Whiteness Studies and the Colonial Aesthetic: Western Popular Culture and the Representations of Race

By Cserno, Isabel | Ethnic Studies Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Whiteness Studies and the Colonial Aesthetic: Western Popular Culture and the Representations of Race


Cserno, Isabel, Ethnic Studies Review


As I have said before, planters are not poetical; but, my heart! if I possessed this place, methinks while young morning blushed, or high noon slept, or gentle dewy evening made nature think and pause, I would stroll upon my terrace, or sit, three parts recumbent, on one of those old oak chairs with Hasting's coronet on it, and forget the world of strife and penury and pain, till I lapsed into a citizen of the other world of peace and plenty and joy!

Henry Nelson Coleridge, 1825

The study of "whiteness," as equally as racialized a category as "blackness," has generated a number of anthologies, monographs, and other publications in the past decades, culminating in a field often referred to as Critical Whiteness or White Studies. The commonality in all these publications is a concern to understand the role of "whiteness" as a racialized and ethnic category equal to "black" or African American, Latina/o, American Indian, Asian American, et al. Whiteness Studies explores the social, cultural, and political privileges of whiteness in a world dominated by Western markets and politics over the past centuries. The academic movement of Whiteness Studies materialized in the decades post-World War Il and has since trickled into mainstream popular culture. In the past year, for example, the FX Network series Black & White has pointed out not only the existing racism that people of color are exposed to on a daily basis, but the multiple racial privileges of whiteness. As the title suggests, the series narrates the experience of two families, one White American, the other African American, who are transformed into members of the opposite racial group. The simultaneous exploration of racial oppression and privilege highlights the fact that the social constructions of opposing racial and ethnic categories are interdependent. Drawing on Ethnic Studies, focusing on racially and ethnically marginalized groups, and Whiteness Studies, analyzing the materialization of white privilege, simultaneously, this article analyzes selected representations of colonial, imperial, and exotic landscapes and subjects in Western popular culture. With this analysis, I wish to demonstrate that Whiteness Studies can be an important element of an Ethnic Studies methodology. Through an exploration of material and visual culture artifacts, I wish to demonstrate the benefit of reading visual culture as an area where racial and ethnic meaning is produced and disseminated. The surviving legacy of exotized imagery in popular culture casts white and nonwhite groups in relationships that are controlled by century-long dynamics of discrimination, prejudice, and privilege based on constructions of racial and ethnic hierarchies. Casting Whiteness Studies as an integral part of Ethnic Studies inquiry is an important project to understand the complex dynamics of race and ethnicity in cultural representations, social structures, and cultural production, particularly for the study of popular culture.

Drawing on Ethnic Studies and Critical Whiteness Studies scholarship, the following analysis is based on the premise that the legacy of European colonialism created a colonial aesthetics that has survived in numerous expressions of Western popular cultures. In order to "study the cultural realities of [ethnic and racialized groups in the US], their relation to the body politic, and their unassimilated status because of racism and ethnocentrism intertwined with sexism, heterosexism, and classism, as well as religious, age, and physical ability discrimination", asjohnella Butler describes the task of Ethnic Studies, understanding the legacy of visual representations is essential. The depiction of colonial encounters, often uncritically reproduced in popular culture, firmly engraves the superiority of whiteness in Western ideologies and popular beliefs. Considering that we live in a "global village" grown out of colonial encounters, questions about the impact of colonialism's visual tropes and material environments on contemporary cultural expressions deserve our attention. …

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