The White Issue: Whiteness — A Glossary
May 18, 1993
As a cultural category, whiteness has an uncanny ability to be all places but specifically nowhere. It eludes our grasp even as it rules our lives. Whiteness is invisible. And like anything invisible, it’s empty of content, cordoning off what it can’t abide and yet half in love with what it represses. Where, exactly, is this conceptual black hole to be found? Herewith a glossary of whiteness to help fill in the blanc.
BAND-AID: The secret purpose of the commercial poultice was always intimated in its presumptuously Caucasian color: to restore the seamless power of healthy whiteness through an antiseptic second skin.
BATMAN: Wears a hood. Bears a corny mystic insignia. Works outside the law. Keeps the city’s riffraff in line. Gets the blond. Has anyone ever seen Batman and David Duke in the same room?
MICHAEL BOLTON: The latest in a long line of white performers buoyed by black sounds, Bolton won a Grammy for “When a Man Loves a Woman” and neglected to mention Percy Sledge. Best evidence yet that the true referent of blackface is not blackness but whiteness.
CROSS BRONX EXPRESSWAY: Crowning moment of a freeway system dedicated to replacing the ’hood (and its boyz) with commercial traffic and white flight. As its master builder, Robert Moses, once said: “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”
DISNEYLAND: Its obvious whiteness is only half the story. Sure, Walt was a Goldwater Republican, Main Street U.S.A. was a fossil delusion even when it opened in 1955, and the theme park’s workers are treated like peasant scum. But the whiter shades of Disneyland’s paleness lie in the way the parent company flattens out human experience to turn its potentially explosive mysteries into profit. Whiteness is the destruction of difference, and at Disneyland, sensuous imaginative social relationships are transformed into robots and rodents.
ELVIS IMPERSONATOR: Tribute to the legend of ’70s Elvis, in which bodily prodigiousness — sideburns, bloat, polyester — becomes a sign of white working-class majesty.
FILM NOIR: Hollywood’s colorizing of good and evil through the formal properties of black-and-white film (black is bad, by the way). Leave it to white folk to turn chiaroscuro into a racially coded metaphor for the “dark” places of the white self.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY: Back in the 1930s, the auto maker preemptively began hiring black workers to use as “strike insurance” against unionized white workers. From those days to its current fear of impotence in the face of the yellow peril, Ford has been in the race game, the trendsetting, benevolent face of “us,” devoted to the conquest of “them.”
GAME-SHOW HOST: I mean, what else do Wink Martindale, John Davidson, Pat Sajak, Chuck Woolery, Richard Dawson, Bob Eubanks, and Bob Barker have going for them?
IRON JOHN: Upping the ante on orthodoxies of self-help in which the ego gets a check under the hood, Captain Robert Bly and his middle-aged, white men’s–groupers, allegedly softened by too much mothering, live large in the forest pounding on drums and screaming. Heart of Darkness, anyone?
RALPH LAUREN: Will somebody please tell this chump that Hitler lost?
MACHINE GUN: The industrialization of killing, writes John Ellis in The Social History of the Machine Gun, made subjugating native populations easier even as it wasted the notion of individual bravery and heroism. After the machine gun, heroism is conferred on white men who die trying, literally or figuratively — Custer failed by his Gatling guns, Schwarzkopf aching for one more go at Saddam.
MARILYN MONROE: More revealing than her achieved ethereal blondness is her attractiveness to non-WASP men with designs on the American Dream — DiMaggio, Mailer, Miller, JFK, Warhol — for whom Marilyn was an imaginative conduit to the glamour and power of the mainstream.
MATERNITY: A classic case of racism’s imbrication with gender. When white women stay home and commune with the kids, they’re supposedly fulfilling their destiny; when black women do it they’re called welfare mothers. Media hype about babies born with AIDS drives home the fact that maternity isn’t a space granted to black women unless the children they’re mothering are white.
MORTGAGE: True, anybody (legally, at least) can have a mortgage. But having one conscripts the owner into a private whiteness threatened by a nameless other — vaguely ethnic imbeciles in Home Alone, mad Michael Keaton darkly plotting in Pacific Heights, and, in Clintonomics, the welfare state itself.
MULTICULTURALISM: In theory this was to be humankind’s great leap forward from whiteness. It turned out to be the shrewdest attempt yet to convert American omni belles omnum into e pluribus unum: to bury ethnic conflict, appropriation, and avoidance in a sunny marketplace of identities. Any guesses as to the color of that invisible hand?
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: Scaffold and sourcebook of the pale gaze. Western anthropology’s popular by-product of treating natives and nature as equivalent objects of study. Not to be confused with its opposite, nature documentary. Iterative dreamcasts of nuclear family dramas — papa egret scraping up a living, mama meerkat teaching her babes, mama lion scraping up a living and still labeled the “domestic” one.
POSTMODERNISM: Postmodern discourse often looks like the big suits of grand theory laying hold of the antagonistic, debunking energy loosed by the decline of white Western hegemony. Unfortunately, this may only neutralize the leverage on whiteness that racial difference affords and still preserve for whites the right speak authoritatively about race.
QUARANTINE: As at Guantánamo Bay, a ritual of social exclusion with a medical name; a sanitizing act of differentiation that inaugurates whiteness but that also unsettles it with fears of radicalized contagion, haunts it with the anxiety of influenza.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT: White women have a hard enough time getting their day in court, but as the Hill-Thomas affair demonstrated, black women can’t get harassed — they solicit sex by definition.
SYLVESTER STALLONE: From porn body-for-hire to Italian stud to born-in-the-U.S.A. superhero, Sly’s a case study in the making of American whiteness. Having shed otherness and dirty sex the way snakes slough skins, Stallone/Rambo greets his Asian victims (to borrow from George Rawick) like a reformed sinner does the comrades of his previous debaucheries.
TELEVANGELIST: The charismatic preacher was begotten out of some obscure Southern Baptist commingling of slave culture and poor-white camp meetings. Jimmy, Oral, and their oddly-coiffed epigones exile the black presence from the fire-and-brimstone shouter by colonizing the airwaves. (Note to Don King: find God!)
VAMPIRE: In the 100 years since Bram Stoker invented his primitive nobleman from the East, the vampire (says my pal Steve Arata) has represented hysterical fears of Anglo American imperial decline. A sort of one-man miscegenation machine whose bite turns his victims into voracious primitives like himself, Dracula then and now portends the withering of empire by those on whom it formerly fed.
VANILLA ICE: Less the icon of whiteness he was usually taken to be than a testament to white self-hatred — an embrace of black culture so total and fierce that it exposes the bankruptcy of white culture.
XENOPHOBIA: The very name of whiteness, so we think. Yet globally, the prominence of xenophobia illustrates that whiteness is a state of mind — a hollow ideal of purity trumped up out of negativity and refusal.
ZERO: Whiteness is the nothing that is there. ■