Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism / Edition 1

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Displacing Whiteness makes a unique contribution to the study of race dominance. Its theoretical innovations in the analysis of whiteness are integrated with careful, substantive explorations of whiteness on an international, multiracial, cross-class, and gendered terrain. Contributors localize whiteness, as well as explore its sociological, anthropological, literary, and political dimensions.
Approaching whiteness as a plural rather than singular concept, the essays describe, for instance, African American, Chicana/o, European American, and British experiences of whiteness. The contributors offer critical readings of theory, literature, film and popular culture; ethnographic analyses; explorations of identity formation; and examinations of racism and political process. Essays examine the alarming epidemic of angry white men on both sides of the Atlantic; far-right electoral politics in the UK; underclass white people in Detroit; whiteness in "brownface" in the film Gandhi; the engendering of whiteness in Chicana/o movement discourses; "whiteface" literature; Roland Barthes as a critic of white consciousness; whiteness in the black imagination; the inclusion and exclusion of suburban "brown-skinned white girls"; and the slippery relationships between culture, race, and nation in the history of whiteness. Displacing Whiteness breaks new ground by specifying how whiteness is lived, engaged, appropriated, and theorized in a range of geographical locations and historical moments, representing a necessary advance in analytical thinking surrounding the burgeoning study of race and culture.

Contributors. Rebecca Aanerud, Angie Chabram-Dernersesian, Phil Cohen, Ruth Frankenberg, John Hartigan Jr., bell hooks, T. Muraleedharan, Chéla Sandoval, France Winddance Twine, Vron Ware, David Wellman

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An excellent sampling of scholarship in an emerging field. The multiracial dynamics of the formation of whiteness are well represented. And a sure mark of the maturity of the collection is the recurring, careful attention to the dynamics of race and gender.”—David Roediger, University of Missouri

“This collection will be a substantial contribution to a current and growing body of materials investigating whiteness. As Frankenberg and the contributors know, recent work—even work that brackets whiteness in terms of class—has made little effort to specify the stunning range of particularity in the ways whiteness is experienced. This collection begins such a specification.”—Dana D. Nelson, University of Kentucky

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822320210
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Frankenberg is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis and is the author of White Women, Race Matters.

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Displacing Whiteness

Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism

By Ruth Frankenberg

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8227-0


Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature

Rebecca Aanerud

One of the signs of our times is that we really don't know what "white" is. —Kobena Mercer, in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video

In our society dominant discourse tries never to speak its own name. —Russell Ferguson, Out There: Marginality and Contemporary Art

Racializing Whiteness

The final lines of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening unmistakably mark Edna as white: "The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long sweeping stroke." Yet despite this specificity of Edna's white subjectivity, little critical attention has been paid to her position as a white woman. Whiteness in the above passage is often understood to signal Edna's vulnerability, her innocence, even her purity associated with the rebirth to her true self. Certainly reading whiteness as such, although troublesome, is valid. I suggest, however, that whiteness has multiple meanings and significations, not the least of which is "race." In 1985 Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that "until the past decade or so ... race has not been brought to bear upon the study of literature in any apparent way," to which I would add that whiteness as race has yet to receive adequate critical consideration in the field of literary studies. It is not my intent to appropriate discussions of race in an effort to recenter white subjectivity. Rather, I want to call into question what white subjectivity is by contributing to the recent work of making visible the "constructed, and contested character of 'whiteness.'" Far too often, when race as a category of analysis is invoked, its meaning and significance are construed in terms of nonwhiteness. A classic example of this is illustrated in the following passage in which Teresa de Lauretis responds to a question concerning the absence of a racial component— despite the interracial relationship between the two main characters (Agatha, a black Latina Brazilian, and Jo, a white U.S. American)—in her analysis of the film She Must Be Seeing Things. "I thought a lot about the inscription of race in the relationship between Agatha and Jo, but I concluded that the film intentionally focuses on the other aspects of their relationship. And though it makes it clear that the role of Agatha is marked by her cultural difference as a Brazilian, a black Latina, it doesn't address the racial difference between the women. So it's not that race is not a crucial issue in lesbian and feminist relationships, politics, and theory. It certainly is. But it is not represented as an issue in this film." Race, in this quotation, is understood as racial difference located in the characters of color or in the dynamics between characters of differing racial backgrounds. It would seem that discussions of race are applicable only to those individuals, real or fictitious, who occupy a subject position other than white. Within such a scheme, being white is equated with being unraced—or, to stress the political, being normal.

