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.

Screenshot 2020-11-29 at 12.37.32

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.

Continue reading