Wednesday, March 10, 2010

White guilt and White male paranoia

A response to Richard Dyer's "The Matter of Whiteness":

Richard Dyer begins his paper “The Matter of Whiteness” (1999) by discussing the central nature that racial judgments and racial imagery encompass in the contemporary world. He points to the “enormous amount of analysis on racial imagery in the past decades,” especially when it comes to analyses in postcolonial texts of the racial Other – that is, those who are other than White, for the majority of research and discourse about race centers on “any racial imagery other than that of white people” (539). He mentions the assumption employed by the media and authors of other textual works that categorize “whiteness” as synonymous with “human,” a category which he admits to utilizing in his own discussion of drag queens: Dyer mentions that in his analysis of characters from Car Wash such as the “fashion queen” and the “black queen” he fails to identify the “fashion queen” as White, falling into the trap of writing about “white people [as] just people” whereas Black individuals necessitate the signifier of their color (540). He draws upon other examples of this in mentioning the short descriptions of programs on television, reminding his reader that these two examples are in no way exhaustive.

Ultimately, Dyer’s piece can be read as a manifesto of how to attempt to discuss the issue of whiteness without repositioning it in the hegemonic, heteronormative space that it has encompassed for much (all?) of history. While attempting to iterate that White folks are not colorless and should be recognized as a categorization deserving of some attention, Dyer simultaneously asserts that whiteness should not be a newly claimed area of study – he identifies his fear that “paying attention to whiteness” will somehow “reinstate it” as a point of “centrality and authority” (542). He discusses the concept of white guilt, and how this guilt can “be a blocking emotion” that causes analyses of Whites to remain focused on how awful they have been in the past as opposed to “how exactly their image has been constructed,” (542) not suggesting that this history be ignored but should instead be only a part of the complicated reading of whiteness, and indeed of any racial category. A recent post to the online community Yay Hooray (scroll down to Lord Thuggingsworth's post) displays an example of a personification of this white guilt that does nothing to enhance the conversation.

A point of interest in Dyer’s piece comes with his mention of the surge in “white male paranoia” (542) that manifests itself in print advertisements, television spots, and magazine articles as a product of White people feeling left out of the race discussion. This white male paranoia, Dyer states, is a product of “all this (all this?) attention being given to non-white subjects” (542) in the critical analyses of race in the media and in academia. A particular Newsweek article of the same name as the hegemonic fear discussed above begins by focusing on the actions of Michael Douglas’s character in the film Falling Down – a project contemporaneous to the magazine piece – who acts out in violent rage against people of color, including “whining panhandlers, immigrant shopkeepers who don't trouble themselves to speak good English, [and] gun-toting gangbangers” (Gates, 1993) in retaliation to and reaction for the termination of his job. Other examples of this paranoia can be seen in recent Docker’s print advertisements that attempt to reclaim a time when “men wore pants” and in a television spot for Ketel One vodka (see embed below) in which the image of a table full of White, upper-middle class males is accompanied by a voiceover maintaining “there was a time when men were Men” (presumably with a capital "M"), and that this manly, vodka-drinking experience is supposedly “inspired by 300 years of tradition.” Although one could easily read these examples from a feminist perspective, stating that these advertisements and filmic representations are a reclaiming of a masculinity taken from men by a recent shift of focus to the feminine, it is this “300 years of tradition” and the table full of white men that leads me to believe otherwise – that this is indeed not just a gender but also a racial issue.

A question that came to mind while reading Dyer’s piece has to do with the sustainability of his statement that the “media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak for whites while claiming – and sometimes sincerely aiming – to speak for humanity” (541) during an era in which the United States is being run by an African American man. The inherent naivety of this question is apparent even as it is being composed, but this was a question that was raised from similar statements in Shome’s piece as well: now that a Black man is the president of America, does this mean that the presidency can still be considered “the ultimate site of white masculinity” (Shome 2000; 369) so proclaimed by Shome? This is not to suggest that President Obama, being both Black and White, speaks for all Black Americans or all White Americans – nor that these two classifications encompass the entirety of racial identities found within the United States – but is this not a potentially encouraging step toward representation of not just the white race but the human race in the “politics” mentioned in Dyer, with Obama able to possibly function as a voice for a larger portion of humanity than is possible with the overwhelming majority of white voices usually found in politics and the media? I am not sure that this question can be answered adequately; I only attempt to bring up the disparities and small developments between the current era of the early 21st century and the late 20th century.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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