[5 May 2014]
David H. Ikard’s Blinded By The Whites examines the myth of America as a post-racial society. Ikard writes that his aim is “to suss out and make legible this new and ever-shifting ideological discourse of white supremacy that frustrates black self-determination, agency, and empowerment in the twenty-first century”, which he achieves by using examples from literature, current events, and the personal arena. Split into six chapters, the book makes a compelling argument that to believe in a post-racial nation is to turn a blind eye to the disparities of American life and the ongoing hardships that black Americans face.
He examines Edward P. Jones’ novel The Known World with great care, arguing that what little scholarship exists on the novel fails to examine one of the more intriguing questions it raises, that of how white supremacy “goes ‘awry’ and wreaks havoc in the lives of the white-identified groups it was ostensibly to designed to empower” and, he adds, “the Africans who adhere consciously and unconsciously to its twisted racial calculus”.
He writes of what author Toni Morrison characterized as “parasitical nature of white freedom”, a phenomenon, she notes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, that ultimately portrays blacks as inferior so that whites might feel “human and free”. Jones, Ikard adds, also sees how class can color whites: one character in Jones’ book is labeled as “white trash” and therefore treated as an other such that he is distanced from other whites, becoming, in effect, a discredit to his race. This, of course, only intensifies the character’s feelings of superiority even though he identifies on an emotional level with the blacks he finds himself surrounded by.
These are brief examples from the extended and lucid argument that occupies the first chapter and extends into other areas of the book. Ikard discusses his own introduction to black feminism which, he writes, happened not in the college classroom, but rather within the confines of his own home and his own family as well as through literature. He launches into an extended example of an incident which occurred in his family in which an aunt was impregnated by his father (her brother), then shamed as a “fast” woman who had seduced an otherwise upright man. He is, he writes, “Sickened and angry” not only by the elder man’s actions but, he adds, by his “unconscious complicity in defending the patriarchal narrative that provided him with the cultural and political cover.”
This and other events energized him into exploring how both black masculinity and black femininity had inadvertently conspired against themselves and had often reinforced notions of white male supremacy. The example from Ikard’s family history is moving and appropriate to his larger point and as powerful as anything he examines elsewhere in these pages.
Blinded by the Whites comes into full focus, though, in its later chapters, in particular the powerful third chapter that details Paul Beatty’s excellent novel The White Boy Shuffle and the impact that a father’s attempt to assimilate into whiteness have on his son. The novel is not for the faint of heart. It takes up topics of child sexual abuse and psychological torture and raises larger questions about sexual abuse within the black community. Ikard immerses himself in harrowing psychological and emotional terrain, exploring some of the darkest places of humanity in order to reveal the deep-seated nature of racial problems.
It is here and in his discussion on sexuality and empowerment in the book’s fourth chapter that Ikard is at his most frank, as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of homophobia and racism. He ends the chapter on a hopeful note, suggesting that despite increased incarceration rates, skyrocketing unemployment and the like, some young men are raising questions about homophobia and racism and attempting to demonstrate their intolerance of intolerance, a characteristic that can only help elevate humankind.
The book’s final chapter examines the disruptive role that the 2009 film Precious (and the earlier novel which spawned it) had in the black community. Rather than examine the film from the “pro/con” perspective Ikard instead delves into the myriad race and class implications surrounding both. Despite the diversity of the novel’s readership, he writes, the book has been “elevated to the pinnacle of black ‘realness’ by a noticeably white and paternalistic body of readers that cut across political lines.”
He provides examples from Percival Everett’s excellent 2001 novel Erasure to support this sub-thesis, rolling out the examples that Everett uses to discuss the distortion of black realities for a white audience. (Everett offers, Ikard writes, a description of a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, which is a fairly obvious reference to P U S H, the novel upon which Precious is based, and its author, Saphire.)
It’s unfair to suggest that Ikard is at his best in this chapter or that his descriptions and analysis are any more intriguing than elsewhere in the book, but the closing pages offer the most rapid reading and are filled with details that examine the humor and theater of the debate over black identity. But this also raises questions as to why, in a supposedly post-racial society, a fascination with films such as Precious and The Help remains.
There are other questions to be asked, too. Indeed, Ikard’s book will leave one thinking.