The Discourse of Whiteness:
Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison charges that "silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse" concerning race (9). Twentieth century literary discourse, rooted in linguistic and textual criticism, according to Henry Louis Gates, "rendered implicit" the idea of race (47). Gates suggests that as literary critics identified the "master" texts of the western tradition, race was overshadowed by discussions of form, structure, and language. Building on the work of Morrison and Gates, many critics have taken on the task of analyzing the implicit nature of race, and more recently, the discourse of whiteness in literature.
Even though whiteness, like all racial categories, is not an objective, self-evident entity, it is privileged in a system in which whiteness is constructed as the standard or norm against which all other racial categories are measured. Despite the subjectivity of racial categorization, non-whites are, as Derrick Bell argues, "marked with the caste of color in a society still determinedly white" (75). Thus, being white is to be non-raced, normal, or neutral, and discussions of race have traditionally applied only to those who are perceived as other than white. Toni Morrison has called scholars to the task of creating a critical reading practice that foregrounds the construction and representation of whiteness in fiction and allows readers to recognize literature's complicity with the discourse of white supremacy. The reading of whiteness into texts that are not explicitly about race is essential if we are to challenge whiteness as racial norm. Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth, provides an example of a popular text that, while not overtly concerned with racial construction, contains a subtle discourse that must be read critically from the perspective that Morrison suggests. An examination of the position of Chinese immigrants in the United States in the novel's initial publication and Buck's own racial politics provide crucial elements in an analysis of the subtle racial discourse in The Good Earth.
The Good Earth's immediate and continuing popularity is undeniable. It was the best selling American novel of 1931 and 1932, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has sold millions of copies in the United States and around the world. Released in 1937, the Hollywood version was a popular and critical success, and Luise Ranier, a white actress, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of O-lan, a Chinese woman. Why was a novel about Chinese people so popular at a time when isolationism and entrenched racism dominated American culture? As I have argued in another essay about the literary history and popular appeal of The Good Earth, the novel certainly reflects the values of middle-class and working-class Americans in the decade it was first published (Spencer). It reflects their valuing of the land and nostalgia for rural life in a time of expanding industrialism and urbanization. The novel's representation of these values, however, does not explain why a novel about non-white people would meet such popular success with white audiences. The reasons for the novel's popularity and supposed universal appeal may be found in an examination of the position that Chinese immigrants had attained in American culture by the time of the novel's publication.
Historically, racism was directed more overtly toward Chinese immigrants than any other immigrant group in the United States. In 1852, soon after the first Chinese immigrants arrived, the California legislature passed a tax law requiring all foreign miners who refused to become citizens to pay three dollars a month. All Chinese miners were forced to pay the tax because a 1790 federal law had reserved naturalized citizenship for "white" people. Anti-Chinese violence and mass demonstrations against Chinese labor eventually prompted Congress to enact the first Exclusion Act against the Chinese in 1882. Subsequent legislation in 1888 and 1892 excluded almost all Chinese and was defended on the grounds that the Chinese simply could not assimilate into American culture.
Although other immigrant groups faced discrimination, many of these groups would eventually assimilate into American society. For example, in the latter decades of the 1800s, Irish workers were exploited as laborers and were positioned to compete with both Chinese and black labor. Historian David Roediger traces the process by which Irish workers defined themselves as white in order to obtain certain privileges as white that they could not obtain as Irish. In attacking blacks and Chinese, politically weak and under-represented groups, Irish workers secured their position and identified with dominant white culture.
The desire of immigrants to be classified as whites intensified as more immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in greater numbers, and as second and third generations of immigrants assimilated into American culture. The descendants of the first generation of Irish immigrants, for example, were better educated and enjoyed better occupational mobility than their parents. President Abbot Lawrence of Harvard University exemplifies the readiness of dominant culture to accept the Irish as American on the basis of their whiteness. The theory of "universal political equality," Lawrence said, "should not be applied to 'tribal Indians,' 'Chinese,' or 'negroes,' but only to whites who can assimilate rapidly" (qtd. in Takaki 163). The Chinese were among the groups of people in America who were denied the opportunity to assimilate.
