The norm of whiteness

Medias play an important part in the representation of race. Race, far from being only natural, is a social construction, linked to power relations and variable in time. In order to understand our society, it is important to develop a critical consciousness regarding to the way meanings are produced. This essay will try to understand if while ways of representing “race” are constantly changing, the underlying message that “whiteness” is the norm is still evident in popular cultural imagery and still reflects actual power relations. The dichotomy black and white has not only to be thought in term of nationalism, chauvinism, patriotism and racism; the problem is more complex. First, it will be argued that whiteness tends to be the norm. But things are changing and the cliché of the white-heterosexual-man is less and less the only way of being, according to the media.

Very often, in the representations of the Medias, whiteness seems to be the norm. As a result of a logical binary opposition, colour exists because of white. This order of the world is imposed by some social groups and whiteness acts like a marker of power. A struggle exists between the exploited and exploiters but most of the time it is a symbolic struggle, as the representations are symbols. “White is beautiful” and a white person is rarely asked to speak for his particular group, which is not the case when you have a coloured skin. Thompson (1990, quoted in Ferguson, 1998) explains that constructing of whiteness as a norm is done by constructing colour as abnormal. Different means are possible including legitimating, dissimulation, unification, fragmentation or reification. An example of reification can be found in the movie Indigènes by Rachid Bouchareb, which shows how North African soldiers were marginalised during the World War II. Ideology is here used to eradicate certain key historical issues. The power is often exercised by words as well. Van Dijk has analyzed the repertoire headlines of The Sun from August 1981 to January 1986 (Ferguson 1998, p.130). He has realized that ethnic minorities were “systematically associated with conflict, crime, intolerance, [and] unreliability” (Van Dijk 1991, quoted in Ferguson 1998). So, the power is often exercised by the media and as a result, a false consciousness is developed.

Sometimes, more than being beautiful, whiteness is invisible because whites are assumed “not to have race”. Being white would be natural and talking about “race” would mean talking about all the people who are not white. “To talk about race is to talk about all races except the white” (Dyes 1997, p.18). The origins of this hegemonic discourse have to be found in slavery, colonisation and immigration. For black African slaves, the difference with white people is “obvious” but when the difference is not obvious, like with the Irish people, the Medias will create the distinctive traits or the cultural practices. It can be added that the criteria of beauty is generally to be white as confirms the cliché of the tall blonde haired woman. Other colours are usually shown as exotic. A symbolic struggle exists between white people and coloured people so that it can be asked if it is linked with the “divide and rule” principles practiced by Cesare Borgia.

Colour appears to be constructed as otherness. Stereotypes are often used and people are reduced to a few simple, essential characteristics. The Other is represented as being exotic, dangerous, humorous or pitied. When the Medias deal with coloured people, it is often because the subject is sport, immigration, crime, cultural differences or because it is linked with the problems of the Third World. Very often, in the media, the Other is depicted as being a primitive, a member of the Third World or an underclass person (Solomos and Les 2000, p.159). Sometimes, some amalgams are even done, like after the 11 September, when the confusion between Muslims and Arabs was anchored in the mind of some people. Lombrosco explains by the biological positivism that physical traits are used to distinguish the features of the criminal and to create a link between the appearance and the behaviour. Edwards (2007, p.24) shows how colonizers have used photography to construct the difference between them and colonized people: cultural difference was reduced to physical distinction and photography has been used to sort humanity. This reinforced white as norm, emphasised the power relations, as hegemony was socially constructed.  Now, the otherness is still constructed to justify the use of the migrants as an ideal labour force that can be exploited (Spencer 2006). Representations maintain hierarchies. Structuralism explains that by the fact that meaning is made through difference. This idea is linked to one of the theories of Lacan who shows that we know who when we understand who we are not. The construction of colour as otherness has several consequences: unequal distribution of valued goods, discrimination, ideological racism and institutional racism. But, step by step, things are slowly changing and it can be wondered if whiteness is really still the norm.

