Thursday, 21 March 2013

Starting off blind

In 1995 I graduated in English literature with a dissertation on a novel by Joseph Conrad. The novel carries an infamous title and the story revolves around the responses of a (white) crew to the illness a black sailor on board the ship Narcissus. The issue of race is so central in this narrative that only a blind can fail to see it. Well, I must have been blind then, and so must have been the professor who supervised my work and the whole committee that awarded me a summa cum laude. In fact, the highly racialised depiction of the protagonist, the use of racist terminology and the process of construction of whiteness through the use of the black character featured only marginally in my dissertation, as if the racial imagery were a footnote to much more important issues. It was, in short, a dissertation that assumed racism somehow as a normal (maybe even acceptable) feature of human interaction, a dissertation that was based on a racist understanding of language and culture, a dissertation that, by not recognising racism, ensured its reproduction. Not a single voice in the committee raised the question and I was left with the certitude of having produced a perfectly valuable piece of work. This, however, was not merely proof of the deep-seated indifference towards racial matters of an itself marginal academic context. It was, more significantly, a sign of the racial blindness of literary studies, since none of the sources I had consulted in the library had awakened my concern in this respect.
The eye-opener came a few months later, when I finally came across Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. This little and dense book provided a much needed initiation into Whiteness Studies. As a matter of fact, even if I had long been reading Black authors from the Americas and had grown passionate about the many stories of emancipation and self-determination, I had still not paused to reflect upon “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it” and I was therefore not ripe for that shift in perspective that can only occur once you give up the assumption of whiteness as the norm and start coming to grips with the privilege conferred by that normativity. Interrogating the role of the “invention and development of whiteness” in the construction of (American) identity, Morrison challenges the “silence and evasion” of literary criticism with regard to race matters and observes that “the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture.” For me, overcoming that habit and breaking the silence has implied a fresh start: a new understanding of literary criticism as well as a more accurate self-positioning as a reader. Okay, better late than never, but shouldn’t my teachers have pointed out that fault?

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