Rambo and Iron John think pink
WHITE: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer, Routledge pounds 12. 99
Sunday 10 August 1997
But before this book can be corralled into the new field of "white studies", it is worth pointing out that Dyer himself does not believe that such a subject should exist as an academic discipline. He insists that his "blood runs cold" at the prospect of students studying "white ethnicity", in which the fair-skinned try to get in touch with their whiteness. For this author it is a spurious discipline that has ominous parallels with the tree-hugging, chest-beating "Iron John" movement, where guilt leads to resentment and - in the case of white studies - to an acceptable face of white nationalism.
Instead, he prefers to see White as a response to a specific call from black intellectuals - most recently from Patricia Williams in this year's Reith lectures - for white people to recognise and investigate their whiteness. Here, at last, the white man is made to carry his own burden or, if you like, to stop whitewashing his own whiteness. Some may consider that the nature and consequences of centuries of predominant whiteness have had quite enough airplay already, and that such a book just adds to an already distorted power balance.
But that is precisely Dyer's point: namely, that the power of whiteness comes from white people almost never having had to admit that they are speaking from the sole perspective of the white person. In this way, race has evolved into something that is only applied to non-white people; and, because white people are not accustomed to being defined as a racial category, they can therefore take up the crucially advantageous position of speaking for the human norm - since the assumption is that they don't represent the interests of any particular race. In short, as the white author puts it, "Other people are raced, we are just people."
For white people to look at the world from a white perspective, however, requires a major shift in racial sensibilities. Most white people are taught to believe that all they do, good or ill, all that they achieve, is to be accounted for in terms of their individuality. It is intolerable to realise that we whites may get jobs, nice houses or a helpful response at school or in hospitals because of our skin colour, and not because we are the unique, achieving individuals we believe ourselves to be. At this point, the author ups the ante by proceeding to ask: if white people won't engage with their own racial particularity, how then can we expect to take account of other people's?
Having attributed the primary power of whiteness to its self- imposed distinction from a multiracial other, Dyer then goes on to explain how that power is enhanced and reinforced through the visual media. What runs the risk of becoming a wearying voyage into pious self-improvement instead turns out to be a refreshingly lucid and highly revealing deconstruction of how whiteness is portrayed in TV, film and the visual arts.
From the dusky-faced Christ of medieval painting being transformed into the blond, blue-eyed, fully gentilised saviour of 19th- century religiosity; from the backlit, fake blonde locks of Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, all the way up to Madonna's postmodern polarisation of race through her "bleached looks and supporting black studs", Dyer pulls apart and lays out the cultural components of whiteness as depicted over the centuries.
Nevertheless, this encyclopaedic approach has its drawbacks. The sheer ubiquity of whiteness in all its myriad and often factionalised forms demands a corresponding breadth of knowledge from Dyer; and for the most part he manages to pull this off. However, within the book's central idea of identifying and locating the manifestations of whiteness, some subjects are given disproportionate weight. Devoting a whole chapter, for instance, to Tarzan, Rambo and Italian "Maciste" movies of the early Sixties may show how "heroes of colonial muscularity" are crucial to the maintenance of white masculinity; yet short shrift is given to the far more weighty matter of the association between whiteness and death, and its role within the history of genocide. This appears all the more lopsided when Dyer introduces a short but informative paragraph on the Holocaust by emphasising the value placed by white people on orderliness and systematisation, and then abruptly rounds off the book's only reference to one of the most problematic subjects within racial history with the explosively pertinent quote from the historian Lorraine Hansberry: "Who else [but whites] could put all those people into ovens `scientifically'?"
What would make a good book even better would be if Dyer gave full throttle to his considerable forensic skills. Throughout White he applies his insight not just to general observations on the hierarchies within and without whiteness but also, and even more acutely, to specific popular images, especially within his own field of film. It is this ability to make precise technical examples speak volumes that is Dyer's particular achievement, and the book would benefit from him doing it more. He opens his chapter on film technique, for instance, by drawing attention to the fact that movie lighting was developed exclusively with white people in mind, to the extent that photographing non-white people is still construed within the industry as a problem. Admittedly, this prejudice is complicated by the fact that black skin reflects roughly 25 per cent less light than a Caucasian face. But one can still see the "problem" when a critic, such as Jose Arroyo of Sight & Sound has to point out that in the recent adventure movie Money Train, "Whenever there's a white person in the frame, discerning [the black actor Wesley] Snipes's features becomes a matter of eye-strain."
Dyer doesn't confine himself, however, to the gradations of Klieg lights. He insists that the actual aesthetics of film technology have demanded whiteness. Backlighting, for example, was invented not only to separate figures from the background, but also to highlight blond hair - which up until then had a tendency to photograph dark. Even the use of Technicolor, which was available from 1917, was delayed for nearly 30 years because the concentration needed to ensure that pink faces appeared white rendered everything else in the scene excessively bright. Thus, in these filmic ways, a deliberate view of the human image was constructed.
Naturally, it would be a better world if we did not have to think in terms of racial construction or privilege. But we are not yet in that world, and Dyer is surely right in thinking that if we are to get there we "have to put whites in their place". It is to his credit that he is among the first to have shown us that place.
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