'White Talk' as a Barrier to Understanding Whiteness

In George Yancy (ed.), What's It Like to Be a White Problem? Lexington Books. pp. 37-57 (2014)
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My project is to explain why the question ‘How does it feel to be a white problem?’ cannot be answered in the fluttering grammar of white talk. The whiteness of white talk lies not only in its having emerged from white mouths, but also in its evasiveness—in its attempt to suppress fear and anxiety, and its consequential [if unintended] reinscription and legitimation of racist oppression. I White talk is designed, indeed scripted, for the purposes of evading, rejecting, and remaining ignorant about the injustices that flow from whiteness and its attendant privileges. I want to suggest a new point of entry—a way to flip the script, so to speak. I begin with some observations about the basic advantages and disadvantages of using white talk as a route into the white problem. My account develops an expanded version of Alice MacIntyre’s definition of white talk that is attentive to the racialized bodily scripts that accompany white talk. I argue that white talk persists because it has an enduring and powerful moral, ontological, and epistemic pay off for white folks. I explore each payoff with an eye towards clarifying how white talk functions to maintain the illusion that we are invulnerable beings. Next, I pause to reply to the popular objection that this particular critique of white talk silences white people in conversations on race. If we cannot address the question ‘how does it feel to be a white problem’ in the fluttering grammar of white talk, then how shall we begin? In closing, I suggest that we might reduce fluttering by replacing white talk with a discourse of vulnerability, where vulnerability is defined not as weakness, but as a condition for potential. I offer some brief guidelines for how we might start this conversation.



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Alison Bailey
Illinois State University

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