Is IR Theory White? Racialised Subject-Positioning in Three Canonical Texts

This post is a little introduction to my recently published (open access) article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in which I use the scholarly literature on whiteness to examine three highly influential books in International Relations (IR) – Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics.

Of course, the answer is what you might expect (duh); but I hope the route to reaching that conclusion might be something worth considering, and maybe not exactly what you were expecting. It articulates an account of whiteness which is ultimately less pessimistic than the oft-caricatured ‘identity politics’ framings of race – indeed it argues that it is absolutely possible to overcome the limitations of whiteness as a standpoint, but that this would not be transformative without other structural changes.

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I began thinking about this issue because I was simultaneously excited, provoked by and wary about a framing emerging from the student movement at UCL: “Why is My Curriculum White?” – a moment in which both Nathaniel Coleman and Adam Elliott-Cooper played leading roles. We were also increasingly having conversations with students and colleagues at SOAS about race and decolonisation in the curriculum whilst we witnessed what was going on in South Africa and elsewhere.

Despite the care and precision with which the UCL collective expressed itself on the question of whiteness as an ideology, the media and the Right concocted a fevered moral panic around the issues, proclaiming an attack on Western Civilisation, free speech and academic freedom by the ungrateful, and the emergence of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. It did not help that some contributions from elsewhere in the movement seemed to be rather essentialist around the questions of race and racism (in ways which had been long abandoned with respect to gender, for example). From a political point of view, the ‘culture wars’ framing of matters was eliciting a set of destructive emotional responses anticipated in the whiteness literature itself – shame, guilt, anger, denial – which were a (sometimes intentional) distraction from more transformative and productive conversations.

This paper then welcomes and ponders the question “why is my curriculum white”?, with its answer inspired by hopeful (and we must always be hopeful) abolitionist sensibilities about racism that entail the deconstruction of whiteness in favour of a much more expansive humanism. It synthesises across critical race theory (now the subject of a direct attack by the Tories in the culture wars) to argue that white subject-positioning in discourse is constructed through epistemologies of ignorance (regarding the roots and character of racialised power), immanence (regarding the supposedly self-contained success of the ‘West’) and innocence (regarding the causes and consequences of racialised oppression).

This looks like a mouthful – it basically means that whiteness is, at least on one level, a deeply embedded set of mythologies that inform the common sense of the field. This does not mean that it does not have material origins and expressions, of course, nor does it mean that by changing discourses alone we change the structures and institutions that uphold it. But it means, in principle, that we can. And many of us would say that we should. ‘Whiteness’ as a category for organising humans was, after all, only invented in the 17th/18th century – why can we not imagine a horizon beyond it?

Thinking across again to gender – we can see how some expressions of ‘toxic’ masculinity for example have been transformed, challenged and in some cases deconstructed, particularly amongst younger generations. This doesn’t mean on its own that patriarchal structures end (as seen in the Covid-domestic labour toll), but it means that the landscape of possibilities for women and men changes – of course, in ways which intersect closely with other forms of privilege such as class and sexuality. And many are not as afraid any more it seems to challenge ‘masculinity’ as they remain in challenging ‘whiteness’. This paper attempts to clarify a way forward with respect to the latter in IR theory.

Certainly from the point of view of having scholarship about the international which is better informed by history, less taken in by sanitised concepts/just-so-stories, more alive to the ethical demands of inherited violence and more rigorous about the question of positionality for thinking about the international there may be the grounds for a consensus and perhaps the institutionalisation of better practices in the field. But that field must also change in terms of materially where it sits and how it orients itself.

We do not necessarily land in a comfortable place by deconstructing whiteness – it remains a tough sell and a long haul, and one embedded in deeply sedimented structures of wealth, power and authority which will resist interrogation, and sometimes by simply moving to accommodate that critique. Moreover, its morphing and reworking in different discursive constellations, such as the Hindu supremacist movement in India, requires us to think about the fluidity of racial formations as well as their durability.

So, whatever this piece might do or not do, it addresses only a small if prominent instance of a much wider and variegated global landscape of racialised power, where the political entitlements and obligations of humans, despite what the laws say, remain regularly sorted and governed according to a typology of ascribed inheritances and mythologies about the past.

One thought on “Is IR Theory White? Racialised Subject-Positioning in Three Canonical Texts

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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