Race and Radical Renamings

Using Cluster Agon Method to Assess the Radical Potential of “European American” as a Substitute for “White”

John Lynch, Vanderbilt University

Abstract: Communication scholars have turned to the label “European American” as a substitute for “White” in the hope that it could undermine the rhetorical and political power of whiteness. Unfortunately, the radical potential of this terminological transformation is not realized when the term is used by the lay public. Placing Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method into conversation with critical race theory provides a way of assessing this failure to rename Whites and decenter American racial politics. This perspective reveals that references to “Europe” and “European American” are subsumed into the cluster of terms that give meaning to “White.” These terms act in accordance with the logic of whiteness, which places “White” and its associated terms in opposition to “Black” and its related terms: “White” is the empty signifier given meaning by its agonistic relationship to “Black.”

IN THEIR 1995 ESSAY “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek examine the construction of “whiteness”1 as the invisible, yet influential, center of racial politics in contemporary Western society. Their hope is that “particularizing White experience” and exposing “whiteness as a cultural construction” will destabilize racial—and racist—political and social life to allow for radical change (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995, p. 293, 297). They suggest that communication scholars can assist in this process by reflexively examining “the political nature and discursive strategies of our institutions and institutionalized practices” (p. 304). Whiteness studies have grown since then both within communication studies and in other fields (e.g. Crenshaw, 1997; Dyer, 1997; Frankenburg, 1996, 1998; Jackson, 1999; Jackson & Heckman, 2002; Lipsitz, 1998; Nakayama & Martin, 1998; Shome, 1996).

Communication scholars have attempted to particularize and make visible the operations of “whiteness.” One way of making “whiteness” visible is by renaming “White” people as “European Americans” in order to highlight the political and socio-cultural dimensions of this racial-ethnic category. Some of the earliest uses of the term “European American” were justified on the grounds of its symmetry with “African American.” Hecht, Larkey and Johnson (1992) note:

“European American” is not a label in common use among that group’s members, but we were willing to sacrifice this element for comparability of terms in the realization that other groups have long had to accept names given to them by the dominant culture. (p. 211)

The terms “African American” and “European American” have linguistic similarities, and the use of “European American” forces that group to undergo the same naming process endured by African Americans and other minorities. Larkey, Hecht and Martin (1993) chose “European American” instead of “White” because “this choice of label parallels the African American term by designating both geographical and cultural heritage without reference to skin color” (p. 305).2 Martin, Krizek, Nakayama and Bedford (1999) reaffirm the geographic specificity of the term “European American.” Later works make use of “European American” without finding it necessary to justify its use instead of “White.”3 By the beginning of the new millennium, researchers justify the use of term based on “consistency with previous scholarship” (Martin, Moore, Hecht & Larkey, 2001, p. 2).

Communication scholars have renamed and particularized White experience, but here we explore what happens in the discussions of lay people who use “European American” instead of “White” to see to what degree the term’s radical potential is actualized.4 In a series of focus groups conducted in the summer and fall of 2001, members of the lay public treated any reference to Europe, including references to “European Americans,” as substitutions and synonyms for “White.” A cluster-agon analysis of the focus group transcripts revealed that references to Europe and European ancestry functioned as constituents of “whiteness.” Instead of decentering and making visible the otherwise “invisible center” (Ferguson, 1990; Shome, 2000) of racial politics, references to Europe were incorporated into the invisible center, making the naming “European American” less successful than anticipated in making problematic the current structure of racial discourse with its “White” center.

This essay seeks to explore the continuing permutations and re-centerings of “whiteness” and how “Europe” is incorporated into the structure of “whiteness.” In lay understanding, “European American” is treated differently than “African American.” Emphases on culture and geography lose their priority to an emphasis on skin color and gain an oppositional relationship to “African American,” thus reestablishing an either-or relationship between the two terms. If communication scholars hope to be reflexive and work toward a transformation of status quo racial attitudes, politics and policy, we must critically examine the tools we use to destabilize and decenter current understandings of race, and we must take into account the fact that “race may be more easily demystified on paper than disarmed in everyday life” (Roediger, 1994, p. 1). As engaged scholars, we must examine what discursive and rhetorical operations center “whiteness” and undermine those strategies that maintain it (Crenshaw, 1997). Such an examination can best go forward through a combination of empirical and critical methodologies. One such method that combines empirical and critical/rhetorical methods is Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method, which allows one to count the appearance of key terms while also critically describing the relationships between them. After describing the strategies of “whiteness” and further describing the cluster-agon method, this essay will present an analysis of the focus group transcripts based on the clusters and agonistic relationships between terms for races and their attributes.

The Strategic Centering of “Whiteness”

“Whiteness” functions strategically as the invisible center that structures racial discourse. Critical race theorists have shown how race functioned as property: “the law has accorded ‘holders’ of whiteness the same privileges and benefits accorded holders of other types of property” (Harris, 1995). “Owning” whiteness, like owning a factory, provides material advantages over others, and this property has had long-term detrimental economic effects for those who lack this property (Bell, 2000; Lipsitz, 1998). Other scholars have shown how race has been implicated in class to the degree that “we do not ‘get’ class if we do not ‘get’ race” (Roediger, 1994, p. ix).5

Making “whiteness” the ubiquitous and invisible center of racial discourse involves several strategies. These include linking “whiteness” to nationality, identifying “whiteness” with power and majority status, naturalizing “White” as a racial characteristic rather than a cultural/geographic identifier, and defining “White” through opposition.

Related to the idea of “whiteness” as a valuable property is the crude linkage of “whiteness” to power. When asked to define “white,” some individuals describe “white” as “majority” or as equivalent to social status (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995). Jackson (1999) highlights how this status as majority power creates the assumption “that all non-Whites must idealize their identities to mirror White identities” (pp. 46-47). The practice of passing—where a non-white individual is treated as “white”—is also seen as recognition of “white’s” power (Mullen, 1997). Although this element of whiteness is predicated on the recognition of majority status, the construction of “white” as majority and as a focus of political and social power remains obscured (Crenshaw, 1997; Shome, 2000).

