Whiteness, or "gnōthi seauton"

Tentative definition:
Whiteness: an attachment to an increasingly ungrounded familiarity with what is "normal" combined with a perverse obsession with the exotic. Either can have positive or negative values attached, but the objects of both remain largely un- or self-defined.

This requires some unpacking.

1) "an attachment to an increasingly ungrounded familiarity with what is 'normal'" -- Whiteness is a phenomenon of cultural normativity. For participants, it is based on a sense of self that has merged with the historically dominant group at some point. The difficulty is that that merger happens with respect to a target that is by nature ambiguous and vaguely defined. In the United States, it is part of a long and continuous chain of assimilation that continues to "move the bar". For groups early in the process, it involves the gradual adaptation and renunciation of cultural practices. The impact of situation-specific pressures and particular cultural values can cause the result to vary widely. Many German groups in America over the period of the two World Wars renounced large swaths of their immigrant culture in favor of Anglo-American cultural norms -- including renouncing the use of the German language in many instances. Other communities chose to remain more isolated and keep more of their cultural heritage -- the Wisconsin and Missouri Lutherans being notable examples. All of them are white Anglo-European Americans today. As the pressure has come off of German identity (with the exception of identification with National Socialism and the Hitler regime -- which remains stigmatized and falls into the second category, obsession with the exotic), white people of German ancestry (to whatever extent traceable) safely have begun re-appropriating token elements of their national-culture-of-origin. Another interesting example is the ongoing negotiation of Jewish identity both toward and away from whiteness in the United States.

In any case, the attachment to what is "normal" tends to stick, even as culture-of-origin practices are re-introduced in the more thoroughly assimilated, and in spite of the retention of "abnormal" particular practices. The constellation of acceptable cultures changes over time, but it is normatively white to engage in re-appropriation of one's "original ethnic identity" -- ethnic rather than racial. Note: The increasing trend of pitching "genetic ancestry testing" toward the U.S. African-American population for the sake of re-appropriating particular continental African (often tribal) cultural affinities doesn't seem to me to conflict with this judgment. The "roots search" of people of African ancestry in the United States has become a very similar process to the ancestry search of "rootless" white people, and the companies that do the work appear to be marketing the same genealogical research technology, with a few new tools, to a new (to them) and reasonably well-integrated "rootless" population on the basis of differentiating their by-now culturally normed blackness. It has become dominant-American-culture acceptable for the same reasons.

But this is what I mean by "increasingly ungrounded familiarity" -- it is as though I transplanted a bare-root plant from its native soil into a completely new environment, and it adapted to that environment, becoming thoroughly rooted there. The cedar growing in the Morton Arboretum is not Lebanese in terms of its environment. A transplanted biome, maintained carefully to preserve the conditions and environment of Lebanon, might grow cedars that resemble the cedars of Lebanon. But you could not transplant the fully-grown Illinois cedar to Lebanon and have it survive, and if you took the zoological specimen and planted it in your Illinois yard, it would also die. (Death is not essential to the analogy; it's just a fact of most fully-grown plants.) What we do instead is to take Illinois-grown cedars and decorate them with reasonably authentic but non-essential components of Lebanon. Non-threatening components that do not change the essential nature of the Illinois plant. These can be discarded at a moment's notice, and the plant remains what it is. It is so profoundly grounded in the "normal" of its actual environment that it can pretend to anything it so desires that does not significantly change that environment, and still remain "normal". Its environment of normalcy will in fact support most changes of that sort. The cedar can forget that it is growing in Illinois, but it retains a profoundly essential attachment to that environment, one that is very difficult to renounce because of its power over the organism's lifestyle.

2) "combined with a perverse obsession with the exotic" -- As I say, this can be positive or negative in value. By "perverse obsession" I mean that the object of focus is not typically taken on its own terms. Exoticism can support a wide variety of means of more-or-less authentically appropriating another culture. Consider Orientalism. I might say that the cultural re-appropriation of ethnic identities by whites is one example of positive-value exoticism -- just exotic enough to differentiate from the Same. Lawrence of Arabia is an extreme example of positive-value exoticism, while remaining a great example of the retention of white privilege and also the limits of tolerable transplant shock in terms of both the white environment and the white specimen. Sexual objectification of black women is also an example of positive-value exoticism -- note that I mean the value assigned to the exotic is positive within a given subjective framework, not that the behavior is. Homophobia, Islamophobia, focused racism (as opposed to the more prevalent generic racism in which every white person participates -- I mean people with expressed antisemitic views, for example) -- these would be major examples of negative-value obsession with the exotic.

To some extent, this is merely the flip-side of having an identity based upon a shifting conglomerate of social normativity. It is attached to a shifting conglomerate of things defined by their difference from the normal. Defined by acceptable or unacceptable difference, and frequently informally ranked as such from "good" to "bad". At the extreme, this can boil down to an absolute expression of one particular as universally normal and the exclusion of all difference -- see "orthodoxy and heresy". This would tend to be the zenith of negative-value exoticism. White supremacy in its stereotypically assertive, focused form, for an example in the whiteness spectrum. (Again, as opposed to the more prevalent generic assumption of white supremacy in which every white person participates because of the trained power dynamics of racist culture.) But the blip in my consciousness when I see a black person, and know that they're a black person and so I should be careful to treat them better because I'm white, is no less exoticism. A behavior-corrective self-conscious obsession with difference is still perverse, and it knows itself to be so!


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