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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 371-380

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The Vestments and Investments of Race

Gayle Wald

Race Men. By Hazel V. Carby. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. 228 pages. $24.00 (cloth).
The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. By George Lipsitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. 274 pages. $19.95 (paper).

In Essex Hemphill's poem "Heavy Breathing," an excerpt of which appears as an epigraph for the opening chapter of Hazel V. Carby's new book Race Men, the speaker expresses an eagerness "to burn/ this threadbare masculinity/ this perpetual black suit/ I have outgrown." 1 Using sartorial metaphors to conjure an image of identity categories as at once tattered and binding, "perpetual" and outmoded, disposable and compulsory, Hemphill's poem evokes concerns that have also been central to some of the most provocative and intellectually fruitful cultural criticism of the 1990s. In particular, the past several years have witnessed a pro-liferation of work focusing on categories of race, gender, and sexuality that have resisted critical analysis, in part because they are primarily visible as the unmarked universals against which "difference" is both regulated and defined. As such work has shown, however, despite their appearance of normalcy or naturalness, these categories are invariably rooted in, and defined by, specific histories. In the language of Hemphill's poem, they are "vestments" that require constant alteration and mending, asking of their wearers a certain "investment" in the fictions they represent. [End Page 371]

With Race Men and The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, two of the most influential figures in American studies contribute to this intellectual project through complementary investigations of the cultural display and social deployment of certain "representative" identities. In Race Men, a study that developed out of her 1993 W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University, Carby deftly plays upon Hemphill's metaphor of a "perpetual black suit" to inquire about the social and cultural performativity of the African American "race man," finding that this masculine, straight figure of racial achievement, unity, and progress has marginalized--sometimes to the point of invisibility--the identities of both black women and black gay men. In contrast, Lipsitz's The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, a collection of new and previously published essays, investigates the racialized structuring of contemporary U.S. society by looking at white people's continuing "investments" in whiteness, demonstrating how the beneficiaries of racial discourse have used identity politics to forward their collective interests at the expense of racialized groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos/as. Taken together, these books exemplify the considerable insight to be gained from work that centers the "praxis" of identities, moving beyond the fact of their social construction to consider the interests they both perpetuate and embody.

Lipsitz's book, the title chapter of which originally appeared as a 1995 article in American Quarterly, is readily situated within a burgeoning interdisciplinary literature on whiteness and "white" identities. 2 Like Cheryl Harris, Eric Lott, and David Roediger, scholars whose works have highlighted economic metaphors (of, respectively, "property," "theft," and "wages"), Lipsitz invokes the figure of white "investments" in whiteness to underscore the interactions of white identity, racial ideology, and economic interests. 3 The Possessive Investment in Whiteness delineates the ongoing history of these investments in the late twentieth century, a period that is often paradoxically imagined in terms of a thesis of the "declining significance of race" (sometimes coupled with projections of an increasing importance of class). 4 Complicating such forecasts of a raceless twenty-first century, Lipsitz contends that in the post-World War II era, a combination of public policy and private prejudice has encouraged white people to "invest" in whiteness as an ongoing, if necessarily unstable, source of economic mobility and social differentiation. His specific claim is that such "possessive investment in whiteness" ("possessive" because it [End Page 372] corresponds to symbolic and literal forms of ownership) has not merely sustained racialized hierarchies but actively encouraged white subjects' collective ideological investment in white supremacy, regardless of their conscious commitment to, or rejection of, racist...


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