This comprehensive work details Cynthia Levine-Rasky’s approach to critical whiteness studies whilst doubling as an encyclopaedic tour of the field. Somewhat dense in places, the arguments constructed are convincing and will appeal to a broad range of readers; from those interested in ethnicity and social justice to a more methodological audience.
Levine-Rasky is an established critical whiteness studies scholar and her central focus here is the way in which whiteness is practiced; one should not pose the question ‘who is white?’, but rather ‘how is whiteness done?’ It is argued that ‘fractures’ in whiteness, both external in the form of class and ethnicity and internal, are crucial to understanding how whiteness operates. It is with these in mind that Levine-Rasky also re-establishes her methodological approach for assessing whiteness studies, and there are wider applications of her critical, relational and contextual framework which readers will find particularly useful.
The work is organised into five sections which comprise Levine-Rasky’s argument, but also act as a framework to guide the reader through the discipline. In the first, general theoretical principles are established which set out race and racism(s) as relational concepts – damaging to some whilst benefitting others – and also notions of power are addressed, stating:
“…the power to define Others, to set the parameters of inclusion…also establishes the terms of fundamental difference. It is ultimately an act of violence” (pg. 16)
Levine-Rasky’s correlates of whiteness (power, race, racialization and racism) are logical results of this tension in ethnic group boundary formation and will be familiar to ethnicity studies scholars. The final chapter in this first section (usefully for an introductory reader) sets out a history of whiteness studies, from the first referral to a ‘white people’ in 1613 through to contemporary works. Section two sets out the ways in which whiteness works – the processes – and begins by outlining how whiteness becomes normalised and naturalised. These ideas are developed into more complex notions of contextualised and dynamic identity through a thoroughly interesting discussion of Levine-Rasky’s earlier work on the integration of white and racialized students. The section concludes with two chapters dedicated to the ideological and exclusionary processes of whiteness, which will prove extremely useful for readers with an interest in structural inequality and racism in liberal democratic systems.
Sections three and four deal with ‘fractures’ of whiteness and are at the core of Levine-Rasky’s thesis. Section three asks what happens when whiteness intersects with other social positions such as class, or, more interestingly, ethnicity. Whilst maintaining that “social location is known only in relation to difference” (pg. 89), Levine-Rasky then considers the complex processes of support and contradiction which are consequences of whiteness.
Section four explores internal fractures, the so-called ‘psychic life of whiteness’. It is here that some readers may find themselves on less familiar ground, though the link with Charles Mills’ epistemology of ignorance (“…an agreement to misinterpret the world” (pg. 154)) is both logical and provocative. Psychoanalytic thought in racism studies is then considered and Chapter 17’s ‘Constructions of the Other in Popular Racism’ will be of particular interest to ethnicity scholars.
Section five has a more methodological focus and for me it is here that the work is most engaging. The author poses a framework for assessing approaches to whiteness studies, the three main factors of which are: critical perspectives (a focus on social change/justice), relationality (the positioning of the normal against the other), and context (meanings being constructed in specific times and places). Such a critical-relational-contextual approach has far broader appeal than whiteness studies; indeed, applying these three tenets when critically analysing social science evidence in general would surely be beneficial.
Overall it is, as the author states early on, unfortunate that the study of whiteness and its effects is still necessary. However this is a wide-ranging yet clearly argued book seeking a methodologically rigorous and theoretically sound approach to what is an extremely interesting field.
University of Exeter