The linkage of “whiteness” to nationality, a second strategy, is epitomized in the act of the first Congress that limited citizenship to white men only (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; Harris 1995; Jacobson, 1998; López 1997b; Nakayama & Krizek 1995). Some form of this race requirement for citizenship existed until 1952 (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; López 1997b), and judges developed a series of tests to determine an individual’s “whiteness” (Delgado & Stefancic 2001; López 1997a; López 2000b). Debates about race, citizenship and immigration still exist in both the United States and Great Britain (Flores, 2003; Gilroy, 1987, 1992). Not only was citizenship tied to whiteness, but the nation itself has been identified as “a white nation allied with other white nations in controlling and policing the globe” (Mullen, 1997, p. 41). This association of nationality and whiteness has been an ongoing element of American culture (Jacobson, 1998). Omi and Winant (1987) note American culture has produced a “color line” around Europe that made individuals who trace their ancestry to that continent “white,” in contrast to the “non-white” continents (p. 65), and Matthew Frye Jacobson (1998) traces out how that color line has shifted over the course of American history. Jacobson notes how the “color line” was drawn so that certain regions of Europe, especially northern Europe, were considered the true bastions of whiteness and how the creation of a geographic region of whiteness is unstable and still open to revision today.

The strategies tying “whiteness” to numerical majority and nationality complement the move to obscure “whiteness” by naturalizing it. As a natural category amenable to “scientific” analysis, “White” merely refers to “what people perceive to be superficial racial characteristics” (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995, p. 300). Race becomes “marked” as natural (Guillaumin, 1997), and science has been used to help uphold this naturalization (Roediger, 1994; Outlaw, 1997). Skin color becomes the primary identifier of the naturalized racial category of “white,” and this allows for the elision of cultural, geographic and socio-political elements from “whiteness.”

Perhaps the most important strategy for centering “whiteness” and making it invisible is the definition of “white” by negation. Someone identified as “white” is not any other “color” or category. “White” indicates a lack of racial features (Jackson, 1999). This lack means “white” depends on the existence of other categories to give it meaning (Shome, 2000). This definition by negation has been given a pejorative cast by some African American writers. “Whiteness” refers to nothing; therefore, there is no white community (Baldwin, 1997). Working from this idea, David Roediger (1994) concludes “whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false” (p. 13). Definition by negation makes “whiteness” a lie.

Because this definition by negation is dependent on the existence of other racial categories, the definition of “White” depends on racial binaries. A white/not-white binary not only provides a foil for whiteness but helps maintain its power as well. Often the binary creates a “prototypical” minority (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) against which other groups are measured: “other people of color” have their rights established via analogy to “real ones [i.e. real people of color]” (Perea, 2000). This binary and its “prototypical” minority also obscures the fact “that while one group [minority] is gaining ground, another is often losing it” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001, p. 71). Most often, the prototypical minority group in the United States is African Americans (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; López, 2000a; Nakayama & Krizek, 1995; Perea, 2000).6

Although “whiteness” is primarily defined by negation, it has associations with status, nationality and skin color. Additionally, “whiteness” is primarily defined by negation: it is defined against another racial category—typically “African American” or “Black”—and that category must have some content against which someone can say, “white is not X.” Yet, in the whiteness strategies identified by various scholars, the role of names and labels is not fully developed. While López (1997b, 2000b) has noted how being named “White” has impacted one’s standing in the eyes of the law and Martin et al. (1999) note the label preferences of European Americans, the meanings and associations that inhere in the different labels for “Whites” and whiteness have not been fully identified. An important area for analysis would be the meanings and associations of “Europe” and “European American.” The relationship of “Europe” to “White” is especially important to elucidate, given the historic fluctuations in how the two terms were associated. Kenneth Burke’s cluster-agon method with its focus on the relationship between various terms and symbols provides a useful means for uncovering the meanings of, and associations between, “White,” “Europe,” and “European American.”

The Cluster-Agon Method and Focus Groups

Burke first mentioned the cluster-agon method in Attitudes toward History (1937/1984) and developed it in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1967). He identifies it as his “statistical” means of examining literature, poetry, and rhetoric (Burke, 1967, 20). While not a statistical method in the sense used by the social sciences, cluster-agon begins by providing a descriptive analysis of a rhetorical performance that allows for the application of subsequent critical and evaluative tools. According to Burke, any given literary or rhetorical work “contains a set of implicit equations. He [the rhetor, male or female] uses ‘associated clusters.’ And you may, by examining his [or her] work, find ‘what goes with what’ in these clusters—what kinds of acts and images and personalities and situations go with his notions of heroism, villainy, consolation, despair, etc.” (1967, p. 20). Burke uses cluster-agon method as a means of analyzing literature and, in part, the associations an author spontaneously constructs. This psychological aspect of the method is amplified in Rueckert’s (1963) assumption that a key purpose of the method is to trace out a poet’s “symbolic autobiography,” which is embedded in every poem he or she writes (p. 68).7 Such amplification overly restricts the use of the method that Burke never fully developed (Berthold, 1976, p. 302). One element that is underdeveloped is the extent to which all symbolic action has a public component: “There are respects in which the clusters (or ‘what goes with what’) are private, and respects in which they are public” (Burke, 1967, p. 22). The degree to which all symbolic action is public is underplayed, and almost entirely absent is any sense of how the public elements of symbolic action determine what symbols and associations are used. Qualitative research methods, like focus groups, are one way to access the public component of symbols and their associations. While focus groups and other qualitative methods for acquiring everyday discourse place that discourse at one remove (i.e. no matter how naturalistic the setting, the setting for the study is not a part of an individual’s routine), focus groups provide the critic with access to the language and resources lay people use to respond to a wide variety of issues.8 Furthermore, the interactive nature of focus groups—the interplay between individual participants and between participants and the moderator—means that discussion will be oriented toward those symbolic acts that are considered acceptable in public: focus groups provide access to the public aspects of terms, names, and symbolic acts.