Post-WWI American society continued to promote assimilation, becoming increasingly patriotic and isolationist. The influx of Italians, Jews, Poles, Serbians, Hungarians, and Greeks initially met with the same racist response that the Irish and Chinese had already experienced. Whites perceived these immigrants as a threat to the purity of the Teutonic races of northern and western Europe. To show their desire to assimilate into the dominant culture, immigrant organizations and the press made it clear they did not sympathize with revolutionaries, violence, or radicalism. In mass meetings, immigrants pledged their allegiance to American institutions, and foreign-born Congressmen and senators were usually conservative (Takaki 296). Instead of blaming urban problems on economic and class factors, politicians and labor leaders found a scapegoat in non-white groups like the Chinese, who, they believed, would never be able to assimilate into dominant white culture.
Many immigrant groups eventually grew to levels that politicians could not ignore. The use of new terms, such as "Nordics" or the "American Race," used by Theodore Roosevelt in his campaigns, described a new American race that would include many European immigrant groups in ways "Anglo-Saxon" had not. Chinese immigrants, however, whose numbers had been severely limited by strict immigration laws, simply never reached a critical mass that would allow them to garner political power in the ways other immigrant groups, such as the Irish, could. After the initial immigration of Chinese in the late 1800's, as a group they would not pose a severe threat to white labor, especially in the North and East, as would blacks in the North and South and Mexican immigrants in the West. Most Chinese immigrants were men who had migrated to the "gold mountain" of America in hopes of making money and returning to China as wealthy men or bringing their wives and families eventually to America. However, the severe immigration laws almost completely stopped further immigration, trapping many Chinese men alone and poor in the United States. Racism and anti-miscegenation laws made the prospects of marrying a white woman slim. By 1900, violence against Chinese workers had pushed them out of manufacturing, agriculture, and railroad jobs. As a result, many Chinese were forced to become self-employed. The laundry-business provided a ready profession because it was relatively cheap to start up, and it was a menial task no one else was willing to do. Although most of the Chinese living in the United States were men who would have never engaged in what was considered a woman's task in China, these men were left few other options.
By the time of The Good Earth's publication the Chinese were no longer perceived as a threat to white labor and were even poised to become objects of sympathy when the United States was drawn into the war between China and Japan in the 1930's. In 1931, Japan attacked Manchuria and an uneasy peace between China and Japan followed, lasting until 1937 when war broke out between the two countries. The U.S. ship, the Panay, was attacked by the Japanese in 1937, and the incident was dramatized in newsreels and Life magazine. The great majority of Americans knew about China and the Chinese people only through international dramas, such as the Boxer Rebellion, or through American Chinatowns that would become exotic tourist attractions in the first decades of the twentieth century. At the turn of the century, when the population of the U.S. surpassed seventy million, the total number of Chinese was fewer than 400,000, and those were clustered in large cities on the east and west coasts. Chinatowns became known as places of mystery and unspeakable vice. Stories of opium dens, prostitution, and secret societies fascinated the American mind. To most Americans in the thirties, difference was still a sign of deviance, and western cultural practices were considered to be the norm.
Buck, on the other hand, presented characters that were hardworking, ordinary farming people struggling against famine, weather, natural disaster, poverty, war, and corruption. She was able to present a sympathetic portrait of a Chinese farmer and his family that rang true to the American experience of rural existence, while in no way threatening white supremacy. She used the details of daily life to present her characters, the landscape, the houses, the village, the food, the tools, the clothes, and the rituals of death and marriage. Readers could identify with the daily lives of these characters. Soon after initial publication, The Good Earth was praised for its universal appeal and its realistic portrayal of Chinese characters. For example, The New York Times Book Review from 1931 says, "One tends to forget, after the first few pages, that the persons of the story are Chinese and hence foreign." Buck, the review says, portrays "a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism." Buck biographer Peter Conn continues to echo such sentiment when he praises the novel's portrayal of Chinese characters as "ordinary, believable human beings rather than as cartoon 'Orientals'" ("Introduction" xi). Thus, the relatively small numbers of Chinese immigrants, coupled with the perception of Japan as a fascist nation attacking a helpless China, aided in preparing an audience for The Good Earth that did not perceive the Chinese as a threat, but as a people distantly exotic, submissive, and hard-working, struggling against the threat of poverty, natural disaster, and Japanese fascism.