In fact, all people live racialized lives. Jo's subjectivity is as racialized as Agatha's. As social beings we are each implicated in an interconnected series of hierarchical systems, of race, class, and gender among others. These systems are read onto our bodies, and we in turn interpret and are interpreted through our understandings and misunderstandings of them. Our awareness of these systems is partially informed by the degree of privilege or oppression we experience as a result of our positioning. While it might seem that race is something that affects only people of color, in fact race is a meaningful and fundamental factor in all lives. In film as well as literature race need not be an issue in order for it to be a relevant component. I am interested in expanding the theoretical discussions of race to include an examination of the constructions and representations of white subjectivity in literature. Relatedly, I wish to see how current power relations of gender, sexuality, race, and class are reproduced through the unspoken privilege of assuming racial neutrality.

This essay will take "whiteness" to be a socially and historically constructed category of racial identity. As such, whiteness cannot be understood as a singular entity, existing prior to or apart from other categories of identities. Its formation depends on the changing relations of gender, class, sexuality, and nationality. Thus, the meaning of whiteness, like all racialized identities in the United States, is not monolithic. Instead, its construction and interpretation are informed by historical moment, region, political climate, and racial identity.

As the epigraphs suggest, whiteness can be difficult to see. As Richard Dyer puts it, in a white supremacist nation, whiteness "secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular." This is not to suggest that representations of whiteness are similarly obscure to all "seers." In her article "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination," bell hooks argues that not only do many black authors (and her students of color) see whiteness clearly, they represent it in a way not seen in the works of white authors, namely, whiteness as terrorizing. I would add that one's ability to see whiteness is equally influenced by his or her relationship to white dominant society as a whole. In other words, the varying abilities to "see" whiteness are as much a result of consciousness as they are of race.

However, despite the "real" relations of readers of American fiction to that body of literature, all readers, to draw from Toni Morrison, "until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, have been positioned as white." From this position, whiteness as race operates as an unmarked racial category. Unless told otherwise, the reader, positioned as white, assumes the characters are white. (Un)marked whiteness is, of course, a type of marking. In an analysis of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, Morrison writes that she easily identifies Eddy as white: "We know he is because nobody says so." Such (un)marked whiteness is often reinforced by the overt racial marking of the non-white characters.

Although the construction of whiteness depends on dynamic social, political, and historical factors, a predominant construction in American literature is undoubtedly whiteness as "unraced," or racially neutral. This construction has significant political underpinnings. In this normative space, as Dyer argues, whiteness comes to stand for "the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human." Occupation of this privileged position "is the source of its representational power ... white domination is reproduced by the way white people 'colonise the definition of normal.'" This essay seeks to unpack the construction of whiteness as the neutral way of being human through an examination of its representations in the literature of American authors. What are the various forms of whiteness in American literature? Or, as Toni Morrison asks, what is "the nature—even the cause—of literary 'whiteness.' What is it for? What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as 'American'?" Here I will attempt to answer some of these questions by analyzing three works of American fiction by white authors: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin; "Blessed Assurance," by Allan Gurganus; and Escape from Billy's Bar-B-Que, by Joanne Brasil.

I have chosen these three texts in part because in each case the author is a white person writing about whiteness. The importance of looking at the way white authors write whiteness is twofold. First, white writers are more likely to assume whiteness as a (non)racial norm. Understanding how whiteness functions as the unspoken norm is, I believe, a crucial part of challenging its domination. Second, white writers occasionally recognize whiteness as a racial category, and some even take it as their central theme; this is especially true of some post–civil rights texts. Here, I will consider what, if anything, is revealed about whiteness when white writers self-consciously locate whiteness.