Since Burke first developed it, the cluster-agon method has been used to examine feminist literature (Marston & Rockwell, 1991), institutional/establishment rhetoric (Foss, 1984), painting (Reid, 1990), the rhetoric of American and Korean presidents (Berthold, 1976; Lee & Campbell, 1994), and eating disorder therapies (Cooks & Descutner, 1993). The method has four key steps. First, the critic must identify the important or key terms of the study either a priori or through an organic reading of the text (Berthold, 1976; Burke, 1967; Rueckert, 1963). Next, the critic identifies terms that appear in the same context as the key term(s) and ranks them according to frequency of appearance and the intensity or power of the term (Rueckert, 1963). After discovering all the pertinent terms and concepts that appear near the key term, the critic identifies clusters, “the verbal combinations and equations in which the speaker tends to associate a key term with other terms” (Berthold, 1976). The association of terms develops through conjunction, the attribution of cause-effect relationships between terms, the consistent use of imagery associated with the key term, proximity, and an indirect relationship through a third term. Finally, the critic identifies agons, those terms in opposition to the key term that provide symbolic conflict. Agonistic relationships develop through some form of “contraposition” (Berthold, 1976), which includes direct opposition and negation, description of a potential competition between terms, imagery portraying opposition or struggle, indirect opposition vis a vis a third term, and enumeration. Enumeration refers to times when terms are placed side-by-side, and either through explicit identification or through the context of the comments, the speaker identifies the terms as distinct and potentially opposing. Examples include answers to the question “What are some different races?” that list Black/African American and White/European American as different races. While previous cluster-agon criticisms do not address enumeration, a consideration of the distinct and separate identification of concepts or groups is key to understanding the relationships—whether positive or negative—between categories of race, gender and sexual orientation. This differentiation represents a contraposition that can lead to negation and complete opposition of the terms.

A number of strategies work to make “whiteness” invisible while still maintaining its dominance in the ongoing dialogue of race relations. These “formal” strategies will leave specific and concrete traces in the language used by people in everyday settings to discuss race—words and concepts that shape and define what it means to be “African American,” “Black,” “European American,” or “White.” This is especially true in our contemporary context where race-based differences in health and a number of other arenas are emphasized and a genetic basis for these differences is implied.9 The cluster-agon analysis enables the critic to examine these conceptual relations—to see “what goes with what.”

Focus Groups and Group Participants

In the summer and fall of 2001, 15 focus groups were conducted.with 120 total participants. Seven groups consisted of people self-identifying as “Black” or “African American,” seven groups consisted of people self-identifying as “White” or “European American,” and one group consisted of people self-identifying as Latino/a or Hispanic. Moderators were matched by self-identified race. Sessions lasted slightly over two hours.

Participants were recruited by nomination and by snowball method from community advisory boards in three areas in the southeastern U.S. (a large urban area; a regional hub, formerly devoted primarily to agriculture, but currently in transition; and a university town). Community advisory boards were first asked to discuss what constituted their community. Then they were asked to nominate individuals who would represent the breadth of perspectives in their community. The research team then called those individuals, invited them to participate, and screened to ensure they only had “lay” knowledge of genetics. Also, they were told who had nominated them and offered $50 to compensate them for transportation, childcare costs, and time. Where needed, volunteers were asked to nominate additional participants, especially in order to increase representation from under-participating groups such as men. Approximately 50% of the nominees were reached by phone, and of those reached approximately 200 agreed to participate (contact with all nominees was not attempted where sufficient numbers were recruited before their name was reached on the list). Of those who agreed to participate, 66% attended the focus group meetings.

There were 120 participants. They included 67 women and 53 men. Broken down by race, the focus groups included 60 African Americans, 52 European Americans, 7 Hispanic/Latino persons, and 1 self-identifying as Tamarean/Native American. Ages ranged from 18-51, with an average of 32.6 (our target range for recruiting was 18-45). Reported family income ranged from $7500 to $700,000 with a median of $50,000 (average median family income in this state is $36,372). There were 15 participants with family income equal to or less than $25,000, 41 participants with family income between $25-50,000, 22 participants with family income between $50,000-75,000 and 25 participants with family income over $75,000. Seventeen participants did not to provide this information. Participants reported a broad range of “highest level of education.” Overall, 3.5% had less than a high school degree, 15.7% were high school graduates, 23.5% had some college, 37.4% had bachelor’s degrees, 4.3% had some graduate education, 13% had master’s level degrees, and 1% had a law degree (1.7% elected not to answer this question).

The focus groups dealt with questions about health, race and genetics. They employed a common set of stimulus materials and questions. The first portion of the focus group centered on three different messages concerning genetic testing for disease. The first two associated ancestry from specific regions with certain diseases: “west African ancestry” was linked with sickle cell disease, and “northern European ancestry” was linked to cystic fibrosis. The third message was a non-race specific message urging listeners to undergo genetic testing. In the second portion of the focus group session, moderators asked focus group participants to identify what groups they considered races and then asked a series of questions concerning where participants saw differences between races (e.g. medical history, behavior, emotions, mental or physical skills, etc.) and whether they perceived those differences as culturally or biologically based. Moderators were encouraged to include follow-up probes or to revise wordings in questions to seek full exploration of the issues by as many participants as possible.

