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Joseph Phelan
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006

First things first, Robert Jensen brings a much needed addition to the growing cannon of anti-racist analysis written by and for white people about the struggle against white supremacy. But with all its honesty, self-reflection, and condemnation of whiteness, the book is still limited in its analysis. The Heart of Whiteness is an indictment of what Jensen calls a “depraved and degraded whiteness.” He maintains that this book is not meant to be a feel good, self-help affair. The fight against white supremacy is not Jensen asserts it would be, “better for everyone, I think, that we take a shot at first hating it.”

If the battle against white supremacy is not a feel good affair, then why take it on? Jensen believes that beyond the usual arguments that everyone deserves justice, white people need to understand their own self-interest in fighting white supremacy. Understanding this self-interest begins with admitting that accepting whiteness, as Jensen writes, “is to deform oneself.”

By comparing incomes, education accessibility, infant mortality rates and other social indicators, as well as using anecdotal stories, Jensen illustrates how white supremacy is a system of domination that is both historical and factual. These illustrations go right to the heart of demonstrating the actual privilege that white people have in white-supremacist societies. Jensen also explains the different emotional stages of white people as they come to an anti-racist consciousness. The guilt, anger and sadness that arises when they realize their culpability in a brutal and historic system of domination is necessary and part of the process of becoming our better selves.

This section, which sets this book apart from other anti-racist works, is very useful. All too often, the emotional toll that understanding racism takes on white people is ignored. Jensen argues that it is ignored because of a severe sense of self-shame and the fear of being self-indulgent in one’s own white pain while the majority of people of color are materially, spiritually, and emotionally suffering under white supremacy. Jensen acknowledges this self-indulgence and he writes on anyway. This is a brave endeavor, and useful to many white people who feel paralyzed, terrified, and hateful. Jensen doesn't push to ignore the emotions of white people. Rather, he argues that we (whites) should harness and hone them into real and effective action against white supremacy.

Class lines

One problem with the book is the omission of a class analysis. Although it is clearly stated that the book is written for white people, it is only implied that the book is written for the middle-class. This position influences the analysis of self-interest in fighting white supremacy. Jensen’s argument for becoming fully human surely cuts across white class lines. But there is not an engagement with the difficult question of the material interest of poor and working class whites in fighting white supremacy. An anti-racist analysis that does not engage with an anti-capitalist ideology effectively ignores that white supremacy is intricately woven into the historical development of capitalism and the present expression of US imperialism –– an imperialism that needs racism to survive. A fight against white supremacy must also be a fight against capitalism and vice-versa.

By writing this book for public and mass distribution, Jensen leaves himself and his ideas open to challenges not only from white people, but from people of color as well, a tactic that can hopefully lead to growth and refinement of anti-racist practice and theory. He is moving beyond a white ghettoized mindset of developing anti-racism and showing that his analysis does not take shape in an all white vacuum. This is a brave undertaking, one not to be directly replicated by whites everywhere, but held up as one of many examples of sincerely combating racism.

Jensen incites the reader to move beyond self-transformation. This, he says, is useless without structural and political change. He doesn't prescribe particular courses of action; rather he leaves it general and open, further illustrating the point that there is no magic bullet. His final comments embody his interpretation of the self-interest of white people's struggle: “The world does not need white people to civilize others. The real White People's Burden is to civilize ourselves.”

City Lights, 2005