse for the white middle class and working class, and that creates new crises, new opportunities, and also the danger of fascism.
You talk about having a realist or pragmatic approach to social identities like race. I understand this to mean we should think about race as neither fixed and unchanging nor as a social construct whose meanings we can choose to reinterpret or ignore. Can you elaborate on what being a realist on race means to you?
Of course, race cannot go back to what it used to be, a scientific category. But race abolitionism is also insufficient. Some people say we need race to talk about racism. But I think we need it for more than that. We need it to understand social identities as parts of who we are. I want to emphasize, more than I think some other people do, the importance of history in forming us. When people say that Latinos are “becoming white,” what is it they’re actually saying? I think generally it’s meant to indicate that Latinos, in some cases, are improving their economic conditions. But even if that were the case across the board, which it’s not, Latinos are still going to have a different relationship to US slavery and to the settler colonialism that decimated the native population. They won’t have the shame and guilt and subsequent large-scale patterns of denial and avoidance that we find among European Americans because of that history.
We have white activists telling us to give up on whiteness. We have Baldwin writing that “whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.” We have Ta-Nehisi Coates writing that whiteness “has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power.” To what extent do you see your book as a direct challenge to these sorts of statements?
It is a direct challenge. I don’t disagree with the claim that racism is constitutive of whiteness. But what I want to say is it’s not the only thing that is constitutive of whiteness. And its import can even vary in a particular context.
What I bring up in the book [The Future of Whiteness], based on a lot of histories and ethnographies that I’ve studied, is the experience of European settler immigrants, almost all of whom came to the United States because of economic desperation, some of whom also came because of political persecution. So they were coming for the same reason that Guatemalans are coming today. So it wasn’t so much that they were choosing to have a better life in another country, that they were doing fine — no, they were pushed out, they were starved out, and they had to live, and this was a place where they could come. That experience created commonalities across the national and ethnic groups of Europe that before had been steeped in a lot of animosity. You still had ranking orders or pecking orders among the European ethnicities, but you also had cross-ethnic experiences of identification, certainly among the impoverished immigrants coming here. Whiteness filled a gap of what to call oneself.
It’s a word that names a real experience that is common among a large swath of people who are today called white. I think that’s part of why, when the State began to define them as white, they said, “Okay, that makes sense.” I don’t think people are so stupid to accept anything that the elite tells them. I don’t think that’s the way it works. People took up this idea because it explained their experience and made sense with their lives and the societies that they saw. It also gave them some way to differentiate themselves from others. One of the histories that I read was about the Irish in the Caribbean and the United States who came in as indentured servants. Nell Painter uses the term slavery for their condition because they couldn’t change employment, couldn’t move around. We’re talking in the 1600s, 1700s. But their situation did change as chattel slavery became singularly tied to African heritage. So whiteness didn’t just come from the State; it really made a huge difference in your life, whether or not you were white. You’d still be poor, but you were free of chattel slavery and the conditions of indenturement could end. Your children would not be indentured servants just because you were an indentured servant. So there was a distinction there, that was a social and economic fact of experience that whiteness was a way to refer to.
So whiteness is not just a designation imposed top-down by the State; it also emerges bottom up because it explains something in people’s lives. I guess the part that I get snagged on is trying to locate something that whiteness explains that is somehow apart from white supremacy, to locate any substantive features, any content to this identity, that is disentangled from racism. And I think so many white people’s failure to locate that content is what leads us to fatalism about the possibility of redeeming or disentangling whiteness. But you keep insisting on it so I want to see it.
Yes, I think that’s the hardest question in some ways. It’s hard for two reasons, I’d suggest. One is that, when we think about substantive white culture, a lot of it is local, right? It’s not uniform; it’s not all white people. White people in New York don’t listen to country music. In North Dakota, it’s different than it is in New York City; in New York City, it’s different than it is in the South and so forth. So it doesn’t seem like there’s “A White Culture.” There are multiple forms of it.
And the second reason it’s difficult is because, in truth, white culture is an amalgamation that borrowed from Africans, native people, and others. The banjo, which is associated with country music, came from Africa. So if you look at country music, it’s actually the product of a synthesis of racial groups, cultural groups, ethnic groups that contributed forms, instruments, and musical styles. What we call white culture so much of the time in the United States is actually not pure white because they were living in different parts of the country, they were living among different people. There’s not this one uniform cultural manifestation that is unique to whites. But that’s true of every group.
Right, we could say the same thing about black culture. But one of the things unifying black culture across those differences is a resistance to criminal power, whereas the thing unifying white culture across those differences is the exercise of that power.
Yes, although for the white majority, there hasn’t been a lot of power. But there’s been defense of privileges.
Perhaps not exercise of power, then, but the protection from oppressive power. The enjoyment of benefits.
