Social Justice Usage
Source: Bailey, Alison. “‘White Talk’ as a Barrier to Understanding the Problem with Whiteness.” In George Yancy (ed.), White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem? Lexington Books, 2014, pp. 37–57, p. 41.
White talk is the lingua franca of race talk among white folks. It’s a privilege-exercising discourse that usually springs from our lips without notice. White people habitually fall into white talk as a strategy for steering clear of entertaining the possibility that many of our actions, utterances, and thoughts contribute to the perpetuation of racial injustices and that we bear some responsibility for these. As Alice McIntyre argues, white talk “serves to insulate white people from examining our individual and collective role(s) in the perpetuation of racism. It is the result of whites talking uncritically with/to other whites, all the while resisting critique and massaging each others’ racist attitudes, beliefs and actions.” White talk is a family of verbal strategies that whites regularly deploy to excuse us “from the difficult and almost paralyzing task of engaging [our] own whiteness.” We use white talk to derail conversations on race, to dismiss counterarguments, to retreat into silence, to interrupt speakers and topics, and to collude with other whites in creating a ‘culture of niceness’ that makes it difficult to critique the white world. White fear and anxiety drive these conversational detours, dismissals, and denials.
New Discourses Commentary
Social Justice is, as a matter of the very foundations of its Theory, very interested in the way things are talked about—discourses (see also, discourse analysis). In particular, not least thanks to the postmodern influences of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (see also, deconstruction, episteme, and power-knowledge), it is particularly concerned about the way that systemic social power is created, maintained, enforced, and taught through the ways that language is used (see also, socialization). Thus, it pays a lot of attention to the way people speak (and write) and what that reveals about their hidden, implicit, unconscious biases (see also, critical, critical theory, close reading, code, mask, and critical consciousness).
As such, we arrive at the term “white talk,” which may date back to W. E. B. Du Bois (see below) and is meant to be encompassing of how white people speak from a social position of whiteness about race and racism (see also, colortalk). This idea contains a few meanings and is widely described (following Du Bois) as “fluttering,” although “stammering” might be more appropriate (see also, white fragility and racial stress). Usually, it also implies white ignorance of racial complexities as a result of white privilege and is believed to be patronizing (see also, white equilibrium and white innocence) while also exhibiting “fragile” defensiveness. For instance, “white talk” would include statements like, “I have a black friend,” “I marched in the ‘60s,” or “Black people have made great contributions to science.” These are examples of white talk that are not necessarily coded dogwhistles for how whiteness is Theorized to believe that people of color should stay down (as sometimes goes with colortalk). Rather, it also includes speech that implies that whiteness believes that people of color are down alongside fumbling attempts by white people to position themselves as “good whites” and to indicate allyship and solidarity, often in defensive tones, when topics of race are brought up.
In the example below, particularly where the shooting of Treyvon Martin is invoked by critical race educator Alison Bailey, it’s clear that part of “white talk” is expressing care about issues considered particularly relevant to the black community. In fact, this is a way of framing that care—which is required as a part of antiracism—as a self-interested act by which a white person can “flutter” around the issue to make herself look good. This, then, is another example of how critical Social Justice Theory enables the problematization of any response or behavior made by “dominant” groups (here: white) across identity differences Theorized to carry a power imbalance.
Ally/Allyship; Antiracism; Bias; Close reading; Code; Colortalk; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Deconstruction; Derridean; Discourse; Discourse analysis; Dominance; Episteme; Foucauldian; Good white; Identity; Implicit bias; Mask; Position; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Problematize; Race; Racial stress; Racism (systemic); Social Justice; Socialization; Solidarity; Systemic power; Theory; White; White equilibrium; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; Whiteness
Source: Bailey, Alison. “‘White Talk’ as a Barrier to Understanding the Problem with Whiteness.” In George Yancy (ed.), White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem? Lexington Books, 2014. pp. 37–57, p. 38.
What Alice McIntyre calls “white talk” is a predictable set of discursive patterns that white folks habitually deploy when asked directly about the connections between white privilege and institutional racism. I used to believe that white talk was a welcomed response to the request that I examine my whiteness. I routinely (and very sincerely) made many of the above declarations. Sometimes, in moments of defensiveness, I still do. I used to imagine that my remarks would be interpreted as expressions of solidarity, compassion, friendliness, and support. I thought that by pointing to my goodness that people of color would feel safe around me, and see me as a trustworthy ally, one of the good ones, an exception. I was wrong. It’s so much more complicated.
White talk has a long and annoying history. W. E. B. Du Bois alludes to it in the opening lines of The Souls of Black Folks (1903) where he reflects on his many conversations with white folks about what at the time was called “the Negro problem.” He begins:
Between me and the other world there is an ever-unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? They say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought in Mechanicsville; or, do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil. At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I seldom answer a word.
Du Bois’s exchange not only marks the burdens of blackness, but also points to white folks’ discomfort with the possibility that the so-called Negro problem’s origins are closer to home. It lies not in the character of some “problem people,” but in white folks’ general fears and anxieties.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “‘White Talk’ as a Barrier to Understanding the Problem with Whiteness.” In George Yancy (ed.), White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem? Lexington Books, 2014, pp. 37–57, pp. 38–39.
Du Bois’ interlocutors’ implicit queries can be traced back to these fears and anxieties. They flutter not only around the so-called Negro problem, but also around their whiteness. A century later, white folks rehearse this familiar chorus: “my best friend is black”; or, “doesn’t the Treyvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida, make your blood boil?” We flutter.
My project in this chapter is to explain why the question “How does it feel to be a white problem?” cannot be answered in the fluttering grammar of white talk. The whiteness of white talk lies not only in its having emerged from white mouths, but also in its evasiveness—in its attempt to suppress fear and anxiety, and its consequential [if unintended] reinscription and legitimation of racist oppression. For this reason it is ontologically impossible for white talk to answer the question “How does it feel to be a white problem?” White talk is designed, indeed scripted, for the purposes of evading, rejecting, and remaining ignorant about the injustices that flow from whiteness and its attendant privileges.
Revision date: 2/3/20