For this project, the key terms for the cluster-agon analysis were determined a priori: they are the typical names given to African and European Americans: “African American,” “Black,” “Caucasian,” “European American,” and “White.” Using QSR N6, a qualitative data analysis program designed for examining texts such as focus group transcripts, every use of these race terms was identified. Terms that appeared near the key terms were marked. Any term had to appear in at least 5 different talk turns to be included in the final list. Then, using the QSR N6 software, a matrix was developed that indicated how often the identified terms clustered with each other.

Cluster-Agon and Whiteness

Thirteen terms cluster around “White,” but seventeen terms cluster around “Black.” The terms associated with Black include references to place (Africa, location in the U.S.), references to activities (crime, sports, music/rhythm/dance), and references to conditions the group must endure (poverty and discrimination). “Black” also has physical determinants in “genes/heredity,” “skin color,” and diseases such as “heart disease” and “sickle cell.” “Culture” plays an important role as well. Sometimes focus group participants make direct reference to “ancestors” or “ancestry.” In these cases, it is not clear whether they are referring to genetic or cultural ancestry. Terms associated with “White” parallel the terms for “Black,” with the exception of cystic fibrosis and dominance. “Dominance” represents a cluster of terms indicating that “Whites” are the “majority” or have financial, political, or social power in American society. “Black” has a larger number of associated terms that provide it with meaning.

In addition to the greater number of terms, the number of mentions for each “Black” term is greater than the number of mentions for “White” terms. The most frequently mentioned “Black” positive (i.e. non-agonistic) term of “skin color” appears 74 times, compared to 33 mentions of “Europe” for “White.” On average, each “Black” term was used 27.6 times, compared to the average 14.5 times for each “White” term. Both “Black” and “White” had four agonistic terms. The most frequently appearing agon term was the other race: “Black” was agonistically associated with “White” and vice versa. On average, each "Black" agonistic term appeared 47.25 times, compared to 39.75 for “White” terms.

Most of the “Black” terms cluster, and those clusters have several terms (Table 3). The terms that cluster with “White” do not cluster as often and those clusters are minimal and consistent primarily of a single agon (Table 4). With the exception of the term “Europe,” every term positively associated with “White” has an agonistic relationship to “Black” or “African-American.” In some cases, as with the terms “culture,” “dominant,” “genes,” and “intelligent,” the term does not cluster with anything except “Black” in an agonistic fashion.

The cluster-agon analysis allows us to identify two patterns in the attributions associated with “White” and with “Black.” First, the pattern of clusters highlights that use of the term “European American” and references to “Europe” are made equivalent to “White.” In addition to recentering whiteness, the patterns of clusters and agons for “White” and “Black” reaffirm the discursive and rhetorical strategies of “whiteness,” thus recentering and making invisible whiteness’ power.

Transforming “European American”

The first and third terms most commonly associated with “White” are “Europe” and “Northern Europe.” These two references to Europe are also part of the only substantive cluster of terms connected to “White.” This connection reinforces the claim by some scholars that color and Europe have been inextricably connected (Jacobson, 1998; Omi & Winant, 1987). References to geography by themselves do not appear to be sufficient to destabilize and make visible whiteness. Examination of specific comments in the focus groups highlights that the relationship between “White” and “Europe” is one where “Europe” is reduced to a component of whiteness. Focus group participants reassert that references to Europe really mean “White.” One European American male indicated the audience for the message was White: “This is pretty much White people.” An African American male said, “I think White would be alright. Because, when you fill out the forms, the ethnic background, they’ll say White; they probably want White.”

Both “European” and “northern European” cluster with “White,” and this highlights the historical oscillation of the color line across Europe, specifically the fact that whiteness was often limited to northern European ancestry instead of pan-European ancestry (Jacobson, 1998). Since both terms are positively associated with “White” and exist as part of the same cluster providing meaning and context to whiteness, this shows an awareness of the historic variability of whiteness in the United States and an awareness of the revival of European ethnic identities in the United States (Gresson, 1995; Jacobson, 1998). This recognition appears in a European American focus group that debated the choice of “northern European ancestry” before saying the term was identical to “White.” After being read a message linking “northern Europe” to cystic fibrosis, participants immediately respond:

Female #1: [The message is] very vague. I mean the only reason it’s vague is Northern European ancestry.

Moderator: What does that mean to you, northern European ancestry?

Female #2: White.

Female #1: Yeah. I think everyone’s included in northern European.

Female #3: Except people that are from West Africa.

This exchange highlights the interaction of terms within the cluster of White-Europe-northern European. Use of “northern European ancestry” is initially criticized as causing the message to be “vague” yet the term is almost immediately translated into contemporary racial vernacular. The simultaneous resistance to and acceptance of this term highlights recognition of northern Europe as a traditional geographic bastion of whiteness and as a traditional terministic “anchor” providing stability to an otherwise empty term. Alongside this translation exists a desire to expand the geographic range of whiteness to include all of Europe as in the comment “everyone’s included in northern European.” The final comment in this section—“Except people that are from West Africa”—contributes to the second pattern apparent from the cluster-agon analysis, the recentering of “White” and its subordinate references to Europe.

Meanings in “Black” and “White”

By reading “Europe” and “European ancestry” as another reference to “White,” lay participants undercut the radical potential hoped for by scholars who suggest the move to the more geographically and culturally oriented term “European American.” Furthermore, the term is absorbed into the clusters of positive and antagonistic terms that give meaning to “White.” Scholars were correct to emphasize the geographical component of “European American,” but instead of being the lever by which structures of power and racism are moved, it represents the anchor that helps hold the otherwise content-less term “White” at the center of racial discourse. As noted above, the average number of positive terms and the average mention of each term are significantly smaller for “White” than for “Black,” and the number and quality of clusters for terms associated with “Black” is greater than those for “White.” “White” is defined by negation with a relative paucity of meaning that stands in contrast to the richer definitional resources for “Black.” That binary definition by negation is often mediated through terms that embody the other strategies of whiteness, specifically the tying of whiteness to social power and the naturalization of whiteness.

