‘Dying of Whiteness’: Book Review

Rachel Jane Liebert reviews Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the politics of racial resentment is killing America’s heartland (Basic Books: 2019).

Having found Jonathan Metzl’s previous books – Prozac on the Couch and The Protest Psychosis – incredibly useful in my academic and activist work around madness and White supremacy, it was with no small delight that I heard of Dying of Whiteness. A book that documented the negative effects of whiteness on White folks’ health sounded full of risk yet possibility. Risk, because of the potential for such an analysis to present White people as victims of White supremacy, drawing attention away from our role in racist violence. And possibility, because of the potential for such an analysis to be highly convincing to White people, mobilising more of us in efforts to dismantle White supremacy – the social structure of racism.

After reading Dying of Whiteness I am quite convinced that this possibility is what was driving Metzl’s project, a possibility that itself came to fill me with an increasing unease. Part of my delight in hearing of the book was not so much in anticipation of its argument – as Metzl himself points out, starting with W.E.B. DuBois, scholars of colour have been warning White folks about the negative effects of White supremacy for over a hundred years. More, my anticipation was regarding the characteristic way in which Metzl would likely build this argument – an unnamed kind of ethnography-cum-bricolage that I find rhetorically powerful. Sure enough, data in Dying of Whiteness is pulled together from a wide range of sources – historical archives and statistical databases, focus groups and interviews, personal observations of support groups, media stories, billboards, taxi conversations, dog outfits, fridge magnets – constructing a tough tale of lower- and middle-income whiteness. The result is compelling. Broken into three parts, the book takes us through Missouri, Tennessee and Kansas to show how “racial driven policies” on gun control, accessible healthcare and public education – or lack thereof – respectively operate as “mortal risk factors for all people who live in these states” (p. 16). Packed full of evidence and careful explanation, it’s the kind of book I find myself wishing I could memorise to whip out when trying to convince conservative White people to dismantle White supremacy.

So why the unease? Well, packed full of evidence and careful explanation, it’s the kind of book I find myself wishing I could memorise to whip out when trying to convince conservative White people to dismantle White supremacy. As I said to my partner while reading it, it is the kind of book that I want for talking with my dad. Metzl knows how to speak (to) whiteness. And his unabashed recourse to individualism and empiricism, despite the criticality of his earlier work, strongly suggests he strategically chose to do so. But I am torn as to whether or not this is a wise decision. Notwithstanding an unrelenting use of mixed similes and metaphors, and a handful of sassy quips and poignant observations, Dying of Whiteness ultimately exudes White male rationality. Is this why I have always found Metzl’s work so useful, because in a White supremacy he offers the ‘voice of reason’?

These concerns are also not new – again starting with W.E.B. DuBois (see Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva, 2008), scholars of colour have been warning White academia about the effects of White methods for over a century. Perhaps most well-known is Audre Lorde’s (1984) now infamous declaration that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (p. 110). Surely Metzl knows these arguments. So why might he have chosen such a Master-full strategy? At several points in the book he prides himself on taking a “structural” approach to whiteness, reiterating what many others have also said before him – that we should not locate racism in individual attitudes or actions, so much as in policies, politics and histories. He explains this ‘take home’ point as follows:

My findings in this book suggest that we make a wrong turn when we try to address racism mainly as a disorder of people’s brains or attitudes, or try to ‘fix’ the problem simply by attempting to sensitize people or change their minds. On an aggregate level people’s individual racial attitudes have relatively little correlation to their health … Instead, racism matters most to health when its underlying resentments and anxieties shape larger politics and policies and then affect public health. (p. 15, my emphasis)

These underlying resentments and anxieties are moving throughout the data in Dying of Whiteness – the White people Metzl spoke with didn’t want to be associated with, connected to or helping out poor or immigrant people of colour (POC). Instead, they wanted to restore their place atop the racial hierarchy – aka, in the words of one gun retailer, the rights and privileges that come with their “[White] Man card” (p. 61). Metzl’s provision of evidence and careful explanation, then, is an attempt to be reasonable, logical, objective in the face of the underlying resentments and anxieties of the White folks he is talking to both in and through the book.

And yet it is people’s affective investments of and in whiteness that seem to be bypassed by this very strategy. Dying of Whiteness ends with a call for “a focus on restoring equitable structures and infrastructures” followed quickly by a hope that the former “might also silently promote more healthy and self-reflective frameworks… of structural whiteness” (p. 276, his ellipses). However, not extrapolated by Metzl was another hope that caught my eye:

infra (adv.) “under, below, further on,” from Latin infra “below, under, beneath”.

infrastructure (n.) 1887, from French infrastructure (1875); see infra- + structure (n.). The installations that form the basis for any operation or system. Originally in a military sense.

Dying of Whiteness left me thinking, feeling and imagining not, as Metzl wanted, about structural whiteness so much as infrastructural whiteness. Moving beneath the text were those underlying resentments and anxieties that form the basis for systemic and operational White supremacy. It is notable that the origins of this word are military. Could attending to infrastructural whiteness oblige us to ask how White affect is weaponised against both POC and White people, animating imperialist politics both within and beyond national borders by subjecting POC to White supremacy while beholding White people to the same?

