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National whiteness/national witness: Traumatic narratives by minorities in the United States and Canada, 1980–2000

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NATIONAL WHITENESS/NATIONAL WITNESS:
TRAUMATIC NARRATIVES BY MINORITIES IN
THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA, 1980-2000
submitted to the Graduate School of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison
in partial fulfillment ofthe requirements for the
degree of Doctor ofPhilosophy
By
Lauren Irene Vedal
Date of final oral examination: April 28, 201 0
Month and year degree to be awarded: August 20 1 0
The dissertation is approved by the following members of the Final Oral Committee:
Michael Bernard-Donals, Professor, English, UW-Madison
Susan Stanford Friedman, Professor, English, UW-Madison
Sean Teuton, Associate Professor, English, UW-Madison
Birgit Brander Rassmussen, Assistant Professor, English, UW-Madison
Victor Bascara, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies, UCLA
NATIONAL WHITENESS/NATIONAL WITNESS:
TRAUMATIC NARRATIVES BY MINORITIES IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA,
1980-2000
by Lauren Irene Vedal
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
(English)
at the UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON
2010
UMI Number: 3437025
All rights reserved
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UMI 3437025
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© Copyright by Lauren Irene Vedal 2010
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i
to S, with love
p
Acknowledgements
I would like to acknowledge the help of my dissertation committee (Michael Bernard-Donals,
Susan Friedman, Victor Bascara, Sean Teuton, and Birgit Brander Rassmussen), several readers
at the University of Wisconsin Writing Center (Taryn Okuma, Sherry Johnson, Leah Mirakhor,
and Sarah Harrison), and my dissertation group (Sherry Johnson and Danielle Warthen). I would
also like to thank my mother for her support both financial and emotional, and Samaa
Abdurraqib without whom much would not have been possible.
Ill
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Dedication
Acknowledgements
?
Introduction
1
Chapter 1
"When I wanted us to be like the families in the books":
American Victimhood and the Maintenance of White Innocence
54
Chapter 2
Geographies of Victimhood and Whiteness: Canadian National
Identity and First Nations' Trauma
97
Chapter 3
Immigrant Desire: Contesting Canadian Safety in Dionne
154
Brand's In Another Place, Not Here
Chapter 4
(Mis)Recognition , Whiteness and the Struggle for Racial
223
Reconciliation
Conclusion
277
Appendix A
287
Works Cited
291
Introduction
Knowing What's Best for Poor People. Having Black Friends. Taking a Year Off. Being
Offended. Hating Corporations. Promising to Learn a New Language. According to Christian
Lander, these desires characterize whiteness, or at least white people. In January 2008, Lander
founded the blog Stuff White People Like, which was intended as satire but received a heated
public reaction. Only a month after its inception, it was featured on National Public Radio, and
had received more than 4 million hits, ("Stuff White People Like" NPR) and by March it had
received 16 million (Jones). In July 2008, selections from the blog were published in a book of
the same title. The blog received varied reactions—those who reacted angrily, claiming that the
blog was racist; those who found it amusing, and enjoyed recognizing themselves (or others) in
the blog' s humorous characterization of whiteness; and those who found it to be mild social
commentary, making whiteness (albeit a specific form of liberal, middle class whiteness)
visible.1
On February 24, 2008, the blog posted an entry called "#75 Threatening to Move to
Canada." The blog explains:
Often times, white people get frustrated with the state of their country. They do
not like the President, or Congress, or the health care system, or the illegal status
of Marijuana. Whenever they are presented with a situation that seems
unreasonable to them, their first instinct is to threaten to move to Canada. [...]
Examples of these positions and others can be found in the "Comments" section of every blog
posting. In addition, most discussions of the site include some reference to these varying
responses. See Jones, Phillips, Van Kerckhove, Shropshire, Sternbergh, and France.
2
Though they will never actually move to Canada, the act of declaring that they are
willing to undertake the journey is very symbolic in white culture. [...] Within
white culture, it is agreed upon that if Canada had better weather it would be a
perfect place. (Lander "#75 Threatening to Move")
While the tone of this posting is a gentle, tongue-in-cheek humor, the content itselfpresents at
least a couple of serious questions: What is the relationship between whiteness and Canada? And
might investigating this relationship help us understand something about whiteness?
