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David R. Roediger's powerful book argues that in its political workings, its distribution of advantages, and its unspoken assumptions, the United States is a "still white" nation. Race is decidedly not over. The critical portraits of contemporary icons that lead off the book—Rush Limbaugh, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, and Rudolph Giuliani—insist that continuities in white power and white identity are best understood by placing the recent past in historical context. Roediger illuminates that history in an incisive critique of the current scholarship on whiteness and an account of race-transcending radicalism exemplified by vanguards such as W.E.B. Du Bois and John Brown. He shows that, for all of its staying power, white supremacy in the United States has always been a pursuit rather than a completed project, that divisions among whites have mattered greatly, and that "nonwhite" alternatives have profoundly challenged the status quo.
Colored White reasons that, because race is a matter of culture and politics, racial oppression will not be solved by intermarriage or demographic shifts, but rather by political struggles that transform the meaning of race—especially its links to social and economic inequality. This landmark work considers the ways that changes in immigration patterns, the labor force, popular culture, and social movements make it possible—though far from inevitable—that the United States might overcome white supremacy in the twenty-first century. Roediger's clear, lively prose and his extraordinary command of the literature make this one of the most original and generative contributions to the study of race and ethnicity in the United States in many decades.
The study of whiteness, both as a category into which some people are placed and as an identity that some people embrace, has gained considerable attention in academia and the popular press in the past decade. Alternately celebratory, dismissive, and bemused, this increased attention reflects the ways in which educational institutions, workplaces, and debates have grudgingly opened up to racial democracy, making the assumption that white privileges, presences, and viewpoints are "natural" more difficult to hold. With biologically based racism in retreat, it has become possible to ask bedrock questions such as "What makes some people think that they are white?" and "When did white people become white?" of a far broader audience. In making whiteness a moral, political, and historical problem, writers like Cheryl Harris, Toni Morrison, Philip Deloria, Cherrie Moraga, Thandeka, and bell hooks have powerfully connected with long-standing critical reflections on whiteness by such towering figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Americo Paredes, James Baldwin, and Ida B. Wells, all of whom decidedly saw whiteness as a problem long ago. These new and older studies have seldom been brought together, however, and have still less often been deployed in an attempt to illuminate a current political issue. This essay makes such an attempt, sampling an array of critical studies of whiteness with a view toward introducing them to readers and demonstrating their utility in addressing the controversy generated by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attacks on Chris Ofili's painting Holy Virgin Mary and on the Brooklyn Museum for displaying it. The article's purpose is not to argue that the museum controversy "was really about" race and whiteness but rather to show how powerfully white consciousness operates to shape debates that are also about religion, politics, and gender.
Seeing Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary
The soundbite was consistent if odd. Every time I returned to the hotel between meetings in New York City in late September 1999, the radio news echoed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's charges: An artist had constructed a work by "throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary," and now the Brooklyn Museum was about to display it, using public money. Giuliani promised to punish this "hate crime" by withdrawing museum funds. Sometimes the verbs changed. The dung was "smeared" or "splattered" on what the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called a religious painting. But the logic was the same. As Cardinal O'Connor put it, an "attack on our Blessed Mother" had occurred and demanded a response." "You don't have a right," Giuliani added, "to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion."
Because my Catholic upbringing and the time I had spent in West Africa had given me a clear idea of what both religious paintings of Mary and elephant dung looked like, it was not hard to generate images of the offending work. (I did have some doubts about whether thrown elephant dung would stick to a painting, but I took Giuliani's word for it.) The controversy held some interest, in terms of the mayor's senatorial aspirations, censorship, and arts funding, but those remained far from the research concerns that brought me to New York City-investigations of race and white identity. Although I leaned toward the cynical opinion that politics, and not purely religion, entered into Giuliani's aggressive raising of this issue, I had no reason to challenge the views of the radio commentators who argued for or against one or the other of those.
On leaving for the airport, I finally saw a newspaper reproduction of the offending work, Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary. The Virgin gazing from the newspaper page deflated any conviction that this was a simple controversy, divorced from the study of race and whiteness. This was certainly not the "religious painting" of Mary I knew from Missouri and Illinois churches. Why did no one initially mention that she was Black and that Ofili was Afro-British? And where was the elephant dung? No thrown, smeared, or splattered excrement was anywhere in sight.
