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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Footnote

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

Cited

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.

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Dyer’s White

Introduction

In preliminary searches on the concept of whiteness the work of Richard Dyer repeatedly surfaces. Dyer has written several books on the subject.

White

There are several important ideas contained within Richard Dyer’s book White (1997). Within this blog format I will pull out a couple. Richard Dyer calls his project one of “making whiteness strange” (4). That whiteness should become marked rather than invisible. Dyer explains that whiteness is recognized in relation to the representation of the non-white1 (11). He invokes both Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), since both these authors works “suggest that white discourse implacably reduces the non-white subject to being a function of the white subject” (13). 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.

Dyer does express some concerns with the whole project. He lists several. The first he calls the “green light” problem (10). Where writing now gives whites to do “what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves” (10). Then there is what he calls “me-too-ism” (10). A type of navel gazing where whites are able to say in essence “we are part of a group too.” Also contained in me-too-ism is “the sense that being white is no great advantage, what with being so uptight, [and] out of touch with our bodies” (10). In addition to the previous ideas there is also the new oppressed group, the white man who can’t get a job (10). Dyer expresses a fear that “talking about whiteness could lead to the development of something called ‘White Studies’” (10). However, he is not fearful that is will “dislodge [whiteness] from its centrality and authority,” but that it might lead to a new type of “assertiveness” (10). Dyer also identifies guilt as a problem. He does think that the solution is to acknowledge the wrongs, but not allow guilt to become a block since the display of guilt expresses a “fine moral character” (11). Guilt becomes an expression of what whites are and by implication that others do not have such “fine moral character.”

Further on Dyer explores the use of film in asserting whiteness, which he precedes this with the role of photography in asserting and affirming the construct of whiteness. He explains the historical belief that photography could reveal the inner nature of a person (104). He also discusses eugenics before and after discussions on early ideas of whiteness related to high morals, purity, higher thinking (in males, not females). As well Dyer talks about the importance of lighting and positioning the white person in photography and other imagery. What interested me in this passage was the insertion of the term eugenics. Photography “was a central tool of the eugenics movement, whose focus was the improvement of the human race through control of breeding” (105). This passage is a direct reminder of a piece I titled Hitler Would Love You (2009). The inspiration for the piece comes from an image similar to the following that I had seen on the Internet. Both HWLY and the source image also refer to sight (which Dyer also delves into with a discussion on the primacy of sight and its contradictions).

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_R_165_Bild-244-64,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_R_165_Bild-244-64,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic

Choosing/selecting a person, as meeting a standard of worthiness, based on eye and hair colour as an indication of their “fine moral character” is absurd. (Also brings to mind the work of Michael Euyung Oh and his arbitrary choices.)

How can whiteness be deconstructed without turning the discussion into a massive cosmic hole? How can whiteness be shown to be a marked position and at the same time remove racial labels? How can each person, regardless of the race they identify with, feel dignity without being barricaded by guilt or pride?

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1 Richard Dyer explains his uncomfortable use of the terms “white” and “non-white”: see the sub-section titled “The Politics of Looking at Whiteness” in White, London: Routledge, 1997, middle of page 11.

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