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Subject: Review:The Social Construction of Whiteness(Nelson)

Subject: Review: WHITE WOMEN, RACE MATTERS(Besse)

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 1995 10:47:17 -0500
Reply-To: llfield@ilstu.edu
From: "laura field"


                            Reviewed by:
                            Laura Field
                      Illinois State University
                           April 9, 1995

     "There is one right way to do whatever is required". Most of us
recognize the problems associated with this type of reasoning. Still some
continue to go right on using it. Why? Well, according to feminist Ruth
Frankenberg, she claims that finding a "one right way" could possibly
improve feminist theory and the experiences of all women.
Unfortunately, she did not realize the error of her ways until accusations
of "being part of the problem of racism" were raised. But Frankenberg was
not alone in making this mistake. Feminists have often tried to incorporate
the complex dynamics of race, class, and gender, into an inclusive
experience shared by all women. But many women of color assert that the
movement often emphasizes problems associated with gender bias and ignores
the issue of racism.
     To try and better understand her own "racial thinking", Frankenberg
chose to explore the "racial thinking" of white women in America. Her
analysis was drawn from interviews of thirty women, some feminists, others
not. By closely examining their communities, early associations,
and intimate relationships, it is concluded that early beliefs and
perceptions helped to form their racial thinking. Assessing the difficulty
these women had with articulating the meaning of "whiteness", it is
discovered that this is the "normative" and thus, the "invisible" meaning of
"white identity" for many white Americans. But the study then begins to
quickly weaken with the shift towards using some rather "far-reaching"
analysis. In other words, Frankenberg begins to spend most of her time
encouraging these women to talk freely about their lives and race. Then she
reinterprets their comments and explains the "real meaning" behind what
was said. The following discussion of "paradigms" helps to clarify the
weakness in her analysis.
     The essence of the thesis seems to be that people use three
paradigms to think through race. The first paradigm "essential racism"
emphasizes race differences understood in hierarchial terms of biological
inequality. Essential racism historically dominated white thinking in the
United States. Although none of the women directly embraced essential
racism, Frankenberg claims that it was often a framework for the second
paradigm "color and power-evasiveness". Especially when words like
"difference" and "sameness" were expressed.
     To think through race, color and power-evasiveness was a means of
asserting that everyone is the same, all have the same chances in U.S.
society, and any failure to achieve success is the fault of the individual.
For example, in the interview with "Irene", she uses color and power-evasive
language in stating that:

         "I want my grandchildren to meet people with a range of
          racial and cultural origins. For the more you do so,
          the more you realize there is no difference".

In emphasizing "sameness" Irene was analyzed as a person who was really
rejecting the idea of white racial superiority. Irene's comments were
interpreted as a form of repression for denying the differences that race
makes in people's lives. "Irene's statement simply allowed her to feel good
and to avoid feeling bad about racial inequality"(157).
     Another example of color and power-evasiveness was with "Joan". She
describes her memories of racial and cultural differences as a child:

          "I don't think I thought I was different from them. I
           just took it in stride 'like a bunch of kittens' all
           of them are different colors"(145).

Joan's use of the metaphor "little kittens" implies much more than it
appears. Her statement was analyzed as actually revealing a "differentiation
that is innocent of hostility". Her metaphor was a repression of her true
feelings that "noticing color is not a good thing to do". But more
importantly, Joan's comments revealed that she really believes
"nonwhiteness" is bad in and of itself (145).
     Frankenberg's analysis of white women thinking through race is not only
filled with far-reaching psychoanalysis, it also elaborates on the need for
placing blame. Both the feelings of guilt and blame were found in the use
of the third paradigm "race cognizance". Race cognizance has been defined
as a critical perspective of the status quo. Additionally, it recognizes
that race makes a difference in people's lives and racism makes a
difference in U.S. society. An example of race cognizance was found in the
interview with "Clare", who was attempting to define what "white" meant:

          "I think of people like the Ku Klux Klan. But
           I'm not the Ku Klux Klan. But my subconscious
           says, yes you are, because that's what we learn
           about what white is.....You know, there is
           something good in us, but what is it? And where
           is it, and why can't we articulate that too?"

