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Sunday, February 20, 2005

A genealogy of whiteness

Friend Domonic started his blog a week or so ago and is already drawing comments. His second post is especially intriguing, because he sets out an agenda for "critical hip-hop studies." Domonic has been talking about this for as long as I've known him (which is several years), and it's great that blogging provides a forum to share and test out his ideas. As has been the case in our continuing conversations over wide range of topics, I offered a challenging comment raising issues about what his agenda might be. And of course, as usual, he came right back with a clear response.

Domonic has put in a great deal of effort over the past several years trying to convince me of the importance of critical studies as applied to issues of race and culture. In fact, it really doesn't take much to convince me; I think I've been doing critical studies all my life. But some of what I read in the area of critical studies does not impress me, in fact some of the gets my blood boiling. But the tradition of critical studies (although it wasn't always called that) has been a major influence on my thinking since I first read Herbert Marcuse in the early 1970s. I've read a great deal about the Frankfurt school over the years, and more recently have enjoyed reading Adorno's critical analysis of American popular culture (especially our fascination with astrology) and the jargon of authenticity associated with Heidegger, Jaspers and the existentialists. While these works constitute the basis of modern critical theory, the term has been used as an umbrella to cover a number of other approaches that I believe to be of more questionable value. That's why Domonic's agenda raises issues with me.

Nevertheless, my doubts about critical (fill in the blank) studies is offset by specific examples. I came across one this afternoon as I sat down to read this week's book review section of the Guardian (which is constantly delivering high-quality and thought-provoking pieces). In an essay titled "Race card," Gary Taylor provides a really interesting analysis of the genealogy of "whiteness". In tracing the roots of the racial designations for "black" and "white," Taylor focuses on the emergence of the term in 16th and 17th century England. In Elizabethan times, Taylor argues, whiteness was not a racial term in the sense of differentiating Englishmen from non-Englishmen (e.g. Othello, the king of the Moors), rather it was a gendered characterization, applied to women of a certain class and behavior (e.g. pictures of Elizabeth I with her face painted white) as well as uncivilized barbarians from the north such as the Goths. Blackness, in turn, is associated with the more civilized and virile barbarians from the Islamic south. As for Englishmen, they did not regard themselves as white, but rather as "golden" which represented a mean between the black and white extremes.

Taylor pinpoints the emergence of a racial form of whiteness to an event that took place in the early 17th century when a visiting black Moorish king, looking over a crowd gathered for a celebratory pageant at which he was a guest, commented at how fascinated the white Christians were with the complexion of his skin and those of his entourage. This event was dramatized by one playwright (Thomas Middleton), thus setting to paper the key watershed event when whiteness became associated with racial difference. As the excerpted blurb from this short essay states it: "Shakespeare was a racist, but he didn't think he was white. Middleton thought he was white, but he wasn't a racist."

Historical critical analyses such as these are extremely important contributions to our understanding of race and its development and role in contemporary society. Interestingly, Taylor's essay is drawn from a book titled Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity from Columbus to Hip-hop.

I think I have a book to recommend to Domonic....
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