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  • "White on White and Black"The Terror of Whiteness in Sarah Kane's Crave
  • Meg Peters

Critics have been hesitant to talk about race in the context of British playwright Sarah Kane's Crave (1998), arguing that although early performances cast C as a black woman, the play itself does not include any indications of race. Jolene Armstrong, for instance, describes a Canadian production of Crave as including four actors "none [of whom were] visibly identifiable as belonging to a racial minority" (143), presumably meaning that all four actors were white. While I agree that the play is ambiguous with regards to race, to claim that the play does not interact with race at all, especially by describing the actors as not "belonging to a racial minority," upholds whiteness as unmarked, normal, and justified in its all-pervasive power. To discuss race only when people of colour are directly involved or referenced assumes that white people are not implicated in systems of race, disavowing the privilege they often receive through these very systems. Given that Crave is ambiguous about all character descriptions, not just race, it seems as though ignoring race in the play's context is performing the same deliberate silencing of positionality that takes place within the play. In fact, by reading whiteness alongside silences, and alongside a critical history that equates whiteness with an unwillingness to talk about race, I argue that Crave deliberately uses race in its last few pages, in order to remind the audience that "forgetting" race leads to a reiteration of race-related trauma.

This article is explicitly feminist in its framework, beginning by pointing to the work of feminist scholars bell hooks and Katerina Deliovsky, who both outline how whiteness is invisibilized and valourized, even in critical conversations regarding race; and following by examining the complicated identities as they exist in Crave. While identity categories are erased in the play, there remains a connection between identity power and trauma. By closely examining markers of masculinity and whiteness in Crave, alongside the declarations of mental distress, I connect the character of C with experiences of trauma, with blackness, and with femininity. C's character can be contrasted with A, who I connect to power, whiteness, and masculinity. Thus, while the play instructs its audience to "forget" positionality, it also reminds us the outcome of this forgetting: a reiteration of trauma. [End Page 98]

bell hooks and the violence of forgetting race

Critical race studies has been primarily concerned with the oppression of people of colour. This work often involves recognizing the terror of white people. bell hooks, for example, describes whiteness in "the black imagination" by writing:

In contemporary society, white and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists. This erasure, however mythic, diffuses the representation of whiteness as terror in the black imagination. It allows for assimilation and forgetfulness. […] Black people still feel the terror, still associate it with whiteness, but are rarely able to articulate the varied ways we are terrorized because it is easy to silence by accusation of reverse racism or by suggesting that black folks who talk about the ways we are terrorized by whites are merely evoking victimization to demand special treatment.


The terror of white people translates to real violence against people of colour, while at the same time reconstructing this violence as self-inflicted. When we are not critical of whiteness, we reiterate this terror by implying that racism is the problem of people of colour, rather than a problem of power. When we announce that racism "no longer exists," we are pretending that the trauma of racism is an individual issue, rather than a structural and collective experience. The terror of whiteness often translates to madness in people of colour, both because people of colour are always already imagined to be less rational than their white counterparts and because racism can be one of the many causes of mental distress (Chan and Chunn 41).

The erasure of whiteness is an issue of representation that can take many cultural forms. Katerina Deliovsky, for example, argues that there exists a racialized hierarchy of imagery when it comes to whiteness/lightness versus blackness/darkness...


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pp. 98-114
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