Canada does not play a dominant or highly visible role in the American imaginary
(compared to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or Iraq and Mexico today). In fact, the first
things to come to contemporary American minds about Canada are jokes.2 The blog, however,
suggests that Canada represents something very specific in the white, liberal, American
imaginary: "a perfect place." According to Lander, what makes this place perfect is "a perfect
healthcare system, legalized everything, and no crime" (Lander "#75 Threatening to Move").
Essentially, Canada is a utopia, an impossible idyllic place.4 I would argue that Canada's image
as an ideal for white Americans is more than an expression of shared cultural values among
As Jody Berland writes in North ofEmpire: "There is no surer sign of satiric intent in American
films and late night television than a reference to Canada" (1). She provides examples from
South Park to The Daily Show.
Lander, himself, is a white Canadian {Boston Globe). His position as a Canadian, living in the
United States, certainly shapes his observation of this phenomenon, just as my own identity as a
US-Canadian dual citizen shapes mine. My identity shapes my research on this topic in many
ways. For further analysis, see Appendix A.
This view is seconded by James Doyle who writes that Canada is "a kind of fantasy land
through which Americans contemplate their own country's shortcomings and envision a simpler
and more aesthetically satisfying world" (355).
3
white, middle-class, left-leaning Americans. It bolsters and shapes an epistemology of whiteness
that goes far deeper than life-style choices and political preferences—it is about race, racial
injustice, and white guilt. For in addition to being the ideal to which "they will never actually
move," this image of Canada bolsters an idea of white supremacy that white liberals can
stomach—one where everything is "perfect" and therefore, more pointedly, one where whites
need not feel guilty for racial injustice.
Canada represents, then, not just freedom from the frustrations of contemporary
American life, but an escape from the baggage of historical trauma, specifically the racial
trauma, that is at the foundation of American identity. Indeed, white Americans—and not just
liberals—yearn to escape this trauma, and in fact feel oppressed by it. This sense of oppression
takes different forms. For example, many white Americans feel burdened by guilt for their
participation in a system of domination that was in place before their birth, while others feel
discriminated against by efforts to repair the effects of this history. The once unquestioned
dominance of whiteness has been shaken by gains made by civil rights and progressive
movements (as well as by distorted perceptions of those gains) and the changes in demographics
in the past 40 years. Challenges to white supremacy have given rise to a powerful backlash both
in the United States and globally (Hewitt). The desire to rid themselves of the baggage of racial
trauma is not limited to American whites. Indeed, white Canadians, too, have attempted to free
themselves from historical guilt.5
As Daniel Coleman writes in White Civility, "both kinds of violence [psychological violence as
well as physical brutality], and a whole range of injustices in between them, must be repeatedly
forgotten if White Canadians wish to sit comfortably with their claim to multicultural civility"
(8). In Multiculturalism and the History ofCanadian Diversity, Richard Day discusses the
official Canadian move to multiculturalism and "integration" and away from exclusion and/or
4
That white people feel oppressed by guilt or by attempts to rectify past wrongs suggests a
larger question of how concepts of victimhood and oppression might at times be used to bolster
white supremacy, rather than to challenge it. Indeed in the past three decades, the construction of
whiteness in the US and Canada has developed a relationship to victimhood that works to re-
establish the dominance of whiteness. This dissertation seeks to answer three main questions:
how does the rhetoric of victimhood and trauma re-establish white dominance; how is this
rhetoric tied to national identity; and yet, how might concepts of victimhood still provide useful
knowledge for countering oppression?
To answer these questions I will need to examine whiteness and its limitations in the
context of a cultural backlash against the (perceived) gains made by minorities in the previous
decades. In the first two chapters I describe the specific national contexts, including key political
figures; the historical moment and past, where relevant; as well as the germane cultural debates.
These contexts begin to reveal how backlash and a desire to avoid confronting white guilt creates
a relationship between whiteness and victimhood, most often to the disadvantage of people of
color. While victimhood is certainly a problematic rhetoric, this dissertation does not reject the
importance of traumatic memory and knowledge entirely. Instead, this dissertation takes
instances and experiences of racial trauma to be privileged vantage points from which to
understand whiteness. I, therefore, look to literature produced by a variety of marginalized
subjects in the US and Canada: poor white, queer, First Nations, Afro-Caribbean, Latino, and
Indian-American. Placing these varied texts and experiences in conversation allows for an
assimilation as strategies to manage difference in light of post-WWII attitudes that balked at
explicit racial exclusion; these strategies included a whitewashed history that denied racial
violence and oppression (158-76).