References to “dominance,” while rare due to the social unacceptability of articulating it, represents the relatively crude strategy of tying whiteness to social power. As one African American male noted, “White man rules. He rules in America anyway.” In addition to being positively associated with “White,” dominance is agonistically associated with “Black.” Those who are White have privilege or power, but only in contrast to those who are Black.

Second, the naturalization of whiteness and racial categories is embodied in references to skin color and genes. “Skin color” represents the first or second most important term for positively describing “Black” and “White,” respectively, and it is also agonistically associated with the other race, so that when individuals use “skin color” to define “White,” that definition automatically excludes individuals who are “Black.” As one African American participant noted, “Most think that white is White and that’s all it is. And as soon as you step away from that, you’ve got some Black in you.” While references to white skin color primarily serve as a mediator of the agon between Black and White, references to “Black” skin color exist as part of a rich cluster of terms including genes, culture, ancestry, location and Africa. Terms in this cluster can indicate causation—genes and ancestry cause one to have a certain skin color—or act as a signifier for one’s culture or location. This contrast in the associations of skin color reemphasizes the paucity of White’s definition and highlights the entire process of definition by negation.

The term “genes” also works to naturalize whiteness, and it is one of the terms associated with “White” that does not cluster with anything except “Black” in an agonistic fashion. The term mediates the Black-White binary. Through it, the definition of White as “not Black” is performed, as can be seen in comments like “I’m Black all the way, I don’t got no White genes.” “Black” and “White” are antithetical in this view. While the association of “genes” with “White” works to mediate the overall agon, the association of “genes” with “Black” exists as part of a cluster of positive terms. As with skin color, “genes” and its cluster serve as a counterpoint for the definition of whiteness by negation.

Some agons, like those discussed above, appear indirectly through a third term. “White” stands in contrast to “Black,” which, because it exists within a set of rich associations, provides meaning to under-defined “White.” A third term provides the medium for definition by negation. “White” does not receive positive content through the clustering with terms like “dominance,” “genes,” or skin color. Rather, these terms are the location where the opposition between the “White” and “Black” is reaffirmed. The only positive content that “White” contains that does not lead to an indirect agonistic relationship with “Black” is references to Europe. Europe becomes the anchor that helps prevents the term “White” from drifting with any prevailing wind. Except for Europe, terms associated with “White” provide the means for definition by negation: those terms provide more scenes for the articulation of the difference between the two terms. This means “White” is not related to the genetic inheritance of “Black.” It also means “White” has more social power (i.e. “dominance) only in relation to “Black.”


The term “White” is linked to a number of political and social strategies in American racial discourse. These strategies keep those identified as “White” at the center of racial discourse and political power, while masking the processes that make this possible. Communication scholars used and recommend that others use the term “European American” in order to disrupt strategies of whiteness by specifying and making concrete the cultural and geographical background of those normally identified as “White.” This terminological transformation may not provide the desired results when used with lay people. By using cluster-agon analysis to examine lay discourse as it appears in focus groups, one sees that lay people treat “European American” as though it really means “White.” Europe is subsumed into the cluster of terms that animate, and give meaning to, “whiteness.” Focus group participants redraw the “color line” around Europe, but the line of color is also a line of negation that empties “White” of meaning and defines it in opposition—in agon—to others, specifically African Americans. All the strategies of “whiteness” examined earlier—especially definition by negation—appear in the clusters of positive and agonistic terms.

Despite the concerns enumerated here, it is too early to despair of the use of “European American.” As engaged scholars move forward with critical interrogations of whiteness, two issues must be addressed. First, the agon between “Black” and “White” is essential for providing “White” with meaning. Except for references to “Europe,” there is no terministic association that does not result in an agon with “Black.” These agons exemplify the “negative difference” critiqued by McPhail (1991, 1998, 2002). Creating the black-white agon, or binary, is part of the process by which racial categories become essentialized. McPhail examines the formation of these essentialized, negative differences and offers as a palliative for this divisiveness a vision of rhetoric as “coherence.” In other words, the Black-White agon based on difference and negation must be disabled.

Three tactics for disabling the agon are immediately apparent from the analysis above. First, definition by negation is made easier with the creation of a White/non-White binary where one prototypical minority—usually “Black”—fills the “non-White” role. Recognizing the plurality of racial and ethnic groups that contribute to contemporary and historical life in the United States is an important element in disabling this agon. With only the options of Black or White, either-or thinking becomes viable, but as we expand our racial vision and include more groups in our discourses on race, dichotomous practices of negative difference become more difficult to enact. Second, the creation of more positive (i.e. non-agonistic) associations with the term “White” could make definition by negation more difficult. Currently, “Europe” is the primary positive content for whiteness. The lay uses of “Europe” might provide an example or template against which one can craft new positive content to add to “White,” but scholars first need to carry out examinations of the term “Europe” and its semantic content to see if lay individuals perceive “Europe” as being “distant,” “dissimilar,” or loaded with racist connotations.11 The nature of lay response will determine whether uses of “Europe” become a template or a point of contrast for engaged scholars.

