Reading Whiteness

Because whiteness is a social and historical and imaginary phenomenon, not a visible, verifiable set of qualities, those of us who live in a profoundly racialized society like the United States acquire a racial awareness largely through stories, indirectly, through implication and absorption, long before we start naming names. Whiteness stands at the center of our power structure, associated with control, authority, and violence, and thus this automatic, almost autonomic recognition is often a matter of survival. So many American stories about whiteness begin here: I am safe, or I am in danger.

Whiteness was first articulated by Europeans (or, later, European-Americans) in positions of power, but it was first studied, and accurately described, by nonwhite writers, thinkers, and observers—a tradition that can be traced back to Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and William Apess. While the last decade has produced many excellent works on the subject—White Fragility, White Like Me, The History of White People, White Rage—the deep work of whiteness studies, which grows out of the critical study of race, has been underway, largely unnoticed, for more than two centuries. Here are some points of entry.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Along with Leslie Fiedler’s devastating 1948 essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” Playing in the Dark is the starting place for any conversation about whiteness in American literature—particularly the way startling and surreal images of whiteness and blackness appear without anyone (characters, readers, critics) seeming to notice. Playing in the Dark is also a welcoming and participatory book, addressed to all readers and writers, that intends to start conversations rather than end them. It would be an excellent choice for a book group, especially paired with one of the canonical texts Morrison describes—like Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a surreal, haunting nightmare of racial difference that was painfully misunderstood in its own time.

Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

An extraordinary recent work of cultural history that traverses a huge terrain. Kendi begins with the first uses of white racial imagery in medieval and early modern Europe, follows the path of colonization and the slave trade, and then, in exhaustive (but not exhausting) detail, traces the emergence of American white supremacy and its antiracist opposition from Cotton Mather to Black Lives Matter. Kendi stresses the foundational work of W. E. B. Du Bois, among many others, in constructing a systematic picture of American racism (a key short text, for example, is Du Bois’s “The Souls of White Folk”). The brilliance of this book lies partly in the way it’s structured around the careers of certain key figures (Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, Angela Davis) so that each section creates a historical and biographical narrative over decades, drawing together its many tangents in a memorable frame.

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry

A painful and introspective essay and memoir, written in the late 1960s and then revised decades later, exploring Berry’s racial education as a white person in the Jim Crow South. Berry is especially good at describing the psychologically debilitating effects of racism on people who—largely unconsciously—benefit from it. It would be an excellent counterpoint to more recent books on racism, poverty, and rural life, like Nancy Isenberg’s excellent White Trash or Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland.

White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism by Paula Rothenberg

This little-known anthology should be on the shelf of every American: it collects short pieces by many of the best scholars and theorists of American whiteness, including David Roediger, Richard Dyer, bell hooks, George Lipsitz, Robin DiAngelo, and Charles W. Mills. Here you’ll find reflections on how white supremacy has maintained the enormous wealth gap between whites and African Americans; the original study that became DiAngelo’s bestseller, White Fragility; and James E. Barrett and Roediger’s groundbreaking analysis of how white solidarity coalesced under industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. It’s essentially a textbook, with discussion questions and introductory material for every section, and would be ideal for book groups, workshops, diversity committees, and other settings where fundamental (and sometimes gratingly obvious) questions need to be answered.

White People by Allan Gurganus

While it’s impossible to choose just one work of fiction to represent the white American imagination, Gurganus’s 1991 collection of short stories and novellas is an excellent place to start, not least because it’s layered with mordant humor and self-lacerating observations, in stories like “Nativity, Caucasian,” and “Blessed Assurance: A Moral Tale.” It should be read alongside other story collections framed in a similar fashion, like Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks or Reginald McKnight’s White Boys or James Alan McPherson’s classic collection Elbow Room.

Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America by Jeff Chang

Who We Be traces the cultural history of concepts like “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and “hybridity” in America after 1963, ranging from the emergence of hip hop to the pioneering of Ethnic Studies to the first debates over cultural appropriation and authenticity in the New York art world of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how racism persisted, and even metastasized, in a society that has become much more racially multilayered and superficially “tolerant”; but it also preserves the work of activist groups and culture workers who are often forgotten, even as the issues they cared about keep returning to the spotlight.

Jess Row is the author of the novel Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014). His latest book, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination will be published by Graywolf Press in August 2019.