5
understanding of whiteness that is not limited to a black-white binary. Moreover, the readings of
whiteness that emerge from these texts are necessarily shaped by an awareness of the role of
intersectionality in identity and experience. Most salient in my readings are gender and sexuality,
although class is certainly important as well. These multi-layered identity categories will help me
illustrate how whiteness functions in tandem with other systems of oppression, and how it
operates through our multiplicitous, embodied experiences.
I have chosen texts in which personal trauma intersects with collective trauma, in other
words, where intimate suffering meets systemic forces. In all of these works, national institutions
and national narratives are implicated in the victimization. I examine the role the nation plays in
producing victimization as well as in re-establishing white supremacy. These texts do more than
simply identify whiteness, how it works, and the damage it causes (although all of them do this).
None of these texts are Utopian; nevertheless, they go beyond documenting a flawed reality to
propose new ways of seeing and being in the world. They push us toward imagining change,
change as a process that is both possible and necessary. My readings, therefore, explore what
hopeful futures these texts might imagine without ignoring the painful pasts and present to which
they testify.
While whiteness is widely understood in terms of dominance—hegemony and invisible
privilege—this dissertation argues that it also bears a less obvious connection to trauma and
victimhood. National narratives about trauma and victimhood tend to obscure the violence of
whiteness, as well as the specifically racial forms of victimhood and trauma that result.
Traumatic narrative can, therefore, be a tool of whiteness that obscures white privilege. The
meanings of trauma and victimhood are mediated by national identity and narrative, producing
6
nationally specific expressions of whiteness. In other words, whiteness mobilizes ideas of
victimhood and incorporates other axes of difference, such as national identity, in order to defang
challenges to its supremacy. This dissertation argues, furthermore, that the epistemically
advantaged position of marginalized people illuminates how whiteness makes use of concepts of
victimhood and speaks to what could be done to alter these circumstances. Ultimately this
dissertation concludes that trauma and victimhood are still useful categories, and that examining
the knowledge that trauma provides can lead us toward healing. In other words, rather than
seeing all traumatic memory as a "wounded attachment" or competition in the "victim
Olympics," it can allow us to mediate the different experiences of pain and loss and allow us to
identify what needs to be done to affect healing and change. I argue that these texts, rather than
delimiting victimhood, show the importance of claiming and recognizing victimhood as a step in
the process of accepting accountability and agency in a profoundly unjust world.
This introduction explains: why it is important to study whiteness, and why study it from
a literary studies perspective; what the relationship of trauma and whiteness is; and why compare
whiteness in the US and Canada. Finally, the introduction lays out my comparative methodology
and outlines the chapters to come.
Whiteness
Before I develop the ideas of national identity, victimhood and whiteness further, it is
important to understand why undertaking an investigation of whiteness is worth pursuing at all.
In 1 946, Richard Wright stated "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem"
(quoted in Lipsitz 1). His statement suggests that we need to look beyond the effects of the
7
problem to the causes and to recognize that these causes exist in this thing called "whiteness."
But whiteness is hard to define, and antiracist thinkers have approached it from a number of
different angles. In the last fifteen years, much of this work has been done explicitly under the
banner of "whiteness studies."6 In "Addressing the Crisis ofWhiteness," Kincheloe and
Steinberg write that no one knows what whiteness is but it is tied to race constructions, power
and power differences, hegemony and money (5); they also add that it is connected to
Enlightenment rationality (16). Other scholars have noted that it is tied up with capitalism and
Western European colonialism (Patterson 104, Lee 148). Whiteness works to both privilege
white racial identity and to make that privilege invisible. As Gregory Jay puts it: "Whiteness
functions as a large ensemble of rules and practices that give White people all sorts of small and
large advantages in life" (cited in Frideres 44). This view is seconded by Eva Cherniavsky in
Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics ofCapital, who refers to "the juridical,
Whiteness Studies is a loosely defined intellectual project that draws from different disciplines
and theoretical perspectives. In general, whiteness studies is committed to antiracism through a
better understanding of how whiteness as a racial identity category is privileged and how that
privilege is made invisible (and thus naturalized). Some of the methods include
(auto)ethnography, historical analysis, and literary analysis. Whiteness scholars come from a
variety of disciplines including sociology, literature, and philosophy, as well as the more
interdisciplinary fields of cultural studies, American studies, and critical race studies. In
Breaking the Code ofGood Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness, Melanie Bush usefully
breaks whiteness studies into three types of investigation: those of racialized imagery, those of
everyday thinking, and those of theoretical constructions of race. (For other categorizations of
whiteness studies see Bonnet and Cherniavsky) I think it is also helpful to categorize studies of
whiteness into those that focus on the historical emergence of whiteness, those that focus on
representations and constructions of whiteness, those that focus on pedagogy, and those that
focus on alternatives for white identity. Of course, whiteness studies is not the only area where
this work occurs. Critical race studies has a long history of trying to understand how whiteness
functions (Roediger, Black on White). In addition, there are scholars working on whiteness who
actively distance themselves from whiteness studies (for example, Kapana Seshadri-Crooks and
Eva Cherniavsky) which they see as being limited to certain models and goals.
