Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Introduction: Situating Whiteness in Faulkner Studies, Situating Faulkner in Whiteness Studies

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Introduction: Situating Whiteness in Faulkner Studies, Situating Faulkner in Whiteness Studies

Article excerpt

Why whiteness? The emergence of critical whiteness studies over the last decade and a half has engendered its share of skepticism. After all, in a society whose central legal, social, and political institutions are still controlled largely by whites, and whose resources and privileges still fall disproportionately to them, what do we accomplish by-once again-putting whites in the proverbial spotlight? Richard Dyer, one of the most influential voices in whiteness studies, has labeled this "the green light problem": "Writing about whiteness gives white people the go-ahead to write and talk about what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves" (10). Other observers such as Robyn Wiegman have worried aloud that the increasing attention to whiteness in the academy may reflect-or at least inadvertently contribute to-a rearguard effort to take the identity politics and empowerment strategies developed over the past half-century by civil rights activists, critical race theorists, feminists, and postcolonial movements, and to reappropriate them for a dominant group alert to the political and rhetorical advantage to be gained by retrofitting itself as a minoritized racial or ethnic identity.1 Seen in this light, whiteness studies simply drains away critical and political energies better devoted to other subjects, worthier and more embattled causes.

Yet a chorus of voices has countered that we ignore whiteness at our peril. They argue that the key to its dominance as identity and/or ideology lies precisely in its ability to go uncommented on, to pass beneath critical inspection as an unremarkable, neutral standard against which other identities can be measured and known. "The unexamined," Ross Chambers has called it, adding that "whiteness is perhaps the primary unmarked and so unexamined-let's say 'blank'-category.... Whiteness is not itself compared with anything, but other things are compared unfavorably with it, and their own comparability with one another derives from their distance from that touchstone" (189). This blank quality allows whiteness to fly beneath the radar of race, as if it were not a racial category at all, and this helps account for the phenomenon noted by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, in which readers of American literature can instantly and unthinkingly recognize that a character is white "because nobody says so" (72). The whiteness of such characters is never specified yet indisputable-all the more indisputable, in fact, because never specified. In this silence, the silence of what goes without saying, lies the extraordinary power, persistence, and adaptability of whiteness.

Or, shifting the metaphor to the visual register, we might say that whiteness is at its most effective when it not only evades the "spotlight" I alluded to above but becomes that spotlight, an invisible source and transparent field of racial illumination "situated outside the paradigm it defines" (Chambers 189): the frame in and against which other figures acquire racial definition.2 "As long as race is something only applied to non-white people," writes Dyer, "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" (1), and "[t]here is no more powerful position than that of being 'just' human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can't do that-they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of a race" (2). And this, insists Dyer, is precisely why whiteness must be attended to, must be made visible: to demystify and dismantle the inconspicuous workings of its privilege. "[T]he point of looking at whiteness is to dislodge it from its centrality and authority, not to reinstate it" (10). Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray put the matter even more forcefully: "Making whiteness visible to whites-exposing the discourses, the social and cultural practices, and the material conditions that cloak whiteness and hide its dominating effects-is a necessary part of any anti-racist project" (Introduction 3-4). …

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