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Intersectional Social Constructions Of Whiteness In Caucasia English Literature Essay

1582 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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What causes people to struggle between two races? Whiteness used as a symbol of cultural identity normalizes differences. Through the protagonist, Birdie Senna (1998) demonstrates complexities of binary norms posed by racial hierarchies particularly in biracial identities. The author argues that the idea of whiteness is an ideology which separates whites from non-whites and separates people based on race and class. Naming whiteness in the black imagination in Caucasia represents terror because whites serve as the human norm where everyone else is measured against (hooks, 1992). Caucasia underpins Frankenberg’s (1993) thesis that whiteness is a standpoint of race privilege where cultural practices are unmarked and unnamed rendering them invisible. In Caucasia, Denzy Senna demonstrates how biology alone does not determine racial identity through Birdie’s skin tone because whiteness is an invisible category that constructs identity, grants social acceptance and access to privileges.

In her novel, Senna (1998) provides an opportunity to examine the complications posed by whiteness in intermarriages. Birdie’s experience in a biracial body was based on the interaction of socially constructed areas of race, class, gender and sexuality which produced a social location of domination that produced both oppression and opportunity. Birdie inhabits two worlds where she is forced to negotiate unequal power differences. Whiteness is an invisible location from where Birdie’s identity was constructed. This is because whiteness is constructed as the norm against which all others are measured (Frankenberg, 1993). Caucasia demonstrates how whiteness is a construct of identity which cannot be separated from racial dominance. This is partly because whiteness is a value system that privileges whites or those passing as white (Frankernberg, 1993). For example, when the two sisters were being enrolled in public school, Birdie’s white complexion passed her as white thus privileging her to attend a white school in Dorchester while Cole’s black skin placed her at Nkrumah an all-black school situated in South Boston. To rationalize her racist actions the administrator stated that it was “in the interest of racial dahvesetty” (Senna, 1998, p.37). Construction of racialized segregated schools is whiteness. Racialization is a system of differentiating particular groups from privileges afforded those who are white. In this segregated space, Birdie and Cole learned who they are and who they are not. Unlike Cole, Birdie’s intersecting identities create instances of both opportunity and oppression.

In contrast, representation of whiteness in Cole is different because of her visible blackness. Because whiteness has historical referents in that black people were dehumanized because of their skin colour, Cole is not favoured by their white relatives who have dominant ways of thinking about race. For example, the white grandmother gives her golliwog, an offensive racist caricature used in the past to demean black people. Birdie because of her white skin tone received a book because her grandmother enforced the racial privileging of whiteness (Senna, 1998, p.98). This symbolic act proves the historical social context of racial formation and whiteness is most visible from the character of Deck because according to Grandmother Lodge, Sandy had played with a similar doll as a little girl (Senna, 1998 p.98). This statement rationalizes racism and reveals that Sandy may have the same prejudices like her mother. As a result, whiteness becomes an invisible normative cultural practice that perpetuated racial differences between the sisters.

Race and culture shapes attitudes towards homosexuality. Whiteness permits Birdie and Sandy to reconstruct their sexual identities. The freedom to explore sexual identity was specific to whiteness which allowed choice to perform in different sexual roles without prejudice. When Birdie goes searching for her father, Ali her childhood friend directs her to his dad whom he calls “a faggot” (Senna, 1998 p.350). She discovers that, when Deck learns that his best friend Ronnie was gay he criticized him and cut off their friendship. But, for Birdie and Sandy, in spite of their gay relationships in Aurora they were able to have heterosexual relationships when they moved to New Hampshire. Construction of sexual identity is thus interlocked and linked to whiteness.

