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The Whiteness Problem


White South African Pauline Smith’s The Little Karoo, Pākehā Katherine Mansfield’s Urewera notebooks from Aotearoa New Zealand, and Anglo-Canadian Flora Denison’s The Tree of Poverty all emerged in early- to mid-twentieth century anglophone modernism.  In the same period, US American and British use of “s****” and “n*****” also appeared in the letters of Wallace Stevens, and in the titles of Joseph Conrad’s and Carl Van Vechten’s writings.  Critical analyses of these and other White-authored modernist works have followed, addressing White masculinity in Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo,” and Whiteness in Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American, Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, to name only a few.[1]

Surely there is no problem with the critical appraisal of Whiteness across anglophone modernism. This cluster holds, as its premise, that there is, in fact, a Whiteness problem in our field.  In the ways that there was “the Negro Problem” and “the Woman Question” in the early twentieth century, we have a Whiteness problem now.  The phrases “the Negro Problem” and “the Woman Question” imply not facts but perspective; in other words, to whom are those identities problems or questions?  One imagines that they are such to the hegemonic perspective, namely to the masculinist White gaze.  Naming the basis of this cluster “the Whiteness Problem” applies the vocabulary to that dominant perspective and turns the mirror back upon it.

In fact, we have a few Whiteness problems, and the essays in this cluster demonstrate some ways that those problems can be addressed.  The 2019 Modernist Studies Association seminar that generated this cluster was titled “The First Whiteness Seminar in Modernist Studies,” indicating the fact of the first seminar at the convention to explicitly name whiteness as the object of critical inquiry.  This introduction employs the capital “W” in “White” to indicate a collective racialization and the responsibilities that collectivity carries, and this capitalization counteracts the ways in which individualization is promoted through the lower case “w.”  Scholarship in the field has certainly interrogated individual authors while failing to take the step towards structural analyses, especially in the current contexts of White nativisms and supremacies.  The question to which all the essays in this cluster respond is the following: How is literary modernist studies to be, epistemologically, in the twenty-first century?

The first problem is a misrecognition or denial of the ways that Whiteness suffuses the very environment in which we live—that is, in the very air we breathe.  Whiteness is not just a feature of material structures and the ideologies on which they are based, but the very climate of our constructions.  The vocalization in and around Whiteness in individual creative and critical works by White authors appears to have lulled us into a self-approving complacency; this cluster contends that, despite this speaking aloud, the silence around Whiteness fortifies the hegemonic power that an unmarked norm accrues and which constitutes this Whiteness problem. In this cluster, Hoehling and Yeung examine the social, philosophical, and aesthetic structures that undergird modernist practices even when Whiteness is not explicitly invoked.  The focus on White authors in the history of modernist practice and critique individualizes the problem as anomalous. The essays by Wenwen Guo and Annaliese Hoehling also move the emphasis from the individual to the systemic, particularly in its gendered and classed aspects, and underscore the power that invisibility commands. 

The second problem of Whiteness in Anglophone modernist studies is of mis-casting Whiteness primarily in relation to Black or colonized identities, and thus remaining locked within binaries or dichotomies of normative/non-normative.  Juxtaposing William Faulkner with Ella Cara Deloria, for instance, would turn the gaze onto formations and practices of Whiteness as it is co-constituted with Indigenous, Black, and diverse immigrant ethnicized and racialized identities. Our America: Nativism, Pluralism, and Modernism certainly illuminates the issues of citizenship in relation to “the first American” raised in Jean Toomer’s poem “Blue Meridian” and Grey’s The Vanishing American, but those issues would look very different if Gwendolyn Bennett’s poem “I Build America” and Zitkála-Šá’s writings (e.g., “Americanize the First American”) and her activism for the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act were also considered. 

The problem with binaries is further compounded by the fact that modernist studies has largely taken Whiteness-as-race as a discrete category or property rather than as a process of racialization that is simultaneous and intersects with formations of gender, class, sexuality, nationality, religion, and dis/ability.  Essays in this cluster—particularly those by Jane Goldman, Cyraina Johnson-Roullier, and Jennifer Nesbitt—demonstrate that the dynamics of legibility, visibility, and positionality for analyzing Whiteness are different than those that have been customary in analyzing “race” in modernist studies thus far.  They show that despite the diversity of perspectives generated by postcolonial, critical race, feminist, and transnational analyses in Anglophone modernist studies, both separately and overlapping, there continues to be a problem with Whiteness.  If analyses were intersectional in approach, Chinua Achebe’s indictment of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as colonialist could be further illuminated by an analysis of white English masculinity embedded in Conrad’s own work and in Achebe’s response. How would Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Doris Kerr appear if the White Australia policy provided an analytical frame for their works?[2]

Expanding on the second problem, this cluster demonstrates the various ways in which, in Anglophone modernist literature and culture, there is no Whiteness outside colonialism and patriarchy, each of which is imbricated in capitalism across the twentieth century and into the present.  To Walter Mignolo’s contention that modernity must be spoken simultaneously with coloniality, one must add a third—Whiteness—to complicate this impossible but inevitable articulation.[3]  Johnson-Roullier’s, Goldman’s, Nesbitt’s, and Kelly S. Walsh’s essays also reveal the historicity of Whiteness.  From the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century and into the present, Whiteness retains some of its properties and gives rise to others, lodged as it is in historical violence and trauma.  Whiteness is contextually contingent as well as heterogenous, aspects that emerge when one juxtaposes the colonial Whitenesses of, say, Jean Rhys or Mansfield in relation to that of Virginia Woolf.  The contingencies and heterogeneities also manifest in the experiences of becoming-White, as for Irish and Jewish identities in the United States.  Moreover, Whiteness, as becomes evident in all these instances, has material consequences even as it is a construction, especially as it is informed by its intersection with gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and religion.[4]  In such a matrix, Whitenesses gather asymmetrical meanings when, for example, Woolf is placed next to Conrad, or Djuna Barnes next to Ernest Hemingway.

