AUGUST 27, 2020
THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE MISTAKE ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.27.
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THERE’S BEEN A FUROR over nothing. On June 2, 2020, millions of well-meaning people, mostly non-Black, posted black squares on their social media feeds in a phenomenon tagged as “Blackout Tuesday.” Originally proposed by Black music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused, Blackout Tuesday called on the music industry to pause and reflect on the ways it profited, often unfairly, from Black art. Instagram influencers and their followers spread the idea beyond the confines of the music industry, promising to amplify Black images and voices by muting others’. But the multiplication of black squares backfired. To some, it was a facile move intending to signal white allyship without real effort or consequence. Others pointed out that it had potential negative effect, as those black squares tagged #BlackLivesMatter took over searches for the term. Rather than being amplified, Black perspectives and information were lost in a sea of blank, black squares.
Scrolling through those squares reminded me of another digital void, another nothing that turns out to be something. When print books are translated into digital versions, the blank pages are preserved … sort of. Most commonly, what shows up on a screen reader is a white page with an alert, usually something like, “This page has been intentionally left blank.” When digitization became widespread in the 1990s, practitioners decided not to scan blank pages because it seemed like a waste of data. A 1996 patent notes how “desirable” it is to identify blank pages so that “the page image can be discarded” in the name of efficiency. According to this logic, a page without words or images has nothing worth preserving. All blanks were created equally worthless, so it made sense to substitute a generic white page or omit those pages altogether. Information can be measured, this suggests, as presence or absence. Yet, by announcing its own blankness, the page disrupts that simple binary.
Both the black square and the blank page make the same mistake: they announce their blankness without full awareness of how much blankness has to say. And it’s not only technology that mistakes something for nothing. For a long time, I misunderstood my whiteness as blankness. Like the black squares and digital pages, I confused something for nothing. It’s a mistake only a white person could make.
It’s not surprising that I have found it hard to see whiteness; I have surrounded myself with it. I teach Victorian literature, long a bastion of white supremacy, colonialism, and cultural imperialism. I live in Oregon, a state that, in the past, used exclusion laws to prevent Black people from settling in the state and continues to use progressive politics to promote the well-being of white people. Yet, even knowing this, even trying to work against these histories, it’s all too easy for me to slide into not-noticing, to bob along in this sea of homogeneity warmed to a complacent bathwater temperature.
Whiteness fails to register when it feels close, comfortable, and intimate. In these instances, it feels valuable to me, even when I also know that it’s against my values. Reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to my two daughters, for instance, confronted me with the intricately interwoven whiteness of my own inner life. Reading as an adult, I registered with shock the racism that had never been a part of my own awareness of those books. I spent years of my childhood with a constant Little House inner monologue. Cleaning my room could be fun if I pretended I was sweeping out a dugout. Walking to my K-5 school became a long walk on the prairie to a one-room school house. Hatred and fear of Indigenous people never figured in those imaginings, but once I read the books to my children, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had done with those messages, so clearly present in the text.
The answer lies in the series’ management of the presence of overt racism with concurrent erasures of race. Little House in the Big Woods opens by explaining that, in Wisconsin in the 1870s, “there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people.” That lost world of nascent possibility was tantalizing to read about as a dreamy kid tucked in to a safe, predictable life. But, for the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Kickapoo, Oneida, Mohican, Fox, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), and Ottawa people who lived in Wisconsin at that time, it was and is a harmful fantasy. They were erased in the pages of the book, as they were in other public histories. I never learned about Wisconsin’s Native people, despite growing up there, and the small-town Wisconsin that I knew was, and still is, overwhelmingly white. My education and my experience both reflected a world like Laura’s, a world that I didn’t understand as created because it was all I knew. It was a world where “no one” lived except white people, making it hard to understand whiteness as anything other than a blank I didn’t have to see.
Seeing blankness means defamiliarizing my family’s history. My ancestors came from Ireland to Wisconsin. But despite being northern European, they wouldn’t necessarily have been considered White when they arrived. As historian Noel Ignatiev explains, “while their white skin made the Irish eligible for membership in the white race, it did not guarantee their admission; they had to earn it.” Earning it meant adopting the racial hierarchy and racist beliefs that would put them above Black and Indigenous people. This is part of the process that historian Nell Irvin Painter describes as the “change from white races to one white race.” Solidifying whiteness made it less visible, less variegated in texture, easier to recede into a background of privilege without calling attention to itself. Alongside racism — and crucial to its success — white people learn blankness.
To be clear: blankness isn’t a metaphor for whiteness; it’s a lesson in learning the power of mistaking presence for absence. When it has been advantageous not to be blank, white subjects have reversed its powers, perpetuating what bell hooks called “the sense of whiteness as mystery.” Nineteenth-century maps of Africa showed a blank interior, inviting European powers to sit down and divvy up a whole continent in what’s known as the Scramble for Africa. In this instance, blankness erased the extant populations, governments, languages, and cultures, the more easily to substitute the impress of the colonizer. Seeing only a blank made it possible to imagine a simple extension of power rather than the violent imposition of a new regime.
