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The Question of Whiteness

Responding to widespread calls for the undoing and transformation of whiteness, this seminar explores the possibilities of antiracist visual activism through the question of whiteness. For “whiteness” is produced within the racialized encounter, at the intersection the instant of recognition (or misrecognition) and the wider historical moment. It is the foundational “object” of racial hierarchy, often represented by a statue. Faced with (Ivy League endorsed) “cultural distance nationalism” and efforts to provoke a “race war,” visual activism seeks instead to find a way to non-sovereign freedom in collective subjectivity. To that end, it takes intersectional cultural encounter and the will to hospitality as its ways of becoming. Such encounters result, as A. Sivanandan put it to white British people, from the process by which: “we are here because you were there.”

Course #
MCC-GE 3112
Media, Culture, and Communication

The seminar has two sections. In the first half, whiteness will be examined as a set of practices and infrastructures that shaped and were shaped by settler colonialism and plantation slavery in the world formed by British settler colonialism in what is now the US and Australia. This will be counterpointed with decolonial and antifascist ways of thinking.

In the second section, this perspective will inform the (re)thinking of visual and cultural studies in the UK (and elsewhere), from the moment when Barbadian writer George Lamming coined the concept “way of seeing” in London (1960), just after the radicalized violence of 1958-59 and at the beginning of national decolonization. From there, it looks at racism in Mrs. Thatcher’s “great moving right show”; the legacies of UK postcolonial melancholia in shaping Brexit and the current “hostile environment” in the UK (not to mention the US). 

The counterpoints here are Fallism movement from South Africa and campaigns of solidarity with migrants and refugees, studied both as legacies of British colonial white supremacy and how it might be resisted. 

As will be apparent, activists, artists and scholars of color have always had key insights into the undoing and transformation of the racial hierarchy known as “whiteness.” For those of us identified or identifying with groups historically designated “white,” this work can only be approached with a certain humility and openness—the prerequisites to hospitality.