Friday, September 19, 2014

Making Whiteness Visible?

While writing my book review post earlier this week on two Lambda-nominated lesbian romance novels, the issue of race, and how reviewers account for it, kept popping into my head. The covers of Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate don't give any clue about the race of either book's protagonists; both go the symbolic rather than representational route, Destiny signaling its crime plot by depicting a bank building and a gun, Clean Slate, oddly enough for a romantic suspense, depicting a pair of swans on a lake. And neither book's blurb mentions race, either. But after reading my reviews, you'd know which book featured characters of African descent, and which didn't.

But by the third page of Destiny, the reader is well-aware that protagonist Rashida Ivey is black:

Black don't crack, she thought as she smoothed moisturizer on her face. Save for lipstick, she usually eschewed makeup, preferring the natural look. The aesthetic extended to her hairstyle as well. After tiring of visiting the hair salon every few weeks for a fresh perm or a touch-up, she had cut her chemically straightened, shoulder-length locks short and allowed them to return to their natural state. (Kindle Loc 73)

Dixon also signals that Rashida's future love interest, Destiny Jackson, is not white only eight paragraphs after Rashida first meets her: "Her skin was like milk chocolate," thinks Rashida (Loc 182). Cultural rather than description-based signals inform us that Rashida's colleague and best friend, Jackie, is of African descent: "Yeah and I'm married to Denzel Washington," she protests when Rashida tells her there's nothing to tell about the attractive woman Jackie saw her with in the coffee shop; Jackie's children are named Jade and Jabari; and she praises Destiny to Rashida in American black vernacular: "That sister was fine" (Loc 297, 308, and 318). The word "white" never appears in the novel, but Dixon uses description clues—blue eyes, auburn hair, a deep tan—as signals of whiteness.

In contrast, Bramhall's Clean Slate, the racial identities of our two protagonists, married couple Morgan and Erin, are far less clearly marked. The first, quite lengthy physical description of Erin, as seen through Morgan's eyes, includes no mention of skin color:

Her head rested on a blanket that she had wedged into a pillow, her hair thick and dark as treacle, hanging in big soft waves over her shoulders and curling across one eye.
     Her lips twitched as she slept, parting slightly as the tip of her tongue swept over the sensuous sweep of her lower lip. The top had a deep cupid's bow and a slight upturn at the corners. It was a mouth made for smiling, laughing; lips that were meant for kissing. (Loc 366)

Morgan is described as having "dark" hair, as are her children, but it takes until about two-thirds of the way into the story until we are given any skin-based description: her "knuckles turned white" (Loc 3187).

Why, then, did I take it for granted that both of these characters were white?

Theorists of Whiteness Studies would argue that it's because whiteness is treated as the norm in American culture. Education professor Audrey Thompson's brief "Summary of Whiteness Theory" explains it thus: "Whereas whiteness is not treated as a race, and thus is invisible, blackness and brownness are 'marked' racial categories—departures from the racial norm. Sometimes this departure will be marked as exotic; sometimes, as a difference that well-meaning whites politely ignore. More often, it will be marked as a special interest, a problem, or a form of deviance." Whiteness studies scholar Ruth Frankenberg suggests that " 'the invisibility of whiteness' refers in part to moments when whiteness does not speak its own name....whiteness assumes its own normativity" (81)*. An author does not have to make any special effort to call a reader's attention to a character's whiteness, because a reader (or at least, a white reader such as me) has been trained to presuppose that any character will be white, unless marked "Other"wise.

Neither the construct "race," nor the term "whiteness" to refer to race, appeared in the English language before the period of colonial expansion and conquest; both were birthed, as Frankenberg notes, to meet the needs of imperialism (74). More intriguingly to me, Frankenberg points out that between the 16th century and the present that whiteness has not always been invisible. In fact, she suggests, it is only in the second half of the twentieth century that whiteness "went underground in the United States" (81). Signs declaring "For Whites Only" appeared regularly outside public and commercial buildings until mid-century; laws criminalizing cross-race marriage were not overturned until 1967. She also argues that whiteness is invisible primarily to those who identify as white.

What does all this have to do with me, a feminist who reviews romance novels? It's making me, as a woman of Northern European ("white") descent think harder about how I talk about the race of the characters in the books I read, and how I signal characters' race to my readers. By only noting when a book features a non-white character, and making no mention of white, or presumably white, characters' race, am I perpetuating the invisibility of whiteness, an invisibility that by its very nature perpetuates the ideology that white is the norm, and anything other than white is devalued "Other"? Is there a way that I as a reviewer can problematize whiteness, disrupt its normative assumptions?

What would happen if I mentioned the race of the characters in every book I review? What if I wrote "presumably white" or "presumably of European descent" if a character's race were not made explicit? What effect would that have on me as a writer and reviewer? Would it just give me a self-congratulatory boost, without doing much to change what blogger Ridley at Love in the Margins has described as the problems of this blog's "White Feminism writ large"? Or would it make me think more critically about race in romance? Or perhaps both?

What effect, if any, do you think, it would it have on you as a reader?

I'm going to give this experiment a try in the coming weeks, and see what results. I hope you'll let me know what you think.

* Frankenberg, Ruth. "The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness." In The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Ed. Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Eric Klinenberg, Irene J.  Nexica, and Matt Wray. Duke UP, 2001.

Illustration credits:
White Trade Only: The Oregon History Project
Deconstructing White Privilege cartoon: Black Educator

1 comment:

  1. I don't think it comes from a white-centric cultural attitude. I think it's a much simpler concept - we tend to see the world through our own eyes. When it comes to books, it's not hard to make the characters similar to yourself. I find I do that with nearly anyone I can't see - such as friends I have meet online. My brain just assumes they are like me - same age, same color, maybe even same value system because my connection to them is just an extension of myself. It stays that way until I find out otherwise. It can be jarring but I think it's not about being racist or unkind in any way. It's just one of those left over concepts from when we were children - the universe does revolve around us until we're told differently.