Clare was analyzed as a person struggling with her own racism. Frankenberg
claims that regardless of whether or not Clare is an actual Klan member "she
inherits it by default; for it is implicated in one's racial positioning
whether one chooses it to be or not"(171). Furthermore, Clare's statement is
interpreted as an expression of fear where "she believes she is like a Ku
Klux Klan member, both because she is white and because as a white person
she is linked to colonialism in a general sense (171).
     Essentially Frankenberg has identified "racist thinking" in the
comments of: Irene, because she expressed how she wanted to see her
grandchildren build relationships with children of all races, and; Joan,
because she used a simple metaphor to describe the racial mixture of
children she grew up with. But Frankenberg analyzes Clare's thoughts as
the "least racist", because she is more willing to admit responsibility
for all racism; including racist activity prior to her birth. What's wrong
with this analysis? A great deal.
     First, Frankenberg seems to be basing all her assumptions on the idea
that human behavior represents human nature. Yet, human behavior largely
represents what has been taught, learned, and modeled, and does not
represent human potential. Simply because these women were born white does
not mean they were born racist. Secondly, she places too much emphasis on
the history of dominance and submission. Which is probably the biggest
impediment we have today in learning how to live as equal human beings.
Furthermore, her negativity about human potential leaves little hope for
positive change. And lastly, her need to place blame on people for
activity that they had absolutely nothing to do with can only ensue
hostility, and create deterrence for any future problem solving. Trying to
place blame only forces people to feel defensive, which eventually leads to
less communication and more misunderstandings.
     Frankenberg's work lacks a framework for positive change, and only
reinforces the helplessness of people who already feel that way. Her method
of trying to analyze and categorize everything into simplistic
paradigms is just another attempt to find "a one right way" to solve a
complex and multifaceted problem. Resolving issues and communicating
differences is not an easy task for anyone. But using a fabricated form of
analysis to share information, can only create insidious and hurtful
misunderstandings between people.

Date: Tue, 11 Apr 1995 10:47:17 -0500
Reply-To: bhnelso@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu
From: "blair nelson"
Subject: Review:The Social Construction of Whiteness(Nelson)


                 Reviewed by Blair H. Nelson, bhnelso@ilstu.edu
                           Illinois State University

     Tell me what you think and then I will tell you what you said.   Maybe
this is what Ruth Frankenberg should have told the 30 women that she
interviewed for this book.  This book might even look good on the reading
list of a psychoanalysis course, if there is one.  At any rate Ms.
Frankenberg would make the perfect instructor because she has undoubtedly
mastered the craft.  In each of the sections of interviews she placed in the
book, Frankenberg spent the next 2 pages telling the reader not only what
the interviewee said, but also why they said it.  She was very good at
arriving at any conclusion she wanted in terms of "decoding" the words of
the thirty women.  She even somewhat admitted this:  "I hope that, in the
chapters that follow, I have left room for disagreement and alternate
readings.  However, it should be clear too that the editorial choices were
mine--while readers can reinterpret the material I have included, they are
at a disadvantage with regard to what has been left out"(p.30).  The next
question I would ask her is why she would say this if there wasn't some
material left out that most likely does not provide evidence for her
hypothesis?  Accurate research should include both.

     The first sentence in chapter 1, "My argument in this book is that race
shapes white women's lives" tells the reader right away what her mission is.
Whether or not this is true, in my estimation this book deals with racism as
a whole, not merely how it shapes just the lives of white women but society
as a whole.  Just because she used exclusively women in her study doesn't
mean the experiences stated cannot be a diagnosis of society as a whole.
Whether I agree with her diagnosis or not, that is what I believe she

     Beth Ellison, one of the women who participated in the study grew up in
an all white neighborhood, stated that the only specific racist thing she
could remember when she was about 14 a Black doctor and his family moved
into their neighborhood and some of the residents tried to stop them from
doing so.  She said about all she could remember thinking was how disgusting
that was for people to try and stop other people from living in a certain
area.  It was after this that Frankenberg started to tell the reader what
this all meant.  She went on to explain that it was telling that a white
girl would only see the racism to the extent that people were trying to
stop a Black family from moving into their neighborhood.  She more or less
said that Beth should have realized that the very fact that it was an all
white neighborhood smacked of racism.  But really, how perceptive does a 14
year old girl have to be?  Beth more or less just said she was being a kid,
she wasn't concerned with political issues.