8
political, and social protocols" that make up white privilege (62).7 Whiteness therefore applies to
a wide variety of intersecting dynamics that structure the experiences and life possibilities of
white people (and conversely, the experiences of nonwhite people as well). Some of these
dynamics include: assumptions about our intelligence and competence as well as assumptions
about our intentions and motivations; biases in institutional encounters from legal proceedings to
financial lending; the nature of our everyday social interactions as well as the large-scale
collective histories that bequeath legacies of wealth to some as well as the possibility for upward
social mobility.
In Urban Triage, James Kyung-Jin Lee makes a revealing connection between whiteness and
capitalism. He writes: "[Whiteness] is, of course, neither natural nor biological—even
neoconservatives argue this much. But it is a real social currency, as much a status of truth as
money is, as Marx wrote, at bottom, a sign of real social relations. But if whiteness and material
accumulation are like each other insofar as they depend on the surplusing of others' power and
labor—and toward the end of this chapter, I will suggest that there is more than simply a
metaphorical relation—that surplus is not sustainable. Marx's valuable insight into the
commodity does not turn on, as some postmodernists have argued, the commodification of
everything [...]. His contribution to the commodity lies in his analysis of the kind of social
relation the commodity, most visible in money, produces: commodities like whiteness, depend
on the expropriation and therefore exploitation of value—and people—for its sustenance. [. . .]
Whiteness demands of its adherents more bodies to break, more faces to ridicule, more cultures
to negate so that its power retains the fiction of its omnipotence. [...] whiteness' s historical
hoarding of the social wage—what some might call public space or the public sphere—cannot
continue indefinitely. Eventually, it feeds on itself, eats up its own children, its embrace of others
into its gated community tightening to become a grip of death" (148-49). I find this useful
because it ties together several important aspects of whiteness. 1) Whiteness (as opposed to
simply white people) has no purpose except domination and exploitation (Frankenburg 74-75,
Seshadri-Crooks 7). 2) Whiteness is a commodity (Harris, Cherniavsky). 3) Like capitalism,
whiteness is more than the sum of its parts. In other words, whiteness is not simply the practice
of racism. If we consider that the basis of capitalism to be private property and a free market, we
can recognize that this basis does not adequately describe the role of capitalism in modern life
(either the fact that it is premised on inequality and exploitation, or the ways that capitalism
structures our governments, lifestyles, and even desires). To look at whiteness in this way, we
can see that while the premise of whiteness is white supremacy and its mechanism is racism, its
affect on our daily lives goes far beyond those premises. 4) As Lee argues, whiteness as a system
can adapt by sacrificing its "own" and incorporating "others" who embrace its premises.
The operation of whiteness is readily visible in its effects, such as racism and inequality.
But, it is important to look at whiteness itself in order to change the origins as well as the effects,
the causes of racism as well as the behavior. The goal of such a project is not about demonizing
white people, nor letting us off the hook. Scholars have noted that whiteness is not to be simply
conflated with white people (Kincheloe and Steinberg 17, Dei ix, Cherniavsky 58). Indeed, white
identity is not monolithic. Moreover, white responses to their own positions within a system of
racial domination vary considerably.9 However, George J. Sefa Dei notes that whiteness and
white identity work together. He writes: "personal accountability, and collective responsibilities
and complicities, cannot be avoided or skirted around by focussing [sic] on how White bodies
are trapped by the system. Consequently, while we may be seduced into separating 'White
identity' and 'Whiteness,' there is a link that must not be denied" (x). This project, then, is
interested in examining whiteness as it operates both through white people and more broadly as a
system, with the goal of finding ways in which all people, white and nonwhite, might be able to
find freedom from the systemic effects of whiteness.
