The following is a response to Joel Olsen’s Whiteness and the 99% and David Roediger’s “On Autobiography and Theory,” from The Wages of Whiteness.
The readings for “Race and the 99%” focus on how white privilege is deeply embedded within current day politics, social organization and ideology. The issues raised in both Roediger and Olson’s work frame how this white privilege remains in alternative settings, using the Occupy Movement as as example, to expose the tension between the white population and the “other”. Both authors identify how this race problem is created by the privileged, making it a “white problem”
Roediger’s first chapter, “On Autobiography and Theory” from The Wages of Whiteness addresses these issue of racial divide through the history of the work force and waged labour. He talks about racism as an abstract issue. The aims and ideas of the white worker to maintain control have been confused as hatred for the black man (Roediger 6). Naturalizing whiteness and oversimplifying race weakened American liberalism and Marxist values, as these comparisons between slavery and wage labour constructed an image of the Black population as the “other” (Roediger 6, 14). Roediger approaches these race relations in a way he believes the academic world is lacking, looking at the class-specific issues of racism that determines how white workers have developed their view on labour organizations: creating a labour system that keeps higher paying jobs for the white population in order to remain in power (Roediger 7).
Joel Olson’s article, “Whiteness and the 99%”, exposes the tension between race in the Occupy movement through “left colourblindness” and “white democracy”. He uses these terms as a means to expose how white privilege functions through oppressing the “other”. Under the assumption that race is a divisive issue allows for white concern’s and interests to be kept in the forefront of the Occupy movement, holding privilege over what concerns are specialized and which are too narrow. This manifests into white democracy, where white concerns are considered superior to every person of “colour”. Olson comments that this is not democracy but tyranny, whereby whites insist on freedom, equal opportunity and hard work through oppressing other racial groups. It is this mindset, distorting problems so that they are universal, that accepts race as “real” through social organization.
Both of these articles address race as in the abstract, the social organization of believing there are biologically essential differences between people. Roediger suggests that class is much more fundamentally real and important than race through political and historical means to determine these race relations (Roediger 7). Labour organizations created by the white working class adopt racist ideals, confusing the need for power with a hatred for the other. He encourages the reader to reconceptualize the essentialized assumptions of race and class through the specific way white workers “fear of dependency on wage labour and the necessities of capitalist work discipline” (Roediger 12).
White privilege exists through power dynamics, framed in language, politics and social organization. Meaning exists historically through adaptation and interpretation; the development of language encourages dichotomies to exist. In speaking about the power of language, I must bring Foucault into my argument. He states, “each sign is in itself not the thing that offers itself to interpretation but an interpretation of other signs” (Foucault 275). We can only relate to something through difference, as we understand concepts through opposition. Language reinforces binary relationships and dichotomous hierarchies, leading to white democracy.
These examples of white privilege are easily recognized, but hard to escape. It is these systems of oppression that silence and dominate those who do not carry the invisible knapsack of privilege. It is the unconscious acting out of ideologies within decision-making processes. If these blind actions of white privilege remain within the most alternative pockets of people in North America, is there a chance to acknowledge these invisible systems of racial dominance and give voice when one is denied? It is easy to imagine a bleak outcome, but we must not ignore the growing space reserved for assessing the critical study of whiteness.
Understanding as a phenomenon that emerged out of cost effective measures with waged labour frames how abstract the idea of race is. As these measures became policy, social control was shaped by a series of laws, hegemonic privilege, power and hierarchy. These economic profits have waged powerful essentialized notions surrounding race, notions that can be undone, but first white privilege must be deconstructed and illuminated.