(Racialization – (n.) the social/historical/economic process through which people are assigned a specific race, which influences outcomes, opportunities, and experiences. [racialize – (v.)])
Very generally, we’ve discussed the racialization of people in the United States historically, mainly focusing on the way the authors describe their experiences as racialized beings. Yet, whiteness seems to be a difficult category to pin down, perhaps due to its seeming invisibility in literature. However, this topic deserves further investigation, as the majority of the writers you’ll be reading this semester are white. So, let’s provide more context to show that race as a whole is an unstable, historically-determinant category.
“Were there ‘white’ people in antiquity? Certainly some assume so, as though categories we use today could be read backwards over the millennia. People with light skin certainly existed well before our own times. But did anyone think they were ‘white’ or that their character related to their color? No, for neither the idea of ‘race’ or the idea of ‘white’ people had been invented, and people’s skin color did not carry useful meaning. What mattered was where they lived; were their lands damp or dry; were they virile or prone to impotence, hard or soft; could they be seduced by the luxuries of civilized society or were they warriors through and through? What were their habits of life? Rather than ‘white’ people, northern Europeans were known by vague tribal names: Scythians and Celts, then Gauls and Germani.” (Painter 1)
“More than 100 million U.S. residents trace some of their heritage to Ellis Island, the main processing center during the period of the new immigration. The crucial role it played in ‘remaking’ the nation’s working class during the consolidation of U.S. industrial expansion makes the new immigration very important. So too do relationships to the state, since southern and eastern Europeans and their children were the main objects of Progressive reform and nativist hatred, as well as the backbone of the New Deal political coalition. In many ways a ‘long early twentieth century’ was defined by the mass arrival of new immigrants beginning in the 1890s and by their victories and defeats in struggling for full political, cultural, and economic citizenship. Moreover, the drama of new immigrant history turns significantly on how migrants were categorized racially and on contacts with people of color. . . .[W]hat happens when we think of assimilation as whitening as well as Americanizing, and when we view the deeply gendered clash between first-generation immigrant parents and second- generation children as being in part about who commanded knowledge of the U.S. racial landscape[?] (Roediger 9)
Notice the authors both describe people who in our world, at this moment, would be thought of as white. Yet, in their historical times and places were not recognized as such. We’ve discussed in class Bacon’s Rebellion, an event that threatened the economic system of slavery and served as a hardening of its race-based nature. We’ve also discussed slightly the racialization of ethnic whites through European immigration to the U.S., reflected in Roediger’s discussion of the racialization of the then-new immigrant working class. Race is not, and has never been, a binary system in the U.S., and we must keep that in mind to avoid undue demonization/canonization of the authors, their works, and people as a whole. With all that and a bit more background in mind, let’s apply this knowledge to this week’s readings, maybe other weeks as well.
To truly survey American literature, we do need to account for the strange phenomenon of race, but we cannot ignore whiteness, whatever that means and/or is. So, where do we see the authors using racialized language in their works? How are the authors illustrating cultural whiteness through their literature? Think of the description of the “hot Armenian slut” that protagonist “took” from a British soldier after a fight. Consider Charles’ sister-in-law’s dislike of him not only because of her sister, but because of his now? then? Wealth. Remember Colonel Sartoris’ “gentleman’s agreement” with Emily’s father to release her from paying taxes. What exactly are these examples, and others you find in the text, designed to tell their audiences about whiteness in the U.S.?
Painter, Nell Irving. The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.
Roediger, David R. Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Publishing, 2006. Print.