Nowadays, the gap is getting closer and more and more coloured people are represented in the Medias. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffiths was defending the white honour and glory. The 1940’s where the era of black musicals. In 1967, a coloured Francie was the first doll in the Mattel line with a truly dark complexion. In the 1980’s, the integrationist dream collapsed and lots of black independent film makers began to have success. In 1984, Vanessa Williams was the first black who won the title of Miss America: the stereotypes of beauty are slowly changing. Nayak (2003) in the chapter of his book “Wiggers, Wannabes and White Negroes: Emerging Ethnicities and Cultural Fusions” analyses why nowadays, lots of young people would like to be black. He explains that for some young people, whiteness is monolithic and bland. He points out their desire for intercultural exchange, their will to contest “the white dominance and the cultural power of whiteness”. Today, with positive discrimination and social changes, coloured people are present everywhere: news programs, reality show, cartoons, toys, and so on. Positive aspects are seen. Hage (2000) deals with a case where multiculturalism is a success and analyzes the benefits of diversification in Australia. But he shows that this is a complex process: the Other is both in dialectic of inclusion and exclusion and sometimes the media construct the migrants as “wanted as unwanted”. We can wonder if we are leaving in a United-Colours-of-Benetton-World. “Salad bowl” and “melting pot” are two different concepts. Likewise, assimilation and pluralism do not mean the same thing. Assimilation is a process by which distinct groups merge to form a common one and when majority values and practices are adopted by minority groups. On the contrary, pluralism refers to the fact that different groups mix but retain their own characteristics. If black people are represented, it has to be asked how they are represented. For instance, medias wrote in the 1930’s about Josephine Baker that she was a “gracious animal” (Pieterse J.N. 1992,. p.183). This black singer was an object of curiosity, a cliché of herself, between love and fear, amor and timor. Several questions can be also asked about the real influence of the Medias, the difference which could be bigger into groups than between groups and about the fact that finally in our society, each of us wants to be unique as the adaptable products of marketing show. Moreover, this approach of the problem is quite Eurocentric and in other countries, whiteness is not the norm.

But even in Europe, sometimes, blackness and colour in general are invisible. For instance, advertisements for the products of L’Oréal involve lots of coloured woman, which is logical because the company has an international market aim. For white people, it is not striking to see an advertisement with Beyoncé or Aiswarya. As L’Oréal provides products for different kinds of skins and different kinds of hair, it is totally logical to promote a foundation cream for black women with a black woman. In our society, each person wants to have products exactly done for him or her and marketing divides the people in small groups in order to sell them products. For instance, Naomi Campbell can be used to sell products to young black urban women. But when the audience see the coloured people, they do not really see that they are not white. The same situation can be found in the domain of sport. Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls, was asking what the colour of Michael Jordan was. He answered that he has no colour (quoted in Andrews 2001, p.107). Michael Jordan is seen as an American Icon, far from the figure of “the demonized African American Otherness”. In golf, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods is also an example of colorblindness, as he is the perfect America’s son. It promotes the idea that America has achieved its multicultural ideal. But we should beware that black people do not become only commodities, e.g. the commodification of the black athletic body is in many ways the cultural logic of post/colonial racism. The fact that many black people are visible in the media and are considered with respect because of their performances does not mean that integration has been totally achieved. For instance, nowadays, Polish people are viewed with suspicion in the national press.

If colour can be invisible, colour can also be the norm as some examples picked up in music can show. For instance, rap and hip-hop in general are a positive valorisation of blackness. The roots of hip-hop are found in the 1970’s, in the Bronx and most of the performers are Afro-Americans. Some rare exceptions exist like Eminem and Vanilla Ice, often depicted as “white rappers”. But what is striking in rap music is the fact that sometimes, it is itself racist and reproduces clichés of black people such as violence. Performers of reggae are also most of the time black because at first, it is Jamaican music. The lyrics are about love, faith but as well poverty, injustice and other broad social issues. If a white person sings reggae, it can sounds like something cynical and inappropriate. But the way you sing is not reducible to the corporeal. A last example is jazz, a musical art form which has appeared out of African and European music traditions, among African American communities in the south of USA. Dyes in his book White (1997) explains that he knows what it means to be white, from his own experience of being the only white person among black people. Relations of power described by Foucault are inverted because in jazz, whiteness is not the norm.

To sum up, this essay has shown that sometimes whiteness is the norm in the Medias: white is beautiful, white is invisible and colour is constructed as otherness. But the representations of race are changing and now, “whiteness” cannot be categorized as being the norm. Currently, our approach of colour is different and sometimes, blackness is invisible or is the norm. But the issue is complex because ideology is not directly visible and can only be experienced or comprehended. Medias exist in close sympathetic relationship with power and established values, and subjects are constructed through ideology. It is important to stress that ethnicity, race and class can work separately or in combination to create boundaries. Asking the question in dialectic of white or black is not enough because whiteness has its own hierarchy. Moreover, minority groups are internally divided by class, gender, age and so on. Assimilation is not an easy task but the question to be asked is whether it is the solution.

References:

Andrews, D.L. 2001. Michael Jordan, inc. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Back, L and Solomos, J. 2000. Theories of Race – Racism. London – New York: Routledge.
Dyes, R. 1997. White. London: Routledge.
Edwards, S. 2007. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ferguson, R. 1998. Representing “Race”. New-York: Arnold.
Hage, G. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. London: Routledge.
Nayak, A. 2003. Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World. Oxford: Berg.
Pieterse, JN. 1992. White on Black. London: Yale.
Spencer, S. 2006. Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity and Representation. London: Routledge.

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