Book Review: Whiteness Fractured
In the book Whiteness Fractured (2013), sociologist Cynthia Levine-Rasky explains how whiteness is conceptualized in Canada and the United States. Drawing on both Judith Butler’s gender performativity and Michal Foucault’s biopower, Levine-Rasky suggests that whiteness requires a collective identity and routine to reinforce its meaning. In the second section of the book, Levine-Rasky presents the fractures of whiteness that stem from four domains of whiteness’s mechanisms: normalization, controlling terms of engagement, ideological commitments, and exclusory practices. Levine-Rasky applies Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, and intersectional approaches to the four domains of whiteness for the second section. In Normalization, whiteness is invisible. In Controlling Terms of Engagement, whiteness attempts to disguise racism as non-racial concerns, such as white parents expressing abhorrence about schools that have fewer white students (63-65). In Ideological Commitments, colorblindness is an instrument to ignore racism. Finally, in Exclusionary Practices, systemic inequalities create racial segregation between whites and BIPOC through institutions. Levine-Rasky uses a list of previous studies to prove systemic racism exists that allows racism to continue in everyday life, including the racial wealth gap between BIPOC and whites in the United States and Canada (80-84).
The book’s strength is that Levine-Rasky uses psychoanalysis to explain the practices of whiteness, which are the psychic mechanisms that include the following: narcissistic fantasies, splitting, projective identification, and trauma. A narcissistic fantasy emerges when white people fear losing their ego or sense of self. In psychoanalytic terms, splitting refers to the subject (white people) conceptualizing the object (BIPOC) as good or evil. Projective identification includes white people fearing that the role will reverse and that whites will become oppressed instead of BIPOC. Lastly, trauma refers to when white people are overwhelmed with their intense emotions, causing them to react to regain control over the racialized Other (160-163).
Drawing on Bhabha’s mimicry, Levine-Rasky describes how the racial ambiguity for Jewish people leads to anti-Semitism by fearing how the boundaries of white and non-white are unclear, evoking psychic mechanisms (139-141). Her psychoanalytic approach expounds on white people’s reactions to racism and anti-racism through the subconscious. White people may believe they are not racist consciously, without realizing how subconsciously they are racist. Another example is when Levine-Rasky explains how even specific anti-racism methods are questionable as they do not entirely challenge white people to form racial empathy. Levine-Rasky examines a few examples, including a book that mocks white people through cultural norms, anti-racist workshops, and blog websites by white people displaying their awareness of racism but not critically analyzing how harmful racism is against BIPOC. She notes that one workshop made racism seem like a “disease” that white people need to heal from, and how the individualized and personal narrative focus were framed through white guilt (199). The problem is that these workshops do not challenge racism on a structural level, the relentless influence of historical oppression, or the complexity of racism - including how willful and passionate ignorance leads white people to resist criticism by their confidence (153-157). In other words, white people with anti-racist intentions may instead practice racism by proving they are not racist to ease their ego.
The issue is that anti-racism requires openness, or exposing vulnerability, from whites and BIPOC, which is not a task everyone can do easily. Levine-Rasky takes author bell hooks’ account of white emotions as an example to explain whiteness’ functionality; particularly when hooks explains that white terror impacts how BIPOC live, from the way they love their closest family members, to how they address and express their emotions; hooks recalled white feminist women laughing at her and women of color for being distrustful or afraid of white people, revealing the lack of racial empathy to understand the pain racism inflicts through spirit-murder (145-146). Levine-Rasky uses several examples, including personal narratives and media resources, similar to hooks’ account, to exemplify Crenshaw’s Intersectionality and Foucault’s biopower on white emotionality and epistemology of ignorance. The white men who enter segregated Black social spaces to sell items are almost no different from white nationalists entering spaces to attack the Black community; they are invading by exploiting power relations (145). White terror depends on a relationship with the racialized Other to prove white supremacy, going back to the psychic mechanism.
One limitation of the text is that Levine-Rasky could have mentioned feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva’s abjection to explain further how whiteness functions through intersectionality and psychosocial level. In Powers of Horror (1984), Kristeva describes abjection as an emotional reaction, such as disgust or fear, towards any breakdown in meaning that loses the distinction between subject and object (65). Kristeva’s abjection would have further explained the main critical points in the psychosocial level of whiteness. In Whiteness Fractured, Levine-Rasky mentions how Western philosophy often interprets identity as dualistic and individualized rather than fluid communal (207). Levine-Rasky briefly mentions master-slave syndrome to explain the subconscious fear of losing selfhood for white people (96). Yet, if Levine-Rasky considered how abjection is part of the epistemology of ignorance and psychic mechanism, we could better understand white emotions like white disgust. Levine-Rasky mentions how white men project fear, envy, and desire against the racialized Other. Still, a discussion of how these emotions are rooted in historical racism, such as slavery or scientific racism, would further clarify how generational white feelings are in current society (163).
Whiteness Fractured helps us comprehend past and current issues regarding whiteness and its relationship with white supremacy, such as the appeal of “The Great Replacement” theory. This ethnonationalistic conspiracy theory argues that the non-European migrants’ ‘invasion’ will push white people into extinction. People often assume that white nationalists are too different from mainstream society to comprehend; however, Levine-Rasky maintains in Whiteness Fractured that this is a problematic idea to support. Levine-Rasky argues that white supremacy is more than cognitive biases, white supremacy roots in the emotionality and the complexity of whiteness. White emotions differ from regular ones as they root in Eurocentric values, significantly negative emotions like white guilt and white rage. As a result, anti-racist policies and practices that challenge Eurocentric values often cause white emotions and reactions to occur, and this process highlights the need for deradicalization work to ensure white emotions do not turn further towards white nationalism. Scholars researching white supremacy should consider reading this book to understand how whiteness impacts white people's perspective, identity, relationships, and emotionality, regardless of if they identify as not racists, anti-racists, or nationalists. The information provided by Levine-Rasky is also helpful for people uninformed with theories on race and racism in general, just as the psychanalysis resources Levine-Rasky provides will strike curiosity for readers who are unfamiliar with psychoanalysis as a philosophy.