     In another interview with a woman who grew up in a small rural town
outside San Diego, Frankenberg was questioning her about her childhood.  The
woman had stated she was very interested in the Aztec and Inca people of
Latin America.  Here again Frankenberg was able to take a seemingly simple
statement about the interests of a child and come to some sort of conclusion
that the child was racist.  Just because this woman went into Mexico on a
trip for school to give away some items to the poor, Frankenberg said she
was exhibiting "...the classic colonialist view of the conquered society",
going on further to say, "...within a colonialist ideology, it is the
conquerors duty to save the poor native" (p.59).  Why can't a young girl
simply want to help someone else who might be a little less fortunate
without turning it into a political and social indictment?

     The results were not always what Frankenberg expected though, or at
least she couldn't dive deep enough into the words the interviewee said and
make them mean what she wanted to.  At one point one of the women seemed to
abandon the feminist viewpoint.  Louise Glebocki was saying she liked to
hang out with the Chicanos, and when asked why this was so she said one of
the reasons was because the gender roles were specifically defined.  She
noted that her aunt was married to a Mexican and that she still thinks a
"woman should be a woman, and in her place" (p.67).  What I thought was so
interesting about that story was that we are told over and over how
patriarchical the white race is, but when we are told this happens in other
races as well, people like Frankenberg find "jarring" but go into no further
discussion on the problems in those other cultures and races.

     Frankenberg still criticized the viewpoints of the women even when they
pricisely stated they didn't hold racist views and that they see everybody
as equal.  Things might never change if people are not believed when they
say something or when their actions might speak for their words.  To be sure
there is no doubt that racism exists, but at some point people like
Frankenberg will have to trust in people when their actions and words speak
loud and clear.  One could make the case that this unwillingness to do this
leads us close to the hypothesis that there is an industry out there that
people like Frankenberg call home, and without these problems, they wouldn't
have a job.

     Using the white race as a reference point is highly ciriticized by
Frankenberg as well.  But I would have to say that right or wrong, if we
were to study the effects of racism in a culture where white is not the
majority, they too would use the dominant race (in terms of numbers) as
their reference point also.  She talked about the when the women were
discussing different races they would use the words "other" or "different".
But the fact of the matter is we are all different from one another.  As I
stated above, no matter what color we are, we all use our own experiences as
a reference point in any matter we are discussing.  And one of those
experiences certainly is our race.

     No book written from a liberal standpoint would be complete without
bringing in the notion that our problems we face are the fault of
capitalism.  To quote one of the women, "The good things about whites are to
do with folk arts, music.  Because other things have power associated with
them" (p.200).  And the beat goes on.

     Similarly, the book wouldn't be complete without linking racism to
conservatism.  Frankenberg writes, "...the conservative racist view that
African American culture leaves African American people ill equipped for
advancement in the modern age" (p.201).  In my estimation people are either
racist or they aren't.  In fact I couln't even tell you what a liberal
racist or a conservative racist are.  To use this terminology is just an
attempt to further a cause or place a mark on the ideology of others when
it has no relevance what so ever.

     With Ms. Frankenberg's ability to arrive at the conlusion she wanted
to, it really wouldn't have made a difference what the women said in her
interview with them.  The editorial comments are written very well in the
fact that they show the reader that what she thinks the women were saying is
really what they did say.  But with any issue it is possible to dive so deep
that a number of different conclusions can be reached.  So if that was Ms.
Frankenberg's intentions, then I would say she has succeeded with this book,
but when one reads it, common sense needs to play a role also.

Thu Apr 13 13:12:46 1995
Reply-To: nlbesse@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu
From: "nicole besse"
Subject: Review: WHITE WOMEN, RACE MATTERS(Besse)

           Ruth Frankenburg, WHITE WOMEN, RACE MATTERS
              (University of Minnesota Press, 1993)

                           Reviewed by:
                           Nicole Besse
                     Illinois State University
                          April 12, 1995

     What is whiteness...a state of mind, a social construction
or a standpoint from which white people look at society and life
in general?  As far as I can tell, whiteness is a set of unmarked
and unnamed cultural practices that include historical, social
and political norms and is inherently invisible to white people,
but affects the way we understand our daily lives and identities.
In her book WHITE WOMEN, RACE MATTERS, Ruth Frankenburg explores
all facets of "whiteness"--a word that she coined--and then
attempts to draw conclusions about how and why racism shapes
white people's lives as much as it does black people's lives.
Frankenburg argues that race shapes white women's lives "in the
same way both men's and women's lives are shaped by their
     Frankenburg uses life narratives of thirty women living in
California at the time of the interviews for her research. She
begins by looking at five specific women's childhoods.  Here
Frankenburg's method seems to loose clout.  It seems that
Frankenburg picked the five women who said the things she needed
to hear in order to reach her preconceived conclusions.
Frankenburg then goes on to analyze intimate relationships and
the way the women think about race.  Time and time again she is
guilty of reading in to a simple statement about the way things
are, and bringing out of it an entirely erroneous conclusion.
     Frankenburg poses calculated questions to these women and
reinterprets their responses to achieve her specific purpose.
Over and over again a respondent would answer a question or say
something that seemed to me to be totally innocent and free from
any racist statements, but Frankenburg would somehow read in to
what was said and find something inherently racist. For example,
Beth, a women who grew up in an "apparently all-white childhood,"
commented in the interview about, Frankenburg says, "a forgotten
and suddenly remembered domestic worker"

