The 44th President of the United States of America Barack Obama is half white; however he identifies himself as black. The issues of blackness and whiteness in America are topical. More and more prominent minds tell that race is artificially constructed illusion that means nothing in real. In my work I researched the origin and the ideology of whiteness in the novel “Caucasia” by Danzy Senna, and two critical articles. I analyzed whiteness as the consequence of imperialism and defined its place in the life of my contemporaries.
The story begins in 1970th in a racially divided Boston. At that time segregation has been already recognized as unconstitutional but mixed marriages were not welcome still. The story protagonist, Birdie Lee, is a child of white mother and black father. She has an elder sister Cole. In spite of their spiritual relationship and intimacy, girls are threatening by society in different way. Cole Lee looks like her black father Deck; she has cinnamon-colored skin and dark curly hair. Birdie Lee is light skinned and her hair is straight. So, their black father was almost arrested when he walked with Birdie in park, and their blonde mother was often asked antipathetically “Are they yours?” about her daughters.
The couple parted when the FBI closes in, father went to Brazil with Cole, and Birdie Lee stayed with her mother Sandy. Escaping from FBI, Sandy runs through four states and at last decides to settle in New-Hampshire (the “Caucasia” of the title). Sandy and Birdie Lee need new identities, and Sandy uses the opportunity to change Birdie’s race. Birdie Lee becomes Jesse Goldman and Sandy Lee becomes Sheila Goldman. Now they are Jewish and Jewish considered to be white. From that time Birdie Lee had to live in lie. Separation with dear sister, money shortage, hardships in the new town and new school, awkward transitional age, and, at last, an inappropriate idea of “tragic mulattos” by her grandmother – all this forces Birdie Lee to reject new life and to start runaway to her father and sister. Though she urges to reunite with her relatives, Birdie Lee wants to find the compromises between her white and black heritage. The novel ends Birdie’s reunion with her long-lost sister in Berkeley, California, were she plans on attending Berkeley High.
“Caucasia” is a must-read novel for every person who is interested in racial cultural identity. The story of light-skinned African American “passing” for white is a popular plot in American literature. Danzy Senna, whose parents are writers, too, knows it perfectly. I think even the name of protagonist associates with Harper Le, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There are a lot of hot themes in “Caucasia”: “visibility” of blacks and whites, adolescent self-discovery, issues of class and sexuality, and so on.
Whiteness as an artificially constructed illusion
Speaking about the construction of whiteness I’d like to stop on the race theory of Deck Lee. He told his daughter that the very meaning of race is a construct, a fiction, a lie that American society is built on. Race is nothing more then scientific error: race is “just a costume. We all wear one. You just switched yours at some point”. (Senna, 1998) Bell Hooks in the article “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” claims that white supremacist society is the heritage of colonial imperialism. She tells that the idea of whiteness began forming in America in its early times, when black people were slaves and servants. While white people maintained their idea of blackness and “just one drop of blood”, their black neighbors did the same.
“For years black domestic servants, working in white homes, acted as informants who brought knowledge back to segregated communities-details, facts, observations, psychoanalytic readings of the white “Other.” (Hooks, 1997)
Ruth Frankenberg in “Representing Whiteness” agrees with Bell Hooks, those these women look at this problem from the opposite sides. Frankenberg is white female feminist, who was forced to make quoted research by black feminists and radical women. Hooks is just the one of these women. So, Frankenberg studies the whiteness in historical and social context, while Hooks describes whiteness from the black people’s point of view. It is hard to follow the task of minimal citing, because Frankenberg’s definitions are brilliant, laconic and complete. Thus, she writes:
“…race was constructed as a biological category, and the assertion of white biological superiority was used to justify economic and po¬litical inequities ranging from settler colonialism to slavery.” (Frankenberg, 1997). Following this definition, Frankenberg gives definition on three kinds of whiteness:
“First, whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privileged. Second, it is a “standpoint,” a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others and at society. Third, “whiteness” refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and un¬named.” (Frankenberg, 1997)
Thus, the roots of racism are economical and political, but not biological. Mixed marriages and interracial children is the best evidence of this. Analyzing the articles of Hooks and Frankenberg, I have created the following picture of current situation on racism:
- black and white people believe that racism no longer exists;
- black people are still feel terror when imagine the whiteness, but their terror is rather diffused, they are ready for “assimilation and forgetfulness” (Hooks, 1997);
- after so many years of race segregation racism soaked into mind of American WASPs, and sometimes they behave like racists though they don’t want to (remember the grandmother of Birdie);
- from the other hand black people were used to face racism and became suspicious, they always overreact to the white people’s behavior.
Hooks describes white woman, which considered that her speech about the terror was funny. I wonder if it was Ruth Frankenberg, and if it is not, I’d like to hear these two ladies discussing racism.
But I’d like to return to Birdie Lee. The readership likes heroes, who suffer for their convictions, but Birdie does not want to suffer, that is why she pretending to be white. Whiteness gives her invisibility – Hooks describes the origin of this phenomenon, black servants could not gaze on their owners – but being invisible Birdie feels to be lost, and Birdie reject it.
It is impossible to write about the novel “Caucasia” without mentioning the “canary in a coal mine”. “…Mulattos have historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were.” (Senna, 1998). Some statistics shows that near 72% of newborn babies in the USA have interracial heritage. It is fashionable to be mixed-raced. And this proves the healthier race relations in America.
“We are the first generation of canaries to survive, a little injured perhaps, but alive!” (Senna,1998)
“The United States is being overrun by the new orthodoxy of “multiculturalism”—ostensibly a prod¬uct of race cognizance.”(Frankenberg,1997)
“Critically examining the association of whiteness as terror in the black imagination, deconstructing it, we both name racism’s impact and help to break its hold. We decolonize our minds and our imaginations.” (Hooks, 1997)
“Yes, we can!” (Barack Obama, 2008)
Though the last days of racism are still far in future, the current trend is positive, and the “whiteness” soon will become “the historical phenomenon”.
“Whiteness” is the polysemantic word, most of the meaning, however, are close to racism. Phenomenon of whiteness described in fiction (“Caucasia”) and in social journalism (articles of Hooks and Frankenberg). However, disappearing of economical and political roots of racism and new social trends may lead to diluting this idea.
Danzy Senna. “Caucasia”. (1998), Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, ISBN 1573220914 (1-57322-091-4)
Bell Hooks. “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” in “Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism.” Book by Ruth Frankenberg; Duke University Press, 1997.
Ruth Frankenberg. “Introduction: Local Whitenesses,
Localizing Whiteness” in “Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism.” Book by Ruth Frankenberg; Duke University Press, 1997.