So how, as per Metzl’s question above, might one restore equitable infrastructures? At the end of his study, musing on the possibilities of a society built on cooperation rather than competition, Metzl also asks, “What might American politics look like if white humility was seen not as a sellout or a capitulation but as an honest effort to address seemingly intractable social issues?” (p.  278, my emphasis). This quick question left me lingering with what kind of world we might live in if we White folks were characterized less by the now-common parlance of white fragility and more by white humility. It reminded me of Eve Sedgwick’s (2003) call for critical scholars to also do reparative readings that allow space for hope, possibility and ‘good surprises’ within systems of oppression. Cracks in the infra/structures. Could we attend to these cracks, helping them to deepen, widen, spread?

Indeed, Metzl’s question appeared to emerge from his own pleasant surprise at the particular self-reflection of his participants – whether the quiet wonderings of a Missouri support group facilitator when waiting for her car to warm up that guns might be a problem after all (p. 117), the potential shown to White men by Black men that one could be both Republican and pro publicly accessible healthcare (p. 157) or the shameful realisation of a Kansas small-business owner that she shouldn’t have voted in a conservative politician with racist policies (p. 231). Perhaps ultimately what Dying of Whiteness does for the present political moment is not so much its revelation to White folks that White supremacy is bad for us too, but that sometimes we are wrong. Such a humility could perhaps interrupt the ‘voice of reason’, making it hesitate, receptive. It could also prevent a Them and Us reading that otherwise threatens to defend White psyches from Metzl’s analysis – suggesting this book is just about, for example, Those Republicans or, in my dad’s case, Those Americans or, in my case, My Dad…

There is somewhere else where I find Dying of Whiteness to have the most radical potential, however. It’s (re)turn to the body. By documenting how White people are literally dying of whiteness, Metzl welcomes a long absent flesh into Whiteness Studies. This absence is not trivial. White supremacy emerged from a colonisation dependent on a dualistic, hierarchical relationship between mind and body, creating Man – in control of not only Others and world but also himself (Wynter, 2003). The White body in turn became inert, machinic (Federici, 2014). POC (overly) embodied (Fanon, 1962, 2001), White folks (supposedly) disembodied (Liebert, in review). The absence of the White body from Whiteness Studies betrays the whiteness of this discipline.

Overall, then, Dying of Whiteness, is pointing to a much needed and belated ontological turn in Whiteness Studies – at least in terms of the affective and the flesh. Given the pop nature of the book, I am sure it will go down in disciplinary history as a watershed moment with regard to the latter, yet I did not get the sense from reading Dying of Whiteness that Metzl is fully aware of the implications of this potential. He certainly emphasises in his Introduction that he is examining “the white body that refuses treatment” as a metaphor-cum-parable for the nation (p. 6), how “platforms of American greatness [that] were built on embodied forms of demise” (p. 6) and the way that people come to vote against their “biological self-interests” (p. 10, his emphasis), however he does not historicise or politicise the need for this approach and he does not theorise the White body. Indeed, like the affect moving through infrastructural whiteness, the White body is conspicuously absent from Metzl’s methodology and discussion, instead quietly peering at readers from the (white) space between the lines.

I point out these ‘absences’ not as gaps so much as breaches. Dying of Whiteness reads as if it had a particular political mandate – to speak (t0) whiteness in a time of intensifying White supremacy – and to this end it is very effective. That it can at the same time offer exciting openings for more transformative praxes involving the affective and the fleshed, makes it all the more use-full. I have no doubt that it will turn up in my academic and activist work – and ‘personal’ life – time and time again.

References:

Fanon, F. (1962, 2001). The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin Books.

Federici, S. (2014). Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Second Edition. New York: Autonomedia.

Liebert, R. J. (in review). What could the White body do for decolonising psychology? 32 questions. Awry Journal of Critical Psychology.

Lorde, A. (1984). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Sedgwick, E. (2003). Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy. Berkeley, CA: Duke University Press.

Wynter, S. (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human. The New Centennial Review, 3(3): 257-337.

Zuberi, T. & Bonilla-Silva, E. (eds) (2008). White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology. Lanham: Plymouth, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Rachel Jane Liebert collaborates with decolonising and feminist scholarship, art and activism to trace the circulation of psy within coloniality and experiment with participatory and more-than-human alternatives. Her 2019 book, Psycurity: Colonialism, Paranoia and the War on Imagination, became a performative examination of otherworldly potential within White supremacy; her current project explores embodied, inspirited praxes for engaging coloniser ancestors and doing whiteness differently. She is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East London. Contact Rachel at r.liebert@uel.ac.uk.

One thought on “‘Dying of Whiteness’: Book Review”

  1. This review invited moving bodily and emotionally towards cracks and openings in familiar, conditioned hierarchical structures, to explore what might rest below and beyond. It touched questions and awareness implicitly veiled by white skin dualistic reflex and reflection, steps towards a white body humility where frailty does not equate with vulnerability, and different tools emerge for dismantling masters house and growing organic infrastructure and ecosystems.

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