When I later saw a larger, full-color reproduction in the catalog from Ofili's major exhibition in Great Britain, the mystery of the dung was solved. The Virgin's bare breast was made of the stuff, shaped and processed to a sheen. The painting also sat-unlike what Ofili calls "crucified" paintings hanging from museum walls-on two balls of dung, one labeled "Virgin" and the other "Mary." A catalog described, in a much fuller way than the insidious David Bowie voiceover on the website displaying the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition, why the dung appeared. Ofili had, since a 1992 visit to Zimbabwe, incorporated it into much of his work. Partly a sendup of the British arts establishment's glib, commodified evocations of multiculturalism and "roots" (Ofili took out large ads in trendy arts publications saying simply "Elephant Shit"), the use of dung also reflected an engagement with cosmologies that revere dung as a symbol of regeneration.
The catalog's reproductions and critical works on Ofili also gave form to a vaguer suspicion I had had since I first saw the newspaper reproduction of Holy Virgin Mary: the painting somehow seemed admiring, warm toward its subject, and in the end reverent and even Catholic. The draping of Mary, described by one writer as "petal-like," echoed much of Catholic art and doubled the breast's regenerative symbolism. Ofili, himself Catholic, claimed inspiration from the masters of Madonna painting, especially Van Eyck, and alluded to the sensuality of their Virgins. His studio features a sign over the door: "This area is constantly watched and patrolled by the Lord."
The objects surrounding Mary in Ofili's portrayal emerge, on close inspection, as relatively tiny cutouts-one critic calls them butterflies-of buttocks and genitalia from pornographic magazines. The images, largely of Black women, place Ofili's Virgin in a world of racism, misogyny, commodified sex, and dismemberment and they gesture provocatively toward Catholic paintings in which scenes illustrating Mary's "attributes" hover around her. (The artist both critiques and participates in that world.) The sacred and the secular, as Godfrey Worsdale puts it, are thus juxtaposed "in their extremes." A goal of the project, according to Ofili, was to create a hiphop Madonna, reflecting on the sexism of rap but also on the self-assertion-Ofili is specifically fascinated by Lil' Kim-of some women in it. Thus Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, surrounded by the peril of the floating buttocks/ balloons/butterflies of pornography and subject to ridicule because of her overdrawn, even minstrelized, African features, is nonetheless neither ethereal nor downcast but self-possessed and sensual.
Having seen, as opposed to merely hearing about, this complex work, I returned to Giuliani's decision to single the painting out for attack much less certain that we could do without a discussion of race in understanding his motivations. The "Sensation" exhibition that brought the Holy Virgin Mary to Brooklyn was, after all, designed and endlessly marketed by its entrepreneur/owner Charles Saatchi as "shocking," "offensive," and even vomit-inducing. The works on display included one that brutalized animals and another that seemed to British viewers an homage to a child-murderer. Certainly there was ample room to criticize postmodern art as amoral without singling out Ofili. That the museum was caught in a series of tawdry financial arrangements with Saatchi underlines how effortless it could be to mount such criticisms. To understand why Giuliani zeroed in on Ofili's supposed offenses, why the mayor conjured up the "uncivilized" throwing of elephant dung where none existed, why he regarded the Catholic-inspired painting as an attack by the artist on "somebody else's" religion, why he let dung and not pornography be emphasized, and how he rested assured that even as the painting, with no splattered dung, was reproduced in the press, his know-nothing stance would still work politically, takes us to the heart of whiteness. Although religious faith and gender-inflected political opportunism remain central to explanations of Giuliani's choice of targets, these motivations are themselves so fully tied to white racial consciousness that understanding the Holy Virgin Mary affair offers an opportunity to reprise most of the key insights of critical studies of whiteness.
Somebody Else's Madonna
In his certainty that Holy Virgin Mary attacked "somebody else's religion," Giuliani turned a phrase significantly. The mayor instantly became the other, the somebody else, the hate crime victim. Ostensibly he did so as a Catholic. The irreligious artist and what Giuliani called the "elite" arts establishment presumably attacked faith in general but Catholicism in particular, as Cardinal O'Connor put it. Indeed, Katha Pollitt's fine Nation column on the controversy noted the ease with which it was forgotten that "the Virgin Mary was not Catholic" and nicely quoted the antifeminist Camille Paglia's hints that a "Jewish collector" and a "Jewish museum director" were conspiring to promote "anti-Catholic art." As the stormy debates over Mary in my own Irish Catholic/German Lutheran childhood should have prepared me to know-my parents did not speak for weeks after a Lutheran Sunday School let me color Mary's clothing green rather than the proper blue-religion provides its own sets of significant "others" against which identity forms. But in this case, whiteness overrode internal divisions among Christians.
As Giuliani and his advisers had to know, the stories the mayor orchestrated about Ofili's painting would appear alongside small reproductions of the 6- by 8-foot work. Indeed, Holy Virgin Mary was probably the planet's most often reproduced work of art at the millennium's end. The unfamiliar other in those reproductions is not a Protestant Mary but specifically a Black Virgin. Nor, as it turns out, was the artist "somebody else" to the Catholic faith. What then, we ought to ask, was the relationship between the Blackness of Ofili's Mary and Giuliani's ability to assume that she was somebody else's production and to avoid having to defend that assumption even when Ofili's Catholicism was reported in the press?
