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Ann Laura Stoler, it turns out, proves the point I argued last week that Butler’s (2004) work is useful for thinking about race; Stoler, in her Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2002, reissued 2010), describes Dutch whiteness in the Indonesian context as something that had to be “done” (though, despite this major point of contact, the citations suggest that Butler was not a conscious interlocutor for Stoler).

This done-ness of whiteness is implicit in arguments like the one Stoler makes that “prescriptions for bathing, breastfeeding, cooking, and sleeping arrangements tied anxieties over personhood, race, and what it meant to be Dutch to the choreography of the everyday” (17). This is much like Butler’s argument that gender is the appearance of an interior essence produced by repeated quotidian enactments of social norms.

Indeed, this “doing” of whiteness trumped what might seem to be the incontrovertible “matter” of raced bodies just as Butler contends that the sexed body is constructed rather than given. Stoler argues that “the colonial measure of what it took to be classified as ‘European’ was based not on skin color alone but on tenuously balanced assessment of who was judged to act with reason, affective appropriateness, and a sense of morality” (2-6).

That is, you have to “act” white/European/Dutch to get to “be” white/European/Dutch, and indeed it is under this logic that being creole was enough to symbolically unwhiten someone despite the genetic heritage of Dutch parents (68-9).

Similarly, the need to continually “do” whiteness explains the horror the settlers had of “men who had ‘gone native’ or simply veered off cultural course, of European children too taken with local foods, too versed in local knowledge,” as this troubled the equation—which they wanted to be unproblematic—between white embodiment and “white” behavior (2).

This is to say that, if the Dutch sense of racial superiority was founded in their sense of being more “civilized” than the Indonesians they colonized, the ways that white people could in fact “veer off course” and begin to behave in the Indonesian way could potentially mean that this imagined superiority wasn’t inherent. (On whiteness as self-control and civilization see also Dyer, 1997; Ferguson, 2003; Floyd, 2009; Frankenberg, 1993; Hedges, 1997; Nagel, 2003; Roediger, 1991; Sandell, 1997; Savran, 1998)

Thus it becomes clear that, as Butler argues about gender, the necessity of repeated instantiation of norms opens up the possibility of doing them “wrong” or differently—and thus the potential to disrupt their hold on normativity.

However, as both Butler and Stoler note, the breaking of norms doesn’t automatically free us from them. Stoler’s book “treats racism as a central organizing principle of European communities in the colonies,” and rightly so; the ways in which racism had this fundamental status meant that “racial thinking was part of a critical, class-based logic that differentiated between native and European and that was part of the apparatus that kept potentially subversive white colonials in line” (13).

This is to say that the threat of becoming unwhitened (with all the loss of privilege this would entail) worked to discourage solidarity of lower-class whites with native interests. David Roediger has documented a similar process as happening in the United States in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, as the members of the working class of European origin “settled for being white” rather than experiencing themselves as having common class interests with black workers.

The necessity of this work to solidify common whiteness, then, calls attention to “the uncertain racialized regimes of truth that guided their actions” and the ways in which the “criteria by which European colonials defined themselves” were unstable and necessitated the sort of “doing” Butler describes to create solidity and effective reality (6).

Butler, J. (2004). The Judith Butler Reader. (S. Salih, Ed.). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Dyer, R. (1997). White. London: Routledge.
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Floyd, K. (2009). The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hedges, W. (1997). If Uncle Tom is White, Should we Call him “Auntie”? Race and Sexuality in Postbellum U.S. Fiction. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (pp. 226-247). New York: NYU Press.
Nagel, J. (2003). Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Roediger, D. R. (1991). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.
Sandell, J. (1997). Telling Stories of “Queer White Trash”: Race, Class, and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison. In A. Newitz & M. Wray (Eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (pp. 211-230). New York: Routledge.
Savran, D. (1998). Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stoler, A. L. (2010). Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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