Ecotopia the Whitewashed

J. Garcia
J. Garcia
Jul 9, 2016 · 6 min read
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Ernest Callenbach touts racial harmony in Ecotopia as a net positive. However, the portrayal of the futuristic ex-American Northwest country, called Ecotopia, as a mostly homogenous population is a nostalgic white dream that separates the races into preordained, almost, eugenic subcultures. Callenbach dedicates a stark three pages, out of 181 pages, to explain racial relationships in Ecotopia. If we compare his focus on race to entertainment and mass media, for example, we find the book taking much more time to hash out the intricacies of technology and culture than treating the interplay of race and society. Race is a second-thought construct or an off-hand concern that is of little value because it sorts itself out according to the book. The superficial treatment of race is surprising given the time period when it was published in 1975, which a few years prior to the date of publication had seen the rise and march of the Civil Rights Movement. America, in 1975, was fraught with racial tension that would not abate, at least superficially, until decades later. Therefore, this essay will treat the racial optics of the Ecotopian state which leads the author to racially whitewash the population of Ecotopia and its culture.

Stating that Ecotopia is whitewashed is not an understatement. The novel’s main characters are white and they exhibit and aspire to promote polarized versions of what, in its time, an American future might look like, but the underlying cultural foundation of each society is white. The novel admits as much when it states, “there are surprisingly few dark-skinned faces on San Francisco streets” (Callenbach 107). It could be argued that, at least in this case, William Weston’s society got it right, but the focus and style of writing suggest that he is also writing to a white audience. For example, when he describes Ecotopians he writes, “a lot of Ecotopians look like old-time westerners, Gold Rush characters come to life… the Ecotopians are almost Dickensian” (Callenbach 10). William’s descriptions of the common Ecotopian evokes images of white American men or historical British men. He is not attempting to reach a wider audience. Callenbach paints it white on both sides of the Ecotopian border.

It is important to note the racial tone of the novel because the makeup Ecotopia would have been formed from the people who lived in California, Oregon, and Washington. We will us the statistics of the 1970 census because the book was published in 1975. If we take California, and specifically San Francisco, as an example — being the most populous state of the three mentioned above and where William resides in novel—we can get a sense of scale as to the racial constitution of Ecotopia. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1970, San Francisco had an African-American population of 13.4%, an Asian population of 13.3%, and a Hispanic population of 12.4% (Gibson). Although an Asian population is briefly identified when William writes, “Chinatown in San Francisco… [was] officially designated as [a] city-state within Ecotopia,” Asians are mostly left out of the novel (CallenBach 107). Hispanics are never mentioned. The statistics above do not begin to cover other ethnic and racial groups that make California and San Francisco such a diverse place then and now. However, the novel approaches the racial question by displacing or disappearing people of color for a white version of a place that would almost be 40% non-white even in the 1970s.

Another group whitewashed by the book are the Native-Americans. Returning to the 1970s’ Census it states that California had a Native-American population of 0.4%. Robert D. Parker in his book “How to Interpret Literature” makes an interesting point, “sometimes… in the United States, they even lose their awareness of being settlers and act as if the indigenous peoples have disappeared” (272). While it is true that the Native-American population in the area is small it had by no means disappeared when Callenbach wrote and published this book. However, the book relegates Indians to a mythical status. William writes, “Many Ecotopians sentimental about Indians… indeed this is probably a major Ecotopian myth; keep hearing references to what Indians would or wouldn’t do in a given situation” (Callenbach 32). The tendency throughout the novel is to treat Native-Americans as extinct. The whites, in effect, replace the Native-Americans and their morals or way of life. They appropriate their clothing, ideas, and lifestyle without as much as a single reference to a brown skin Native-American character throughout the book.

Unable to ignore the black or African-American minority as well as the other groups mentioned above Callenbach reduces them to an afterthought. From our vantage point in what some call a post-racial society, however misleading that phrase is, it would seem that the African-American population in Ecotopia is treated fairly. However, as John Robinson III states about our post-racial — and to the same degree Ecotopia’s — society, “the values that constitute this [post-racial] cultural logic, although appearing progressive, work to Whitewash the structural realities of urban Black communities, and that particularly in regard to racial politics” (212).

This post-racial logic in Ecotopia segregates the African-American community to the urban centers by their own choice, yet the language Callenbach uses is enlightening. Notice how he describes these communities in the chapter titled “Race in Ecotopia: Apartheid or Equality,” “grew to dominate the ghettos,” “strangled by white suburbs,” and “inherently unstable” (107). The book also admits that the Urban centers are not self-sufficient but, rather, they depend on the largess of white outside forces. The solution would be to “relocate the entire black population in a new territory” (107). Therefore, it is difficult to describe the separation of areas solely based on the color line as anything but the screening out or obscuring of the black population and the whitewashing of Ecotopia.

The argument of segregation of the races along color lines is normally an argument made by the majority race. The Native-Americans did not decide to leave their land and segregate themselves into reservations, they were coerced to this condition by the majority/colonizing population. In the novel’s case, the argument appears to come from within the minority racial population. Kevin M. Scott argues, “[the] performance of socially accepted blackness depends, for its success, on [the] owner’s sense of her[/his] own superiority in terms of basic worth, health, and intelligence — in short, her[/his] unacknowledged whiteness” (126). Therefore, the self-proposed segregation occurs because a white author fabricates an appropriate manifestation of blackness. The self-imposed seclusion highlights an unacknowledged whiteness in the black population. They are allowed to be black as long as it conforms to what the author perceives as the best aspects or white aspects of their society. For example, they are “a heavy exporter of music and musicians, novels and movies and poetry” (Callenbach 108). The positives of the society are measured by the whiteness of the author and therefore become themselves whitewashed.

Ecotopia presents a thought-provoking mental exercise in deconstructing and rebuilding American society from an ecological and technological perspective. However, it fails to recognize many of the social trends that produce the American mentality it is attempting to subvert. Chiefly among these social trends is that “racism is not merely a removable blemish on an otherwise sound system. It is integral to the system itself” (Parker 302). The author’s general argument for a more humane and intelligent nation that is at once in tune with nature and with itself falls short by the relegation of the racial subject to a footnote on the greater scale of the Ecotopian experiment. The underlying effects of ignoring the racial differences and populations of the American areas, that would later become Ecotopia, whitewashes and erases what could have been a thought-provoking and a more realistic portrayal of a society worthy of respect.

Works Cited

Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. New York: Bantam, 1990. Print.

Gibson, Campbell, and Kay Jung. Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for Large Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States. Washington, DC: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, 2005. 2005. Web. 29 June 2016.

Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Robinson III, John. “Coloring The Blind Spot: The Urban Black Community As An Object Of Racial Discourse In The Age Of Obama.” Western Journal Of Black Studies 33.3 (2009): 212–223. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 June 2016.

Scott, Kevin Michael. “’Likewise Masked’: Blackface and Whitewash In Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’.” Poe Studies 1 (2006): 126. Project MUSE. Web. 29 June 2016.

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