Tiffany Willoughby-Herard. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. 328 S. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-28086-1; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-28087-8.
Reviewed by Stephanie Feser
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (July, 2016)
T. Willoughby-Herard: Waste of a White Skin
In “Waste of a White Skin”, Tiffany Willoughby-Herard proposes a challenging (re-)theorization and contextualization of 20th-century U.S. philanthropy in South Africa at large and the 1927–32 “Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa” and its report in particular. The report was published in 1932 as the Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa. It is generally, and will be here, referred to as the Poor White Study. She argues first, that the “Poor White Study” was most of all a comment on “the abject black other” (p. 1) in South African society at the time and second, that this was not, as is generally assumed, an isolated, national expression of the emerging Afrikaner Nationalism and apartheid, but rather a local variance of globally arising manifestations of racist white nationalisms aiming at silencing non-white opposition. To support her argument, Willoughby-Herard designs a multilayered theoretical framework that primarily follows concepts of black internationalism, black feminism, and black feminist internationalism (p. xv) to analyze what she refers to as the ‘liberal racism narrative’ and ‘rhetoric of civilizing missions’ (p. xvii) in the “Poor White Study”.
The book’s strength is just as much its downfall. I argue from the perspective of a historian of the Poor White Study. Reduction in content and complex variety are for the sake of my argument. Willoughby-Herard proposes a vital reconceptualization of the “Poor White Study”. Yet she does not supplement her rather abstract theorizations of the study with comprehensible on-the-point analyses. Second, she unfortunately misses the opportunity to enter into dialogue with previous research on the study. Furthermore, the abstract language, the lack of context and explanations of terminology, as well as the partially poor editing hinder this enriching research from reaching the audience it deserves.
To support her overall claim, the author, Associate Professor for African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, lays out a complex theoretical and analytical web. Willoughby-Herard analyzes what the political and social (dis)appearance of poor whites over time meant in a larger social context, constructing a ‘critical geography’ of racialized (international) social patterns in South Africa (p. 2). She introduces two concepts: “white misery” to enable a theoretical approach to the “myth of black suffering and black racial resistance,” the mythical construction of “white racialization,” and the interaction of both (p. 8). Second, she introduces “global whiteness” to “denaturalize the existence, spatiality, and temporality of the white settler colonial nation, and to insist [on the inherent international character of racial politics]” (p. 3). Willoughby-Herard also employs a multitude of previously defined concepts of black feminist internationalist schools, among others, Patricia Hill Collin’s ‘matrix of domination’ (p. xvii) and Denise F. Da Silva’s analytic of the ‘arsenal of raciality’ (pp. 4, 7). Therefore, Willoughby-Herard deals with poor whites also as a trope to denote what the study reveals about ideas of social structure in a racially segregated society. She understands the idea of “waste of a white skin” as “white ‘flesh’” or “’white primitive’” to capture the “abject status assigned to poor whites” (pp. 8, 35) that further relegates blacks in society (pp. 8, 11, 13, 18). The “Poor White Study”, thus, is the “quintessential example of the intersection between segregationist philanthropy and scientific racism” (p. 2).
Willoughby-Herard presents a pivotal, interdisciplinary addition to the research on the “Poor White Study” and beyond. She accomplishes to highlight the intersection of “white misery and antiblackness” (p. 142). She offers a conceptualization of the study that opens up a way to link the “Poor White Study” to the notion of the ‘global color line’ (implicit in ‘global whiteness’) and the transnational, intraracial, and crossracial violence this entails. The methodological and thematical diversity validate the significance of Willoughby-Herard’s key argument. Thematically, she covers a rich spectrum of aspects: South African history as a history of white nationalism (chapter 1), the (visual) construction of the ‘poor white problem’ in South Africa (chapter 2), past and present (non)academic conceptions of ‘whiteness’ (chapter 3), past and present conceptualizations of how blacks and (poor) whites ‘compete’ in society (chapter 4), what the study as a “racial regime” (p. 129) reveals about mechanisms to protect ‘global whiteness’ in South Africa (chapter 5), U.S. (ostensibly segregationist) philanthropy’s role in this process, especially in terms of silencing non-white opposition (chapter 6), and gender relations in the study and poverty discourse at large (chapter 7).
