Month: June 2010

Future White: The Imaginary of a White-only World

(The following essay is a re-working of a conference paper from the March 2010 National Council for Black Sudies Conference in New Orleans.)

Nearly halfway through the 1972 film Cabaret, a blonde, Hitler Youth boy stands up and begins to sing a rousing, Nazi hymn.  Soon, he is joined by the fervent adult café patrons singing with passion the hymn’s refrain: “Tomorrow belongs to me.”  The whiteness of the future is a taken-for-granted condition, and it is taken so because it is the taken-for-granted condition of the present moment.  That is, the dominant representation of human beings and human society remains white representation despite the majority status of people of color.  But it is not a question of numbers but of power.

What we dare to imagine is also a question of power.  If people of color cannot be disappeared, then they are imagined in numbers that do not challenge white majority or power.  The difference is between the extreme and the moderate imaginary of a white future.  What matters in both positions is that the racial hegemony be maintained. This is an ideological reproduction of whiteness, the habitus of white supremacy, the “… structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them” (Bourdieu 53). The habitus of white supremacy thus remains masked, including the mask of science fiction.  The representations of the future follow a genealogy and logic of representation consistent with the grand narrative of Western Civilization.  Canonical narratives, and also those post-structural narratives, center Western and “white” history as the essential history of human progress.

Why shouldn’t white writers and producers imagine a future world for imagined white audiences?  This representation of whiteness, that is, its ubiquity its typicality, and its mobility, do not necessarily emerge as a consciously or willfully racist imaginary.  Rather, the white supremacist imaginary I wish to trouble is the conviction submerged in the expectation that whiteness is the “natural” condition of the world and the assumption that what is good for white Europe, the white Americas, white Australasia, white populations anywhere in the world, is best and right for the world.  Moreover, those people of color found worthy of the future, if any, are those who best approximate what may be called white-ways-of-being-in-the-world, or being-for-the-whiteness-of-the-world, also called Westernization, which Dr. Cress-Welsing reminds us, along with West and Western, is a code term for whitening and white (23).

The growth of print capitalism and the subsequent journalism profession and book industry, along with the professionalization and standardization of education, made it possible for the various European powers to “naturalize” their power in the world through the dissemination of white narratives of superiority and destiny.  Fanon refers to this process as the creation of a Manichean world (41).  The development of audio and visual mass media, specifically film and later television, extended the reach of these narratives.

The extreme and moderating position correspond to a conservative or right wing and a liberal-progressive or left wing futurist imaginary of white supremacy wish-fantasy. In science fiction, from among many possible examples, I will look primarily at the 1951 film When Worlds Collide as the extreme position and The Star Trek franchise as the moderate position.  There are anomalies in the mainstream that dare imagine a future that is not exclusively or near exclusively white, namely the recent film adaptations, The Time Machine and Children of Men.

White Flight: When Worlds Collide

Producer George Pal, screenwriter Sidney Boehm and director Rudolph Mate’ adapted the 1951 film When Worlds Collide from the 1932 Wylie and Balmer novel of the same name.  The fundamental story is as follows:  a dying star is on a collision course with Earth.  A small group of scientists recognizes the impending doom, reports it to the world governments, and proposes building a fleet of new “Noah’s Arks” to fly to what seems to be a hospitable planet.  When they are rebuffed, several industrialists, and especially the super wealthy Sydney Stanton, agree to fund the building of a rocket ship to carry 40 people to the new planet, all in about 8 months.  In the novel, white, educated, Christian professionals comprise the remnant to be spared destruction.  The only person of color to make it onto the ship is Kyto, the Japanese servant of one of the characters.  He is written out of the film.

An ethos of eugenics pervades the novel and film.  Dave Ransdell, the pilot who first delivers the astronomical report to the concerned scientist, is a paragon of Anglo-Saxon transnational masculinity.  He is a South African citizen born and educated in Pretoria whose father was an Englishman ranching in Montana.  His mother was a girl from Montana whom the Englishman married and whisked away to the Transvaal.  Dave is tall, blond, handsome, witty, and flirtatious.  Women are drawn to him.  Other men like him.  Dave Ransdell is completely unencumbered by the presence of people of color.  They simply do not exist for him, not even in the supper club where the band has no musicians of color nor visible wait staff of color.

