REVISIONS; On Defining Race, When Only Thinking Makes It So

One is not born, one becomes a white person, to adapt Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum about becoming a woman. To become a woman or a black means to become part of a system (a system of beliefs, habits or laws) that generally rates you somewhere between mildly sub-par and thoroughly inferior. To become successfully male or white means that you should accept as right and natural a system that, subtly or blatantly, declares you the most intelligent, handsome and gifted of all people.

But let us make this more personal. Let us follow the art historian Maurice Berger into his mother’s bedroom, where he sits as a small child, watching her perform her daily beauty ablutions. First, he writes in ”White Lies” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), a memoir that is also first-rate social history and cultural criticism, ”She would brush her jet-black hair, applying gobs of foul-smelling, viscous pomades in an effort to relax her tight, kinky curls into gentle waves.” Then came moisturizer, then concealer, then foundation, ”many shades lighter than her olive complexion, and a dusting of chalky face powder.”

Mr. Berger’s mother was a Sephardic Jew with a Hispanic-sounding maiden name. She had been slapped with ethnic slurs, and she had lost jobs (she was a singer) because she looked ”too dark” or ”too Jewish.”

Oh, the mutabilities and treacheries of race! In 19th-century America, Mr. Berger observes, the law in many states would have declared people black who were much fairer than his mother, because of small traces of African blood. But: ”By the 1920’s, my dark, small grandfather could slip past rigid quotas and through U.S. Immigration as white on the basis of his word and the implied promise that he would strive to meet the immigrant ideal of an all-American whiteness.”

All-American whiteness requires high maintenance, and if it isn’t accompanied by social and economic privilege it will not yield maximum profits. What did Mrs. Berger’s beauty ritual do for her? Her son writes: ”It kept away the black and Hispanic neighbors, whom she loathed, and the white Jews who shopped in her favorite supermarkets and whom she openly castigated but secretly envied because they were not dark and because they were not poor. . . . She didn’t look whiter — she looked like a person who was concealing something under layers of greasepaint.”

Whiteness should appear natural and inevitable, as the film historian Richard Dyer makes clear in ”White” (Routledge, 1997), his terrifically intelligent examination of how the visual media, from painting to photography to film, represents whiteness as the esthetic ideal of the West.

First of all, he observes, ”A person is deemed visibly white because of a quite complicated interaction of elements, of which flesh tones within the pink to beige range are only one: the shape of the nose, eyes and lips, the color and set of hair, even body shape may all be mobilized to determine someone’s ‘color.’ ”

Even that Teutonic goddess Marlene Dietrich needed help. Her mentor and director, Josef von Sternberg, narrowed what he labeled her ”broad Slavic nose” by drawing a silver line down the center and lighting it from above. (About illusion, they were never wrong, the Old Masters.)

Film technology spent decades struggling mightily with the problem of how to turn all those pink and beige skin tones into whiter shades of pale. Not to mention blondness: to achieve that on camera, hair had to be backlighted and its strands arranged as loosely as possible, a film manual of 1920 advised directors and cinematographers. (An article in the March 22 issue of The New Yorker traces this obsession through the blazingly successful ad campaigns of the post-World War II hair dye industry. ”If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” cried millions of women, reaching for their bottles of Miss Clairol.)

Of course politics and pseudo-science made invaluable contributions. Mr. Dyer reminds us that the British spent much of the 19th century depicting the Irish as apelike rebels possessed of Negro blood. Immigration to America helped them shed these associations eventually. But Mr. Berger cites a race questionnaire given to a group of Canadian schoolchildren in the 1970’s. Asked which groups they considered white, the children were divided about Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians, and hesitated before awarding a yes to the Greeks. Turks were given a resounding no, as were all Latin Americans, from Argentines to Cubans.

These are fine books. ”White” is scholarly, densely researched and cleanly written, drawing on the history of Christianity and of colonialism, as well as painting, film and television. (Mr. Dyer’s reading of that extravagantly popular television series ”The Jewel in the Crown” is canny and unsentimental without being snide.) ”White Lies” is small and intimate, joining memory, history, sociology, popular culture and journalism into an emotionally rich collage.

It matters that Mr. Dyer and Mr. Berger are both white, for as Mr. Berger writes: ”Black people cannot help but evaluate the status of their blackness. White people, while vigilantly aware of the presence of blackness, are most often oblivious to the psychological and political weight of their own color.” These books belong to a field, even a genre, known as Whiteness Studies, and its aim is to make such obliviousness impossible.

One could choose to be cynical about this new discipline, for reasons Mr. Dyer describes perfectly. First, there is the green-light problem: ”Writing about whiteness gives white people the go-ahead to write and talk about what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves.” Then comes the ”me-too” complex, the sense that ”amid all this (all this?) attention being given to nonwhite subjects, white people are being left out.” There is good old guilt, which never fails to block emotion and incite narcissism. And I would add one thing more: the kind of born-again passion that excoriates with tone-deaf fervor all white people other than oneself.

There is another irony here, too, as several historians in the field have noted (David R. Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, Ruth Frankenberg and Karen Brodkin are among the best). For it was black writers and scholars who, more than a century ago, began a sustained analysis of what W. E. B. DuBois called the souls and Langston Hughes the ways, of white folk.

Will Whiteness Studies and narratives make these kinds of critical insights more a part of the intellectual and literary mainstream? Maybe. Probably. Almost certainly. But ”White Lies” and ”White” take intellectual and emotional risks, and the risks pay off. I’ll take good work wherever I find it. And I believe that genuine self-scrutiny breeds a kind of honesty and courage that nothing else can.

Black people love to play the game of ”Name That Negro,” identifying all kinds of people — movie stars, politicians (preferably Southern conservatives), musicians — who are passing for white. The next time I play, I’ll have to remind myself that white people are passing, too.


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