- The Dyer Straits of Whiteness
“White people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they thus construct the world in their image” (9). This premise drives Richard Dyer’s White, “a study of the representation of white people in Western culture” (xii), with particular emphasis on the media of photography and film. Dyer’s premise is also resonant of much recent work in the emergent field of “White Studies”—or what one of its practitioners, Mike Hill, has called “critical ethnography’s next-big-thing” (“What” 1). Though a nascent interest in whiteness goes at least as far back as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, the more recent genealogy of White Studies can be traced to the work of contemporary non-white cultural critics like bell hooks, Cornel West, and Stuart Hall.1 Among the first sustained inquiries into the ubiquitous yet invisible character of whiteness, however, was Dyer’s own essay “White,” published in a 1988 issue of the British film journal Screen. That essay, which includes many of the ideas given fuller shape in his book, provided an innovative reading of the depiction of white characters in the films Simba, Jezebel, and Night of the Living Dead. According to Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, Dyer’s essay “inaugurate[d] a paradigmatic shift” in film and cultural studies “by precisely registering the re-orientation of ethnicity” called for by Stuart Hall (6). Perhaps more importantly, “White” offered the theoretical ground for interrogating whiteness in other areas of cultural inquiry. Often cited in work far removed from film studies, Dyer’s essay was a driving force behind white critique’s “first wave” (Hill, “Introduction” 2).
In the nine years between Dyer’s essay and book, there has been a proliferation of works addressing the production, representation, deconstruction, and transformation of white culture in literature, history, pedagogy, television, and film.2 Overall, White benefits greatly from its engagement with the debates surrounding white critique. For example, Dyer takes issue with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and Edward Said’s Orientalism, both of which argue that white Western culture defined itself in contrast to its non-white others. “This function,” Dyer suggests, “is indeed characteristic of white culture, but it is not the whole story and may reinforce the notion that whiteness is only racial when it is ‘marked’ by the presence of the truly raced, that is, the non-white subject” (14). Unlike his essay, then, which emphasized the role of blackness in demarcating whiteness, Dyer’s study uses a wide range of visual texts—mostly films and film stills, but also magazine ads and illustrations, oil paintings, daguerreotypes, movie posters, and novel covers—to call attention to “whiteness qua whiteness,” for the purpose of “making whiteness strange” (4, emphasis mine). Yet Dyer also complicates monolithic understandings of whiteness which focus solely on race by providing nuanced readings of its articulation through gender and class. Moreover, he cogently frames these readings within insightful analyses of the historical, cultural, and technological conditions that have made whiteness the ostensible standard of power, reason, and beauty within Western codes of representation.
When bell hooks first suggested the possibility of white critique, she wanted “all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness” (Yearning 54). For better or worse, hooks’s wish has come true. As Peter Erickson notes, “the exploration of white identity is increasingly the purview of whites themselves” (171), a tendency which E. Ann Kaplan suggests might keep whiteness “at the center where it has always been” (328). Dyer, himself white, is conscious of this danger, which he refers to as the “green light problem” (giving whites the go-ahead to remain focused on themselves); likewise, he recognizes in White Studies the risks of “me-too-ism” (whites can join in a multicultural world, even claim victimization and guilt) (10–11). But Dyer hardly threatens to succumb to these problems, given that the impulse behind his study is to deconstruct white hegemony. “The point of seeing the racing of...