Rambo and Iron John think pink

WHITE: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer, Routledge pounds 12. 99

Richard Dyer is a brave man. In his latest book this professor of film studies at Warwick University has entered an academic minefield that at best has been dismissed as trendy, and at worst derided as an absurdly excessive form of political correctness which seeks "to abolish the white race".

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.

Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
News
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
books
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
art
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
film
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
TV
News
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
books
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
music
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
music
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world