Notes on ‘White’ by Richard Dyer
- Can whiteness be a category -like eg. Blackness in film?
- Most ‘minority’ analysis – on women, black, gay etc…. concentrates on how these groups are portrayed and represented, as part of the analysis of the way they are subordinated
- But concentrating on these groups, without showing ‘the norm’ alongside them reinforces their ‘oddity/ differentness’.
- Concentrating on the ‘norm’ eg the dominant category can also work to redress the balance – this has mainly been done with an analysis of the construction of ‘masculinity’
- the author states that it is ok for a writer on the ‘dominant’ to be part of the dominant group ( eg. White and male). He should not go overboard on self criticism, but must acknowledge it may have an effect on his writing.
- White v black is not just about ethnicity, and we have many everyday examples where the norm is white cf black.
- White is light v black is dark- safe v dangerous
- White is good and black is evil- the bible. Even these which may seem obvious are constructed….. it’s certainly possible to think of light/white as dangerous and black/dark as safe ………examples…
- Black is often thought as a colour and white as a background or nothingness (white paper, white light) . Scientifically white is all colours and black is the absence of colour.
- This resembles the idea that the ‘norm’ is white= everything, and black is somehow different.
- Even in calls to the ‘nation’ (which seem inclusive of many groups), does it really include Black -in the case of Britain- or is white an underlying additional assumption of the norm here??, like we assume whiteness in addition to the norms of class, gender, heterosexuality……
- Because it’s often assumed in the background whiteness is often hidden as a category in itself ( except in extreme case such as racism…)
- It also makes it hard to analyse…. Unlike black. So we have the eg. Brief encounter which becomes about middle class- not White, but we have The colour purple which is about Black, before poor…….
- The film ‘Being white’ shows vox pops of white people who ,in practice, are unable to define themselves as white, but always as subcategories of white- eg. Jewish….
- Dyer suggests several areas that might be useful in analysing this difficult characteristic of ‘white’- eg. Portrayals of white in racist extremism, or in non-white film. Or if exchange white characters with black ones in iconic white films…..- what does it say about whiteness? (the commutivity test)
- All these methods need to contrast white with non-white (and this is not the case with the analogous analysis of say portrayal of blacks, or American Indians).
- Three cinematic films are mentioned where whiteness is analysed through the presence of non-white others, Simba, Jezabel , and Night of the Living Dead. The three cover a wide range of cinema characteristics (budget, style, subject etc…)
- Definition coterminous=covering the same area.
- Dyer looks at what is similar about the portrayal of whiteness in all 3 (diverse) films, but admits that due to whiteness’s resistance to being categorised there is an inevitable massive variation in whiteness in films.
- Nevertheless, ‘all 3 films share a perspective that associates whiteness with order, rationality, rigidity….’ (ref) and a sense (in very different ways) that whiteness is being contested.
- all 3 make reference to potential loss of dominant state of the whites-Simba- the uprising of the Mau-Mau against British occupation, Jezebel-the abolition of slavery in the USA, and ‘Night’ (implicitly) the various power struggles of the black people in 1960’s USA.
- Dyer says that the sense of otherness in these films is based on ‘existential psychology’- introduced by Sartres where ‘an individual becomes self-aware by perceiving its difference from others’ (sounds a little like Lacan’s mirror phase, but this involves a misapprehension/false perception about ‘no difference’ with another individual (the mirror image)
- This existential pysychology has been discussed by numerous authors , but Dyer concentrates on how it is played out in the films…
- In each film Whites are dominant but dependent upon Blacks in some way, and they realise this (differently) in all 3 films.
- This dependency delegitamises the white dominance, and Dyer’s fascination is in
- how the films struggle to hang onto a justification of white dominance, however difficult it is to do.
- The film is British, and is a ‘colonial adventure’ story, where the hero achieves ‘personal growth’.
- Dyer describes the film’s narrative as a discussion of the serious issue of the Mau-Mau uprising, with different symbolic groups or individual people representing different attitudes to the problem
- Finally, the hero (Alan) is the main symbol- his growth is allowed through engagement with the problem.
- The film involves a complete binary separation of the black and white cultures -with no in-between or meeting.
- This separation is achieved through cinema effects (symbols…..)
- Basically white is rational, safe, organised modernity etc… and blackness is the complete antithesis of this….
- The meetings of the whites and blacks are contrasted to illustrate how they represent these characteristics.
- The whites- early evening, light, indoors, ‘high-key lighting’, orderly, speech only,
- The blacks- the binary opposite, including excited gestures, unintelligible speech, and physical movements such as daubing with blood and entrails….
- |The idea of ‘boundariness’ is used throughout the film, characteristic of dominant groups in general they have boundaries- eg. Rows, order, uninterrupted speech……but also the setting of boundaries is characteristic of the white/male especially .
- Dyer says the film is racist ‘in the broadest sense’, but not the narrower one. The film believes that the blacks can evolve and achieve all the progressive characteristics of ‘whiteness’.
- Several liberal characters believe in the ability of the Mau-mau to do so (including, in the end, the hero Alan), whereas the conservative whites do not.
- As a reinforcing of this potential, the character of Peter is black and specifically has all the necessary characteristics (Doctor, educated, rational, humane, liberal….) of Whiteness.
- But- those who believe in the potential evolution are subordinated to others in the film, and in the end liberalism is overcome, Peter dies, and the whites rescue Alan’s farm from the Mau-Mau attack.
- The film believes in the possible evolutionism of Blacks to whiteness (though it fails in the end), but this Fixity of ideas about how colonised people should act (to be ‘better’ people-more like the colonisers) , or more generally in the how we see the behaviour of any ‘other’ group, is ‘deeply disturbing’ (ref).
- The opening sequence is discussed- how filmic techniques are used to symbolise the binary opposites of white and black. Eg. The white viewpoint is given by, steady aerial shots (give the best view), modernity of the plane, bringing the hero to Africa. Black characteristics include pain, blood, death, fear, untrustworthy, primitive.
- Binarism is shown by both the film techniques and through the narrative.
- Aspects of the hero include- resolving the conflict, his adventure and personal growth,
- Colonialism as a landscape allows white males values to flourish, it holds, adventure, discovery, needs taming, conquering etc….
- It also requires ordering, rational control , authority….etc…
- Through his development of responsibility through the film, he wins the love (and hand) of Mary
- other films have explored the idea of colonialism eg. Black Narcissus.
- They often end in acknowledgement of failure
- The hero Alan also fails throughout the film…….. he fails to keep the farm, to protect Peter, to catch the Mau-mau leader……..
- The failure shows an anxiety towards the Black threat of the mau-mau.
- Simba endorse white superiority of values, but shows an anxiety that they will work against the problem (blackness).