The film projects an idyllic future on the new planet, most difference and the possibilities for contradiction having been erased by the remnant’s escape.  The survivors are homogenous, heterosexual, paired like Noah’s animals, two of each useful kind.  The film re-enacts the Age of Exploration, this time without the complication of a racialized indigenous people.  However, the novel’s sequel does introduce an indigenous people on the new planet, and very quickly identifies them as Caucasian.  In both texts, it’s like a do-over for Columbus.

The release of the film coincided with the era of white flight from U.S. American cities.  When the star hits Earth, there are scenes of the Atlantic Ocean flooding the streets of New York as the undesirable external and internal immigrants have flooded them.  Now they are washed away in the deluge, as is the population of this overwhelmingly colored planet.  The fictional, cinematic, “real” flight of the characters flows neatly into the historical, metaphorical white flight out of the cities.

The Prime Directive

Since the eradication of people of color is unlikely, and indeed impractical for capitalism, the practical habitus of white supremacy is white control, the maintenance of white hegemony. This practice functions fully in another Age of Exploration do-over, Star Trek, the creation of Gene Roddenberry, a declared liberal humanist (Bernardi 34).

The mid 1960s television show Star Trek has developed into what Daniel Bernardi calls a mega-text, “a relatively coherent and seemingly unending enterprise of televisual, filmic, auditory, and written text” (7). The ongoing popularity of Star Trek encouraged the creators to make several feature length films and a new television version by the late 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The popularity of this version spawned two more spin-offs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.  The future imagined in Star Trek realizes most of the socially progressive, utopian even, ideals: peace among humans, no poverty, free and universal healthcare and education, democratic structures, no genuine distinction between classes.  The Earth has membership in the United Federation of Planets, a league of planets which maintain political independence and freely associate for purposes of trade, cultural and scientific exchange and mutual defense by Starfleet, the Federation’s military institution and the jewel of the Federation, and the principal site of Star Trek’s narratives. 

One thing remains clear in the Star Trek mega-text, and that is what I am calling the prime directive; white characters must be in charge, even in this egalitarian future.  White supremacy is softened but not challenged.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, featuring an African American captain, has curiously enough taken on a type of heretical status.  This version of the text does routinely raise troubling questions about the utopian future of the mega-text, for example, the notion that Starfleet officers may achieve their ends by subterfuge, or that there would arise dissidents within the Federation.  But really, in this essay, I am less concerned with these disturbances in the Star Trek flow as I am in how the universe is imagined.  The universe of Star Trek is populated by whiteness.

Through the course of the original series, the crew of the Starship Enterprise finds a planet that looks like and has the technology of Twentieth Century Earth and a society in which the Roman Empire never fell.  They visit another planet in which one of their own officers, disregarding the Starfleet prime directive of non-interference in the politics and culture of new planets and people, has set up a new Nazi state.  They visit a planet ruled by people approximating classical Greece.  Where ever they go, they find a universe as white as the television world in which the actors, writers, directors and producers worked.  The vision of the universe confirms the ideology: whiteness, the phenotype associated with whiteness, is the norm.  Even those aliens who are green or blue or spotted humanoids retain white phenotype or European features.

The crew of Star Trek: the Next Generation visits exactly one planet in the universe populated by Black people, Ligon II, where the culture seems modeled on the Sahelian Kingdoms of West Africa circa the 12th and 13th Centuries.  Perhaps they also live on Ligon I, a planet never visited.  This aspect of the many alien “races” with which Starfleet comes in contact remains the case in Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  For example, one of the narrative lines in Deep Space Nine is that of Odo, a shape shifter or changeling, non-humanoid.  Odo’s people are essentially sentient, conscious liquid beings who simultaneously retain individual self-consciousness and a collective consciousness when they are in physical communion with at least one other changeling, a collective they call the Great Link.  Able to approximate any physical form, when they take humanoid shape, they always approximate whiteness.  They assume the humanoid form taken as normative in the universe of Star Trek.

