Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America.
BOTH LEARNING TO BE WHITE AND PRODUCING AMERICAN RACES alert the reader to these scholars' shared interest in race-as-process. Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and McKee, a professor of English, each insist on conceptualizing racial identity as a fluid and necessarily incomplete project, whether for individuals or communities. Learning to Be White maintains that the vast majority of Euro-Americans never fully believe in their own white identities but instead rehearse childhood racial humiliations throughout their lives. Producing American Races argues that most ostensibly white persons feel compelled to engage in the ceaseless production, reproduction, and circulation of hegemonic white ideals, only to be resisted by a black tradition that persists in generating and regenerating its own defiant conception of black identity across history. Given a common desire to challenge conventional notions of the racial, it should come as no surprise that these two writers' most important disagreements emerge with respect to the social implications a radically fluid notion of difference holds in store for the United States. While Thandeka argues in a therapeutic vein that the possibility of change always exists for individual Euro-Americans, McKee suggests that white culture reproduces itself so relentlessly that there is little room for resistance among whites themselves. For McKee, in fact, the only possibility of serious opposition to the nation's racial status quo appears not in white but in black culture--in the work of writers much like Thandeka herself. To find in Learning to Be White the answer to McKee's scholarly and political provocation isn't to suggest that one text deserves more attention than the other, it is rather to imagine that these two books are engaged in a type of call-and-response, across disciplines, across audiences, across the color line.
For Thandeka, the most useful way of interrogating the dominance of whiteness in the United States is to address the role of shame and humiliation in the construction of white identities. Drawing upon a battery of psychological and psychoanalytic theory from Heinz Kohut to Alice Milller to D. W. Winnicott, she locates and analyzes the central role of shame in a number of very different personal accounts: oral testimonies collected in self-help workshops; life histories cited in sociological classics such as Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb's The Hidden Injuries of Class; autobiographical narratives included in books by such ideologically disparate figures as Bill McCarney, the founder of the Promise Keepers, and Martha Nussbaum, philosopher at the University of Chicago. These tales of whiteness reveal how Euro-American children often experience a primal scene of shame in which their own difference from white norms is perceived and experienced as a wound, an injury, a diminution of self. "In order to become congruent with its own caretaking environment ... the Euro-American child learns to feel ashamed of its own differences from its community's white racial values" (pp. 18-19). Claiming that these moments prove formative for white identity as such, Thandeka argues that most Euro-American American adults continue to be haunted by feelings of insufficiency and inadequacy whenever confronted by a crisis of race: "They feel white shame because the persons who ostensibly loved and respected them the most actually abused them and justified in the name of race, money, and God" (p. 134).
Perhaps the most interesting of Thandeka's arguments emerges in an account of Norman Podhoretez's notorious 1963 essay "My Negro Problem--and Ours." In the essay, Podhoretz, a Jewish-American social critic, engages in a rather disturbing defense of his own vexed childhood relationship to the black boys in his neighborhood. Unwilling to grant African Americans the status of preeminent social victim during the height of the civil rights movement, Podhoretz recounts the times he and other Jewish and Italian kids suffered humiliation and abuse at the hands of local black children while growing up in Brooklyn. Thandeka carefully approaches this text; instead of damning it for its obvious racism, she finds in Podhoretz's language evidence of his own "white problem." Invoking other examples in Podhoretz's autobiographical writings of the New York intellectual's struggle to become "a facsimile WASP," Thandeka reads "My Negro Problem" as evidence of this Jewish-American's anxious response to a white culture that demands assimilation as the price of success. "Then we remove the black mask behind which Podhoretz conceals his white ethnic shame, we do not find an interracial issue between blacks and whites but an intraracial issue between Euro-Americans deemed not to be white enough and their white racial assailants" (p. 33). In Thandeka's artful reading, the "Negro problem" serves Podhoretz as a type of discursive blackface wherein he can articulate feelings of serf-doubt too painful to confront more openly.
Learning to be White stands apart from recent work on whiteness by Eric Lott, David Roediger, Michael Rogin, Vron Ware, and others in its original claim that shame, not sexuality, gender, or class, plays the central role in white racial formation. Yet this interest in an aspect of psychology heretofore neglected by scholars of whiteness hardly constitutes the most innovative aspect of this book. What distinguishes Thandeka's text most of all is its spirited refusal to allow the racial past to dictate the racial future. Living up to her vocation as a spiritual leader, Thandeka enriches her sensitive examination of white shame with a fervent call for social change. "The end of this book is a beginning, a place where new conversations about money, race, and God in American can commence," where "difference will be affirmed as the grace of human engagement" (p. 135). By concluding her book in this fashion, Thandeka insists on the possibility that Podhoretz, Nussbaum, McCartney, and other Euro-Americans can come to terms with the feelings of racial humiliation and insufficiency they experienced in childhood. In her view, self-reflection and public discourse can help Ettro-Americans to escape the prison-house of whiteness and refashion the nation in a more genuinely democratic fashion. Her book looks toward that utopian vision.
