A Look at Language: (On The Absence of) Whiteness
by A. Rafael Johnson
I’m A. Rafael Johnson, Vice President at Inspire to Change (I2C)and co-founder of Creative Evaluation & Engagement, an initiative of I2C. I use the methodologies of the arts to gather, analyze, and report data for communities, arts organizations, and non-arts organizations. But I’m a writer and novelist before I’m an evaluator. Words matter to me.
For me, words carry meaning. In fact, words are a type of social contract. Words mean what societies agree they mean, such as benchmark, formative, and reliability. Each word carries a socially agreed-upon meaning that communicates values, emotions, taboos, and power relationships. Some words, such as indicator, meta-evaluation, and qualitative, withhold knowledge from some while transmitting to others.
So instead of retiring a word, I want to encourage evaluators to use a particular word to communicate values, social norms, and power, and to use that word more often, with more precision, and to transmit knowledge to a wider audience. That word is whiteness.
Whiteness is a socially constructed identity and ideology. Whiteness was constructed in the 1800’s to enable and justify transatlantic slavery and colonization of indigenous lands and peoples. Whiteness includes concepts of labor, gender, class, beauty, culture, ethics, religion, and intelligence, but also white privilege and white supremacy. America formed during the creation of whiteness, and whiteness dominates most if not all of our social and economic structures, from economics to education to law enforcement to health care. Yet whiteness often goes invisible and unnamed. Peggy McIntosh argued: “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding [white] privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.”
I’m not asking white evaluators to change whiteness — I’m asking white evaluators to name whiteness. I’m asking white evaluators to critically examine concepts based in whiteness, including (but not limited to) baselines, control groups, evaluation rigor, implementation fidelity, achievement gap, outcome disparities, and other gatekeeping jargon that communicates whiteness to some while obscuring whiteness to others. I’m asking white evaluators to name whiteness so evaluation no longer enforces whiteness as an invisible mechanism of control and domination. (Even the AEA365 guidelines silently encourage me to write ‘evaluator’ instead of ‘white evaluator’ to keep the word count down.)
As a bonus, I’d like white evaluators to name whiteness without placing white guilt or white fragility on an evaluator of color. But I have to admit, I don’t hold out much hope.
- hooks, bell. (1992). “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.
- Engles, Tim. (2006). “Toward a Bibliography of Critical Whiteness Studies.” Faculty Research & Creative Activity. 51. Eastern Illinois University.
- McIntosh, Peggy. (2016). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In Rothenberg, Paula S. ed. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study (10th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning. pp. 188–192
- Morrison, Toni. (1993). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.New York: Vintage Books.
The American Evaluation Association was celebrating A Look at Language Week where a group of Minnesota-based evaluators working in justice and equity spaces contribute articles reflecting on the words we use. See the original post on the AEA365 blog: https://aea365.org/blog/a-look-at-language-week-on-the-absence-of-whiteness-by-a-rafael-johnson/