Yes, of advantages and privileges. But I think that we have to think seriously about the majority of whites, you know, the Walmart workforce. I was recently in North Carolina in a fairly rural area going to flea markets, and people are selling tables full of broken pottery to other people who are buying broken pottery. And the concept of privilege does not spring to mind when you are in those locations. There’s a lot of white poverty, so when you talk about criminal power, I think it has limited explanatory reach over the conditions of lives of the white poor, or the lower-waged working class.
I guess in my day-to-day life I don’t hear many people talk about “white culture.” You could go online right now and find a hundred articles saying we have no culture, we only steal/appropriate culture from other groups. And you could find an equal number of articles denying the existence of cultural appropriation with a bunch of postmodern buzzwords: every culture is a dynamic amalgamation of influences and so on and so forth. Are you charting a middle ground between these two perspectives, or are you falling into the latter camp?
If you even talk about white culture it sounds like you have this Klan mentality because nobody talks about it in a positive way other than white racists. I think it’s a really difficult question. What do white people bring to the table in terms of their experiences or point of view? It is an amalgamation.
When we talk about US culture, what is it? It’s an amalgamation in which clearly European immigrants have played a large role. If you think about it for half a second, the idea that European-American immigrants to the United States don’t have anything in common, don’t have any culture that they brought, it’s just unrealistic. Obviously they had a certain set of experiences and commonalities. But it’s a huge group, it’s a very diverse group; it’s more diverse than other groups in some respects just because of numbers. The most common experience is the experience of immigration from Europe, which was economically motivated. They came for survival. Most families have some lore about that.
But we never really ask white people, in the way that brown people always get asked: “Where are you from?” And there are so many white people with hardly any ties to their Old World ancestors. I didn’t grow up with any family folklore about immigration. My family folklore was populated by what, as a child, I thought of as Florida rednecks and Texas hillbillies. For the first 25 years of my life, I didn’t even know which European countries my ancestors had immigrated from. German or English culture had zero to do with my day-to-day lived reality. But I definitely thought I was white. And I don’t believe this is an uncommon experience among white people of my generation. It was a luxury to not have to think about that history. But it also left me with no sense of racial or cultural identity except maybe a regional one. What do you think it means to have a bunch of white Americans with no conscious or expressed ties to Europe or immigration, no real ties to that part of their family histories?
You’re right, there is a generational shift. There is a rich regionalism, it’s true, for Southerners, for specific Southerners, that people have connections to, and this affects the kind of culture that they like. Part of what makes for that regionalism is the racial mix and the racial genealogy of the region. There are very particular appropriations by European Americans of African instruments, who then take them in new directions and create new art forms and musical forms, which ethnomusicologists are tracing today. Whiteness is a part of any regional identity. I think rather than looking for the essence of whiteness that all white people share, we can see how it manifests itself and is a part of these different communities.
At one point I read a lot of the 19th-century American pragmatists, Thoreau, Emerson. Cornel West talks a lot about that tradition; he’s written books about the American pragmatist tradition. That’s a philosophical and a political tradition that can be drawn from that was totally distinct from Europe. It was what mostly European Americans created here, but not just European Americans because Du Bois was an important figure. It’s a philosophy of nature; there’s a lot of romanticism and spiritualism, an expansive notion of religiosity when you get to William James. These were particular American ideas born of certain practices that had to do with being in this huge continent. The possibilities in a new country for creating new ways of life and new belief systems. I used to argue with Cornel because I was worried that when we start talking very positively about US culture it always leads to more imperial adventures. But we don’t have to rewrite everything; we can draw from positive elements of US culture and politics and philosophy that were created here to give people a different sense of the possibilities for the future.
I had a similar reaction when I read in your book about the need to uncover “the hidden histories of white antiracist resistances.” I see the potential benefit in excavating a narrative of white activism in pursuit of racial justice, but there’s also a part of me that’s worried this will undermine an honest accounting of the history of white supremacy and antiblackness. It wasn’t that long ago I was in middle school learning that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and that most blacks were treated better in the South anyway. So how would you respond to someone who says white America isn’t ready for that history yet, the history of white antiracism? We have to come to terms with our history of racism and antiblackness first. First, let’s uncover the histories of black and brown resistance that are still hidden from our history books?
I think we need to do both. My husband and I are going to see the new movie The Free State of Jones tomorrow night. I read in The New York Times that A. O. Scott loved it, but Charles Blow was more cautious and more critical of it. Have you seen it yet?
No, I haven’t. I heard a critical review by Tim Cogshell on KPCC.
I’m curious about it for these very reasons. On the one hand, there were white antiracist resistors all along, some of whom lost their lives, some of whom did smaller acts. But that’s not the main story. The main story is too often white racism and participation in violence at all class levels. We need to unearth these stories, but that’s not going to tell us that most white people in the 19th century opposed slavery.
