BOOKS: The Culture of Whiteness
Reviewed by Ted Ownby
Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 31-32
Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
In the past few years, historians have begun to tell the story of whiteness. Moved by the scholarship of historian David Roediger and the ideas of Toni Morrison, scholars are investigating what it is about whiteness that binds people together, what privileges the concept gives those who claim it, and how it divides those who claim to be white from those who do not. This form of analysis is one of the most inspired examples of the de-essentializing trend in contemporary scholarship that views supposedly inherited categories of identity as works of construction.
Grace Hale’s Making Whiteness is the best book in this genre. It is also the first work to analyze how the concept of whiteness developed in southern history. Rather than asking familiar questions about the origins of segregation, disfranchisement, or anti-black violence, she asks how people in the Jim Crow era came to understand and articulate the meanings of being white.
Hale’s explanations for the increasingly aggressive statements about whiteness around the turn of the century vary from the familiar to the new. Two-emancipation and urbanization-are well known. Hale begins the volume with a third explanation that the various forms of assertiveness of African Americans from emancipation through the early twentieth century stimulated new efforts to define the privileges of whiteness. A fourth explanation is the most novel. The development of a national consumer culture had the potential to undercut human differences by offering the privileges of spending money and enjoying goods to anyone who could afford them. Thus, in Hale’s analysis, openly racist advertisements and “whites only” and “colored only” railroad compartments emerged as ways to create differences in situations that threatened to dissolve them.
Perhaps as important as its conclusions, the book offers a powerful example of history that investigates the stories Southerners told to help them understand their society. Segregation and white supremacy emerge as works in progress, full of tensions and insecurities that people tried to explain through different kinds of narratives. The stories she describes from an astonishing variety of sources–novelists, journalists, advertisers, lynch mobs, United Daughters of the Confederacy speakers–reveal the work of people trying to order their lives by using the notion that there was something special about being white. The story of the well-dressed black woman on the train was George Washington Cable’s narrative that complicated easy notions that whiteness implied special privileges based on cleanliness and manners. The stories Joel Chandler Harris told in the voice of Uncle Remus displayed African-American personality but also gave whites reassuring notions of “the old plantation-bound ex-slave.” Stories of Mammy figures involved a love of idealized women and slavery but also legitimated segregation as the story of adults who had consigned those images to misty memories. Racist advertisements that put African Americans in degrading positions reassured white consumers that blacks could not gain dignity through new access to goods. Lynchings told their own stories about unity among white men, the willingness to use violence, and the denial “that any space was black space,” all in
a modern environment facilitated by railroads and advertising.
Far too much scholarly writing about identity construction is filled with excruciating jargon, as if to suggest that academics who are re-thinking basic assumptions have to write in their own language. Hale can play that game, but most of her work is powerful and direct. In fact, on occasion her prose has the sound of a W. J. Cash for our generation. The South of legend, she writes, was “the place of not now.” Nostalgia about the antebellum South was “the fun house mirror of New South progress.” This is simply a wonderful book to read.
Hale’s conclusion lies in the tradition of Winthrop Jordan’s monumental White Over Black (1968). Jordan argued that change would come when individuals stop projecting the things they hate and fear about themselves onto other people they identify as an essentially different group (or race). Where Jordan stressed psychology and the need for individual conversion, Hale concentrates on societal ideals and regional identities. She calls on readers “to reimagine integration” by rejecting ideas of essential, in-born differences dividing people and by learning or remembering that southern and American history is the story of interdependence and shared experience.
Ted Ownby is associate professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.