The third problem is of misplacement, which leads to deferral and deflection; for instance, much has been made of Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism without explicating its foundations in his interpretations and lived experience of Whiteness.[5]  Both a distinction and a connection must be made here between modernist work and anglophone literary and cultural modernist studies.  In the various ways in which modernist authors elide, deflect, or obscure their own investments in identity, scholars in the industry replicate these habitual and ingrained rituals of occlusion.  As the essays by Goldman, Walsh, and Nesbitt show, perhaps this entirely new venture (which was always already available) now will require a Whiteness-beside-itself, so to speak, a self-inquiry that embarks on illuminating the always present but effectively absent condition.  This self-inquiry can avoid navel-gazing or re-centering Whiteness by undertaking the kind of structural analyses that anti-racist work in other fields have done.  Fields such as cultural studies, critical history, sociology, and feminist/queer studies have moved in directions that literary modernist studies could consider, even engage in dialogue, through interdisciplinary inquiry. Studies such as The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics and How Jews Became White Folks, both published in 1998 offer possible theoretical models; Working Through Whiteness (2002) offers international perspectives; and the collection Postcolonial Whiteness (2005) explores the ways in which White creators and critics are implicated not only in discourses of colonialism but in its ongoing aftermath.[6]

Across the range of essays in this cluster, Whiteness exists not as exclusion of all others but in dialectical formation with its racialized others; this positioning necessitates a kaleidoscope of perspectives to illuminate the hitherto unnamed subject.  In this cluster, the gaze shifts from locating Whiteness as property or attribute to the processes of experiencing and representing the specific and extended effects of something that appears solid and powerful, but is precarious and provisional, locally and globally.  What Anglophone modernist studies has largely produced thus far are analyses of White authors’ depiction of racialized and gendered “others”; that is perhaps a first step towards analyzing Whiteness.  What modernist works reveal about the authors’ Whiteness is a matter yet to be considered in any depth, and this cluster takes the first steps in that direction.  Whether twenty-first century analyses of Whiteness can move on from past mis-positionings and contribute to dismantling racism or constitute anti-racist efforts or decolonize modernist criticism is yet to be articulated in the field at large.  This cluster raises those issues for the first time.

The aims of this cluster have acquired greater urgency as the global pandemic highlights the harmful effects of uninterrogated White privilege on the security of peoples, cultures, and polities.  Protests against shelter-in-place orders or mask policies join other manifestations of a violent White nativist-supremacist identity that has already named itself explicitly through national elections in 2016, Charlottesville in 2017, racially motivated mass shootings, and racialized border enforcements. Democratic and socially progressive potentials in Western institutional and cultural structures are vulnerable to the correspondingly deep roots Whiteness has in discourses of imperialism and fascism.  Beyond these more tangible and immediate contexts, the long history of Whiteness that attaches the silences and traumas of the past to those of the present make it appear urgent that it should emerge now.  Avoidance is complicity, and these essays show why.

These contemporary references are drawn only from the United States, where I write from a liberal enclave in the fraught Midwest, reckoning with its race, gender, and class traumas.  Not only do the events named above invoke the spectrum from White privilege to White supremacy but they reflect upon past and current histories of post/neo-colonialisms here and across the world where modernist studies does its work today.  If current crises reveal multiple fissures and name the hitherto unnamed, they also present opportunities to reset and redress by examining the impulses in modernisms and modernities that lead us to our present moment.  It will require an archaeology not of all these solid artefacts but of the very air we breathe.

As I write this, we are beginning to hold our breath again, while a toxic White masculinity explodes democratic principles through neocolonial violence across the world and at our doorsteps.  We are breathing through masks as the pandemic also recedes temporarily and returns repeatedly to explode across our lives.


[1] The capital letter “W” indicates that White is a collective identity.  The term has mostly indicated individuals, in the use of the lower case ‘w,’ signifying at once the unique humanity of (white) personhood and absolving them of collective responsibility in White supremacy.

See Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Renée Curry, White Women Writing White: H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000); Jane Marcus, Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 149–68; La Vinia Delois Jennings, At Home and Abroad: Historicizing Twentieth-Century Whiteness in Literature and Performance (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2009); Greg Forter, Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Faulkner and Whiteness, ed. Jay Watson (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2011); Carla Kaplan, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).

[2] In Anglophone modernist studies, Monica L. Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), Amy Clukey’s Plantation Modernism: Irish, Caribbean, and U.S. Fiction, 1890–1950 (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2009), Anne Anlin Cheng’s Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), Catherine Keyser’s Artificial Color: Modern Food and Racial Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), and Octavio Gonzalez’s Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile in the Twentieth-Century Novel (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020), to name some, undertake intersectional approaches; this cluster focuses on intersectional studies of Whiteness.

[3] Walter D. Mignolo, “Coloniality of power and de-colonial thinking,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 155–67.

[4] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99.

[5] The phrase “lived experience” refers to the particular conjunctures of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, and dis/ability, etc. as experienced by an individual in specific historical, political, and economic contexts. For instance, Pound’s White masculinity would be understood today not as an essence, but as contextually defined.

[6] Bibiiographies of the essays in this cluster offer further avenues of enquiry. See also Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997); Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); and Displacing Whiteness, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill (New York: New York University Press, 1997); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Alastair Bonnett, White Identities: An Historical and International Introduction (London: Routledge, 2000); Michelle Fine et. al., Off White: Readings on Power, Privilege, and Resistance (London: Routledge, 2004); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 2008); and Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016) and Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019).