Steve's Blog

Defining "Centering Whiteness"

Author: Stephen J. Turnbull
Organization: Faculty of Engineering, Information, and Systems at the University of Tsukuba
Contact: Stephen J. Turnbull <>
Date: 2020/07/05
Copyright: 2020, Stephen J. Turnbull

I was recently challenged to explain this statement I made, referring to "centering whiteness":

Amusingly, Strunk (1918) was perfectly happy with split infinitives, though he noted it centered whiteness. (Obviously he didn't put it that way, more along the lines of "some people will look down on you.")

I'd like to go into this at length, as terms like "white supremacy", "racism", "white privilege", and "centering whiteness" are often treated as synonymous epithets. But they are in fact technical terms, with specific, distinct meanings and usage. At least they can be used that way, and I did use "centering whiteness" in that way. In this post, I'm going to focus on "centering whiteness", and ignore the others except for passing references.

The challenge follows. Block quotes in italics below are all from my interlocutor. Everything else not attributed as a quote is my voice.

Um... what?

Are you saying that people who split infinitives are usually black,

Of course not. In fact, base rates strongly suggest that (in the U.S., anyway) they're mostly white.

and the people who look down on them are white?

Doesn't it pretty much go without saying, that the people who look down on split infinitives are elite (and white), that white people look down on black achievements (despite eating them up in the mass media!), and that white supremacists literally live to look down on black people?

There's no necessary relation between those two questions. Correlation, yes, but that doesn't help understanding here.

If so, it would seem that Strunk is actually standing up for black people here.

Indeed. Granted, it's a weak sort of "standing up for". Here's what Strunk actually wrote:

Split Infinitive. There is precedent from the fourteenth century downward for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive which it governs, but the construction is in disfavor and is avoided by nearly all careful writers." [1]

They continued:

(I don't actually believe this has anything to do with race,

As a matter of causality? I believe it does, but it's minor, and that's not the reason I wrote of "centering whiteness".

I'm just trying to fully understand your reasoning.)

Aw, shucks, I'm so glad you asked! First, let's all top up our beverages. This is complex, maybe even complicated.

What is "centering whiteness"? [2] Like the closely-related "white privilege", it evidently doesn't have a positive definition that you can apply to just any individual. After all, most people who do really well (who didn't do well via a careful choice of parents) can point to many lucky aspects "that could have happened to anybody". [3] White people often do poorly: ask coal miners in Newcastle or Kentucky. So I say "center" is a sort of contrapositive of "marginalize". [4] When we marginalize one group, we center another, and vice versa.

Now, I can't speak to the history of other nations, but in the U.S. there's a clear history of marginalizing people of color, and, of course, stealing from them and massacring them (stealing land is occurring as I write this in Arizona and South Dakota, and while I wouldn't call any given instance a "massacre", there's no doubt that police and others are killing blacks [5] with substantial impunity). This marginalization is to the perceived benefit of whites in general (see any discussion of "Trump's base"). It is even more to the benefit of the nearly all-white elite in particular, and in an objectively measurable way (in economic terms, for starters). That measurement is even possible is, of course, closely related to why they get away with it. It was all judged "legal" by members of those same very white elites! Both "benefits" and beneficiaries have long been explicitly recognized by American politicians, documented in archives of their personal papers, and occasionally even in government records.

One of the tools used to maintain the "bloodlines" of the elite, and not incidentally, its whiteness, was not just education itself (deliberately segregated) but also the dialect and other customs of "educated" people. If you go back to the management literature of late 70s and early 80s, you'll find a lot of talk about "corporate culture" and how it's important for the elite (upwardly mobile middle managers and up) to "fit in" with their employer's culture. Strangely enough blacks, latinx, and women (but let's not go there right now because of "intersectionality") never seemed to fit in, for one reason or another. Who would have thought it?

So it's true that "Standard" English is unable to center whiteness by itself. It's true that to the extent that "Standard" English is consciously enforced to exclude "others", it generally is more a matter of nepotism than of racism. The point of these examples (they are a tiny fraction of the examples I could give, and I'm hardly a specialist) is that "Standard" English, as the dialect spoken by the elite among themselves, is one component of the complex of forces that inexorably lead to the marginalization of people of color, of all "colors", and thus to centering the complement. That complement is "whiteness".