To address the first concern, I will discuss The Awakening. Although Kate Chopin's novel initially met with criticism as a result of its apparent advocacy of female adultery, today it is securely positioned within the ranks of the canon of American literature. As such, it functions as a representative of much of American literature written by white authors: its characters are assumed to be white. My reading, then, calls for locating whiteness in the main characters and analyzing the role whiteness plays. To address the latter concern, I will examine two noncanonized works written with the intent of thinking about whiteness. Both racially locate the white characters as white, thus interrupting the predominant representation of whiteness as racially neutral. My discussion of these three texts will work toward the development of a critical reading practice that foregrounds the constructions and representations of whiteness and will challenge the way in which many texts by white U.S. authors are complicit with the discourses of white supremacy.

(Un)marked Whiteness

In 1899 Kate Chopin published a novel about an unhappily married woman, Edna Pontellier. An upper-middle-class white woman and mother of two children, Edna lives a predictable and settled life with her husband, Léonce, in New Orleans. The opening scenes of the novel are set on an island off the Louisiana coast where the Pontellier family is vacationing. While on vacation Edna's dissatisfaction with her position in life crystallizes. Her marriage is empty. She feels distant from other women such as her friend Adèle Ratignolle, a woman perfectly happy as a wife and mother. And although feeling a kind of kinship with the pianist Mlle Reisz, Edna is hesitant to commit herself to the world of artistic expression and settles instead for dabbling in sketching. Her flirtatious friendship with Robert Lebrun advances to a love affair, which is, however, unconsummated. Robert leaves for business ventures in Mexico, and Edna returns to her life in New Orleans. In the space of nine months, Edna moves from an awareness of her dissatisfaction, to the awakening of her potential self, to the ultimate recognition that this world holds no place for that self. In the end she commits suicide by drowning.

Critical readings of The Awakening have examined, among other things, the paradoxes of Edna's womanhood. Gender, often coupled with class, has been taken as the primary category from which to analyze Edna's status as wife and mother. Yet, can we so easily separate gender and race? Historian Vron Ware writes that "to be white and female is to occupy a social category that is inescapably racialized as well as gendered." Instead of reading Edna's whiteness as incidental to her womanhood, I see it as inextricably tied to the construction of the feminine gender (understood especially as motherhood) and female sexuality (understood as Edna's desire), and I am interested in her struggle to find a space outside those constructions.

The white characters in The Awakening are not overtly identified as white. Racially they are represented as normal or neutral. Nonetheless, and confirmed by Toni Morrison's method of white racial identification, they are white. Moreover, and true to the genre, characters of color are racially named: the quadroons, the little black girl, the dark women of Mexico, the mulattress. Although the white characters are not identified as occupants of a racially constructed social category, they are often described as having white skin. References to white skin and the imagery of white skin in Chopin's text not only reveal the main characters as white but are closely linked to the construction of motherhood and sexuality. During the early nineteenth century, motherhood and female sexuality were defined by piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, or what is identified as the Cult of True Womanhood. Hazel Carby writes, "Within the discourse of the cult of true womanhood, wifehood and motherhood were glorified." In truth, however, many women stood outside these glorified roles. Slave women in the antebellum South could expect neither the bonds of motherhood nor those of marriage to be respected by the white society. Hortense Spillers, for example, argues that within the traditional symbolics of feminine gender, where motherhood is understood as the right to claim a child, the primary social subject is the middle-class white woman.

