White Invisibility

The presence of white supremacy and norm in our society perpetuates a problematic theme of white invisibility within our literature that undermines the voices of writers of color.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

From Shakespeare to Nabokov, the literary canon mostly consists of Eurocentric works written by straight white males. These texts still pervade many high school English curricula and are deemed universal literature that should be accessible to all. Despite the loosening of the grip the white man has on English literature, conflicting literary conventions between writers of color and white writers still pose a problem. These clashing conventions press on the issue of white invisibility, where white people in society and the literary realm do not need to be identified racially. It is when “white” disappears from “my white friend” and “white teacher,” and when “ethnic” becomes a shadow of whiteness.

In works written by white authors, the default identity of a character is often white. Homer’s “Odyssey,” for example, starts with “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns […] driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy” without any mention of “the man’s” race. It is assumed that Odysseus is white, when in reality, he is “black-skinned and wooly-haired.” The Bible faces the same issue. Many murals and depictions of Jesus are painted white, though Jesus was not white—he was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew. But because of these conventions, many readers often mistake him to be white. Writers of color, on the other hand, frequently identify their characters’ ethnicities by adding racial markers.

This racial generalization is in part due to the reader’s interpretation of a character as white if unspecified, which stems from our societal reality. As author Jacqueline Battalora said, “We should begin by realizing that ‘white’ people as a designation of a group of humanity, much less as a race, never existed until late in the 17th century.” When we think of “white,” people of European descent usually pop up in our heads: English, French, Scottish, Irish, Russian, German. “Killing In Thy Name,” a documentary featuring The Ummah Chroma and Rage Against the Machine, explains that in reality, people never identified as white before the proliferation of this construct. To muffle revolts against an oppressive order and build a sense of unity among poor whites and rich landowners, the belief that others deserved to be inferior was perpetuated.

By extension, this concept of whiteness is reflected in the art and literature we see today. American Literature teacher Lauren Stuzin noted that “historically, art has been regarded as a ‘less valuable’ societal contribution than other profit-generating industries.” Art and literature were deemed contributions that only high-class white European artists could offer. Because whiteness is intrinsically linked to profit, the assumption of whiteness as the norm in literature means that white people are the ones who can profit off of their works, and works by people of color are then deemed exotic and even unworthy.

Even though white Euro-American males constitute only 33 percent of the country’s population, they take up about 80 percent of tenured positions in higher education, 80 percent of the House of Representatives, 84 percent of the U.S. Senate, 92 percent of the Forbes 400 executive CEO-level positions, and 99.9 percent of athletic team owners. This kind of disparity and privilege is cloaked by emphasizing the falsehood of the individual’s role in his achievements rather than the racial and economical advantages and disadvantages that significantly impact these outcomes.

Because of the guilt and sensitivity surrounding white privilege, conversations and mentions of race are erased in literature and history textbooks to paint a false utopia of the social realities today. White people in history who fought against such systems, including John Fee, Helen Hunt Jackson, Moncure Conway, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, are also erased. Instead, children learn about the white people who perpetuated this oppressive system.

The issue of white supremacy and Eurocentrism is prevalent in other countries as well. Take the beauty standards in South and Southeast Asian countries, for example, where many Asian women feel pressured to maintain fair skin. These standards are still held today because colorism in Asia is a colonial legacy rooted in class systems. In Indonesia, natives who spent hours working under the sun in paddy fields had dark skin, while rich white women who spent their time indoors had fair skin. Similarly, the Hindu caste system consisted of dark-skinned laborers in the lower castes and their fair-skinned counterparts in the higher castes. The cultural construct colorism creates posits whiteness as an aspiration, which contributes to the pervasive force of the white norm in society.

American immigrants also fall under this herd invisibility when they don’t acknowledge racism. Talking about race can be painful and cause feelings of powerlessness. Children of these immigrants learn to follow the footsteps of denial, reinforced by school curricula, pop culture, and politics. Pretending that racism is not a problem is seen as a means to assimilate into American culture. After all, the denial of the history of the trauma imposed by Europeans is what has allowed them to cope in a country where people of color are always seen as outsiders. Racial harmony is then equated to avoiding any mentions of race.

That is not to say that people of color don’t address these issues. Many writers of color choose to write about their cultures and ethnicities because they are aware of the threat white power holds over them. Unfortunately, many white critics and writers fail to acknowledge this threat. The discrepancy is then reflected in the literature we read. In a book recommended by Asian American Literature teacher Sophie Oberfield, titled “A Stranger’s Journey,” author David Mura mentions that the rift between the ways whites and people of color see social reality “often remain[s] invisible or obscured,” with the issues of race avoided rather than discussed. Writers of color are inclined to explicitly tell rather than show their characters’ race and consider these racial perspectives in contrast to their white peers. Creative writing involves that very implementation of reality, so the “gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page.”

When the rift between the visions of white writers and writers of color isn’t acknowledged, it can undermine the voices of writers of color, especially within the evil glare of mass media. Writing ethnic stories that appeal to the critical masses and revenue-hungry bureaucracies can lead to the exploitation and tampering of intimate “ethnic stories.” In the “multicultural age,” there is a popular demand for signs of cultural differences that exoticize writers of color. There is a generalized expectation that non-white writers will adopt an autobiographical style of writing, composed of stories that predicate the search for an “authentic” cultural identity, which causes a dilemma among Asian American writers where they are “torn between the readersʼ ‘exotic expectations’” and their own aesthetic aims.

While white readers should be more considerate when reading works by people of color, white writers who perpetuate the narrative of whiteness by never clarifying characters’ race should hold more responsibility in terms of alleviating this issue. White writers may choose to write from a white or unlabeled perspective because they believe that it is not their place to tell the stories of people of color and that they cannot bring accurate representation. However, it is important that white writers at least attempt to include characters of color in their works by carefully unraveling the societal constructs that are ingrained in them. The unconscious assumption of whiteness as the universal default prevents the accurate portrayal of characters of color. When approaching this task, white writers must consider critiques from people of color without charging this criticism as censorship. With the removal of this mindset and the will to reflect, acknowledge, and research even when failing at this task, white writers can give writers and characters of color the literary merit they deserve.

The pervasive nature of whiteness has become such an inescapable force within our society that it is invisible in the literary world. Both readers and writers have to take the time to consider and contemplate race in their own lives. Otherwise, problematic assumptions, exploitation, and exoticization will continue to be imposed on writers of color.