Studying “Whiteness”

WHITE, WHITER, AND ”WHITENESS”

The study of “whiteness” is a newly emerged field of scholarship, only about ten to fifteen years old. One if its leading scholars, Richard Dyer, expressed concern about even embarking upon such an enterprise for, after all, isn’t the entire field of Western culture about “whiteness” or the lives of white people? Why pile white on top of white? Why add to what is already there? And worst of all, why risk reinforcing the power of white people? The answer is paradoxical. Whiteness is “invisible,” according to Dyer. Whiteness is invisible because it is assumed. It is assumed that an artist, for example, is white, because one uses the term “African-American artist,” rather than simply “artist.” This course has used the term “people of color,” not because it is a palatable term, but because it is a convenient term that serves a limited purpose, that of designating artists who are outside of the mainstream because they are “of color.” However, white is a color. But we do not “see” this color.

Whiteness is invisible because it is assumed to be the “norm.” Everything and everyone else has to be labeled as an exception, outside of the norm. Many writers and intellectuals think it would be appropriate to label every noun, saying, for example, “Jackson Pollock was a white male middle class American artist.” This modest attempt to make whiteness visible often meets with irritation and hostility on the parts of whites, who are uncomfortable when whiteness is called out and made specific. The purpose of studying whiteness, then, is to make whites aware of being white and all that whiteness entails and to examine exactly what “whiteness” really is.

The art world has a long history of assuming the whiteness of art and of making the white nature of art invisible by excluding art make by people of color. Well into the Twentieth Century, art by the Other was exhibited in anthropological museums or in ethnographic displays. Well into the Twentieth Century, art by the Other was labeled “folk art” or “ethnic art.” These exclusionary designations flew in the face of formalism, a form of analyzing art, favored in New York City by art critics.

According to formalist tenets, one analyzed art from a “disinterested” and “detached” standpoint. One can remain indifferent to emotional attachment to content or subject matter only if one judges the value of the work of art in terms of its formal qualities: line, color, form, shape, composition, etc. So far so good. Formalism guarantees a fair and just reading of a work of art in its own terms, suggesting that any work of art, regardless of who has made it will get a judicious hearing in the court of art critics. And honorable hearing is precisely the promise of formalism and the raison d’être or reason for formalism—-to give avant-garde a chance of being accepted.

However, even a cursory examination of who’s who in the art world reveals that the vast majority of the prominent and high earning artists are white (and male). Despite formalism, despite the philosophy of aesthetics which does not mention race or gender, who the artist is matters. If you are not white, you are excluded from the art world. If you are excluded, then all art is white. Therefore, art is white. All that the public sees is art made by white people, and therefore “art” is white. One could assume that if you are not white, you are not an artist and what you make is not art. Clearly, aesthetics and formalism has a racial and gender component that was unspoken but very active and very real. “Art” was supposed to be above the considerations of the real world. It was not.

How did “whiteness” come about? Whiteness is a new invention, like the concept of “race” and is linked to European imperialism and colonialism and empire building, especially in the New World. “Race” is not a biological fact but a “social fact,” which refers to morphological differences among human beings, from the texture of one’s hair, to the shape of one’s eyes, one’s nose, one’s lips, to the color of one’s skin. But mere “differences” do not constitute a scientific category of “race.” Until the eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth, “race” referred to the characteristics of one’s nationality. For example, the French “race” drank wine with all meals, while the English “race” preferred tea.

But race took on morphological content when the Europeans arrived in the New World. The New World experience was not the first encounter between Europeans and people of another “race.” Think, for example of the presence of Moors (Black Africans) in Spain and clashes with Arabs during the Crusades and Marco Polo’s long stay in China. Encounters with another “race” didn’t result in actually living with the Other. In fact, the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, the year Columbus “discovered” America. What changed was when the Europeans arrived in North American with the idea of staying there. The encounter had become a situation in which whites had to live side by side with Native Americans and Africans, sharing land and social space with them.

It is known that during the seventeenth century the discourse of racism began to form. Territory, land, ownership and control of the New World became a contest among racial groups, a contest that the British colonists were determined to win. The precedent for this racial discourse—that is a series of laws and customs and life styles, etc.—was the terminology developed by the British to describe the Irish. The Irish were arguably the first group to be set apart in order to be conquered and colonized on the basis of their “essential” “inferiority.” The British invaded and occupied the small island off their western shores under the reign of Henry VIII, and the Irish did not end the struggle for their freedom until about five years ago.