I mean, Reconstruction. People do not teach with any accuracy or complexity the history of Reconstruction. It’s a complicated story. It’s not just the South versus the North; there was struggle within the south. There were also riots in the North among working-class people who did not want to end slavery or risk their lives to do so. I trust history, perhaps foolishly, but I think if we really dig we’ll find more complexity, and we’ll also find complicity.
You write that while we may have cause to be pessimistic about the possibility of disentangling whiteness from white supremacy, we can’t be fatalistic. Can you elaborate on why you see the distance between pessimism and fatalism as a meaningful one?
Fatalism leads to inaction and the idea that we should just tend to our own gardens and not engage in larger social struggles of change. Pessimism doesn’t lead to that. You can be a pessimistic realist. You can think you may not win, but if you don’t try, you know you’re not going to win. Pessimism doesn’t excuse inaction. Fatalism does excuse inaction. I think that’s just so powerful in our society. Fatalism is actually the most important thing to fight against. The sense of overwhelming power of global capital and elites. It’s the whole thing with Hillary and Bernie. So many people just thought Hillary was a done deal, nothing can be done about it so you better get on the bandwagon, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fatalism is ideological, it’s something that the power structure wants to spread, and it’s just not warranted. Nobody could have predicted the Arab Spring. Nobody could have predicted Syriza and Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, the new political formations that are emerging today, Occupy. So we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Fatalism, as a pure issue of metaphysics, is not justifiable — to think that we know what’s going to happen in the future.
Yes. Hubris. It is.
How do you handle instances that inspire pessimism? One of the most memorable anecdotes in the book is about going to visit Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. It’s a place where Lee and the Confederacy are celebrated and memorialized, where MLK Day is straight-up ignored in favor of celebrating General Lee’s birthday. You had a very intense reaction to that visit, and I had an intense reaction reading about it. There is visceral anger and sadness, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed by the distance between two worldviews. A despondency about the possibility of dialogue.
The visit to Washington and Lee got under my skin, there’s no question about it. And it got under my skin because I’m a Southerner. I know that culture because I grew up there, and I know how vicious it can be. But the fact is, those people are not going to win. They’re not going to be able to maintain an unchallenged perspective on the Confederacy except in these very small enclaves. But they’re not going to win the day because the South is becoming African American and Latino, sizeable numbers of Asian Americans are moving into the South. It’s not going to stay this large white majority with a black minority. It’s changing. The people who are moving in another generation will have more input into the media and the local elections, and their voices will make a difference. I take heart in the coming losses of people like that who will have harder and harder times finding institutions where they can live and circle the wagons and maintain this dominance. But it’s disheartening to see young people especially replaying this ideology of the Old South and white racism. It’s hard not to lose your temper. But we have to go into these spaces and take them on. I can do it, I can get in the door with my academic credentials and my light skin, and those of us who can get in the door need to do that and engage.
Yes, so often the impulse for people like myself, who do come from that world, is to just flee and take solace in the fact that, “Oh, I’m not like them.” But that seems like a failure to challenge racism in that community, and also like a lazy way to make myself feel good and comfortable about my own way of being in the world.
Yeah, you know I live in Brooklyn today, which I absolutely love. It’s so different from where I grew up. And sometimes I felt like I should have stayed in the South. I looked for jobs in the South. Sometimes that impulse to escape can be purely for survival too. You have to get out of a cultural space that suffocates you. I get that.
It’s also a luxury that many people don’t have. You’re leaving people behind.
It’s true. But most of the people I know from back in the day and engaged with in anti-Klan activism, they never left the South, they never stopped organizing and struggling. They’re still there doing all kinds of things. There are a lot of people still engaged in struggle in the South.
You take issue with the term allies; you describe white people fighting against white supremacy as “activists in their own right.” Do you think the word “ally” reveals something misguided, like a white savior complex? Or perhaps a widespread failure among white people to understand why combating white supremacy is in their own interest?
Yes, although I think the term ally emerges in black and brown communities too, among activists who think that whites can only be there as allies. I don’t think it’s that they’re not allies. I think sometimes there are allies in social movements — it’s not bad to be an ally. But I don’t think, in regard to white supremacy, whites are just in the position of allies, because they have their own skin in the game — it’s a different skin in the game. But they do have their own skin in the game in terms of not wanting to be duped anymore by false claims about their own history, and about wanting to chart a realistic future for their children, more realistic than maintaining white supremacy. Whites have an interest in their children being safe and secure and flourishing, and white supremacy is not the way to secure that. So in that sense, I think whites come to this struggle for their own reasons. They’re also there as allies, because they don’t face the onslaught of antiblack racism, but they’re there for their own reasons, and I think that’s important to think about.