ON NOVEMBER 9, 1987, at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, Larry Heinemann received the National Book Award for Fiction. The announcement that Heinemann had won for his Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story (1986) astonished the ballroom of authors, editors, and booksellers because the nominees included two of the biggest names in American literature, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. Morrison had been nominated for Beloved (1987), a novel that secured her status, Margaret Atwood declared in a New York Times review that fall, as the “pre-eminent American novelist” and would be cited by the Swedish Academy six years later when it awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison had invited three tables of friends and associates to the National Book Award gala, and they, like the rest of the audience, were shocked to see Heinemann, a little-known white writer from Chicago, take the stage and receive a bronze statue for his slender war novel. “I didn’t come here expecting to win,” Heinemann later admitted. “I came here for the party.”
Forty-eight black writers signed a statement in The New York Times Book Review condemning the “oversight and harmful whimsy” that had left Morrison, by then the author of five acclaimed novels, with neither a National Book Award nor a Pulitzer Prize. Liberal and conservative critics fired back. Christopher Hitchens dismissed the letter as a crude demand for Morrison to “be upgraded to prizewinner seating.” Neoconservative writer Carol Iannone bemoaned that book awards had become “less a recognition of literary achievement than some official act of reparation.” The fallout from the 1987 National Book Awards embodied the worst of the culture wars, in which the cultural left and the cultural right shared what sociologist Bethany Bryson has described as the “extraordinary premise” that “every time an English teacher put together a reading list, the future of a nation hung in the balance.” Beloved went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and become a standard in American high school and college English classrooms. In 2006, the Times declared it the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. Heinemann’s novel, all but forgotten, went out of print.
Three years after Heinemann’s big night, Morrison delivered the Massey Lectures at Harvard University on how white American writers had relied on ideas about blackness — what she termed an “American Africanism” — in the construction of whiteness as Americanness. She made the case to her Cambridge audience that the young republic’s men of letters conceived the nation as white and free by defining it against blackness and enslavement. The lectures formed the basis of Morrison’s nonfiction book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) and gave wider recognition to the emerging field of critical whiteness studies, which set out to examine how structural forms of racism were founded on unacknowledged beliefs about white entitlement and innocence. Although Morrison’s book, which turns 25 this year, addresses the fiction of Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain and not her own or Heinemann’s, it offers a different angle on the 1987 National Book Awards. It draws attention to the man who won that night, a 43-year-old white Vietnam vet who writes about white men at war in black vernacular English that he identifies as the language of “street folks” who address each other in “a jivey sort of way.” It draws attention to a writer who sees his own genre, war fiction, as marginalized, whose narrators lament that “war stories are out.” Morrison observes that national literatures “end up describing and inscribing what is really on the national mind” and that “the literature of the United States has taken as its concern the architecture of a new white man.” That is true, as well, of Heinemann’s National Book Award–winning novel.
More than two decades later, there is much to be learned from Morrison’s reflections on the whiteness of American literature. With Donald Trump riding a wave of white racial fear and resentment to the White House, journalists and scholars have returned to whiteness as a framework for understanding racial and class politics in the 21st century. As labor historian David Roediger noted this spring, “[A]fter November 8, 2016, invoking the white working class suddenly seemed to explain everything.” The lessons of critical whiteness studies have entered mainstream consciousness in distorted form as an identity-based politics of white male grievance, with Democratic politicians being lacerated, and lacerating themselves, for neglecting the white working men who once formed the core of the New Deal coalition. Playing in the Dark offers a reminder in the first year of the Trump administration that whiteness cannot be treated in isolation from other racial categories. Instead, it must be recognized as something formed within a larger racial order. The Trump era has brought to the surface a new form of whiteness in which white men are recentered in American culture through an alleged decentering, in which whiteness is reconceived as a minoritized culture besieged by immigration and globalization. We are witnessing, it seems, the emergence of a new new white man, one who embraces his whiteness as a beleaguered identity but who refuses to see it as, in Morrison’s words, “a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression.” White men have been emboldened to talk about their whiteness but as a source of individual alienation rather than structural advantage.
Since Trump secured the Republican nomination last spring, American liberals, stunned and searching for answers, have stocked their shelves with sociological studies of white working-class communities such as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (2016). Vance, a conservative who began his writing career with the National Review and now contributes to CNN, has been hailed as “the Trump whisperer” and “the Rust Belt anger translator,” a writer who liberal media believe can explain why white working-class folks voted for a brash Manhattan billionaire. His book, which lodged itself on the New York Times best-sellers list last summer, is part multigenerational memoir and part cultural diagnosis of what ails white Appalachia, where Vance’s family lives, and communities like it. Vance insists that his home should not be understood through a “racial prism” but rather as something distinct from the rest of white America. “I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast,” he writes. “Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” He wants his readers to see white working-class Americans as minoritized yet not racialized, white yet race-neutral. In asking that we “delve into the details” rather than assume a homogenous “white privilege,” Vance situates white Americans at the center and margin of national culture. The conflation of whiteness with struggling white communities in books like Hillbilly Elegy shows how whiteness studies has been deformed, even turned into a validation of whiteness as Americanness.