The Irish occupation was justified by language, which insisted upon the “inferiority” and the “savagery” of the inhabitants of the Emerald isle. The discourse and its terminology could be easily transferred to the Native Americans and to the Africans. The British in America believed that God had granted them divine rights to a “virgin” “wilderness” that was without “people,” inhabited only by “savages” who were “uncivilized.” Over that century, the concept of “whiteness” was forged. “Whiteness” became defined as “British” and “Anglo-Saxon” and “Protestant” and “American.” But “whiteness,” in these early decades was still linked with upper class.

White people were actually hierarchically arranged in ethnic categories, from high to low. Many came to America as indentured servants, treated no differently from the African slaves. The problem for the upper class whites was how to keep the lower-class whites and the Blacks and the Indians from uniting in a common cause against their oppressors. In order to maintain the power of the upper class whites, those in charge manipulated the lower class whites into working against their own economic best interests by training them to identify with their fellow “whites” instead of with those who were equally oppressed.

By the time the nation became independent, “Whiteness” became an accepted ideology, a narrative that explained everything and resolved all contradictions, by eliminating the Others. America was supposed to be a democracy, founded on the idea of freedom and self-determination and right to improve oneself. However, there were peoples within the borders who were denied full enfranchisement, the right to vote, the right to participate completely socially and economically, and most of the benefits of what “America” promised. The contradiction between promising rights and denying rights was resolved by simply asserting that certain people, because they did not posses the necessary “whiteness,” were inherently inferior and undeserving of American rights and benefits.

Not only that, certain people were “essentially” and “inherently” inferior, meaning that the Other could not improve, could not move forward, because by “nature” s/he was doomed to subservience by God and by biology. There was no hope and no future for people of color. Only the whites were Americans, and everyone else was not an “American” and, therefore, was not worthy of legal recognition. Thus by linking “whiteness” with “superiority” and “color” with “inferiority,” the conflict between democracy and the denial of rights could be resolved. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the contradictions as they were writing the Constitution but they chose to not extend the benefits of freedom, self-determination, and social mobility to any but white men of property. An “American” was a selected white person who was defined in terms of exclusion of “color.”

African-Americans and other “Americans of color” certainly did not accept their designation as second class. But unlike whites they were always in the position of having to “prove” themselves. If a person of color achieved and succeeded, s/he was labeled an “exception.” Unlike a white person, a person of color did not have the privilege of being immediately credible and accepted. By the end of the nineteenth century, America was self-defined as “white” and all of the cultural institutions worked to erase the actual diversity that was America. The divide between “white” and “color” was understood as “natural” and not as the result of social and economic forces that privileged one group over the other.

Public education ignored the histories of peoples of color and had the effect of making white children ignorant of their own country and making children of color internalize their own supposed lack of history. Toys and dolls were all white and had the effect of teaching children of color that they were “inferior.” Newspapers, magazines, books, radios, and movies focused on the narratives of white people. When people of color appeared, it was usually in a criminal narrative, as a lesson of their inherent inability to “better” themselves. Until the end of the twentieth century, there were few people who had an understanding that the great social differences between the white and other races was in fact “unnatural,” created through discrimination.

During the early decades of twentieth century film, African-Americans were demonized or infantilized in mainstream films and often were played by whites in blackface. Native Americans, often played by Jewish actors, were portrayed as “savages” who got in the way of the brave settlers and deserved their extermination. Asians, also portrayed by whites in makeup, were represented in stereotypical fashions that both created and foregrounded differences. By the second half of the twentieth century, mainstream media, both popular and erudite, was almost all white, with only specialty publications focusing on people of color. In fact, in her book, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter, unveils the underside of American intellectual culture that trafficked in narratives of “Anglo-Saxon” superiority and reveals how recent these narrative justifying racism were both respectable and long-lasting in the nation’s history. Only Hitler’s genocidal actions in the Second World War made racist discourses problematic.

As late as the fifties, progressive Life Magazine lost readers when it printed pictures of black people, and mainstream films with black people were designed so that African-Americans could be edited out for Southern audiences. The Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, who traveled around America on a Guggenheim grant, photographed Blacks and was threatened by white Southerners. Overt racism was finally challenged by the moral force of the Civil Rights marches. The Civil Rights Movement was extraordinary in that it was the first time that mainstream American newspapers had not only reported on the lives of Blacks but also published pictures of them, even on the front pages.

For the first time in American history that whites had seen people of color in mainstream papers and magazines and on television. The phrase “the whole world is watching” acquired a special meaning, as America was suddenly exposed to the entire world as a nation based upon the myth of whiteness. During this period, whiteness as an ideology of superiority was exposed, however briefly. In the art world, however, business went on as usual and with rare exceptions, such as Charles White and Faith Ringgold, few artists of color were visible. The mere fact that their art was referred to as “Black Art” was indicative of the unstated fact that “Art” itself is “white.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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