Saturday, March 04, 2006

Review: The Heart of Whiteness

[Robert Jensen. The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege. San Francisco: City Lights, 2005.]

This is a short, direct book that adds to the growing literature of white people (taking careful cues from writers and activists and other people of colour) trying to take some responsibility for theorizing our own privilege and strategizing about how to undermine it. Jensen is a professor of journalism in Texas. He has written lots of good stuff on racism, sexism, U.S. foreign policy, and the media, and he is a voice worth listening to.

There is a certain necessity for books like this to always start at the beginning. After all, they are generally aimed at educating fellow white people, and most of us need that. And I'm not just talking about people who have never thought about it before, I'm talking about those of us who claim to have done so as well. Nonetheless, it does mean that books by white people that attempt to talk about racism from an anti-racist perspective -- or, at least, the non-academic subset of such books -- do tend to go over rather similar territory again and again. Over the years I have read books on similar stuff by Paul Kivel, Anne Bishop, Tim Wise, and Inga Muscio as well as this one, and however different the specific approach taken in each book, the basic conceptual area covered is much the same. But there is something useful about this redundancy, I suppose, because I think the diversity of approaches helps those concepts percolate down from the analytical area of the brain, through the wisdom-resistant barrier provided by commonsense grounded in our experience of privilege, and into the gut.

In any case, I can't help but compare this book to the related book I have read most recently: Inga Muscio's latest. Both deal with whiteness, with white supremacy, through the filter of their own experiences of the privileges it bestows and of working to oppose it. Where Muscio's book is long and lush and stylistically creative and funny and sarcastic, Jensen's is short and arid and traditionally informal and sober, almost bleak. Yet both are blunt and engage unflinchingly with history and with the social and psychoemotional realities of white supremacy and whiteness for white people. Both put their ongoing personal journeys on display, painful as those sometimes are. It is embarassingly essentialist to say this, but I can't help but wonder if some of the differences in style might be related to their socialized connection to their own emotions as, respectively, a queer white woman and a straight white man. Anyway, Muscio's lively and passionate prose drew me in and inspired me, but something about Jensen's approach -- sombre but passionate in his own way -- resonated with my own pattern of emotional responses to these issues, even if I did not find it quite so instinctively compelling in some ways.

Anyway, the instructions are the same: Go out and read a bunch of books about racism by Aboriginal people and people of colour. Then maybe read this one. Or do it the other way around. But definitely do both.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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