Because whiteness is an invisible category that grants social acceptance, Birdie passes as white in New Hampshire. She becomes the daughter of a Jewish father and WASP mother providing whiteness as an option to be accepted as she admitted that it takes a wasp to know another one (Senna, 1998 p.154). WASP (upper class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) is a variation of whiteness. WASP is a term used in the past to reinforce social stratification between different cultures. Because of her dark hair, Sandy believed she would pass for Jewish revealing her own prejudices when she states that Jews are not really white (Senna, 1998 p.140). The Jewish identity becomes another racialized identity located between blackness and whiteness. Despite acquiring a white identity including a knapsack of unearned privileges, she was not at peace. Birdie was ridiculed in school for her perceived Jewish identity. However, she was able to befriend Mona a girl from school. Mona and her family present a variation of whiteness which contrasts Sandy’s elite upbringing because they are poor and live in a trailer park (Senna, 1998 p.226). Sandy describes them as workers of the world revealing her prejudicial attitude based on her upper class upbringing (p.157). Sandy’s ideas about class difference illustrate the power of whiteness to include and exclude based on normative worthiness of whiteness.

Despite her privileging white skin tone, Birdie struggled with her location in a white supremacy. In school, Mona subjected her to offensive racist comments. For example, Mona claims that she had never known black guys except for Samantha (Senna, 1998 p.248). Again, Birdie’s skin tone made her pass for white and could not be judged negatively or stereotyped. For example, when Dawn, Mona’s friend says “we are gonna look like niggers” (p.248), Birdie was forced to hide her feelings and her black identity in order to gain social acceptance. hooks(1992) describes this existence of whiteness without knowledge of blackness as racial domination that wounds and silences (p.341). Keeping her black identity a secret demonstrates the value of whiteness. It is this secret that contributes to Birdie’s misery because she was conscious of her black identity. In fact, Birdie often, had to escape from her group of friends to deal with the pain of prejudice in private. Although Birdie struggled internally, she recognized the power of whiteness and to avoid it opted for social acceptance.

Whiteness is a structural position of privilege and advantage which allows access to public and private privileges that guarantee survival. Frankenberg (1993) describes this standpoint as a system of racial privilege. She defines standpoint as a particular location within relations of domination and subordination. The intersections of whiteness came together to shape the experiences of Birdie and Sandy allowing them to escape unnoticed. Birdie’s black identity disappeared and became white. According to Sandy, “the FBI would be looking for a white woman with a black child” (Senna, 1998 p.128). The fact that Birdie could pass for the Caucasoid race provided security because it was the black child that was the key in tracking them down. Because whiteness is an unmarked category, Birdie and Sandy were able to use this disguise to secure accommodation, schooling including social acceptance in New Hampshire. White privilege therefore includes the ability not to see whiteness and privileges accrued through racial identity.

According to hooks (1992) whiteness fantasized as a threat posed by difference becomes terrorizing in the black imagination (p.344). The act of terrorism was performed on Deck in High Park. When Deck takes Birdie to Grand Park, a white couple called the police after suspecting that a black guy might be molesting a little white girl. Acting on these suspicions the state enacts terror on Deck because whiteness is constructed differently based on race. Whiteness constructs and often keeps surveillance of the private domain particularly of the lower class.

Violence is intersectional and is shaped by race and gender. Violence establishes the boundaries of gender identities and whiteness while being made permissible. Ideologies of boundaries apply to both white women and racialized women. For example, Birdie as a child became conscious of the violence inflicted on her mother. Border guards are expected on Sandy because she is a woman expected to maintain certain roles. Her body is controlled and bounded as Deck disapproves her action of housing radical fugitives in her basement (Senna, 1998 p.22). Deck’s violent behaviour toward Sandy demonstrates Deck exercising masculine rights and privilege in a nation state. When they are fighting, Deck throws de-humanizing insults at Sandy using patriarchal notions that subordinate and makes a woman’s body inferior. Because patriarchal structures naturalize Otherness of women, Deck as a man was exercising his assumed historical entitled rights and privilege in a nation state.

In essence, Caucasia complicates whiteness by shifting the positions and privileges of whiteness particularly through the biracial identities Birdie the protagonist. Although her journey is filled with pain and heartache, it is the invisibility of her white privilege that is so conspicuous that it affirms Frankeberg’s (1992) thesis that race shapes white women’s lives as much as it does racialized people (p.1). These intersections, she states as having dimensional links of standpoint that shapes a worldview of privilege and oppression. Unlike Cole, Birdie’s evolving identity provided her options to respond to social forces as well as evade the consequences inflicted by whiteness. She was able to live beyond the confines of racial binaries.

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