Sociologist Matt Wray discusses critical race studies

by Wally Joe Cook | 2/7/18 2:00am

Last Friday, Matt Wray, associate professor of sociology at Temple University, delivered a talk titled “What’s Up with White People? A Field Guide for the Perplexed” to a room of over 40 people in Carson Hall. Wray’s talk covered his work as a critical whiteness scholar — an extension of critical race theory that investigates how white identities are constructed — and his theories on how to classify white people.

Wray’s system, which he formulated by studying ethnographies of white people over at least 10 years, organizes white people into one of four groups. The system involves a two-by-two table that relies on two variables, “political variation” and “colorblindness,” to create four quadrants of white identities. Wray labeled members of the quadrants as “identifiers” (liberal whites who believe in “fluid racial boundaries”), “deniers” (conservative whites who believe in “fluid racial boundaries”), “resisters” (liberal whites who believe in “firm racial boundaries”) and “resenters” (conservative whites who believe in “firm racial boundaries”).

As examples of members of these quadrants, Wray identified Rachel Dolezal — a white woman who says she identifies as black, who formerly headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Spokane, Washington — as an identifier; Ben Shapiro — a conservative political commentator — as a denier; Tim Wise — an anti-racism activist — as a resister; and Richard Spencer — a white nationalist — as a resenter. Wray added that people typically associate “hipsters” with identifiers, “neoconservatives” with deniers, “social justice warriors” with resisters and “rednecks and white trash” with resenters. Wray also said he believes that most white Americans are identifiers, resenters make up a small portion of the population and it would be difficult for resenters to switch quadrants.

Wray said that historically, critical whiteness scholars have divided white people into categories based on whether they were prejudiced or discriminated against minorities. However, he said that because prejudice and discrimination are “less salient in this era,” he selected new variables.

“Political variation struck me as the most obvious way in which white people are differing today from one another,” Wray said in an interview following his talk. “The political divisions between whites are more acute than they have ever been before.”

In his speech, Wray labeled his second variable as “colorblindness.” He explained that how white people think about race is important to classifying them.

“Do they think about racial categories and racial boundaries as fiction … or do they see them as real divisions?” Wray said in the interview. “You get white people who see racial boundaries as fluid and you get white people who see racial boundaries as fixed.”

Wray also discussed the 2016 election in his talk, saying that people need to think more critically about demographics than simply attributing President Donald Trump’s victory to working-class white voters.

After the talk, Wray held a question and answer session with his audience. During this period, he said that when society establishes a clear division between people of color and white people, it promotes a hierarchy, and that he wonders whether a third racial category — people like Dolezal who identify out — would destabilize that hierarchy.

“Maybe there is something deconstructive about the Rachel Dolezals of the world,” said Wray in his talk, adding that he is unsure whether “transracialism” is progressive or regressive.

The event received national media attention following its announcement, including from Fox News, which reported last November that Dartmouth would be hosting Wray for the talk. Previously, he has delivered this talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Wray felt that Fox News specifically overreacted to his talk.

“They just had [available to them] a short paragraph describing the talk,” Wray explained in the interview. “That was the extent of what they had to report on, and they just ran with it like it was a baby on fire.”

He added that liberal and conservative media outlets are equally guilty of trying to stir up controversy.

Wray said he got the idea for the name of his talk from reading the question, “What’s up with white people?” on the website Reddit and thought it “got to the heart of [his] analytical project.”

The subtitle, “A Field Guide for the Perplexed,” is not incidental, Wray explained.

“I wanted to present this as if it were a kind of guide to understanding the different types of white people that are out in the world,” he said.

Although Wray has ideas about the behaviors of members of different categories, he has not analyzed data to test his hypotheses. For example, he hypothesized that “resisters” might be interested in ending mass incarceration, whereas “identifiers” might be more interested in combating racism by combining cultures, such as through hip-hop music.

“For now, I’m at the stage where I’m content to lay out the theoretical framework and throw out some possible hypotheses that I think flow directly from this framework,” Wray said in the interview. “If other people find that aspiring and want to take up some tests of some of these ideas, I’d be super excited about that.”

Wray emphasized that such a research project would be a massive undertaking that included extensive polling and ethnographies as a basis of study has drawbacks.

“One of the limitations that we see with ethnographies is that they’re not really generalizable,” Wray said. “Instead, it offers you the opportunity to hypothesize.”

Alayah Johnson-Jennings ’21, who attended Wray’s talk, wished it was more grounded in research.

Emily Stehr ’21 said she attended the event because sociology often focuses on the oppressed and was interested in a talk that focused on the oppressor.

“It is interesting to think about the privileged side of social stratification, rather than stratification’s effects on social minorities,” Jarett Lewis ’21 said.

Princilla Minkah ’21 said she attended the event because she was interested in Wray’s perspective as a white man.

“I thought it was a great talk,” Armond Dorsey ’20 said. “I think now it’s just a matter of how this will be critically applied to our lives. It’s a matter of how we go forward.”

In terms of what students take away from his talk, Wray says that is each student’s decision.

“It’s not my place to tell any of the white people in the audience where they ought to place themselves in the grid,” Wray said. “I’m not trying to do something prescriptive here, I’m trying to do something descriptive. I’m trying to say, ‘Well here’s what people are doing. You decide.’”