White Divestment

I am currently working on a book project, titled White Divestment, which has been supported with a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. The project was sparked by some of my reflections on the ways in which white self-scrutiny shores up whiteness, a topic taken up extensively by scholars such as George Yancy. The idea for the project was prompted by a curious idea for slave reparations presented in a video on YouTube. Here is how I presented the project to Leverhulme:

In an obscure video on YouTube, a black Trump supporter using the moniker “Make Malcolm X Great Again” (“MMXGA”) proposes that the United States government use bitcoin to pay reparations to the American Descendants of Slavery. Curiously, MMXGA does not calculate the sum of reparations based on the dispossession of black life, which, in reparations debates, tends to be valued through lost wages, ungranted land, and/or racial wealth gaps. Instead, he calculates reparations based on a $55 million jury award paid to Erin Andrews, a white celebrity sports broadcaster. In 2016, Andrews’ individual sovereignty was violated by a white stalker who watched her undress through the keyhole of her hotel room door. MMXGA’s proposal is based on the assumption that racial capitalism values white life at $55 million. Each American Descendant of Slavery should therefore be entitled to the same amount for the violation of their ancestors’ sovereignty. Following MMXGA’s logic, the thesis of my book project, White Divestment, is that anti-racist white praxis in the United States (US) must be oriented towards a future in which whiteness is literally and figuratively broke.

This book project seeks to intervene in the non-performative nature of “white pedagogy” whereby people who identify as white shore up whiteness through learning about anti-black racism through engaging with black suffering (1). In so doing, this book adds to the literature on “dismantling” (2), “unmaking” (3), and “displacing” (4) whiteness. However, I am not merely approaching whiteness as a social construct and political investment in the materiality, privileges, and rewards of being white. I am also approaching whiteness as a fleshly and material way of being in the world that has emerged historically and relationally through that investment. I am thus centering the aesthetic interiority of whiteness, which is at ease with the potentiality and inviolability of its selfhood, in awe of its accumulated and ostensibly refined sensory apparatus, and always at work denying and deferring affective potentiality to others (5). Drawing on cultural studies and critical whiteness studies, I argue that white anti- racist praxis requires a recalculated aesthetic, oriented towards an anti-possessive future whereby white subjectivities only feel the absence of desire to cash in on whiteness.

With this introduction, the first chapter of White Divestment brings the unintelligible cries of Erin Andrews on the witness stand into conversation with various examples of weaponised white femininity in the US: Amy Cooper calling the police on Chris Cooper, a black birdwatcher in Central Park; the fictionalised character of Connie Kendrickson in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmen; the role of Carolyn Bryant Donham in the murder of Emmitt Till; and, the conjured white women sitting on Homer Plessy’s train. I approach these inarticulate sonic performances through understanding women’s reproductive labour as a white patriarchal possession (6) and binary sex as a “product of racial thought” (7). Through contrasting Black Study’s aesthetic engagement with Aunt Hester’s unintelligible screams in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography (8), I consider how these cries escalate the value of white interiority through a well-theorised phenomenon: the white construction of black masculine threat (9). Inspired by Maile Arvin’s use of contemporary art in critiques of whiteness (10), I am searching for artworks that teach how divesting whiteness means emptying its soundscape until these weaponised cries, and the white interiority they signify, are worthless.

In the next chapter, I turn to Heather Heyer, the 32-year old white woman who was murdered by a white vigilante while protesting at a neo-nazi white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through remembering Heyer, I query into the peculiar condition of white people who die as “race traitors” through acts of treason against whiteness (11). I consider Heyer’s life and death in relation to the evangelical concept of “disinterested benevolence,” which Frederick Douglass attributed to American abolitionist John Brown after he was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry (12). Both disinterestedness and benevolence have been foundational to the hierarchical construction between the universal white subject (“Man”) and the particularity of racialized subjects (13). In conversation with biopolitical theorisations of white people as “subjects of sovereignty,” I query into the possibility that disinvested whiteness can only emerge in these examples of white-on-white, racially motivated murder. Here, white victims of white violence are transfigured into “objects of sovereignty” as they die in violation of whiteness (14).

In the final chapter, I return to MMXGA’s call to use blockchain as the medium for reparations. I present a performance-based artwork in which I use the book, White Divestment, as a microreparation. This artwork engages with whiteness as an epistemic force, a material possession, and a historical assemblage of repeated colonial-racial violence. Engaging with Sara Ahmed’s critique of complaint procedures (15), this artwork conjures a scenario in which a university must purchase a book that I cited in White Divestment for each report of a racist microaggression at the university. I will perform this intervention by stacking each book cited in White Divestment on a bookstack in my university library. I will document the performance on video, which will then be exhibited on a loop. A still image from this documentation will be used as the book cover.

This artwork intervenes into the limits of white pedagogy and the constant deferral of paying white debt (16). The endless blockchain of books makes visible what I read in the always failed attempt to arrive at becoming an anti-racist white person through study aloneThe blockchain also represents the violent record of whiteness repeating itself through microaggressions. Yet the repeated book purchases drain the imagined institution’s bank account so long as the microaggressions endure. Moreover, the books push epistemically against stores of knowledge that are complicit with racial capitalism. Through engaging with theories of race as technology (17), I use this artwork to illustrate that whiteness is destined to repeat itself unless whiteness writes self-decay into its epistemic and material algorithms.

1 “Saidiya Hartman on Insurgent Histories and the Abolitionist Imaginary.” 
2 Rodriguez and Villaverde, Dismantling White Privilege.
3 Brander Rasmussen, The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.
4 Frankenberg, Displacing Whiteness.
5 Several books inform this theorisation including Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents; McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter; Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom; Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling; Weheliye, Habeas Viscus.
6 Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery.
7 Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling, 18.
8 Moten, Black and Blur; Moten, In the Break; Hartman, Scenes of Subjection.
9 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.
10 Arvin, Possessing Polynesians.
11 Ignatiev and Garvey, Race Traitor.
12 Ronda, Reading the Old Man, 55.
13 Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes.
14 Angie as quoted in Hesse, “White Sovereignty (…), Black Life Politics,” 592.
15 Ahmed, “Complaint as Diversity Work.”
16 Day, “Accumulation by Education White Property and Racialized Debt.”
17 Coleman, “Race as Technology”; Benjamin, “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.”