The identity politics industry is on the qui vive to discover symptoms of racism unrecognized until now. Whiteness, a barrier to racial justice, is a malign condition to which “white” people are peculiarly susceptible. Hidden clues are everywhere. None are too absurd to go unexamined by race-stalkers in academia. Even white paint is suspect.
Are there racist implications to the many global uses of the chemical compound titanium dioxide (TiO2)? Has the pigment derived from it — titanium white — contributed to white supremacy? Is the universal prevalence of titanium white a signifier of oppressive Western ideology?
Whiteness studies are a gravy train for grant-seeking academics throughout a declining West. Since TiO2 and titanium white were developed by two Norwegian chemists in the 1910s, Norway is funding an audit of its own role in the spread of white privilege.
The Research Council of Norway has granted 12 million Norwegian Krone (about $1.2 million) to the University of Bergen to “investigate” the baneful “planetary consequences” of white paint. Entitled “How Norway Made the World Whiter (NorWhite),” the project states its claim on public funding: “Whiteness is one of today’s key societal and political concerns.”
An additional $288,000 from the Norwegian Artistic Research Program goes to Oslo National Academy of the Arts for a sister project: “The Materiality of White (MoW).” This postmodern grift ponders whiteness in the concrete, the solid stuff of it: “The aim of the project is to highlight TiO2’s materiality and ubiquity, and to contribute to critical thinking on the color white and its mineral origin.” MoW asks the decisive question: “Do we need our world to be more white?”
The answer was baked into the initial grant applications. This joint “theoretical and critical reflection” on TiO2 points in one direction: to the stigmatization of “white” people — of whatever ethnicity — by other means. The project is an accredited version of the ancient practice of branding. The “problem” of whiteness is academia’s variant of the mark of Cain, a stain on the flesh.
In a recent interview with the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet, fundraiser and principal investigator Ingrid Halland insists: “We are not claiming Norway has launched racist attitudes.” Of course not. The “politics of whiteness” are deemed so deeply embedded in an oppressive system of power dynamics that no discernible racism need be present.
The NorWhite study is a corrosive mélange of leading questions, buzzwords, and innuendo that implies what it does not openly claim. The study simply “examines” how titanium white pigment — “a superior color” — “led to an aesthetic desire for white surfaces, but was also connected to racist attitudes.” As universal as racism itself, TiO2 circulates “through our material, biologic and economic systems.” It is “virtually present in all techno-natural surfaces globally.” Hint, hint: The color white is both agent and expression of colonization.
Norway is nicely situated for this foray into hereditary scapegoating. Nearly half of Norway’s land mass lies above the Arctic Circle, where chilly whiteness prevails. Indigenous Norwegians embody that deficit in “the melanin factor” trumpeted by pan-Africanist ideologue Leonard Jeffries at City College of New York in the early 1990s. His professional contribution to anti-white hostility promoted the theory that pigmentation makes “sun people” (people of color) inherently superior to “ice people” (colorless whites).
Dignified by Professor Jeffries’ tenure and chairmanship of C.C.N.Y.’s Black Studies department, his crackpottery caught on. Jeffries flattered non-white students with the dogmatic assertion that pigmentation “allows us [people of color] to negotiate the vibrations of the universe and to deal with the ultraviolet rays of the sun.” His racial animus was tidied up and carried into the mainstream by aspiring graduates, fellow travelers, and well-tailored grievance mongers. It is a short walk from Jeffries to Ibram X. Kendi (born Ibram Henry Rogers), founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.
As rhetoric substitutes for talent and moral preening trumps craftsmanship, art schools beckon to antiracists and assorted crusaders. The growing field of artistic research is a post-modern pseudoscience that turns art departments into catch-alls for leftist activism. Matters of craft are discounted by careerist faculty intent on erasing non-polemical grounds for judgment. Rejecting the concept of objective reality, the pedagogy subverts knowledge itself. All is relative and subject to interpretation. Artistic research is a sciencey-sounding gig for academics who do not believe in facts. Truth is whatever you want it to be.
NorWhite’s insinuation of a relation between TiO2 and colonization is incoherent. Western colonialism began in the 1400s with Henry the Navigator. Yet titanium white did not exist before the 20th century. It came onto the global market long after anti-colonial efforts had begun in the late 18th century (remember 1776?). By the time titanium white was developed in the early 20th century, European colonialism was on life support.
Chemists’ attraction to pigments dates back to antiquity. Early Egyptians had a genius for color chemistry. Today’s list of industrially manufactured dyes and pigments, annotated by Colour Index International, is far into the thousands. Titanium white is produced in the greatest quantity partly because it is needed to modify the saturation of other pigments. Most crucial, it evades the health hazards of lead white.
A slow killer, lead white was the reigning preindustrial white pigment. Its toxicity, known by the Greeks in the second and third centuries B.C., inhibited wide use of it. Plato might have welcomed titanium white: “Now that even purple clothes our walls, no famous picture is painted.” Lead poisonings dropped precipitously once titanium white dominated the market (some 80 percent by 1945). Safety, not ideology, was key to ubiquity.
Lost in NorWhite’s simulacra of research is something painters — figurative ones especially — learn from the rigors of color mixing: There is no such thing as white skin. No black skin either. The study of tonal value, the range of light to dark, is an essential aspect of painting.
Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts once ran an ingenious class in color mixing. Students were assigned to achieve, in oils, a precise match to the skin tone of everyone else in the course. Only the three primary colors — two variants of each — plus a tube of titanium white were permitted. No tube black allowed. Black had to be achieved on the palette with admixtures of the primaries. Tempered with white, this lively “black” yielded beautiful grays needed to harmonize tonal shifts in every skin color in the room. Amounts of white varied from person to person but were never absent.
The NorWhite and MoW studies fixate on whiteness in contradictory ways — as a Platonic idea and, at the same time, a visible proxy for race. The nonsense is dangerous precisely because it is nonsensical. William Butler Yeats put it well: “You can refute Hegel but not the ‘Song of Sixpence.’” Nonsense is not subject to argument. It cannot be reasoned with. Therein lies its appeal to ideologues who maneuver against dissent.
Note: This essay was published first in The Federalist, 9 January, 2023, under the title “Even White Paint Is Racist Now.”