Against the backdrop of motherhood, the imagery of white skin can be read as a gauge of the acceptance of that gender role. Although both Edna and Adèle are white, it is Adèle who is exceedingly white. She is initially described as "the fair lady of our dreams" (KC, 888), with her spun-gold hair, her sapphire blue eyes, and her white neck. And later, when Edna visits Adèle at her home, it is "the rich, melting curves of her white throat" (KC, 937) that establish her extreme beauty and move Edna to muse about painting her friend. When the two women walked to the beach, it was Adèle who, "more careful of her complexion, had a twine of gauge veil about her head. She wore dog-skin gloves with gauntlets to protect her wrists. She was dressed in pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles that became her" (KC, 895). Likewise it is Adèle who excels at motherhood. Whereas Edna is "not a mother-woman," Adèle is the type of woman who flutters about "with extended, protecting wings when harm, real or imagined, threatened [her] precious brood" (KC, 888). Adèle's protection of her precious brood is not unlike her protection of her perfectly white complexion. Both represent the comfort and security she finds in her social role. In contrast, the text establishes Edna as far less attentive to her white complexion. Her husband, in the opening scene, chastises her because she has not fully covered her arms while swimming and sunbathing: "You are burnt beyond recognition" (KC, 882). Similarly, Edna is less attentive to her children, who, we are told, would be more apt to wipe the water out of their eyes and go on playing than to run to their "mother's arms for comfort" (KC, 887). The imagery of Edna's darkened white skin represents ambivalence, even rejection, of the social category in which she is positioned.

If, as Spillers argues, some women stand outside the traditional symbolics of the feminine gender, other women stand inside them with varying degrees of complicity. Yet these degrees, especially in reference to motherhood, are slight. There is little room for variation. To be an ambivalent mother is to be a "bad" mother. A woman can occupy an oppositional position within the gender scheme,—as Mademoiselle Reisz does—but she must possess a "brave soul", a "soul that dares and defies" (KC, 946). Edna Pontellier, unlike Mile Reisz, is not a willing rebel in the gender scheme. Although she feels herself an outsider and is constructed as a kind of Other throughout the text—"She is not one of us; she is not like us" (KC, 900)—she initially struggles to be an insider. Her desire to paint, "to try herself on" her "fair companion" Adèle, who "was a tempting subject" (KC, 891), can be read as her desire to try to fit herself into the subject position of a contented wife and mother figure. It is not without frustration and discomfort that Edna finds herself unable to embrace the social category in which she is prefigured.

While whiteness functions overtly and is a central defining metaphor in the images of motherhood, it functions far more obliquely in the constructions and representations of sexuality. It is not defined by imagery of white skin or clothing; rather, its meaning is informed by the boundaries of nonwhiteness. The whiteness of Edna's sexuality is constructed in contrast to the dark women of Mexico and a "young barefooted Spanish girl," Mariequita. Edna's flirtation with Robert Lebrun is fueled to sexual longing when he suddenly moves to Mexico. Her inability to express her feelings to Robert before he leaves is informed by the boundaries of her social role: "Edna bit her handkerchief, striving to hold back and to hide, even from herself as she would hide from another, the emotion which was troubling—tearing—her" (KC, 926). Her exaggerated longing for him after he leaves is supported by the racially constructed fear of those same boundaries: the Mexican women "with their dark black eyes and their lace scarfs" (KC, 985).

The stereotype of the exotic, the promiscuous, the earthy and accessible female Other in part constructs white female sexuality. Mariequita, with "her round, sly piquant face and pretty black eyes" and her "broad and coarse" feet, which she makes no attempt to hide (KC, 914), inspires both fear and longing in Edna. The gaze Edna focused earlier on Adèle is now turned to Mariequita: "She looked Mariequita up and down, from her ugly brown toes to her pretty black eyes, and back down again" (KC, 914). As Adèle represents unattainable motherhood, Mariequita represents unattainable sexuality.


Excerpted from Displacing Whiteness by Ruth Frankenberg. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Local Whitenesses, Localizing Whiteness 1
Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature 35
Rereading Gandhi 60
Theorizing White Consciousness for a Post-Empire World: Barthes, Fanon, and the Rhetoric of Love 86
On the Social Construction of Whiteness within Selected Chicana/o Discourses 107
Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination 165
Locating White Detroit 180
Brown-Skinned White Girls: Class, Culture, and the Construction of White Identity in Suburban Communities 214
Laboring under Whiteness 244
Island Racism: Gender, Place, and White Power 283
Minstrel Shows, Affirmative Action Talk, and Angry White Men: Marking Racial Otherness in the 1990s 311
Bibliography 333
Contributors 349
Index 351
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