Recognizing blankness, or unlearning it, means giving up complacency for a new kind of perception. In order to discern the structures underpinning our everyday lives, we have to be able to recognize them as structures, as built systems that can be taken apart and rebuilt. More than 30 years after Audre Lorde pointed it out, however, it still often falls unjustly to “women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival.”
Like many others, my unlearning has come both from traditional sources such as books and also from platforms such as Twitter or Patreon where Black and Indigenous activists and people of color reach their audiences. My unlearning has also come from those I have been charged to teach: my students.
In my department, graduate students of color have been exposing the systemic inequities of our institution — and, by extension, my complicity in that system. It has been hard not to lay out my fortifications, to explain away my students’ objections, to justify the structures in place or to testify to their immovability. Activist and educator Rachel Cargle has commented that “many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist.” The fear of being called a racist is a fear of getting it wrong that, ironically, leads white women to actually, truly get it wrong, centering our feelings in conversations about racism, filling it with our guilt, defensiveness, and shame and potentially derailing them. I know, because I’ve felt those feelings, tight in my chest, hot in my pounding blood. I’ve been in rooms where I have needed to contain those feelings in order to listen hard, to see what students of color see, even when I initially draw a blank.
For all my internal drama, it is probably tiresome to witness. As Sara Ahmed explains, “whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it. For those who don’t, it is hard not to see whiteness; it even seems everywhere.” It is in the best interests of white people not to distinguish whiteness, to see absence where others cannot escape seeing presence. Nonetheless, writing an essay on learning to recognize whiteness is a continuation of the privilege that I’ve always enjoyed in not seeing it. I’m hesitant even to tell a story such as this, one that unmasks whiteness as its denouement. I’m hesitant to accede to the narrative demands of revelation because I’m not sure that will mitigate the power of blankness, or my unwitting collusion.
I hesitate because I know how blankness seduces. When my daughter Matilda was four, she went to public preschool in our Pittsburgh neighborhood. She was one of a handful of white kids in an otherwise Black classroom. Halfway through that year, I gave birth to her sister, and Matilda came to visit me in the hospital and meet her new sister. She climbed into bed with me and together we turned to peer at the new baby in the bassinet. Matilda pulled back the blanket and exclaimed with surprise, “She has white skin just like us!” I used to tell this as a feel-good anecdote, proof that kids aren’t born with racial prejudices. Now I recognize that in seeking that proof, I was seeking to confirm blankness — even as my daughter was momentarily, innocently stripping it away.
As this suggests, blankness shifts with its context. When paper was more expensive and harder to make, for instance, authors and their audiences understood blankness differently. The endpapers and margins of printed text invited written responses from readers for hundreds of years — even the spaces between words were used as an opportunity for further composition. It is only in our era of cheap paper that a page must be completely empty to be blank. As paper prices fell, blankness became an important tool for 20th-century avant-garde movements. Conspicuous white space around text and blank pages became methods for introducing silence, which in turn emphasized the value of the text itself. Turning a blank page enacts a hush of reverence. But the digitized blank page wastes that capital by drawing attention to it. It doesn’t feel reverent to click quickly past a not-blank page. Once blankness has drawn attention to itself, it squanders its own power.
To maintain its force, blankness often hides in plain sight. That’s why, as Tressie McMillan Cottom explains, the “ultimate expression” of whiteness is its “elasticity.” Whiteness can morph to encompass almost anything, Cottom argues, as long as it can still be defined against blackness. As a walking cliché of a certain kind of white woman, I have rued what feels like a lack of imagination on my part: I love trail running, yoga, and craft beer. I can’t get enough costume dramas, midcentury architecture, and indie rock. I am, you might say, a basic bitch.
Being “basic” means being unexceptional, mainstream — but only if your idea of conventionality means whiteness. Co-opted from Black hip-hop lyrics so that white women could insult one another, “basic” signifies how important it is for race to be so naturalized that it disappears. The connection between aesthetics, activities, and race isn’t biological or even necessarily social. Wealth is obviously important — yoga classes aren’t cheap — but as Cottom points out, whiteness is so elastic that almost any aesthetic could do the work of making whiteness seem so fundamental as to go unnoticed. “Basic bitch” puts misogyny center stage while attempting to expunge the specter of race. It is a racial term for the “post-racial” era.
Erasing whiteness enables it to remain the default setting. It performs the magic whereby blankness is reinstated, and white people don’t have to notice it — which makes me wonder about the recent exhortations to white people to diversify our consumption. Easy enough — of course I want to know about more Black runners, artists, and cooks. Of course I want to keep reading books by authors of color and learn new ones. But Cottom’s observation suggests that this won’t create lasting change. As soon as the whiteness of any sphere is challenged, its elasticity will enable it to accommodate that challenge.
And so, a final, possible lesson from blankness: there is only ever more blankness. Behind every layer of blankness stripped bare, there remains another layer that is yet unrecognized. Blankness responds to context in order to recede from view. By probing the vagaries of blankness, I am signing up for repeated failure. I will keep seeking out blankness, even though I will sometimes mistake its presence for absence. I can’t fool myself that it will be enough, but it won’t be nothing.