The crews of all the various versions of the series are always multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-(humanoid) species.  The writers have the characters expressly talk about the Earth’s primitive past when racism almost destroyed humanity (Bernardi 27).  So whereas the makers of Star Trek saw and see themselves as engaged in a liberal project to de-emphasize race and promote tolerance, they reproduce the ideology of white supremacy despite their best intentions.  White circuits of power remain at play in the entertainment industry.  White producers hire white writers and white actors.  How else could the universe be visualized then?  Star Trek offers a picture of the future, an expectation of what many contemporary humans hope to find “out there,” and whom others hope one day will visit.  Much of what is hoped for is more of the same, the ubiquity of whiteness.

Black to the Future?

The 2002 version of socialist, feminist, futurist and racist writer H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine actually has our scientist-hero finding a future world in which the remaining humans have been de-industrialized and live in relative peace, the danger coming from the no-longer-human and white from lack of sun Morlocks who live beneath the Earth.  The typical human in this future is a person of color.  Our hero makes himself at home in this world, having thrown off any attachment he may have had to the white past with the loss of the fiancée that provoked his attempt to manipulate time.  The story maintains the habitus of white supremacy in that it is the story of one white man’s journey.  But by the end, our hero willingly gives up his whiteness as he settles into a life among his fellow humans, not as leader but as a member of the community.  The repository of knowledge, knowledge that outstrips the scientist’s own, is embodied in the holographic image of a Black man, played by Orlando Jones, a futuristic griot projected by what remains of 21st century technology.

The 2006 dystopian film Children of Men presents a vision of the future, a believable near future, in which environmental degradation and nuclear catastrophe have resulted in a world characterized by military totalitarianism, extremes of poverty and wealth, and most notably, generalized female sterility.  What is striking about this film is that it revolves around the only woman to become pregnant, a Black woman, an unambiguously, African descended Black woman.  This move was absolutely startling, a re-inscription of the Black Madonna as Black.  It offers a genuine break with racial representation traditions, dramatized more emphatically by the death of all the principal white characters.  That they would cast the character as a Black woman and get the film made seemed a genuine moment of rupture.  

Conclusion

If the functional habitus of white supremacy is white control, a more generalized habitus of white supremacy wish-fantasy is the erasure of the non-white.  This habitus is demonstrated in the genocidal practices of European settlement of the Americas generally.  Less well known are the institution of Sundown towns, U.S. towns and cities with written and unwritten laws that Blacks and other people of color had to be out of the town before the sun had gone down.  There was also the practice of running Black families out of towns in order to make them white towns.  To this we may add the sterilization practices of the Federal and various State governments, the extra-legal executions we call lynching, which included the ritual castration of the victim, thereby symbolically destroying the progeny of a dying or dead man, and indeed the redundant eradication of the individual, combining hanging, castration and immolation.  Today, the U.S. State and civil society resort to lynching-by-police-officer.

An imagined white future reflects an imagined white present.  The policies designed to secure the white present and future have only threatened them both.  They have resulted in de-funded public infrastructure -failing schools, closing hospitals, growing prison industrial complex- and the over development of outlying areas that further entrenches reliance on fossil fuels and encroaches on what is left of the natural environment.  These policies, along with the unofficial policy of Black removal euphemistically called gentrification and the official embrace of three strikes laws and a now ten-year-old reclassification of many Black people as Biracial, often self-selected, make their stand in the ideological space created by the cultural.  Greater Harlem is no longer majority Black.  Los Angeles continues to hemorrhage African Americans into the outlying counties of Southern California, and New Orleans still refuses to allow its levee Diaspora to return.  At a moment of delusional post racial fantasy, Black folks are being legislated, redlined and ideologized out of memory and out of the future.

Advertisements