THE HEART OF WHITENESS
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Can you tell us what your new book, The Heart of Whiteness:
Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, is about?
What is it trying to communicate?
ROBERT JENSEN: If white people are to make a meaningful contribution
to ending white supremacy, I think we have to be willing to
be harsh in our assessment of ourselves personally, while at
the same time staying focused on the importance of a larger
system of power. That is, we have to go deeply into ourselves
and simultaneously connect to a larger political analysis and
movement. That can be difficult to balance.
So, I wrote the book to try to think through that problem and,
I hope, model what a successful struggle with that could look
like. Part of the book is very personal, recounting some of
my efforts to deal with being white in a white-supremacist world.
And part of the book is analytical, puzzling through how to
understand race historically and theoretically.
It's a short book, only about 100 pages. I'm not trying to write
the definitive book on race from a white person's perspective.
Rather, I wanted to engage the subject as honestly as I could
in the hopes that it would spark others to want to take up a
ZNET: Where does the content come from? What went into making
the book what it is?
ROBERT JENSEN: A few years ago when my campus was embroiled
in debate over affirmative action, I wrote an essay about white
privilege, challenging white people to recognize that even when
we struggle to be anti-racist we walk through the world with
enormous privilege. I was surprised by the reaction -- both
hostile and supportive -- to that piece from around the
country. It seemed to provoke people in ways I would not have
several years after that, in essays and talks, I pursued the
question of how white people deal with race. I found audiences
were eager to deal with these difficult subjects, which pushed
me to challenge myself, personally and intellectually. I don't
consider myself a scholar of race in any technical sense. Instead,
this is a book that comes out of my personal and political work.
Parts of the book will certainly anger white people who want
to believe we have a “level playing field” in this
country. Parts of the book -- such as the section explaining
why Thomas Jefferson was a rapist – will likely anger
a wide range of people. And in other parts of the book, I try
to push liberals and leftists to challenge some of the assumptions
and practices we have grown comfortable with. I suppose it's
a book designed to piss off everyone in some fashion, I hope
for the sake of deepening our understanding.
What are your hopes for The Heart of Whiteness? What
do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given
the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will
you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the
whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was
worth all the time and effort?
ROBERT JENSEN: In one sense, it was worth the time and effort
for me simply because I had to confront some of my own failures
in the course of writing the book. I like to think I'm a better
person -- and will be more effectively politically -- for having
written the book. But beyond that I hope that people will read
it and feel that my attempt at honesty is worthwhile. So much
of the discussion around race in this country is saturated with
fear; certainly many white people are afraid to talk openly
about their real feelings and ideas. If this book helps break
down some of that fear, I would feel as if I had accomplished
few white writers have been able to point out the pathological
nature of white privilege and supremacy with the eloquence of
Robert Jensen. In The Heart of Whiteness, Jensen demonstrates
not only immense wisdom on the issue of race, but does so in
the kind of direct and accessible fashion that separates him
from virtually any other academic scholar, or journalist, writing
on these subjects today."
Tim Wise, author,
White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son
book offers an honest and rigorous exploration of what Jensen
refers to as the depraved nature of whiteness in the United
States. Mixing personal experience with data and theory, Jensen
faces down the difficult realities of race, racism, and white
privilege. He argues that any system that denies non-white people
their full humanity also keeps white people from fully
accessing their own.This
book is both a cautionary tale for those white people who believe
that they have transcended racism, and also an expression of
the hope for genuine
City Lights Publishers.
Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege
by Robert Jensen, forthcoming from City Lights, September 2005.