Certainly Buck's own experiences in China and her social involvement suggest that she was, indeed, sympathetic to the Chinese. Although critics have rarely used race as a frame of reference for discussing The Good Earth, they have noted Buck's concern for tolerance and her own multi-cultural past. The "current academic enthusiasm for the multicultural and the interdisciplinary," as Jane Rabb writes, "should revive interest in the best works of Buck, who is nothing if not multicultural and interdisciplinary" (109). In her public life, Buck did much to promote civil rights. She served as a trustee of Howard University, received an honorary degree from Howard in 1942, spoke about the issue of black patriotism in the early days of World War II, opposed British colonialism, became close friends with Paul and Eslanda Robeson, coauthored American Argument, a dialogue on racism, with Eslanda Robeson, and attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover for her civil rights work.
Buck's expressed ideas on race and civil rights reflected the more enlightened cultural theories of the 1930s. As a result of anthropologists like Frank Boas, Americans were gradually accepting non-racialized explanations of cultural difference. In the ihirties, race as an affirming theory of superiority and inferiority would be relegated to the back alleys of American culture, no longer supported by science. In a review of Jacques Barzun's Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937), Buck criticized America's "'absurd modern belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another'" (qtd. in Conn, Pearl S. Buck 185). She pointed out that race could not be defined in any scientific or rational way, arguing instead that all cultures are "hybrids and amalgams" (Conn, Pearl S. Buck 185). From that point on, Conn claims, the opposition to racial hierarchies would become the central theme of Buck's work. In the forties, Buck lead a national campaign against the Chinese exclusion laws and spoke out against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. She was active in the civil rights movement from the moment she returned to the United States, contributing regularly to Crisis, published by the NAACP, and Opportunity, published by the National Urban League. In a rally at Madison Square Garden in 1942, Walter White, long-time leader of the NAACP, said Eleanor Roosevelt and Pearl Buck were the only two white Americans who understood the reality of black life (Conn, Pearl S. Buck xvi).
In a conversation after Buck gave a speech to a group in Harlem in 1932, Buck traced her attitudes about race to her childhood experiences living as a minority in China. The racial attitudes of Buck's father, Absalom, had also been shaped by his own childhood. Absalom's family owned at least two slaves and did not seem troubled by the moral dilemma this presented. His family taught him that racial hierarchy is natural, an attitude that would explain his sense of superiority over Chinese people, whom he was determined to save by leading them to a higher way. Buck spent the first half of her life as a missionary child and minority person, an experience, Conn asserts in his biography, that had much to do with her lifelong passion for racial understanding. In China, Buck had been both insider and outsider in two different cultures. Conn compares her position as similar to the "two-ness" of African-Americans as described by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. Buck, Conn argues, was one of the few white Americans to experience the double-consciousness, the sense of isolation and presumed inferiority that African-Americans experienced in American society. One of Conn's central assertions is that Buck's racial position in China strongly influenced her later commitment to racial equality and pluralism.
In her work, Buck often openly addressed racial and sexual equality as well. The Townsman (1945), according to Conn, "addresses America's racial prejudices, which Pearl Buck found even more retrograde and destructive than the nation's obsolete attitudes toward women" ("Pearl S. Buck" 115). The same year as the novel's publication, Buck wrote that the United States was tearing itself in two over the issue of race (Conn, "Pearl S. Buck" 116). Obviously, she felt it was important to write a novel with strong black characters like the Parrys, the only black family in Median, the small town of The Townsman. Buck also expressed her wish to the producers of the film version of The Good Earth that all Chinese be cast, but the two lead characters, Wang Lung and O-lan, ended up being played by white actors (Hoban 130).
For many reviewers and critics, the realism of The Good Earth contributed to its universal appeal, making discussions of race irrelevant. Paul Doyle writes, "Later she [Buck] came to realize, however, that these people were not just Chinese; they were representative of farming people the world over. They were universal in their struggles, in their joys, in their disappointments" (37). "Never by the slightest word or turn of phrase," Phyllis Bentley observes, "does Mrs. Buck call our attention to the difference of these customs from our own" (793). Not everyone, however, recognized the universality of the novel. According to Helen Snow:
No one was more astonished by the fantastic popularity of The Good Earth than its author. Neither the foreigners nor the Chinese liked it. The missionaries felt it lost them "face"; so did the nationalist Chinese, chiefly because of its "pornography." Yet for 40 years, the picture of China that was imprinted on the Western mind was the one Mrs. Buck had drawn. She must have got hold of a piece of the truth somewhere, I thought, if not about China then about humankind in a primitive setting. (28)
Despite the limited criticism of the novel, readers in the western world have overwhelmingly considered the novel realistic in its portrayal of Chinese culture. Given Buck's political involvement and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese life, no one has been willing to brand The Good Earth as a racist novel.
