In her now classic paper titled White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes about the many ways that white people create a world in their own image. She argues that this world emerges from and reflects a “deeply internalized, and largely unconscious sense of racial belonging in U.S. society.”
DiAngelo’s point invites us to consider whiteness as a factor, not as a framework. As she and others have pointed out, whiteness emerges out of a peculiar history. As such, we can and should identify whiteness where we see it in the world, rather than let it fade into the background. Their contributions may also help us understand how some scholars have responded to one of the most horrific crimes against children—especially Asian children—in recent memory.
On June 19, 2020, the story broke that a powerful white male scholar, Jan Joosten, had downloaded over 27,000 pictures and 1,000 videos of child pornography over a period of at least six years. Some of these victims were children “originaires d’Asie ou des pays de l’Est” (originating in Asia or Eastern countries). Which is to say that they’re marked as non-white Asian children. We don’t know the proportion of Asian victims to non-Asians, but no other ethnic or national marker is mentioned. We can conclude, therefore, that he contributed to the production of child pornography and the rape of Asian children.
Each word above is a data point. Power. White. Male. Scholar. Child Pornography. Rape. Asian. Children. Six Years. Each of these points is worthy of analysis. Each stands in relation to the others. The scope of the crime can only be understood by taking every point into consideration.
With few exceptions, responses to his crimes have glossed over the fact that Jan is a white man, even when every other point is mentioned. This means that while the race of the victim is visible, and therefore informs the way we see his crimes, the race of the criminal is invisible, and therefore deemed irrelevant. Whiteness has politely excused itself from analysis.
Or not so politely. Some are offended by the very mention that he is white. After all, we all know that he’s white. Why mention something so obvious?
Such a question does not spring from good faith. Its rhetorical purpose is to excuse whiteness. It asks us to frame whiteness as a point of departure, rather than a factor in our analysis. It demands us to say that a “male scholar” contributed to the rape of Asian children, not a “white male scholar.” Both are true. But “white male scholar” offers more space for contextualization and historicization than “male scholar.” It’s the superior option because it better represents who he is.
When white people frame the whiteness of the criminal as obvious, then the one who points out that it’s not obvious but a point of analysis is accused of hating white people. This is a classic case of white fragility. When it’s a non-white person drawing attention to this point, they’re accused of acting on the basis of their identity: Of course Jae would write something like this; he’s an angry Korean man.
And they’re correct. I am writing this as a Korean man. That is my identity, which informs what I do. White people thus recognize that non-white people act on the basis of their identity. But so do white people. They’re not special. Therefore, Jan is a “white male scholar” and he acted as such in his crimes.
Others make the heinousness of his crime into a theological or universal problem. Surely, they say, this is a crime against all people. It represents the “complexité de l’être humain” (the complexity of being a human being); Or, perhaps an instance of Evil, as we will see below.
This is nonsense. This cannot be a crime against humanity, nor can it demonstrate the grand complexity of humanity, because white men don’t get to represent the scope of humanity. They are not special—even when it comes to evil.
One person blustered at my remarks: “Are you accusing me, a white man, of the same crimes as that white man?” [See image left]
Of course, no one should be held responsible for someone else’ crimes. However, if another powerful white male commits the same crimes as that white man, then as a scholar, I’m bound to take his whiteness into account. Because now we’ve established a pattern that approximates real events in the world. We can now contextualize this pattern into what Stephen Young has recently called, “… another entry in the long history of white men participating in the violent subjugation of non-white people.”
After all, if we’re trying to stop evil in our community, we must see how it actually manifests, through which channels, among whom against whom. We must interrogate what happened, why, how, when, where, and most importantly, who. To discard race from our analysis would make us poor scholars.
Note what this does not assume. This does not assume that interiority is important. I do not know what Jan was thinking, nor can any of us know. His personal fantasies are immaterial; his deliberations no longer exist in the world as data. Therefore, we must reject Jan’s claim to have a “secret garden, in contradiction with myself.”
As scholars, we’re under no obligation to take him at his word. In fact, we cannot, for the simple reason that his interiority contains no data for study. Thoughts, motives, and feelings of “self-contradiction” are not available to scholars as objects of analysis, only words, actions, and events. I see no evidence of a “self-contradiction” because there can be none.
By extension, if scholars fail to discard the myth promulgated by Jan himself of an internal contradiction, they cease to be scholars and claim to be seers. The more responsible option then is to see his appeal to interiority for what it is: obfuscating rhetoric in the service of public rehabilitation.
Or, we can take another step back and ask, who is allowed to have self-contradictions? Who gives and possesses the privilege to have a redeemable private-self and an unimpeachable public-self? Who gets to be “individual” and who must always represent something beyond themselves? Most importantly, who accepts the stupendous myth that brilliant white men have complex interiorities, thereby opening a subterranean channel for rehabilitation? As one tweet put it poignantly, “It’s not like anybody else gets to separate their scholarship from their bodies.”
Once we discard the completely unverifiable claim that there’s a secret Jan hiding somewhere within him, we can do what we’ve been trained to do: appeal to observable facts and documentable patterns. What we have are his words, his actions, and his identity as a powerful white man.
We can then contextualize to see whether there is a pattern of other powerful white men brutalizing powerless bodies, both white and non-white. And there is. We can then historicize this phenomenon to see what factors allowed such people to commit these crimes in these ways at this moment in that place against those people. By doing so, we can work to create a community that does not facilitate, welcome, or rehabilitate such disgusting people.
I wear sunglasses and a PBS shirt when I go for my occasional walk outside. I like to imagine that they will protect me in this particularly virulent period of anti-Asian racism. Kung-Flu. China virus. My race is always on me. So must Jan’s be on him.