Yet, this diversity is confusing. Willoughby-Herard misses the chance to connect her enriching conceptual approach to her actual analysis. As a result, the introduction’s subchapters seem strangely disconnected from each other, the overall claim, and the structure of the narrative, and offer little help in guiding through the book (see pp. 22f.). The chapters cover too many details and their overall relevance is not always clear. For example, why does Willoughby-Herard discuss gender dynamics in the study and poverty discourse at large in chapter 7 without linking this aspect to her overall agenda? While the relevance of ‘gender’ to the topic at large is undeniable, its relevance at this point in the book seems forced. A clear, step-by-step development of her concept and how she applies it to her topic would have helped avoid repetition and made her challenging research be more accessible for the reader.
Whereas this diversity would allow for a unique opportunity to enter into inter-research dialogue on the “Poor White Study” In her 2013 thesis, Ann Steensland is the first to propose bringing together the histories of what she calls the Carnegie Commission as a ‘process’ and the report as a ‘body of knowledge.’ See Ann M. Steensland, Pathologizing the Bywoner: The Carnegie Commission Report’s Diagnosis of “Poor White Disease” in South Africa (1932), 2013, <http://digilib.gmu.edu/jspui/bitstream/1920/8667/1/Steensland_thesis_2013.pdf> (12.07.2016). , Willoughby-Herard misses this chance. Most surprisingly, the author rarely discusses the research results she works with (as given assumptions). Furthermore, she does not situate her research within previous scholarship, nor does she connect her findings to earlier ones. This lends her important results an air of uncritical normativity and simple antagonism. See for example pp. 85, 88, 95. Page 85 is by far the most extreme example. For example, the connections between apartheid (policy), Afrikaner Nationalism, and the “Poor White Study” are far more contested in research than Willoughby-Herard lets on. Interestingly enough, she cites interviews with Judith Tayler (p. 276), but makes no further reference to Tayler’s (controversial) research on the study’s influence on Afrikaner Nationalism. See Judith Tayler, ‘Our poor’: The Politicisation of the Poor White Problem, 1932–1942, in: Kleio 24 (1992), pp. 40-65. Similarly confusing is Willoughby-Herard’s silence on Ann Stoler’s or Morag Bell’s research on ‘circuits of (racialized) knowledge (production)’ in relation to her own argument. See Morag Bell, American Philanthropy as Cultural Power, in: David Slater / Peter J. Taylor (eds.), The American Century: Consensus and Coercion in the Projection of American Power, Oxford 1999; Ann L. Stoler, Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies, in: Ann L. Stoler (ed.),Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, Durham 2006. Willoughby-Herard discusses some research findings, but only rarely (e.g. p. 129). She also briefly mentions earlier research by Stoler, but only on the second-to-last page of the conclusion (p. 169). Since Willoughby-Herard frames Carnegie’s influence on South African race relations as a ‘civilizing mission’ (p. 168), Bell’s claim that northern influence on knowledge production is not as heavy as previously asserted presents an interesting opposition that is not explored in “Waste of a White Skin”.
This is very unfortunate, as Willoughby-Herard, on the other hand, foregrounds aspects of the “Poor White Study” that have so far been largely ignored (for example the photographs, chapter 2). Her methodological claim enables the ‘decolonization’ of not only the subject matter, but also the research (see for example pp. 34ff., 97ff., 108ff., 128). Most importantly, Willoughby-Herard presents a multilayered discussion of what ‘whiteness’ is and convincingly demonstrates the continuing immediacy of her account (p. 14). Dialogue, on the other hand, would also call for less abstract and more concise language, and better contextualization. With these aspects in mind, Willoughby-Herard has nonetheless produced a vital addition to the research on the Poor White Study. Her account calls for scholars to (re)think ‘whiteness,’ ‘non-whiteness,’ and the connection between both in the (international) making of racist societies. Scholars of race relations, poverty discourse, and international relations alike should not miss Willoughby-Herard’s contribution.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/.
Stephanie Feser. Review of Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany, Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2016 by H-Net, Clio-online, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU.