- Unmade Men: The Sopranos After Whiteness
Maurice Yacowar is right that The Sopranos “bears the critical analysis routinely accorded good literature, drama, and films” (19). Yet critical discussion of the program so far has not considered its interest in race. This is certainly not for lack of provocation. In almost every episode, Tony Soprano invents a new epithet for the racial “others” he encounters at work and at home. He curses out an African-American traffic cop as an “affirmative action cocksucker” (S3E5) and describes his daughter’s Black and Jewish boyfriend as a “Hasidic homeboy.”1 Nor is Tony’s “racist retrograde fucking asshole personality,” to quote his daughter Meadow (S3E4), an anomaly in the series. Tony’s description of the police officer, in particular, reiterates sentiments about affirmative action and racial equality that circulate in the Soprano household during Meadow’s process of applying to college, which plays out during the entire second season of the series. One of the more memorable moments in that season is the scene in which Carmella Soprano offers Joan Cusamano, Secretary of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, a ricotta pie with pineapples in return for a letter of recommendation for Meadow. Neither Joan’s refusal to be threatened nor the fact that she has already written a letter for a “wonderful young Dominican boy from the projects” (S2E8) holds any sway with Carmella Soprano, who goes so far as to suggest a viable lie about the boy in the interest of promoting her daughter.2 Although books and articles about the series have engaged claims, like those of Camille Paglia, that the show stereotypes Italian-Americans, there has been little effort to endow the construction of racial and ethnic difference in The Sopranos with the same degree of complexity accorded its treatment of gangster cinema, psychoanalysis, or gender.3 Tony’s reactions to figures like the African-American police officer are far from simple. In light of his wealth and connections to highly placed civic officials, the irony of Tony’s claims about victimization and his use of affirmative action as a term to ground that victimization speak to the way in which he negotiates his status as both a privileged white subject and an ethnic victim. Scenes like this establish a subtext that runs throughout the series, engaging cultural anxieties about the representation of whiteness in a way that helps account for the show’s popularity.
A common assumption in “whiteness studies” is that in Western culture, those designated or able to pass as white experience whiteness as an unacknowledged system of privileges whose operation is difficult to recognize since whiteness appears, to them, as an “empty” cultural category. Hence to analyze the emergence and functioning of whiteness is to engage in a form of anti-racist practice.4 Recently, however, interventions in this field have taken aim at the notion that whiteness has ever been invisible, even to whites. In turn, some proponents of whiteness studies have begun to doubt their initial assumption that heightening white racial consciousness might help end racism.
Ruth Frankenburg and Mike Hill have been careful to register their own changing and conflicted relationship with the subject they helped popularize. In “The Mirage of Unmarked Whiteness” (2001), Frankenburg challenges the idea that she had advanced—that whiteness is invisible—by arguing that “the more one scrutinizes it . . . the more the notion of whiteness as an unmarked norm is revealed to be a mirage or indeed, to put it even more strongly, a white delusion” (73). According to Frankenburg, despite the prevailing opinion of most theorists of whiteness, white racial consciousness has actually been on the rise for some time in the United States owing to affirmative action and the challenges put to it in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Moreover, this new racial awareness denies a facile correlation between racial self-consciousness and anti-racist sentiment among white subjects. Analyzing interviews with whites from across the United States, Frankenburg finds that most interviewees, regardless of class or location, tend to see whiteness not as a system of privilege but of victimization. Her conclusion is that many whites now exhibit a more complex...