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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 183-209

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Failing "White Woman":
Interrogating the Performance of Respectability 1 - [PDF]

Hilary Harris

I . . . now see that our society does not often produce or
even imagine genuinely antiracist white people. 2

David Roediger has identified a central problem in the reception of "Whiteness Studies," finding that such studies are "often read as if they derived from a tame multiculturalist interest in difference rather than from analysis of power and exploitation." 3 My essay on "failing" white womanhood sets itself the task of producing and imagining "genuinely" antiracist performances of whiteness through the bodies of white women. Because this project is located within "whiteness studies" and because it utilizes the structuring methodology and findings of those studies, Roediger's caveat serves appropriate notice about the continuing dangers attendant to the reception (and, sometimes, the production) of such work. Indeed, that danger is real and pervasive enough, I believe, to warrant a discussion of both the essay's methodology and its larger social and political goals. As in race studies generally, the central methodological imperative driving whiteness studies is to interrogate and, as this essay will investigate, to re/perform race (especially, in this instance, whiteness) as a social construction. Whatever the reception, at the level of production the best of whiteness studies does demand that any exploration of the possibility of "genuinely antiracist white people" begins precisely in the foregrounding of "power and exploitation." As Jon Panish explains, a social constructionist approach illuminates "the shifting historical relations" between peoples of color and whites, as well as within what Richard Dyer calls the "internal hierarchies of whiteness." 4 By focusing specifically [End Page 183] on "racial difference as a relational entity," this approach necessarily "makes power relations a central feature of its analysis." 5 Most important to my purpose here is that this relational approach affords us a view of what Ruth Frankenberg terms "whiteness unfrozen." 6 That is, when viewed as constructed, as relational, as "ensembles of local phenomena complexly embedded in socioeconomic, sociocultural, and psychic interrelations," whiteness productively emerges "as a process, not a 'thing,' as plural rather than singular in nature." 7 Produced, then, through a methodology that knows whiteness to be both relational and overvalued within hierarchies of power and exploitation, the goal of this study--the imagining and the performing of an antiracist white womanhood--really can have virtually no shelf-life, and even less consumer appeal, as a "tame multiculturalist interest in difference."

Alvin and Heidi Toffler write that when struggling to wage peace, "Anti-wars must match the wars they are intended to prevent." 8 Translating the Tofflers in the present context, I would argue that the revolution in racial warfare in the United States since the New Deal requires a matching revolution in racial "peacefare." 9 If racist whiteness is a process, then the goal of antiracist whiteness is most productively understood to be "a process, not a 'thing,' as plural rather than singular in nature," as well. Specifically, if racist whiteness is understood as constructed through the shifting historical relations between peoples of color and whites, as well as within "the internal hierarchies of whiteness," then it is crucial to develop understandings of antiracist whiteness that match the performances of those historical relations with corresponding performances of contemporary resistance. In short, antiracist whiteness must perform new relations with the subjectivities, the ideologies, and the material legacies of those historical relations. Towards unpacking the idea of antiracist performance as process, as ongoing negotiations in time and space of historically specific relations, this essay is organized around one vastly complex, multivalent relation that cuts across both the internal and external borders of whiteness. This is the relation of white woman to "the family." Four performances of that relation structure the essay: first, my own performance of professor-as-antiracist-white-woman in the classroom; second, the performance of "the wife" in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); third, the performance of the sole white woman of the "LA Riots" in Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1993); and...


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