Touching whiteness: Race, grief, and ethical contact in contemporary United States ethnic novel
The power of the system we call whiteness, as Toni Morrison points out in Playing in the Dark, has long resided in its invisibility—or, more specifically, in the invisibility of its reliance on the racialized Other in order to articulate what we take to be “the norm.” All of the issues and themes that we take to be particularly “American” rely upon the presence that Morrison names “Africanist,” and that embodied presence carries the burden of our culture's anxiety about the unpredictable, explosive, vulnerable and mortal condition of all bodies. Further, our conception of the U.S. as a nation and of whiteness as a racial category both rely upon fictionalized instances of racial contact that the reader finds sentimentally “touching.”
In this dissertation, I argue that contemporary ethnic American novelists Toni Morrison, Chang-Rae Lee and Philip Roth have designed their narratives to revise the terms of that contact and revise the nature of that “touching.” In so doing, they seek to revise our ability to incorporate their narratives into a U.S. nationalism that valorizes whiteness. Generally speaking, works by “minority” authors are read in terms of what I call “ethical content”; that is, they are used to explain or elucidate historical injustices or consequences of difference such as “double-consciousness.” Such readings, ostensibly presented to “touch” the reader with a sense of outrage at the consequences of racism, often inspire much less feeling than that and always leave the structure of “whiteness” intact. I read Morrison, Lee and Roth as challenging this use of their narratives by structuring them in such a way as to make “ethical contact” with the reader. This contact is designed to translate the sympathetic relationship historically set up between whiteness and the racial other into a phenomenological relationship wherein whiteness is revealed to be not only visible, but touchable. In other words, these narratives reach out to the reader in order to implicate each of us in the material histories and racialized present that the characters (and authors) must contend with, and that includes the ghosts and the grief that attach themselves to racialized bodies.
Minority & ethnic groups;
0453: Womens studies
0631: Minority & ethnic groups