- Reviewed by
Over the last two decades, whiteness studies has evolved into a multifaceted discipline. Scholars from a variety of backgrounds—literary, legal, and film, among others—have sought to examine the historical development and cultural impact of unstated race privilege on the fashioning of American identity. Cultural critics such as Theodore Allen, Toni Morrison, and Noel Ignatiev have offered clear illustrations of how a set of human characteristics were manipulated into an ideology that continues to handicap effective considerations of race, class, and gender in American society. These studies reveal that a default whiteness presumed to be the normative American identity makes social equity all but impossible. As long as a shifting yet implicit standard whiteness sets the norm for what is intelligent, desirable, and morally acceptable, anything beyond its parameters is forever rendered other, fetishistic, or fearsome. Adding another voice to the discourse of whiteness studies is Stephen P. Knadler. In The Fugitive Race: Minority Writers Resisting Whiteness, he examines the ways in which writers not defined as white decenter the concept of whiteness. What Knadler brings to the discussion is a deft demonstration of the ways in which theory can be put into practice. By engaging a variety of genres from fiction, to autobiography, to fictionalized autobiography, he concretizes his analysis and offers a fitting complement to more schematic conceptions of whiteness.
Knadler argues that the very center-margin dichotomy whiteness studies is supposed to deconstruct is ultimately reinforced by scholarly perspectives that still give primacy to the "white gaze" by presuming whiteness to be an isolated construction not influenced by racial and cultural content beyond its idealized borders. Extending the work of Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (1992), he asserts that the construct of a pure white identity never existed, that those not privy to unstated race privilege have explicitly and implicitly intruded into definitions of normative whiteness. The white identity [End Page 750] has always been hybrid, always been inherently amalgamated, always in tense "coracial" dialogue. Using texts that span the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knadler identifies moments of "white panic," the result of the "reverse acculturation" occurring when this constructed identity responds to the feminist, racial, class, and queer interventions that have always been an unacknowledged part of its creation.
The scope of Knadler's study is impressive, and among the many interesting readings he tenders is a discussion of nineteenth-century authors. He contemplates the ways in which even a sympathetic text such as Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (1862) or Lydia Sigourney's Letters to Mothers (1838) reinforces received conceptions of whiteness on the domestic front. As a contrast, he explores William Wells Brown and Harriet Wilson as instances of authors whose use of domesticity critiques a fear of racial contagion from within. The links he draws between the home and race, mothering and whiteness, expand critical discourse on the cult of domesticity. So as not to fall into the trap of simplistic binarism, he complicates his readings with an illuminating interpretation of Rebecca Harding Davis's 1868 Waiting for the Verdict as a promising if not fully realized text imagining an alternative definition for the "white national body" (32).
Knadler extends his interpretations to authors as varied as Pauline Hopkins, Younghill Kang, Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, Zora Neale Hurston, William Demby, and Arturo Islas. As he treats the ways in which each writer reformulates presumptions of whiteness, he places them in a literary and cultural context: for Hopkins, he considers her work within the discourse of detective fiction; for Kang, Cahan and Antin, within the politics of assimilation and representations of the city; and for Arturo Islas within queer theory. Throughout, he incorporates the works of cultural theorists as varied as Homi Bhabha, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa, and this wide-ranging incorporation provides breadth for comprehending these authors' refusal to capitulate to socially imposed construction(s) of whiteness. Some readers might find the referencing of so much theory distracting and at times wonder where Knadler's own argument...