Third, criticizing simple or essentialist notions of “Black” would also contribute to the decentering the Black-White agon. In “The Spectacular Consumption of ‘True’ African American Culture: ‘Whassup’ with the Budweiser Guys,” Watts and Orbe (2002) examine one specific construction of “authentic” Blackness in Budweiser commercials. Through their critical examination of the commercials and their highlighting of the constructed nature of this “authentic” racial identity, Watts and Orbe provide an example of how to render problematic the construction of “Black” in a way that further destabilizes whiteness. The work of Herman Gray has also critiqued portrayals of “blackness” on television. He shows how elements of African American life are organized into the cultural signifier of “blackness” (1995). “Blackness” most often operates “squarely within the boundaries of middle-class patriarchal discourses about ‘whiteness’ as well as the historic racialization of the social order” (p. 9). This privileging of “whiteness” at the expense of “blackness” occurs in most televisual discourse, but “blackness” as it is used in television remains for Gray a contested signifier that provides an “entrée into America’s multicultural future” (p. 163). Through his interrogation of television here as well as in other work, Gray (1986, 1989) highlights the construction of “blackness” and problematizes the belief in—and the search for—an “authentic” or essential blackness in commercial culture and television. Problematizing the move to essentialize blackness will undermine its use as a point of contrast for whiteness, and along with the moves to pluralize racial discourse and create more positive content to the descriptions of Whites or European Americans, it will help disable binary, agonistic rhetoric about race.

In addition to tactics that operate on the level of names and symbols, attempts at decentering strategies of whiteness must also operate on the level of the social structures and the level of psychology (Gresson 1982, 1995, 2004; McPhail, 2004). Gresson examines how tensions between self-interest and group-interests shape individuals. Sometimes the tension becomes inexorable and leads to the dissolution of group bonds that is embodied in acts of betrayal (Gresson, 1982). Social pressures have exacerbated these self-group tensions and led to the creation of “recovery rhetorics,” where both “Black” and “White” become the focus of attempts to recover group identity and power (Gresson, 1995). Gresson’s examination of African American recovery rhetoric has highlighted the complex relationship between race, gender and class that has made problematic previous visions of Black group identity, and he calls for using the emotion of compassion as the impetus for working through heterogeneous identities (Gresson, 1995). Gresson’s study of White recovery rhetoric as a response to America’s increasing pluralism reveals a more insidious process: “the anxiety pluralism creates for whites has stimulated whites to talk increasingly to each other about race and racism even as most seem to deny they play any major part in American life” (Gresson, 1995, p. 210). In other words, the recovery rhetoric of European Americans reinforces whiteness. These recovery rhetorics portray European American males as victims of the success of African Americans and other minorities while ignoring European American’s social and political power. Such stories undercut the possibilities for healing and reconciliation. Both Gresson and McPhail argue that racial healing and reconciliation require an act of atonement by Whites: “they must relinquish the power and privileges conferred on them by virtue of their race” (McPhail, 2004, p. 401; see also Gresson, 2004). For these scholars, the power of whiteness must be simultaneously eliminated at the levels of rhetoric, psychology and socio-economic structure. McPhail recognizes this goal is difficult and unlikely to occur in the near term (McPhail, 2004, p. 401), but the development of cross-group identification based in ethos and pathos—identification across racial lines grounded in compassion and empathy—will play a role in creating this atonement and eventual reconciliation (Gresson, 1995, 2004; McPhail, 2004). This radical goal will require a great deal of effort along a variety of rhetorical and psychological paths.

Renaming “Whites” will increase the possibilities for racial reconciliation, but decentering whiteness will require social and economic tactics as well as rhetorical attempts at renaming race. The exact nature of these tactics will change depending on which strategy for centering whiteness is attacked. Discussion of genetics is one place where strategies of naturalizing race and defining whiteness by negation come together. These scientific and lay debates about the genetic basis of race and the genetic basis for health disparities between ethnic groups represent one area where rhetorical naming, social structure and economic incentives can produce progressive change. Researchers have noted that members of racial and ethnic groups in the United States are more likely to suffer various poor health outcomes; for example, African Americans experience increased rates of heart disease and diabetes than other groups, especially European Americans (Institutes of Medicine, 2003). Some scientists have turned to genetics to explain these health disparities. An equal number of scientists, though, dispute the genes-race connection, and most studies claiming a genes-race connection have not been confirmed by subsequent research.12

Claiming a genetic basis for race reinforces and naturalizes our racial categories. This is especially troubling since a substantial body of medical research highlights that environmental factors—ranging from substandard housing in minority neighborhoods, toxic waste sites near minority neighborhoods, exposure to toxins in agricultural and industrial workplaces, to the ongoing psychological stress of racism—have a substantial effect on health.13 Despite an awareness of these environmental factors, science focuses on genetics because of financial concerns: grant money for research in the area of race and genetics is increasing (Foster, Sharp, & Mulvihill, 2001; Daar & Singer, 2005). In this area, the strategy of renaming is not enough by itself. Social and economic pressures must be redirected to affect the living and working conditions of minorities that end up harming them. Scientists must also have the financial inducements to look somewhere other than genetics for the explanation of health disparities between ethnic groups. These social and economic issues, along with attempts at renaming race that de-naturalizes socially constructed differences and makes visible the political structure that harms so many, can lead to improving American racial politics in the specific contexts of science and medicine. In contributing to a combination of rhetorical, social and economic efforts in this area as well as others, attempts at renaming “Whites” as “European Americans” and decentering whiteness can help in overall anti-racist action.

*John Lynch is Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University. Research for this paper was supported by grant #1-R01-HG02191-01A1 from the National Institute of Health. The author would like to thank Celeste Condit, the editors and anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this paper. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the sixth triennial conference of the Kenneth Burke Society at Pennsylvania State University in July 2005.


1. In this essay, “whiteness” will refer to the rhetorical construction of an invisible center to racial discourse as identified by Nakayama & Krizek (1995). “African American” and “European American” will be used to refer to the respective groups throughout the body of the text. “Black” and “White” appear as terms for “African American” and “European American,” respectively, within material taken from focus groups and other texts. When either term is used outside of a quote from another text, it will be placed in quotations itself—“Black” and “White”—to indicate they are being used as terms within a cluster of associated terms and meanings not as a referent to a group.

2. Martin, Hecht and Larkey (1994) also emphasize the element of culture and cultural heritage in the use of “African American” and “European American”.

