Getting Talked into (and out of) Whiteness

Mary BucholtzProfessor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Santa Barbara

It has long been recognized by social scientists that race is a socially, culturally, and politically constructed system for producing and reproducing inequality (Goodman, Moses, & Jones 2012; Harrison 1995; Omi & Winant 1994). Crucially, the racial system is sustained in large part through language (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Domingúez 1986; Hill 2008; Rosa forthcoming) by creating marked social categories that can then be targeted for material and ideological control. At the center of the process of racialization is whiteness, which constitutes the foundation of the entire racial system precisely because it is the often invisible and unmarked hegemonic norm as well as the apex of the racial hierarchy (Harris 1995; Lipsitz 1998; Twine & Gallagher 2008). In recent decades, the growing political power of racialized groups has unsettled the hegemonic position of whiteness, leading to the linguistic repositioning of whiteness—as visible and vulnerable rather than unmarked and dominant—as a strategy for maintaining racial privilege (Bucholtz 2011).

This presentation examines the linguistic strategies that uphold whiteness as the linchpin of the racial system as well as the counterstrategies that work to undo this system of power. The analysis considers two forms of racializing language: talk about race, or racially referential language, and talk that enacts race, or racially indexical language. Focusing on the uneasy racial positioning of white youth in California both in the 1990s and in the present day, I argue that a political critique of the language of whiteness must be at the center of any effort to challenge white supremacy.

Mary Bucholtz is a Professor of sociocultural linguistics, who has worked on whiteness, youth and language. She is integrating high school student, undergrad, and grad students to work together researching languages and linguistic change in California. Her research focuses primarily on how social identities and cultural practices are brought into being through linguistic interaction, investigating this question in relation to race, gender, and youth Her publications include: White Kids: Language, Race, and Styles of Youth Identity, Cambridge University Press, (2011); Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries,( original text by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, edited by Mary Bucholtz, revised and expanded edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford University Press, (1999 with A. C. Liang and Laurel Sutton); Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self, Routledge (1995 with Kira Hall) and “Discourses of Whiteness,” special issue of Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), 2001 (with Sara Trechter). Her current research seeks to explore the diverse forms of language and culture within California.

Discussant: Angela Reyes, Professor and Deputy Chair, English Department, Hunter College, CUNY and member of doctoral faculty in Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center


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