     "Ever since I was a baby, Black people have been around, the
person who taught me to walk was a Black woman..."

Frankenburg goes on to interpret that with, "Black domestic
workers, despite involvement in Beth's life on  the very intimate
level of teaching her to walk, seemed...to have been so
insignificant as not to have [been] mentioned earlier in our
I do not remember who it was who taught me to walk and I do not
consider learning to walk or who taught me to walk as an
important life memory. Not that walking itself is not important,
but learning to walk or who taught me to walk I would argue is
not important.  Beth probably did not mention this sooner because
this information was most likely given to her by someone else--
her mother, father or an older sibling.  Therefore it was not an
actual memory of hers but one that was fed to her by family
members.  Who taught you to walk is basically insignificant when
you talk about your life.  The domestic worker was not
necessarily "insignificant," but the act of learning to walk was
insignificant and it was only mentioned for the sake of answering
the questioned posed.
     Another case of Frankenburg over-analyzing a statement  is
in reference to a women named Clare.  Clare lived in a town
located next to an Indian reservation that also had a small
Mexican American population.  When asked about the racial
composition of her town she states, "...I would say probably no
Blacks.  Maybe one or two"(56).  Frankenburg goes on to say,
"What Clare's cloudy memory on this point...indicates is the lack
of importance accorded to Black people in the community by
whites"(56).  Once again Frankenburg over-analyzes a statement
made by someone about race.  Why is it that the lack of
importance is applied to the entire white population in the town?
Another person may be very specific and know exactly the
percentages of Blacks to Whites to Native Americans to Mexican
Americans.  As a child, Clare probably found this information
unimportant because children tend to worry about themselves and
not what others are doing around them.  Clare was probably
concerned more with Tommy Jones or being popular or having the
coolest clothes and not how many Black people were in her school.
And this is not necessarily because Clare is racist, but probably
because most kids are basically self-centered.
     Besides the fact that Frankenburg will use any means to
reach the conclusions she wants to, Frankenburg analyzes three
ways that white women "think through race."  Her analysis gets
better in this part of the book, because she stops relying
entirely on the life narratives of 30 white women and uses
historical and political movements to reach conclusions about
racism.    Frankenburg says people fall into three categories of
thinking through race:  essentialist racism, color evasion and
race cognizance.  Essentialist racism she argues is the type that
has dominated white thinking for most of history.  It is the type
that proposed race as an "axis of difference."  Although
Frankenburg says none of the women she interviewed had this type
of ideology, she claims that all whites refer back to it
unconsciously because it is part of the social construction of
     The second type which is color evasion, is a "color-
blindness," that is not seeing or acknowledging race differences
at all.  Frankenburg feels this type "leads white women back
into...structural and institutional dimensions of
inequality"(143).  Women with this ideology feel noticing a
person's color is "not a good thing to do" and Frankenburg argues
that this ideology suggests that "color, which means non-
whiteness, is bad in and of itself"(145).
     The third type of thinking through race that Frankenburg
identifies is race cognizance, which suggests recognizing
differences, but not essentialist ones.  Women with this ideology
realize that race makes a difference in people's lives and that
racism is a significant factor in shaping U.S. society.
Frankenburg argues that this type of thinking through race
explains the contradictions of racism--it recognizes inequality
and white privilege, but it does not attempt to explain or
justify inequality.
     Although Frankenburg obviously leans toward the third type
of thinking through race as a solution to racist thinking, she
seems to criticize all three.  Towards the end of WHITE WOMEN,
RACE MATTERS, her thinking and analysis become very abstract and
hard to grasp.  She seems to feel that everyone who is white is
inherently racist.  No matter what is said, Frankenburg somehow
turns it into the racism that stems  from the "social
construction of whiteness," that is so inherent in white society.