3. See Baldwin (1998), Bernhardt, Lariscy, Parrot, Silk & Felter (2002), Harris & Donmoyer (2000), Hecht (1998), Hecht, Collier & Ribeau (1993), Lindsley (1998) Patton (1999), Rockler (2002) and Shuter & Turner (1997).

4. Previous scholarship has indicated that European Americans prefer the label “White” over “European American” (Martin et al., 1999). This fact represents resistance to the radical potential of the term, instead of failure. As Martin et. al. note, European Americans confronted with multicultural and increasingly diverse contexts will have to reevaluate how they think of themselves racially, thus problematizing the power and invisibility associated with “whiteness.”

5. The critical race theory developed in law has also considered the intersection of race and gender (Caldwell, 2000; Crenshaw, 1995; Delgado, 2000) and the intersection of race and sexual orientation (Hutchinson, 2000; Valdes, 2000).

6. Other examinations and criticisms of the Black-White racial binary include Chang, 2000; López, 2000a; Martinez, 2000; McPhail 1991, 2002; Nakayama, 1994; and Nakayama & Peñaloza, 1993. For a study that emphasizes the importance of race but centers on Mexican immigrants to the United States, see Hasian & Delgado (1998).

7. Although he describes cluster-agon method as a means of identifying the psychological connections between author and text, Rueckert notes that cluster-agon analysis “can be used by anyone for any purpose” (p. 96).

8. For example, Watts & Orbe (2002) use focus group methods to highlight the ambivalence lay individuals feel toward the “consumption” of images of authentic blackness.

9. Recent social scientific and biomedical moments in the debate on the relationship between race and genetics are found in Risch, 2006; Condit, Parrott, Harris, Lynch & Dubriwny, 2004; Sankar et al., 2004.

10. While noting the different valences that can adhere to “African American” and “Black” (Larkey, Hecht & Martin, 1993), this discussion will use “Black” because, although participants use both terms, participants use “Black” four times more often than “African American.”

11. Some lay concerns about “European American” are highlighted in Martin et al, 1999. Also, some racist groups like David Duke’s “European-American Unity and Rights Organization” use the term “European American” to identify themselves. Racist uses of the “European American” have the potential to challenge the radical and progressive uses of the term, depending on how much knowledge lay individuals have about these racist organizations.

12. For an overview of the scientific debate, especially as it relates to the creation of race-based medication and related medical technologies, see Lynch & Dubriwny, 2006, pp. 61-62.

13. For an overview of this research, see Sankar et al., 2004.


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Table 1: European-American/White/Caucasian Terms
(Terms are listed by frequency of appearance.)

Positive Terms:

• Europe (33)
• skin color (31)
• Northern Europe (19)
• cystic fibrosis (11)
• intelligence/academic (11)
• dominant/privileged (8 )
• location/ancestry (7)
• genes (6)
• culture (5)
Agonistic Terms:
• next to African-American (123)
• next to other races (22)
• not sickle cell (8 )
• not basketball (6)
Table 2: African-American/Black Terms
(Terms are listed by frequency of appearance.)

Positive terms:
• skin color (74)
• culture (47)
• genes/heredity (41)
• sickle cell (40)
• sports (31)
• Africa (26)
• location (18)
• ancestry (16)
• crime (10)
• music/rhythm/dance (10)
• poverty (8 )
• discrimination (6)
• heart disease (6)
Agonistic terms:
• next to European-American (123)
• next to other races (30)
• not intelligent/not academic (26)
• not West Africa (10)
Table 3: All Clusters of African-American Terms
(Terms in a cluster are listed by the frequency of appearance.)

Central Term Positive Associations Agonsitic Associations
Africa Sickle cell, Culture, Skin color West Africa, Next to European American10
Ancestory Genes, Skin color, Sickle cell Next to European American, West Africa
Crime Culture, Location, Sports, Sickle cell Next to European American, Intelligence
Culture Skin color, Location, Genes, Crime, Poverty, Africa Next to European American, Intelligence, Next to other races11
Discrimination - Next to European American
Genes Skin color, Culture, Ancestry, Location, Music/Dance/Rhythm Next to European American, Intelligence
Heart Disease Sports -
Intelligencec Culture, Genes, Sports, Crime Next to European American, Next to Other Races
Location Culture, Crime, Genes, Skin color, Music/Rhythm/Dance Next to European American
Music, Rhythm, Dance Sports, Genes, Location -
Poverty Culture, Sickle cell (tied) -
Sickle Cell Africa, Ancestry, Crime, Poverty West Africa, Next to European American
Skin color Genes, Culture, Ancestry, Location, Africa Next to European American, Next to other races
Sports Crime, Music/Rhythm/Dance, Heart Disease Next to European American, Intelligence
West Africa Sickle cell, Ancestry Africa

Table 4: All Clusters of European-American Terms
(Terms in a cluster are listed by the frequency of appearance.)

Central Term Positive Associations Agonsitic Associations
Culture - Next to African American12
Dominantb - Next to African American
Europe Northern Europe, Cystic fibrosis, Location/ancestry -
Genes - Next to African American
Intelligence - Next to African American
Location/Ancestry Skin color, Europe Next to African American, Next to other races13
Skin color Location/ancestry Next to African American, Next to other races

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"Race and Radical Renamings"

This essay surely adds some provocative insights to such ground-breaking studies of the rhetoric of race as Nakayama and Krisek's 1996 article in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. Lynch's cluster-agon study of the way in which "European American" as a substitute for "White" does little to decenter the categorical advantage Caucasians enjoy in USAmerican social and rhetorical relations indicates how difficult it is to level the playing field for African Americans even discursively, let alone socially and economically. Still, a few passages in this piece leave me a bit perplexed, mostly near the end of the argument. Nor do I think Lynch has exploited the most germane resources in Burke's philosophy in support of the case he makes.