If Thandeka challenges the dominant way of understanding the psychology of white identity, McKee contests the typical approach to the role of the visual and the iconic in recent work on American racial identifies. Over the course of six finely wrought analyses of novels by James (The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl), Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, Light in August), and Morrison (Sula, Jazz), McKee indicts what she sees as an overly simplistic conception of the visual as it operates in the racialist culture of the United States. In McKee's view, most scholars of whiteness in the United States from Richard Dyer onward tend to assume that racial codes in the United States. are structured by a binary opposition. According to this theoretical model, whiteness stands outside history as an inscrutable norm, while blackness remains burdened by the traumas of the past and limited by centuries of oppression. In visual terms, this dichotomy renders whiteness disembodied, ethereal, and even invisible while it establishes blackness as always embodied and therefore patently--painfully--present. For Mcgaee, the overly simplistic opposition of invisible whiteness and visible blackness has had deleterious consequences for recent work on racialist culture in the United States. Scholars have assumed that one need only render whiteness corporeal--visible--to generate an oppositional critique, but in McKee's view, reversing the visual signs of race means nothing in the absence of a critique of the very system of visuality that structures and orders those signs in the first place. It isn't enough to "flesh out" whiteness; cultural-studies scholars must also examine how modern notions of the visual both reflect and help produce white supremacy. As McKee puts it, "it is not ... by `seeing' both black and white identities that one can resist the historical differences in their power. Rather, one must think: critically about visuality and the meaning of its dominance over other cultural media" (p. 30).
Through her readings of whiteness in James and Faulkner and blackness in Morrison, Mcgee contests this conception of the visual in the racialist culture of the United States. Her analyses of James and Faulkner demonstrate how the modern imbrication of whiteness and visuality enables most Euro-Americans to lay claim to both disembodied and embodied signs of identity--a proprietary prerogative that has enormous implications for our normative understanding of the individual and the community. In her chapter "Playing White Men in Light in August," for example, McKee demonstrates that in Faulkner's Jefferson, Mississippi, white male invisibility authorizes an economy of images exclusive of history, while female and black visibility yoke those populations firmly to the past. While the putatively white Joe Christmas has a "look" that produces comments from white men, Lena Grove has a pregnant body that prompts comments on her history (pp. 125-126). Yet McKee does not allow this structural reading of the racial to stand; instead, she deconstructs the dichotomy of white male invisibility and black/female visibility by teasing from Faulkner's novel illustrations of how white men use theatricality to reproduce and manipulate a variety of hegemonic and subaltern subject positions. McKee explores how white men play at difference in a quasi-collaborative fashion for example, the group of men gathered in Bobbie's luncheonette--but she emphasizes as well the psychological dimensions of this racial masquerade: "On the one hand, the white male repertory of parts abstracts the individual from his particular experience. On the other, it provides images for and parts to be played by his internal other, as if to particularize his interior abstraction from himself" (p. 129).
If "the white male psyche is identified as a social script or a social production" by Faulkner, McKee quite rightly recognizes that such productions signify as a fearsome form of community theater for the disenfranchised (p. 130). The white men who engage in these performances do so, according to McKee, in order to deny their own reliance on blacks and women as figures of difference who make their white male identities possible in the first place. Rather than address their responsibility for the wretched state of life in Jefferson, Faulkner's white male characters bolster their faith in an omnipresent whiteness by flirting with the alterity that makes possible their visual acts. Insofar as the white men of Light in August often stage otherness, Joe Christmas, Lena Grove, and, indeed, the entire black population of Jefferson, emerge not as persons in their own right but as options in the white male simulation of a true public sphere (p. 128).
McKee's readings of Faulkner and James may seem a bit bleak in their near-steadfast refusal to locate any resistance to the panopticon-like quality of whiteness. Indeed, some readers may find troubling the idea that neither James nor Faulkner offers us white characters who trouble the racial order, if only inadvertently. McKee seems conscious of this potential response and uses her concluding chapters on Morrison to offer readers a valuable lesson in political hope. If McKee sees James and Faulkner as brilliant illustrators of how "visual culture ... is, to some degree at least, inseparable from the power and production of whiteness," she identifies Morrison as an equally talented expositor of the ties that knit blackness to aural/oral culture in defiance of an oppressive white visuality (p. 205). The last section of the book presents the reader with compelling examinations of historical spaces in Su/a and call-and-response in Jazz--analyses that stress the insistently interpersonal and inclusive nature of Morrison's vision. As McKee argues, "black characters in Morrison's novels achieve a diversity that is identified in relations extending beyond the self" (p. 203). Morrison resists the closed visual order McKee locates in the "white" novels of James and Faulkner. Black culture holds out the promise of an inclusive public sphere in the very act of challenging white oppression.
While Learning to Be White and Producing American Races may seem geared toward different audiences--the former directed to the laity, the latter to academe--both books have much to offer all readers concerned with the state of racial politics in the United States. These texts will take their place on the short list of recent works-Love and Theft, Scenes of Subjection, White Face/Black Noise--that engage with the white problem in America. And, like their sister texts, Learning to Be White and Producing American Races will, one hopes, help Americans resist the racial status quo at a time when the rhetoric of racist nationalism has gained new legitimacy throughout the country. For if the many tragic events of the last year have taught us anything at all, they have taught us that the United States is in more desperate need than ever of the articulate, passionate, and oppositional intellects one finds so well represented by these two fine books.
HARRY STECOPOULOS University of Iowa
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|Title Annotation:||Also 'Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Marrison'|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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