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"Who are You, Literally?": Fantasies of the White Self in White Noise

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 755-787 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0050

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 755-787

III. Postmodern Identity

Don DeLillo's White Noise can be read as a novel about the noise that white people make. As in many whitened communities in America, unless one pays strict attention, the brief presences of racialized others can be difficult to detect. Isolated for the most part from daily contact with people who are not "like" themselves, people like Jack Gladney who live in such communities tend to experience a certain unease when encountering unfamiliar "types" of people. Appearing as sporadically and momentarily as they do, the differences that such people represent have yet to intrude much on the presumptions of middle-class whiteness to universality. However, as DeLillo's novel prophetically indicates, these presumptions have increasingly come under fire with the new immigration patterns that are reconfiguring American demographics. Thus Jack notes of his German tutor, for example, that "his complexion was of a tone I want to call flesh-colored," without pondering further why he hesitates to go ahead and call it "flesh-colored" (DeLillo, White 32). A person such as Jack would most likely hesitate because he dimly realizes that such a term has been rendered problematic by the gradual encroachment of people who have flesh of different hues, different from that of the "flesh-colored" ("white") people. In many ways, while DeLillo depicts the unmarked details of "ordinary" (white, middle-class) American life, he also suggests that in an increasingly diverse society, the white self's troubles of this sort are just beginning. White people are becoming increasingly marked as white, and their status as exemplars of ordinary American subjecthood threatened.

Missing from almost all critiques of DeLillo's portrayals of postmodern identity formation is analysis of the persistent whiteness of his protagonists. Given the relative unimportance to most white Americans of their racial status, as well as their relative ignorance about the significance of race in their daily lives, critical disinterest in such aspects of DeLillo's work is not surprising. Nevertheless, as DeLillo's main characters consistently demonstrate, being racialized as white plays a tremendous part in how one responds to the environment. As anthropologist Ruth Frankenberg points out in her wonderfully nuanced account of the influences race has on the lives of white American women, "White people are 'raced,' just as men are 'gendered'" (1). She argues that "there is a cultural/racial specificity to white people, at times more obvious to people who are not white than to white individuals" (5). In regards to literature, while most contemporary authors who describe ordinary white characters display little direct interest in the influences of race on their characters, American racial formations still affect their literary creations in an array of traceable ways. In DeLillo's case, his considerable interest in contemporary threats to autonomous selfhood is inextricably tied to the whiteness of his protagonists. In White Noise, DeLillo illustrates the forces in ordinary life that threaten individual autonomy, but he also develops a subtextual portrait of white American modes of racialized perception. In particular, DeLillo demonstrates with the case of Jack Gladney that the notion of individual autonomy is itself a fantasy, and that middle-class white men are especially apt to harbor this particularly American form of self-delusion.

(White) American Individualism

Explicating this racialized subtext in White Noise calls for discussion first of a particular result of America's continued reliance on race as a primary method for categorizing people. Such middle-class whites as the characters in this novel usually live in a social environment in which whites constitute the numerical majority. As a result, white people within such a setting tend to be regarded by others not in terms of their racialized group membership, but rather on an individual, "case by case" basis. Their membership in the "white race" seems to them to have little impact on their daily lives,and indeed, the fact of their racial whiteness rarely occurs to them. As DeLillo's depiction in White Noise of an identity quest undertaken by the highly self-reflective Jack Gladney suggests, white individuals tend to conceive of themselves in more individualized terms than do people "of color." On the...

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