Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, "The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege," is about? What is it trying to communicate?
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.
Itâ€™s a short book, only about 100 pages. Iâ€™m not trying to write the definitive book on race from a white personâ€™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 similar project.
Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
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 predicted.
For 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 donâ€™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 â€œlevel playing fieldâ€ 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 itâ€™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 â€œThe Heart of Whitenessâ€? 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?
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 Iâ€™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 something.
"The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege" by Robert Jensen, forthcoming from City Lights, September 2005. More information at: http://www.citylights.com/CLpub4th.html#4499