Discussing Whiteness at the University of Turku

During the past few years, “whiteness” has become somewhat of a buzz word in studies on race and ethnicity in the Nordic countries and beyond. In an effort to take stock of the concept and its uses, an interdisciplinary group of University of Turku scholars organized a conference on the subject on October 18–19, 2013. The conference—“Traveling Whiteness: Interchanges in the Study of Whiteness”—drew participants from thirteen countries and from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to share their research and to discuss the applicability of whiteness as a scholarly concept in humanities and social sciences.

Professor Philomena Essed giving her keynote address.

Professor Philomena Essed giving her keynote address.

The two keynote speakers of the conference were Professor Mike Hill (SUNY-Albany) and Professor Philomena Essed (Antioch University), both internationally renowned scholars of racism. Professor Hill addressed in his opening keynote the timely issue of US drone warfare against “terrorism,” discussing the intersections between new American military doctrines and the emerging militarized uses of neuroscience. For US Army, Hill argued, culture and identity were increasingly becoming conceptualized as weapons in their military arsenal.

In her closing keynote address, Professor Essed reflected critically on the growing tendency in the West to frame debates on racism in terms of “freedom of expression.” While racist outbursts are increasingly seen as legitimate expressions of one’s right to speak, the humiliation meted out to the targets of such outbursts is not treated as a moral concern. To better take into account the problematic implications of the “freedom of expression” discourse, Essed argued for a more sophisticated appreciation of human dignity in discussions on racism.

Dr. Johanna Leinonen delivering the closing remarks of the conference.

Dr. Johanna Leinonen delivering the closing remarks of the conference.

The same interdisciplinary ethos and attention to topical issues that characterized the two keynotes was on display in the conference workshops as well. The 45 thematically heterogonous presentations included papers from historians, sociologists, and literary scholars, among others. Presentations dwelled on both empirical cases and theoretical discussions, with participants presenting on such themes as anti-immigrant populism, media representations of whiteness, and intersections between whiteness and gender, nation, and sexuality.

The interdisciplinary atmosphere of the conference made for a fertile ground for the establishment of new contacts and collaborative relationships. The scholarly discussions on whiteness are sure to continue.

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