The White Imagination
Privilege and Casual Otherness
When I read a book, I imagine the characters as white. Without the author inserting a description about their bright blue eyes or long blond hair, without saying that they identify as Republican, or that they live in Beverly Hills and go tanning on Saturdays, I imagine the protagonist as white. Even with books like The Road, which contains basically no information about the father or the boy, and definitely nothing about the color of their skin, the white protagonists go dancing in my mind.
The only way that I imagine characters as something other than white is when it is described to me. Things that help me know a character is black are when the author whips out the nappy hair and the mocha skin, the fried chicken and the watermelon. It’s even possible for me to forget that a character is black if the author doesn’t remind me every once in a while. If he goes to Harvard, talks about mergers and acquisitions or physics, or uses words bigger than “ma nigga”, I may forget that he’s black and think that he is obviously white. If the author says on page 30 that the character’s black, but doesn’t mention it again until page 256, I’ll have a rude awakening having to reimagine the character I’ve spent the last 226 pages with.
I’ve already mentioned to people that when I was a kid, I used to get called white. The reason that that’s so offensive has less to do with the what, and more to do with the why. Those kids called me white because of certain behaviors that I engaged in that they felt typified white identity. Unfortunately, those behaviors were reading, getting good grades, and using a large vocabulary. My classmates actually associated being smart with being white, which makes me shudder to think what they associated being black with.
At the root, I think this comes down to problems of over-representation and false representation. Let’s talk about the first one. The problem with over-representation of whites in mainstream American culture is that it gives a wide and nuanced view of what it means to be white. It shows the complexity and depth of the white experience, and the many facets involved. This view of white culture gives the impression that being white has many faces, and conversely, it forces us to accept the myth that other cultures have only one. This intersects with literature quite a lot.
We have lost a certain casuality about the otherness of protagonists and other characters in literature. When we are initially introduced to the character, they are allowed to fall in love, to slay dragons, to rescue princesses, and to fulfill existential desires as long as we think that they are what we call acceptable. The reason that we don’t mention a character being white is that it has so long been the accepted standard that we no longer need to talk about it. Why talk about someone being white when we can talk about them slaying dragons instead? It makes sense, except when you see the opposite. If a character is black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, or Arab, now we have to talk about it. We have to talk about their race and how that figures into their identity and the things that they do, how it affects their choices and their experiences. We refuse to talk about how being white or being heterosexual figure into your actions or decisions, and when a white person holds up a hospital, it doesn’t serve as a representation of white culture. There is no room for the protagonist who is casually black, because we can’t simply pass over it.
The small view with which we see things can definitely be linked to under-representation, because the less something is seen, the more the few examples we have of it become the standard by which it is seen in the future. Oh, you’re an Arab? Congratulations, you are the new standard by which we will define all successive Arabness from now on; let’s wage a war. Oh, you’re gay? Being gay is now the cross that you have to bear, and you must completely represent for us “The Homosexual Experience”. And I don’t mean to say that white people are solely to blame for purporting these myths about otherness. There are many communities that I consider myself a part of that, unfortunately, have exceedingly high amounts of representation, like men or heterosexuals. I’m just calling out this question because I think that we should be aware of it.
Privilege is a blind spot. How wonderful it must be to live in a world where you have thousands of positive role models that you can look up to that all look like you. How amazing it must be to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that everyone you know understands the complexity and diversity of being you, and having a mirror image to look at and compare yourself to all the time. When’s the last time you think a transgender person has seen another transgender person portrayed as a casual protagonist, where their sexuality didn’t dominate the discourse? When is the last time that being black didn’t really figure into why a character did what he did? The over-representation of whites in mainstream American culture has led to a culture of people that must specifically have “other” defined for them in order to precariously balance it in opposition to the norm, and more importantly, it has led to a culture of specifically black kids who cannot in their own minds decide on the centrality of their own race and experience. A quick side note: For all of you lovely open-minded people reading this article who are thinking something like this: “But Tim, I don’t even view race. When I see people, I may cognitively understand that they are of a different race, but that doesn’t mean that I treat them differently. I’m basically colorblind.” Congratulations. You have arrived at utopia. You have arrived at my vision of the world as it should be, and how we should treat each other. But it would behoove you to wake up and smell the roses, because the rest of the world has not, and you do not live in a post-racial society, where people can so easily flout oppressive definitions of who they are, and who they have to be.
The second problem is false representation. Because of the wide and diverse nature of white representation, white people have the option of choosing from a wider range of potential identifiers. Because there are so many daring, strong, brave, true, and cool-headed white protagonists in literature, they get to have many people that they strongly connect with, and many people to exemplify positive behaviors for them or reflections of their identity. There are not so many positive examples for the black child, and if there are, it’s a book about how being black affects your place in society, your socioeconomic status, and how you perceive the world, whereas the white protagonists get to go live life and do amazing things, unfettered by oppressive assumptions. (I should mention at this point that I’m not a huge fan of the terms “black” and “white” because they are non-descriptive, and perpetuate imagery of good vs. evil. There’s no way that someone from Ghana, Barbados, and South Carolina are all the same, and there’s no way someone from Sweden, Ireland, and California are the same, but we shove them into the melting pot of America and call them “black” and “white”.)
And I’m not the first guy to talk about this. Toofer and Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock clash about this very issue because Tracy is a version of blackness that Toofer very much disagrees with. He wants to dissociate himself from Tracy because he feels that he doesn’t correctly identify him at all, and Toofer would actually be appalled to have someone think of him like that. Tracy suggests that that means that he’s ashamed of his heritage. The under-representation of blacks in literature means that more and more blacks are thinking that only one thing defines being black, and when they reject that particular version of being black, they believe that they’re rejecting the whole thing, and that leaves them with no place to exist, successfully thrust from both spheres.
What I mean to say is that we have to have a nuanced view of the world. We have to understand privilege in a way that helps us to understand the ways in which it can color our world, and the ways in which we can mobilize it to make things better instead of worse. We need to give young black people more positive role models to look up to, because sometimes it can feel like my friend gets George Clooney and Bill Gates while I get Tyrone, who just robbed a liquor store, and Barack Obama, a black man who shares the distinction with all his predecessors of having half of an entire nation hate him. We need to stop asking Toni Morrison why she writes “black books” when she writes books with black characters at the center, and we need to be allowed to portray characters in literature less by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”