White Women, Race Matters

To pull out a couple of points from my reading today that have “stickability” is Ruth Frankenberg’s brief critique of whites as being non-cultured and the notion of fluid borders between constructed classes.

“…[a] feeling that deep down whites are nothing…” (Dyer 222).

Although the quote above comes from the book White by Richard Dyer written in 1997, Dyer’s exploration on whites and representation had already been published by Routledge in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations in 1993. Ruth Frankenberg’s essay White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness was also published in 1993. It stands to reason that discourses on the construction of whiteness were well under way. I point this out because Frankenberg’s text opens with a line, printed as follows:

“Fundamentally a relational category, whiteness does have content…” (emphasis Frankenberg’s) (632)

Dyer’s text in using film to illustrate, discusses the notion of whiteness (among other things) as being empty, void, and nothing (Dyer). It is a fear of those things on the part of whites that is displayed in the films he discusses (Dyer). Frankenberg explains that the concept of whiteness at least “generates norms, ways of understanding history, ways of thinking about self[,] other, [and] culture” (632).

Frankenberg adds that seeing whiteness as “no culture” (or empty) would mean the practices within whiteness remain unnamed. White cultural practices therefore become the norm, the default, universal rather than specific, even though dominant (633). What is a (white) person’s identity if on the one hand they have no culture and on the other they are the default? Frankenberg asserts that it is therefore important to name whiteness in order to “dislodge the claims […] to rightful dominance” (633).

Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture suggests that while groups may find commonality in a shared experience, that the overlap where difference occurs within groups is negotiated in a liminal space. Bhabha, in offering a visual for his concept turns to the work Sites of Genealogy by Renee Green (Bhabha 5). Bhabha describes an upper floor and lower floor separated by a stairwell, which becomes the liminal space where culture is able to flow between the two places (Bhabha 5). It is in this transitional space that appropriation occurs. As Frankenberg says “The borders of white identity have proven malleable over time” (633). She adds that in a similar way “whiteness, masculinity, and femininity are coproducers of one another” (633). So while whites (“white, American, male” (634)) are skilled appropriators they also impose their cultural practices on others by implication of normalcy.

I think Frankenberg’s last point on what to do is also important. She suggests that Americans (I suggest all whites) learn more about the “histories that lie behind that normativity, the multiple currents that came together to make the normative space that white Americans now inhabit, and the processes of assimilation, loss and forgetting that took place along the way” (634).

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Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Frankenberg, Ruth. “White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness.” 1993. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 632-34. Print.

Playing in the Dark

Nov 16, 2010

In the essay Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison two things jump out at me. One is the dichotomy of white and black. The other is that this perspective is US-centric.

I have written previously (quoting myself):

Can we then say that both white and non-white are defined by the spaces where they meet? I have wrestled with this previously in a recent paper. “In works such as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) […] the blackness of the square is understood in relation to its white ground. Discussion about Black Square is centered on the black square as the subject of the painting, while the white ground remains unnamed.” What I think is also important here is that the positioning of non-white in relation to white (foreground and ground dichotomy enters the discourse too) provides a way for the white to remain unnamed, not the subject of deconstruction or analysis.

Toni Morrison suggests throughout her essay that the white American(1) imagination is involved with comparisons of the cultured whiteness against the savage darkness.

As far as the essay being US-centric, Morrison explains that for the white American author in dealing with fears as well as trying to find a way to justify or answer questions of oppression that the “fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire […] is uniquely American” (82). She acknowledges that “European-Africanism” also exists, but here she is not dealing with that.

A final observation by Morrison is given in her discussion of William Dunbar from Voyagers to the West (1986) by Bernard Bailyn. She quotes Bailyn writing “…and feeling within himself a sense of authority and autonomy he had not known before, a force that flowed from his absolute control over the lives of others” (83). This implies his control over the lives of any women he may also have in his life. The American was “new, white, and male” (83).

The idea above stands as another example of whiteness being defined by the blackness around it. That whiteness is what blackness is not, as Morrison concludes, “he is backgrounded by savagery” (84).

From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958
From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958

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1. For the purposes of this writing American means United States of America, since north and south of US borders is also America.


Morrison, Toni. “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.” 1992. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.

Adrian Piper’s Passing

Nov 16, 2010

As a first thought, the racism Adrian Piper is talking about in Passing for White, Passing for Black is experienced in the United States. She is a US citizen, born and raised. While her perspective (and statistics) is American it is good to keep in mind that many of her experiences cross political boundaries. And yet it is difficult for me to understand in what ways racism is experienced outside of North America, since my experience of racism is contained there. What is the experience of racism like in China, Indonesia or Italy? How is whiteness lived or experienced in these locations? Is it just as privileged?

Piper’s statement that “any proportion of African ancestry is sufficient to identify a person as black” bothers me (427). What I mean is I understand that historically this was written into the law. I am also not so naïve to comprehend that in the minds of many this is still the case. (I only need to think about the websites devoted to promoting the “pure” white race.) What confuses me is the apparent contradiction. If a person has some white ancestors can they not also claim to be white? Again it is complicated by the notion that whiteness and blackness is initially about skin colour, not simply class or economics. A person may indeed have white ancestors, but if they “look” black they will not be identified and treated as white, but as black.

I appreciated Piper’s frankness too. At one point she relates that it is fairly easy to tell if a white person is racist by simply commenting how they look as though they might have black ancestry (428). The person’s face and first reaction will give them away. She admits that she will never do it again.

There are two things about the above notion that I think are important to mention. One is that I admit that I have done this myself. I mentioned this about a relatives family and it didn’t go over very well. The second point is that Piper explains that a person who is truly rejecting racism is not motivated by what they think they can do for black people, but if they can think of themselves as having black ancestors (428). It is the doing here that I think is important. In doing, a person who is white would still remain in a privileged position, still in the position of socially perceived and lived power. However, for a person to acknowledge that they may have black ancestors, to think about and dialogue about those possibilities is the ultimate test to Piper.

As a final thought, the way in which white and black are defined is a problem since these definitions uphold the notion of racial categories. It may be (I hate to invoke him) that this is the reason Tiger Woods explanation of his racial status as “Cablinasian,” a blending of his Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Thai heritage had garnered so much criticism (Kamiya).

In spite of the notion that our identities are fluid (Foucault et. al.) it seems difficult for people to consciously accept changes to an image they have of themselves. Even though daily, however imperceptibly, the reflection in the mirror changes (Noorderlicht).

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Works Cited

Kamiya, Gary. “Salon | Tiger Woods.” Salon.com – Salon.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2010. <http://www.salon.com/april97/tiger970430.html&gt;.

Noorderlicht. “YouTube – Bekijk De Noorderlicht-aflevering ‘Killing Time’.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. 7 Apr. 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKsNraFxPwk&gt;.

Piper, Adrian. “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” 1997. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.

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Edited: Dec 15, 2010.