42 White Innocence, Black Abstraction
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42 White Innocence, Black Abstraction THOMAS ROSS White Innocence To understand the power of the theme of white innocence, one must begin with the cultural conception of innocence. To be innocent is important everywhere in our culture. The argument for the white person's innocence in matters of race connects with the cultural ideas of innocence and defilement. The very contrast between the colors, white and black, is often a symbol for the contrast between innocence and defilement. Thus, the theme of white innocence in the legal rhetoric of race draws its power from more than the obvious advantage of pushing away responsibility. It takes power from the cultural, religious , and sexual themes its terms suggest. [Professor Ross also discusses this idea in chapter 16. Ed.] White and black often symbolize some form of good and bad. Black or darkness has served as the symbol of evil for many Western cultures. Darkness is a symbol of the antiGod , Satan by any name.1 "Black magic" is often used to describe a perverse form of magic and worship. In Christian sects, darkened churches symbolize the days of Lent, whereas the glory of Easter is a time to throw open the windows and let in the light. The sexual connotations of white innocence are many and complex. White often symbolizes innocence as chaste, whereas black symbolizes noninnocence, as in the defiled and the defiler. The white wedding dress is a double symbol of the connection between white and innocence and the significance of sexual innocence of women. The black person is often depicted as the sexual defiler. Shakespeare's depiction of Othello , although an uncommonly rich portrait of a black person in literature, expressed the idea of the black as sexual defiler. [A more recent commentator has observed:] It is clear that among Englishman there was indeed a vague prejudice against blacks even before the first colonists set foot in North America. As a result of early contacts with Africa, Englishmen tended to associate blackness with savagery, heathenism, and general failure to conform to European standards of civilization and propriety. Contributing to this predisposition to look upon Negroes with disfavor were the conscious and unconscious connotations of the color black. The association of black with evil was of course deeply rooted in Western and Christian mythology ; it was natural to think of Satan as the Prince of Darkness and of witchcraft as black magic. On the unconscious level, twentieth-century psychoanalysts have suggested, blackness can be associated with suppressed libidinous impulses. Carl Gustav Jung has even argued that the Negro became for European whites a symbol of the unconscious itself-of what he calls "the shadow"-the whole suppressed or rejected side of the human psyche2 From "THE RHETORICAL TAPESTRY OF RACE: WHITE INNOCENCE AND BLACK ABSTRACTION," 32 WM. & MARY L. REV. 1 (1990). Originally published in the William and Mary Law Review. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 264 Thonms Ross The contrast between black and white in its sexual aspect is most vividly captured in miscegenation statutes, always accompanied by images of the black man's defilement of the white woman. Commentators on southern culture have noted the recurring mythology of the black man as the oversexed, large, would-be defiler of the innocent white woman.3 Griffith 's epic motion picture The Birth of a Nation depicts the suicide of the innocent white woman seeking to avoid the touch of the black man, portrayed as a slobbering beast. Our media's obsession with the violent sexual assault of a white woman by a group of blacks in the "Central Park jogger" case4 suggests that the sexual connotation of white innocence persists. The notion of the black person as oversexed and dirty is part of our cultural stereotypes. The unconscious racism which our culture continues to teach expresses the terror of the black defiler of the innocent white. In 1967, Loving v. VirginiaS finally declared unconstitutional our most vivid legal expression of this form of racism, the miscegenation statutes, although the Court's opinion lacked any real expression of outrage. The rhetorical theme of white innocence thus connects with the cultural, religious, and sexual notions of innocence, sin, and defilement. The power of the rhetoric comes in part from its ability to conjure in us at some unconscious level the always implied contrast to white innocence-the black one who is both defiled and the potential defiler. White innocence is thus a special rhetorical device. When nineteenth-century Supreme Court justices insisted...


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