Why "whiteness" rather than "white people"? Well, that's a good question. Indeed, logically the complement of "people of color" is "white people". But sociologically, it's more complicated than that. [6] It may be easiest to see if we cross the Pacific to my host country, Japan, where I hang out with software engineers. One told me that he finds "RFC English" easy enough to understand. (RFCs are the standards documents that define the way the Internet works.) Why might that be so? Part of it is that "RFC English" is dry and technical, full of logic, and explicit definitions. It avoids ambiguity and implicit knowledge, such as connotation.

But it's also true that "Standard" English (which has to expand beyond the American recommendations of Strunk & White [7] to include "British" English) is the goal of English learning in the Orient. It's the key to getting into international journals if you are an academic or even a corporate researcher. In business meetings with native speakers, it's still hard to get a word in edgewise, but it helps to use the standard dialect, or you face explicit marginalization. For example, "ask me later [and we'll bring it up next time -- if I think it's important]" or even worse, "I'll explain it to you later [because anyone who can't speak well probably can't think well either]".

East Asians don't want to speak Indian English (because Americans frequently have trouble with the accents of Indians from some regions), and definitely not African-American Vernacular English. They want "white English". Even Japanese rappers use "white" English when they interject English (which is frequent). It's true that most Japanese students are happy with black or Asian instructors, as long as they're English native -- and as long as that English is "white". [8]

This isn't in itself racist (although Asians perpetrate racism, much as other humans do). It is "whiteness centering". Folks world-wide want "white English" because it's the English that's easiest for them to understand and use, in large part because it's what most of the people they want to talk to understand and use. In any discussion of English to use in an international group, folks (not limited to Asians, but including most of them) will prefer specifying rules more or less conformant to "Standard" English as promoting communication because it's understood and spoken by more people. I suppose this claim that this "promotes communication" is indeed objectively true.

But it is also a barrier to people who are native in other dialects. "Standard" English screws up the timing of those native to relatively divergent dialects, but use of their own dialect marks them as outsiders (and "lower" class). Either gives the dominant group an excuse to exclude them. And that excuse gets used.

Hmm, I wonder about the identity of that dominant group?

Note well that this process is an emergent phenomenon. Nobody needs to be looking to oppress minorities, or even to be explicitly protecting privilege. They're just seeking the greatest good of the greatest number. If that happens to maintain our dominance, well, the rest of y'all can just wait for those benefits to trickle down, right? And this emergence-y (sorry for the pun, but it is a crisis) is why we need words like "centering" and a concept of "whiteness" opposed to "white people." We need words to talk about these self-generating processes without moral overtones.

That doesn't mean there are no racists hitching a ride, any more than it's all a plot by a white nationalist cabal. And we do need to think about, and respond to, the morality of the outcomes generated by these processes, regardless of the moral righteousness or moral bankruptcy of the human beings who participate in the processes. But we also want to understand them well enough to intervene effectively where that's necessary, and avoid the "law of unintended effects". And that is much easier if we have words to denote concepts needed for dispassionate discussion. Of course, we'll also need passionate discussion to arrive at a policy, because values conflict. But at least we should try to agree on what, if anything, is possible.

As for old man Strunk, he didn't even have the words, let alone the theory, to talk about "centering" in 1918. But he clearly recognized the importance of being respected by the self-appointed Respectable Crowd, who were then, as they are now, very, very, very white. And that closes the circle.

Finally, let me say that my opinion of the ethics/morality of all this is complex. What should we do about this complex system that centers whiteness? I'm not going to say here. Perhaps another time.



You'll have to scroll down a ways.

[2]Right off the bat, let me say don't frivolously @ me about the definition of "white" (or "whiteness"). I am aware that it's considered problematic in some quarters, but I'm still not clear on exactly how it should be dealt with. If you want to take me to task, I'm game, but I expect serious discussion, not insults.
[3]Garrison Keillor called down fire upon himself by doing that, at length, a couple days ago.
[4]Again, my understanding here may be problematic. But I don't think so, so do @ me. ;-)
[5]They kill other people with impunity, too. Don't @ me.
[6]My head hurts at the thought that I could try to rephrase this post so that the logic matches the "sociologic".
[7]Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White [1999]. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. London: Pearson. 105pp. ISBN-13: 978-0205309023
[8]Commercial English education here is by and large based on prepaid courses, so the proprietors are happy to invest in allowing the customers to interview the teachers. Customers generally don't judge English ability by skin color.

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