IT'S AN ODD time for Whitey. Perhaps for the first time in American history, or at least since Columbus and Cortez got short-lived respect for being the palest things in the New World, mainstream Caucasians are becoming conscious of their skin color. Good morning! Liberal white folks still like to cling to the belief that skin color doesn't matter--because, of course, we'd never treat someone differently on account of his or her race. Behind this, however, is a tacit assumption that, unlike people of color, we are somehow without color, translucent, raceless: a kind of norm against which the non-normative are accepted and admired for their exotic looks, cuisines, music, hoop skills, and not-like-the-rest-of-them abilities to get with the status quo.
Partly this new self-consciousness stems from changes in urban America, as whites begin to re-acquire minority status. Partly it's the way the culture is reflecting this change, as markets for non-white entertainment turn ever greener. And while I wouldn't claim that academic fads have much to do with the real world these days, "white studies" has become a bona fide growth industry among the tenure-seeking set these days. Richard Dyer's White is the latest entry to this muddy field, and its mix of muted self-righteousness, vague self-loathing, post-doc myopia, and the occasional crit-speak nudge-and-wink makes it a fine example of its kind.
The book is published by the busy and crossover-minded academic press Routledge, which has proven pretty active on this front (see White Trash, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, and Race Traitor, edited by Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey). It gets a good package--a snow-white die-cut cover overlaying William Bouguereau's epic, Aryan, nudie oil painting "Naissance de Venus" such that a pale pink nipple winks out through the title lettering. There's more cheese- and beef-cake inside--reproductions of Harlequin-style bodice-ripper covers, a tabloid page-three girl dropping limey trou, and a lot of white-male bodybuilder shots. Like so much pop academia, though, the package come-ons belie the prose. Dyer is more accessible than most academic writers, but White is still long on jargon, which can come at the expense of general insight.
That said, the book addresses the way white folks represent themselves, and as its author is a professor of film studies, he focuses on the photographic image in particular. The centerpiece essays deal with white gender representation: the first (and best) piece discusses photographic technology and that idealized creature of light, the "glowing," haloed white woman. The second takes on the white bodybuilder in heroic white adventure films like Tarzan, Conan, Rambo, and Hercules, also chronicling an obscure chapter of postwar Italian film known as peplum, B movies that starred American bodybuilders in mythic/classical (read: white supremacist) narratives. The analysis is smart (see his asides on the semiotics of tanning), and the reader will definitely learn a few new things: For me, this included the poisonous tradition of ceruse--or white lead--makeup and the intractability of the Caucasian standard for technical film lighting and color balancing.
But while the author goes to admirable lengths to show otherwise, it's hard to read White and its kin without coming to the cynical conclusion that they're shallow exercises in self-preservation on the part of white profs and writers doing battle in the intellectual trenches of identity politics. I don't know; maybe if "white studies" departments started further subdividing university humanities programs, it would be a good thing--an absurdist argument both for and against equal-opportunity subjectivity. I will admit it was touching to read a cultural-studies book by a white author who felt compelled to recount some autobiography: here, about growing up gay, dating non-white men, feeling spectacularly un-funky at a mostly black dance club. It colors his narrative in a useful way, undermining that silent, third-person white authority that otherwise passes for the colorless objective.
Unlike more radical or swaggering volumes--Race Traitor's admirably non-genocidal mandate to "abolish the white race" in the first case or White Trash's smartly humorous class consciousness in the latter--White ends up as something of a protracted sigh, albeit a politically correct one. The chapter titled "White Death," for example, returns to a theme raised in the introduction concerning "the dead end of whiteness." In talking about films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Night of the Living Dead, Dyer suggests that white culture may be recognizing the possibility that it's "played out." It's hardly a radical suspicion, as the bulk of current Hollywood films and MTV programming would bear out, not to mention the endless circling of the white-nostalgia bandwagon (awright boys--time to exhume Elvis again...)
While the cultural funeral may be premature, White did help resolve my puzzlement over a more specific funeral: that of Princess Di. After reading Dyer's brief analysis of our late Lady of Light, I understood why so many Americans grieved so hard over this landed gentry-cum-tabloid queen--a character seemingly so far removed from their lives. It was a loss of idealized whiteness, a loss captured perfectly in Elton John's heartwarmingly banal remake of "Candle in the Wind," surely the whitest recorded moment of 1997. On the cover of the single, which may well prove one of the biggest-sellers ever, there is a photo of a single rose: radiant, perfectly unblemished, and immaculately, immutably white.