Lynch does get to the heart of the matter in statements like this one: "Perhaps the most important strategy for centering 'whiteness' and making it invisible is the definition of 'White' by negation. Someone identified as 'White' is not any other 'color' or category. 'White' indicates a lack of racial features. This lack means 'White' depends on the existence of other categories to give it meaning." Sounds right on to me.

Here's another apt rephrasing of that same thought: "White is defined by negation with a relative paucity of meaning that stands in contrast to the richer definitional resources for Black." And, in fact, Lynch's research found that "Black terms cluster more than White terms." as extant theory would predict.

And another: "The paucity of White's definition . . . highlight[ing] the entire process of definition by negation . . . . the definition of White as 'not Black.'"

Fine and dandy. What, though, is the rationale, then, for this assertion later in the essay: "In other words, the Black-White agon based on difference and negation must be disabled." I thought it was the Black/not Black agon that needed to be "disabled."

In a later post, I hope to give my take on why the rhetoric of "whiteness" is so potent. I want to build on Lynch's well-taken definition of "White" as "not Black." I wish to employ Burke's treatment of the "paradox of purity" in that analysis.


"Race and Radical Renamings"

Let's go to Burke's notion of the "paradox of purity" and his concept of dialectical substance in general, both in GM (pp. 33-38), as centrally useful in explicating the rhetorically privileged place of "whiteness" in USAmerican discourse. We can get at the question, I do believe, by introducing the terms "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical" as particularly descriptive. Symmetrical dialectics are the kind you would find on the "dialectical" level of language---employing that terminology in the dramatistically most restrictive sense, as contrasted with "positive" (below) and "ultimate" (above), as to levels of abstraction---Burke offers in the "Order" section of RM. Here we have such oppositions as up/down, left/right, before/after, in front of/behind, earlier than/later than, and extension of this oppositional symbolic inclination into explicitly moral aspects of human life: good/bad, right/wrong, truth/falsehood, beauty/ugliness, etc. These polar oppositions are "equal," as I see it. One does not "transcend" the other. The paradox of purity or paradox of the absolute or paradox of the negative does not apply here. The polar oppositions are a function of the negative as applied to a "point" of some sort that "divides," physically in the case of up/down, morally in the case of good/bad. One side is not purer, more absolute, or more negativistic than the other.

The paradox of purity is, as Burke says in GM, most pristinely represented in the dialectic of ""Being/Not Being" (pp. 34-35). This ultimate representation of the paradox of purity, the absolute, or the negative is, however, just that, it seems to me, a representative of, the final expression of, a basic dialectical feature of symbolic abstraction: the relationship between class, and member of class, an asymmetrical, one-up-one-down relationship. One could, I believe, make Being/Not Being the climax of a ladder of abstraction like this one: soybean/legume, legume/vegetable, vegetable/plant, plant/being, Being/Not Being. These pairs are comprised of unequal terms. The second term in each case does not stand in equal, polar opposition to the first. It transcends it, rises above it, surrounds it, evelopes it. It is relatively pure, relatively absolute, relatively negativistic in respect to the first term, until we arrive at the "absolute purity" of the second term in the climactic pair. The second term in each case refers to abstracted, idealized conceptions that are "not" coexistensive with the class member in question, but that serve to synthesize a group of objects, or those class members, around some human "interest" or "intention" (P&C, p. 103). Hence "dialectical" definition of "things" PER GENUS AD DIFFERENTIAM: We put them in a higher classification of beings, a higher classification that is "categorically different" from themselves, and then point out how they differ from other members of that class.

What follows from these principles of abstraction is three features of the class-member relationship, two of which are set forth by Whitehead and Russell in PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA (see, also, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, CHANGE: PRINCIPLES OF PROBLEM FORMATION AND PROBLEM RESOLUTION, 1974, pp. 6-12), and one of which Burke emphasizes in the Appendix to P&C. (1) A class cannot be a member of itself; it is, indeed, categorically different and transcendent. (2) The rules are different for the class than for the member (Burke alludes to this rule in GM where he distinguishes the "class [or national] motive" of soldiers who go into battle to kill the national enemy, whereas they wouldn't think of killing their personal enemy). And (3) the class, which is most frequently a member of a "higher" class still, is "invisible," or relatively "invisible," from the perspective of the member or "lower" class. Burke borrows Coleridge's metaphor of the spiral social staircase that disappears into the clouds at the upper reaches (P&C, pp. 279-280), and adds that the "lower" class is also invisible to the "upper" class. Hence the musical refrain, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?"

Obviously, this categorical invisibility of the "higher" class will become most acute when the negativistic character of the that class is raised to the level of absolute purity, pristine negativity, as in "Being/Not Being" or "thing/not thing." It is, nevertheless, powerfully operative in the asymmetrical dialectic of "Black/not Black." What has happened is, the salutary polar opposition of Black/White (as partially deconstructive of "Negro/White") introduced by African-American rhetors in the 1960's did not take hold in a way that dilutes completely the dominance of the "higher" racial class. Some rules of privilege and opportunity have evened out, but not all of them. "White" is still very much hidden within or behind the negative in U. S. culture, as residential addresses, disparities in occupational status, and relative levels of income can attest. White is still defined in large part by the negative, as Nakayama and Krizek describe in the second part of the six-part body of their essay, and as Lynch notes, too. The paradox of purity or paradox of the negative still very much obtains in racial relations, as it does in the gender relations between "woman" and "man."

Burke says in GM, "The Divine substance, as the ground of all that we experience in the material world, could be designated only by the absence of any attributes such as we in our material existence can conceive of" (as expressed in the "negative theology" of the likes of Jacob Boehme [GM, p. 34, LASA, p. 456]). A relative absence or paucity of attributes that cluster around "White" as a racial marker, in contrast to "Black," amply reaffirmed in Lynch's research, testifies well to the explanatory power of Burke's "paradox of purity" as a tool in rhetorical critique.