However, critics have also not addressed the subtle ways in which Buck's novel ultimately constructs the Chinese as a racial other in opposition to whiteness. Unlike "A Chinese Woman Speaks," with its normalization of Asian images, The Good Earth reveals hidden assumptions about race critics have failed to consider. The few specific references to dark and light skin and Wang Lung's two brief encounters with white characters reveal the ways in which race often remains a hidden discourse within the study of literature. Looking at his wife early in the novel, Wang Lung sees no "beauty of any kind in her face," but rather "a brown, common, patient face" with no "pock-marks on her dark skin" (19). After the birth of their first child, the narrator describes O-lan and the child as "brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth" (41). Later when Wang Lung decides to give two pearls, that O-lan had kept to give to her first daughter, to a prostitute in the town, Wang Lung angrily says to O-lan, "Why should that one wear pearls with her skin as black as the earth? Pearls are for fair women!" (188). The narrator describes the second daughter of Wang Lung as "an exceedingly pretty girl," with skin "fair and pale as almond flowers and she had a little low nose and thin red lips" (281). These descriptions privilege light skin, associating dark skin with rural life, poverty, and labor, and, in short, equating dark skin with lower-class status.
This association of skin tone and class is further highlighted in Wang Lung's two encounters with white foreigners. In his first encounter in the city, Wang Lung picks up a passenger, "a creature the like of whom he had never seen before" (108). He does not know if the person is male or female, but sees that it is tall and well-dressed. The foreigner, who is a white woman from America, pays him double his usual fair. Curiously, this encounter prompts Wang Lung to conclude that "after all people of black hair and black eyes are one sort and people of light hair and light eyes of another sort" (109). Later that evening O-lan tells him that she always begs of these white foreigners because they give silver instead of copper. The narrator says that this experience teaches Wang Lung "that he belonged to his own kind, who have black hair and black eyes" (110). In his second encounter with a white person, Wang Lung gives a ride to a man with "eyes as blue as ice and a hairy face" (125). The man gives Wang Lung a paper with a picture of a man, "white-skinned, who hung upon a crosspiece of wood" (125). This picture means nothing to Wang Lung, and his father says this must have been an evil man to have been punished this way. Soon after this second encounter, a man gives Wang Lung a picture "of blood and death," but the man pictured was "a man like Wang Lung himself, a common fellow, yellow and slight and black of hair and eye and clothed in ragged blue garments" (126). These examples suggest that light skin is associated with urban life, wealth, and upper-class status.
These references to skin tone that seem to privilege and set apart whiteness do not fit with Buck's commitment to racial equality and understanding, critical claims of the novel's universality, and the book's resonance with American audiences in the Great Depression. The lack of critical attention to race in The Good Earth reveals the ways in which whiteness is accepted as the universal, the norm, while remaining an absence. "Whiteness," according to Ruth Frankenburg in Displacing Whiteness, "makes itself invisible precisely by asserting its normalcy, its transparency, in contrast with the marking of others on which its transparency depends" (6). This invisibility, according to Ann Louise Keating, gives whiteness "a rarely acknowledged position of dominance and power" (905). The privileged position of whiteness is relational, however, maintaining its meaning only in the context of social and cultural groups in relation to each other. In a hierarchical system in which whiteness remains securely at the top, all non-white groups are racialized and set in opposition to whiteness as the sine qua non of American life.