Critical whiteness studies reached its high-water mark in the 1990s with groundbreaking studies from such scholars as Cheryl Harris, George Lipsitz, Roediger, and Matthew Frye Jacobson, who, building on the earlier work of black intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, identified how whiteness as a social norm advantages white Americans, even when submerged in color-blind or race-neutral language. Lipsitz, for example, argued in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (1998) that whiteness commands a cash value by binding racial meaning to asset accumulation through redlining and inherited wealth, encouraging “white people to expend time and energy on the creation and re-creation of whiteness” as a marker of cultural and economic value. But interest in the field waned in the new century as progressive journalists and ethnic studies scholars turned their attention to the anti-Muslim racism of the War on Terror and the significance of Barack Obama’s election to racial politics in the United States. One of the few mainstream considerations of whiteness during these years came from Hua Hsu, who suggested in The Atlantic that white America was “all but finished,” that the national culture had been “remade in the image of white America’s multiethnic, multicolored heirs.” His editors titled the article “The End of White America?” It ran on the cover of the magazine’s 2009 presidential inauguration issue.
The arrival of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trumpian racial politics has breathed new life into the conversation about whiteness and American culture. Junot Díaz has condemned the “terrible whiteness” of institutional creative writing, arguing that MFA programs license “the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color.” Jay Caspian Kang launched a debate about the “unbearable whiteness” of baseball when he suggested that the MLB had become less welcoming to black and Latino athletes and fans since his childhood, when Nike executives and franchise owners looked to Ken Griffey Jr. rather than Mike Trout to sell sneakers and hot dogs. Ethnic studies scholars have challenged the narrow, identity-based understanding of white grievance evident in Heinemann’s novel and Vance’s memoir by introducing new, comparative-racial frameworks that, for example, show how whiteness has been constructed through representations of Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans. African-American studies professor Roderick Ferguson has identified opposition to redistribution as the ethic of post–Civil Rights whiteness, and American Indian studies scholar Andrea Smith has advocated that we think of whiteness not as a uniform racism but as a constellation of interrelated “logics” — slavery, colonialism, Orientalism — that complement and mask one another. Critical whiteness studies has resurfaced at the onset of the Trump administration with a mandate to rescue the field from a half-finished rightward turn.
All of these writers owe something to Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, not because the book delivers the most comprehensive investigation of whiteness — it does not — but because, thanks to Morrison’s stature, it gave whiteness studies a public foothold. The Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsweek all reviewed it. High school teachers and college professors assigned it to their students. It trickled into national consciousness. Morrison’s book has had an outsized influence on what Americans talk about when they talk about whiteness, and that makes it a useful starting point for understanding that talk.
Twenty-five years later, revisiting Playing in the Dark sheds light on how the basic tenets of whiteness studies have been turned against the field. One of Morrison’s most enduring arguments is that we are all in some sense “raced,” that, “living in the wholly racialized society that is the United States,” no one writes, thinks, or lives apart from racial knowledge. Although the white writers she discusses imagine themselves as unraced authors of the universal, their fiction also engages dominant racial ideologies. Morrison wished to “avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject,” to turn our attention from black America to white America as it is constituted through an Africanist presence that suffuses our national literature. Vance’s book indicates how the idea of the United States as a “wholly racialized society” has been reframed to mean that white folks also suffer for their race, that race names a kind of ahistorical woundedness. Vance’s “working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent” are raced, too, and, as raced, don’t profit from their whiteness. Or so he suggests. But racialization is, Morrison stresses, an uneven process that creates and sustains social hierarchies rather than equivalent categories of difference. Being white and poor in the United States is not the same as being black and poor.
In rereading the 19th-century American gothic romance as defined by what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” Morrison shows how American Africanism gave white writers a means of “organizing American coherence” and achieving a “new cultural hegemony.” American romanticism distinguished the young nation not just from the Old World but also through a difference emergent within the New. This radical new form of freedom was made known to white Americans by its contrast to the “not-free” and the “not-me.” The white settler’s claim to freedom depended on what Morrison describes as “the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment — the critical absence of democracy, its echo, shadow, and silent force in the political and intellectual activity of some not-Americans.” The association between whiteness, Americanness, and freedom was achieved through the association of blackness with un-Americanness and unfreedom. Morrison’s corrective to the isolated treatments of whiteness found in Hochschild’s and Vance’s studies, and of course in Heinemann’s fiction, is that whiteness can’t exist apart from that which it is not. The haunted world of white veterans that won Heinemann the 1987 National Book Award, for example, gets told in white-voiced black vernacular. One character is described in a flashback to Vietnam as “booming out some gibberish mumbo jumbo in his best amen-corner baritone and laughing that cool, nasty, grisly laugh of his, acting the jive fool for all those housecats.” Heinemann’s new new white man — the down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet — articulates his hurt in the voice of an abstracted blackness. He claims the center of American culture against blackness and the margin through it.
Playing in the Dark motivated a generation of ethnic studies scholars and students to make whiteness visible. It was critical, they argued, that we not let whiteness continue to go unacknowledged and unexamined as a social norm. Now, with the Trump White House and liberal media focused like never before on the struggles of the white working class, whiteness has been made visible, but as an identity left behind in a nation transformed by immigration and global trade. From the beginning, critical whiteness studies has risked recentering whiteness in the act of indicting it. The critical and commercial success of books like Vance’s memoir points to the limitations and pitfalls of making whiteness visible in the 21st century. The challenge for writers now will be making whiteness visible as part of a social structure that divests nonwhite Americans of resources and opportunities rather than as another minoritized cultural identity. It is a difficult thing to do because a social structure doesn’t make a very compelling protagonist. Morrison’s lectures recount her own recognition of that structure and how it organizes our literature and our lives:
It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl — the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface — and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world.
It is that fishbowl that Morrison wrote of 25 years ago and not the careening bolt of white. We would be wise to turn our attention, as she did then, from the new white man to the invisible structure that has made him new again and again.