Sunday, May 6, 2007

The transparency of whiteness

I just finished reading a grad student paper (I've just finished teaching a seminar on 20th C. American literature and race theory) that mentions the desire (ala Franz Fanon) to be "a man among other men" -- in other words, to be seen as white or raceless. And this idea that to be raceless and to be white are synonymous, is one of the ideas I feel needs to be debunked. Sure, people in academia (and I am one) know this and recite this, but in everyday conversations, in popular and mass culture, this is not the case. And even among academics, this isn't the case. I mean, it's one thing to preach it in the classroom, it's another to practice it in your home or at the supermarket. And it never fails to surprise me how people I know who are "sensitive" to topics of race with their students still continue to equate "race" with the non-white (among other misapprehensions). As if whiteness were transparent. Invisible. And it is true--white people have a certain type of privilege of invisibility--that their actions are those of individuals whereas non-white people often have their actions scrutinized for racial or ethnic characteristics.

Although I have to say that I've been surprised at the restraint shown by the mainstream media when covering the Virginia Tech shootings. Once it was revealed that the gunman was of Korean ancestry, I thought that there would be all sorts of coverage related to the pressures put on an immigrant Asian family, the model minority myth, or other such stereotypes. But aside from a few "robotic" comments, people have stayed away from making claims about his Korean heritage as an influence for his killing spree. He seems to be a lone gunman rather than a Korean American lonegun (actually, my pet peeve with this coverage has been the emphasis on his nationality--that he has a green card but is not a citizen and is described as Korean rather than Korean American--the guy came over when he was 8, definitely 1.5 generation). But then again, I'm not watching Fox News, so I don't know if I should be celebrating so quickly.


Bernie Malonson said...

Okay, I'll bite and leave a comment. It's funny that you are blogging on race in 2007 although to be honest this being the United States it is far more tragic and sad than surprising.

In my humble opinion, the issue of race in America is really one of tribalism. This tribalism can be defined along many lines, ethnicity, socio-economics, location, or a combination of these an others.

When I lived in Japan, England and France many of those I encountered did not classify me by race (Black, African-American, Negro, Mulatto....) but rather by nationality "United States" or "American".

Many never thought of me as a "Black-American" because it was not in their frame of reference.

Many people thought that I must hate living in England because that is where all the prejudice came from. That is not what I found. They were actually quite tolerant of me because I was from the "states".

Of course if I had been from Pakistan, the Middle East or Africa, I would have been subject to a different set of racial classification, which fits the British tribal system.

Good luck and I will be sure to check in and try to support with posts!

Jennifer Ho said...

Wow, my first comment! Thanks for checking in and chiming in Bernie. I'm glad you mentioned race in other countries, because I do think that the concept of "race" that I'm focusing on for this blog is an American phenomenon, although, that being said, I do think that race continues to be a powerful force in the world and that, specifically, the idea of "blackness" and "whiteness" as deployed in various colonial incarnations (and here I'm thinking about Franz Fanon in France and Algeria as well as his native Martinique) would suggest that it is not just an American curiosity but continues to define people in subtle and obvious ways.