Whiting Up and Blacking Out: White Privilege, Race, and "White Chicks"

Article excerpt

Hollywood spreads the fictions of whiteness around the world.--Hernan Vera and Andrew M. Gordon

As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.--Richard Dyer

Introduction

In this paper, using insights from critical race theory and critical whiteness studies, we argue that the movie White Chicks, while certainly a comedy, takes seriously the critical capacity of the black gaze to tease out the subtleties of whiteness. We argue that White Chicks, directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and written by Keenen Ivory Wayans, Shawn Wayans, and Marlon Wayans (the latter two playing the main characters) has the power to produce "the shock of being seen" (Sartre 115). On this score, the Wayans brothers resist the hegemony of the white gaze through filmic agency. Not only through enacting and performing whiteness, but through the mimicry of predominant racist images of the black body, the Wayans brothers are able to create an effective space of opposition and critique. Even the tide of the film, White Chicks, engages in a process of nomination that frames and clearly delineates its theme of interrogation. Due to space limitations, the themes that we explore constitute only a select few of the many important themes generated within this filmic text. One underlying premise that informs our scholarship in this paper is that White Chicks constitutes an important popular cultural site that speaks to complex silent assumptions that inform the American imaginary around issues of race.

While we are critical of the class and essentialist presuppositions that inform the expression "urban black behavior," it is our position that the Wayans brothers enact, and indeed exaggerate various stereotypical forms of black behavior in order to interrogate the white imaginary. This does not mean, however, that the Wayans brothers buy into a thin, non-complicated understanding of "blackness." In fact, the Wayans brothers complicate the stereotypes precisely through their filmic exaggerations. Such exaggerations function as a subtext that speaks to the Wayans brothers' sense of self-reflexivity regarding white myths vis-a-vis the black body. And while the white imaginary is no doubt inflected by class and other nonracial registers, our characterization of whiteness as it operates in the film as a signifier of power and privilege is one that captures various social ontological manifestations of whiteness across nonracial variables.

Naming Whiteness

Under the influence of European travelogues and colonial films, white philosophers, anthropologists, ethnographers, and fiction writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the West came to understand nonwhites as inferior Others. More specifically, the construction of the concept of race functioned epistemologically and ontologically as a prism through which the Other was constructed and rendered subhuman. The Other was deemed inferior in virtually every way--intellectually, morally, and culturally. The Other was constructed as savage, uncivilized, barbaric, evil, lustful, different and deviant in comparison to whites. Whiteness, on this score, served as a metanarrative in terms of which nonwhites functioned as "things" to be exploited and used in the service of white people. "In the white mind, racial others do not exist on their own terms but only as 'self-objects' bound up with the white self" (Vera and Gordon 3).

Winthrop Jordan points out that the Great Chain of Being or scala naturae became the ordering hierarchical structure in an age when the West was obsessed with scientific discovery and exploration and "served as a powerful means of organizing the facts of the natural world" (101). Nonwhite bodies constituted part of the natural world; they were constructed as part of the chaotic and exotic natural landscape in need of being ordered, properly identified and categorized, and subdued by those (whites) who thought of themselves as the very expression of a teleological order that privileged whiteness as the quintessence of beauty, intelligence, and cultural and historical progress. …