Before Wang Lung's encounter with white foreigners, light skin in the novel is already associated with beauty and higher class status. His actual encounters with the white foreigners reveal them as both rich and generous, unlike the rich Chinese in the novel, who are rich and greedy. Wang Lung, who had never seen a white foreigner before, automatically assumes the opposition of dark and light skinned people. He accepts that these different people are and should remain separate, sticking to their own kind in a sense. These differences are assumed to be innate and essential and are further highlighted in Wang Lung's and his father's response to the second picture. In not recognizing the figure of Christ, the Chinese are set in opposition to white Anglo and European cultures because they do not recognize the most sacred, essential image of western Christian culture. Buck's experiences in China would seem to contradict the opposition of Anglo-European and Chinese cultures in The Good Earth.
This disruption of the belief in whiteness as the norm appears in Buck's story "A Chinese Woman Speaks," published in Asia in 1925. Kwei-lan, the narrator, reveals the shock that her first contact with westerners has on what Conn calls a "sensitive but cloistered imagination" (Pearl S. Buck 84). When she sees a white foreigner for the first time, Kwei-lan describes him as a hideous, frightful creature. She observes that the man and his white wife are barbarous because they were born outside of China. Conn calls such episodes examples of "occidentalism," in which Asian images become the norm and the West as the symbol of deviance (Pearl S. Buck 84). Despite Buck's enlightened views of difference and her life experiences, Peter Conn does concede that whites in China in the years of Buck's childhood did occupy a privileged position, largely as a result of western military force (Pearl S. Buck 24).
The efforts to exploit China for trade reached a climax with the Opium War (1839-1842). British merchants and traders demanded that China open its ports to trade, including opium that was being grown and processed in British colonial plantations in India. China's defeat in the Opium War lead to the Treaty of Nanking. The main articles of the treaty secured privileges for the British throughout China. The United States and France quickly presented their own demands, ensuring one-sided advantages for Europeans and Americans. Westerners living in China were exempt from Chinese law under the terms of the treaty and could only be prosecuted by western authorities under western law and policy. These privileges extended to missionaries who were able to preach the gospel unimpeded by persecution or restriction. Chinese who attacked missionaries were arrested and punished severely. Since missionaries were protected by British military forces, the Chinese perceived them as a part of the effort to subject China to western imperialism. At the turn of the century, opposition to foreign occupation of China culminated in the Boxer Rebellion. Although Chinese committed acts of violence against some missionaries and Chinese Christian converts, troops from Russia, Japan, and the United States crushed the uprising. The treaty that followed imposed financial penalties and installed a permanent western military presence that would protect western interests in the region. As a result, white missionaries were beyond the reach of Chinese law; however, Conn argues that this position did not prevent Chinese contempt of whites and even periodic violence against missionaries. They knew that at any moment they could be attacked as foreigners.
Despite Conn's efforts to portray Buck's position in China as similar to that of a persecuted minority in the United States, Buck was still in a privileged position as a direct benefit of her own racial category. Her family lived in housing compounds surrounded by walls, equivalent to the houses of Chinese elites. She lead a protected home life, which included a Chinese "amah," or nanny, and other Chinese servants, and she was well aware of this privileged position as a white missionary. Later, she would call the missionaries' freedom to preach, open schools, establish hospitals, and preach "spiritual imperialism" (qtd. in Conn, Pearl S. Buck 28). She would even reject Christianity and openly criticize the missionaries. From the mid-1920s on, Conn observes, both popular culture and mainstream churches would join in such criticism (Pearl S. Buck 149).
Reading The Good Earth in these ways reveals how a novel not overtly concerned with race may contain a subtle discourse that, in fact, says much about racial construction in American culture. Whiteness, as Elizabeth Ellsworth argues, is a dynamic of cultural production and interrelation, of learned social and cultural performances (260). Whiteness is always shifting, always historically framed and situated. And as Martha Mahoney writes, "whiteness, like other racial constructions, is subject to contest and change" (330). "Whiteness," Mahoney continues, "is historically located, malleable, and contingent" (330). Since whiteness is not a real, inherent, natural phenomenon, it must be understood, Rebecca Aarenud argues, as "a highly orchestrated product of culture and nature" (43). She believes that we must recognize whiteness not as a matter of skin color, but as a phenomenon that must be continually reproduced in order to disrupt the belief of whiteness as the status quo, as the norm, as the standard. By analyzing the production of whiteness in The Good Earth, we may disrupt the privileged position of whiteness and, as Morrison suggests, recognize the subtle ways in which the novel is complicit in the discourse of white supremacy.
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