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Introduction / Issue 36: The Matter of Whiteness

Published onMar 21, 2024
Introduction / Issue 36: The Matter of Whiteness

In 1989 feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh argued that white privilege was a kind of “invisible package of unearned assets” that white people unknowingly carried around with them.1 Through describing this white privilege, one could be made “newly accountable.”2 In 1995 American studies scholar George Lipsitz wrote that “Whiteness is everywhere in American culture, but it is very hard to see.”3 In his groundbreaking film study White, Richard Dyer followed suit, urging readers that “White people need to learn to see themselves as white, to see their particularity. In other words, whiteness needs to be made strange.”4 Issue 36 of InVisible Culture, “The Matter of Whiteness,” considers the cultural legacy of whiteness studies as it stands today. Three-plus decades since the discipline’s advent, does naming whiteness—“making it strange”—matter? And if so, how does it matter? Does attending to the visual matter of whiteness offer something that other critical inquiries of race cannot?

Philosophers such as Sara Ahmed and George Yancy have argued that, as a kind of locus of critical phenomenology and embodiment, the stakes of whiteness have never mattered more.5 American politicians continue to stoke the flames of white supremacist anger at the nation’s changing racial landscape. The slogan “make America great again,” for instance, has shed the subtlety that rendered it a dog whistle in the 2016 presidential election, only to be deployed with unabashed conviction alongside overt Nazi and white supremacist symbols in years since. These calls for the protection and reassertion of whiteness extend beyond the United States. Throughout Europe and Latin America ultra-right leaders have recently won elections by running on staunch anti-immigration platforms and cultivating neo-Nazi sympathies. The sentiment underlying these events is clear: for some, whiteness matters more than anything.

The articles and artworks in Issue 36 consider how culture continues to produce and sustain whiteness within the visual field. Working across performance, popular music, video, and fine art, the authors demonstrate how whiteness itself is a necessary analytic for visual studies. Specifically, by identifying where whiteness fails to fully cohere and hide the fissures of its own deployment in visual culture, the authors reveal how whiteness is a tool for naturalizing power and property relations. As W.E.B. Dubois noted over a hundred years ago, "Whiteness is the ownership of the world forever and ever."6 It is this myth of ownership, and its insidious persistence, that the authors in this issue challenge, or make strange, in their critical inquiries into visual culture.

Still from the music video for the song Tremenda selección (en vivo), by Radamel 666.

From the realm of performance studies, Juan Arias investigates how the queer Colombian punk band Radamel 666 encounters and distorts whiteness in their performance of the folkloric cumbia anthem “Yo me llamo cumbia.” Mobilizing Jose Muñoz’s theorization of punk performance as a “collision of matter,” “Demonizing Cumbia: The Skin and Flesh of Radamel 666's Version of “Yo me llamo cumbia” (My Name is Cumbia)” explores queer modes of pleasure in its foregrounding of cumbia’s Black origins. This queer methodology of pleasure challenges the decades-long process of cumbia's commodification and consequent "whitening" in Colombia, which furthered the cultivation of an ideal white/mestizo Colombian consumer-subject.

Still of Tom of Finland in the documentary Daddy and the Muscle Men (1991)

In “Facing Sameness: Reconsidering the Radicality of Tom of Finland,” Hunter Scott examines the legacy of the artist’s popular homoerotic illustrations within the discourse of queer art and exhibition history. Specifically, Scott considers critical and popular reception of Tom’s work in light of what Lisa Duggan calls “the new homonormativity,” which she describes as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”7 Scott argues that the aesthetics of white hypermasculinity that dominate Tom’s oeuvre have produced a kind of latent homonormativity endemic of contemporary fascist ideologies. Ultimately, Scott urges critics and scholars to embrace a queer politics of intersectionality in order to confront the multiple systems of power that construct Tom’s “queered masculinity” and perpetuate homonormative politics of privatization, consumption, and the latent whiteness that upholds those relations of power.

To accompany these articles, this issue reproduces Abby Maxwell’s textile triptych, milk fills in the gaps (2023), with a complementary essay by the artist. A personal reflection on whiteness—as embodied, historical, contingent, or immanent to the natural world—milk fills in the gaps pulls together these various strands by emphasizing the material. Milk or cotton, for example, are woven directly into the textile work, transmuting their function beyond typically symbolic or representative forms of whiteness in visual culture into something structural—and largely invisible.

Just as whiteness fills in the gaps to become the invisible structural ground in Maxwell’s work, so it is revealed to perniciously materialize across visual culture by the articles selected for this issue. If whiteness is “a category of experience that disappears as a category through experience,” as Sara Ahmed famously puts it, then it is the task and strength of our journal of (in)visible culture to counter that disappearing act.8 Following Ahmed, we maintain that the force of critique lies in its capacity to fix our attention on the present and hold open contemplative space where the difficult matter of whiteness might otherwise slip away. Therefore, InVisible Culture offers this issue to name, question, and make strange the matter of whiteness.

The contributing editors of this issue are Helen “Daly” Arnett, Taryn Ely, Bethany Fincher, Bridget Fleming, and Victoria Taormina.

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