Critical studies of whiteness help to answer these important questions. In her seminal 1988 article on "white privilege and male privilege," the feminist philosopher Peggy McIntosh set about listing the perks of whiteness that often seem so natural to their owners as to require no second thought. McIntosh described white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, coda books, passports, visas, ... emergency gear, and blank checks." Its contents, which may or may not be acknowledged consciously, include assumptions that range from the most practical and concrete to the abstract:
"I can choose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin."
"I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to the experiences of my race."
In convening a recent workshop on race for several hundred Minneapolis social workers, I asked participants to jot down additions to McIntosh's list. The first three volunteers to read their responses were people of color, and they all made the same point: Whites in the United States get to see the central symbols of holiness in the culture almost uniformly portrayed as white. One particularly full response suggested that breaking the commandments against making "graven images" of God had opened the door to white domination. Occasionally, as in the Milwaukee marches against open housing of 1967, when segregationists paraded behind the slogan "God Is White," the assumption of a white deity has been put to explicitly political use. Even in a New York City in which Latino, Asian, and Haitian Catholic populations are significant, and in a world in which Brazil is the nation with the most Catholics, the image of a white Holy Family survives intact. Listeners at several talks I gave on this subject reported thinking (on the basis of Giuliani's words, poor television and newspaper reproductions of the work, and reigning assumptions) that the painting was a white Virgin made black by smearings of dung on her otherwise white face. Giuliani's "smear campaign" worked because a Black Virgin is somebody else, in a nation in which, as Barbara Reynolds recently pointed out, the government's Postal Service churns out one billion (!) white-Madonna stamps per year. The Harlem-based Amsterdam News was almost alone in making this point, headlining a September 30, 1999 editorial "A Black Madonna! Giuliani's Worst Nightmare."
The film scholar and cultural historian Richard Dyer deepens this discussion in his critical 1997 study White. Dyer notes that Christianity developed out of a Jewish/Middle Eastern/North African milieu and that its images of holiness did not uniformly privilege whiteness for many centuries. From the Crusades through the Renaissance and European expansion to the Americas, however, Christian symbolism made "national/geographic" others and then racial others into the "enemies of Christ" and/or potential converts. In Renaissance art, Dyer argues, Christ and the Virgin Mary not only are white but also are "increasingly ... rendered as paler, whiter, than everyone else." They give off light and their hair flows. Their images are both in some ways more physically realistic (Christ's maleness becomes clearer and renderings of his genitals appear) and more preternatural and implausible examples of what Dyer calls "extreme whiteness." Also preternaturally white in some portrayals was the breast milk so frequently associated with Catholic portraits and accounts of Mary-an image in sharp contrast to Ofili's insistence on symbolizing the nurturing and regenerative powers of the Virgin by constructing her bare breast out of a dung both dark and African. Dyer adds that Christianity emerges as a singularly "embodied" religion, obsessed with picturing the holy in human form, and yet "anti-body" in its commitment to the superiority of the spiritual within a cosmology that posits a sharp dichotomy between body and spirit. The wholeness and white body of Mary then powerfully symbolize the ideal and the distance of all women from that ideal. Dyer also observes that in museum-featured religious art, Mary exists at a certain remove from the violence surrounding her life. She is typically not tearstained, wounded, scarred, shadowed, or seen as aging.
Excerpted from COLORED WHITE Transcending the Racial Past by DAVID R. ROEDIGER Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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One: Still White
1. All about Eve, Critical White Studies, and Getting Over Whiteness
2. Smear Campaign: Giuliani, the Holy Virgin Mary, and the Critical Study of Whiteness
3. White Looks and Limbaugh’s Laugh
4. White Workers, New Democrats, and Affirmative Action
5. "Hertz, Don’t It?" White "Colorblindness" and the Mark(et)ings of O.J. Simpson (with Leola Johnson)
Two: Toward Nonwhite Histories
6. Nonwhite Radicalism: Du Bois, John Brown, and Black Resistance
7. White Slavery, Abolition, and Coalition: Languages of Race, Class, and Gender
8. The Pursuit of Whiteness: Property, Terror, and Expansion, 17901860
Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality, and the "New-Immigrant" Working Class (with James Barrett)
10. Plotting against Eurocentrism: The 1929 Surrealist Map of the World
Three: The Past/Presence of Nonwhiteness
11. What If Labor Were Not White and Male?
12. Mumia Time or Sweeney Time?
In Conclusion: Elvis, Wiggers, and Crossing Over to Nonwhiteness