While there are clearly many factors that create whiteness and contribute to how it
operates, I am most concerned with its foundational role in the creation of epistemology and
subjectivity. For whiteness is not simply a set of beliefs; it is a worldview that shapes beliefs
In "Behind Blue Eyes" Howard Winant writes: "Clearly, there are many varieties of
'whiteness.' [. . .] it is no longer possible to assume a 'normalized' whiteness, whose invisibility
and relatively monolithic character signify immunity from political or cultural challenge"
(Winant 3). Whiteness is expressed differently based on gender, class, region, political
affiliation, national identity, and even personal choice. These differences in expression include
not only the superficial performance of whiteness but also beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
Such reactions include complacency, denial and defensiveness, guilt, embrace of antiracist
activism, as well as ambivalence.
10
about, and perceptions of, the world, others, and ourselves. In Breaking the Code ofGood
Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness, Melanie Bush points out that many studies of
whiteness focus on racialized imagery and language to explain white people's beliefs about race.
She argues that more significant is the "lack of understanding, as expressed through the
misperceptions and narratives drawn upon by everyday people, to explain systemic inequality"
(32). As Kincheloe and Steinberg write, whiteness is an "interpretive filter" (5, 8). What this
means is that whiteness exists not only in the content but in the underlying assumptions and
organization of everyday thought.
Whiteness is not simply an ideology underlying conscious thought, for it goes deeply
into our sense of self. In Desiring Whiteness Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks argues that whiteness
structures the individual identity and psyche of whites and nonwhites in a profound way.
Thinking about Lacan's idea of sexual difference she explains: "the inaugural signifier of race,
which I term Whiteness, implicates us all equally in a logic of difference. By Whiteness, I do not
mean a physical or ideological property [. . .] or a concept, a set of meanings that functions as a
transcendent signified. By Whiteness, I refer to a master signifier (without a signified)" (3). For
Seshadri-Crooks, whiteness shapes the psychic structure so that "racial anxiety, the unconscious
anxiety that is entailed by the sight of racial difference, has its cause not in ideology, but in the
structure of race itself, in the functioning of its master signifier, "Whiteness" (32). While I take
issue with Seshadri-Crooks' s assertion that meaningful change can only come about if we
11
radically alter the construction of the psyche, her argument potently expresses the depth of our
investment in whiteness.10
From my perspective, it is whiteness' s structuring effects on epistemology and
subjectivity that make it so insidious. Whiteness is a powerful epistemology, one that can
incorporate changes in public attitudes and representation without significantly altering its
premises. Melanie Bush asks: "Why do whites believe we have achieved racial equality in the
United States, while social and economic measures indicate otherwise?" (3). The epistemology
of whiteness clearly lacks explanatory power, for it cannot adequately make sense of these facts.
Yet it remains powerful and appealing for large segments of the population (white and often
nonwhite). However, like most researchers of whiteness, my goal is to investigate how whiteness
functions because I believe that understanding is a necessary step toward change. I examine the
I find Seshadri-Crooks's analysis provocative and important. Indeed, psychoanalytic theory is
very useful in cultural studies, for as Seshadri-Crooks points out, the individual psyche is not
private, but rather structured by a cultural language outside of us (24), and moreover, race and
racism are irrational, and are best dealt with as pathology (2). Where I take issue with SeshadriCrooks is the conclusion to which her analysis leads her. She writes: "Perhaps the more effective
ideological stance may be not to raise race consciousness among so-called "whites," as scholars
in Whiteness studies suggest, but to trouble the relation of the subject to the master signifier. One
must throw into doubt the security and belief in one's identity, not to promote some fulsome
claims to such identity" (36). Of course, whiteness studies must do more than create a racial
identity for whites. However, I am unconvinced that we can restructure our collective psyche by
reading Lacan rather than first understanding how race affects us in our everyday interactions.
11 Cherniavsky argues that whiteness studies is a "publisher's category." Indeed most studies and
scholarly conversations about whiteness include deep reservations about whiteness studies. In
particular, many voice the fear that whiteness studies re-centers whiteness, overshadowing the
increased visibility and recognition of scholarship on and from the margins (as if we haven't
been studying whites for the past 400 years). And while I have indicated that I believe whiteness
studies to be an antiracist project, this is not universally true (Bush 26). While I hear these
critiques and concerns and believe that it is extremely important to be critical of the aims and
effects of whiteness studies, I also believe that it can make a valuable contribution to critical race
12
functioning of whiteness in the imaginary space of literature. It is in addressing this problem of
the epistemology of whiteness that literary studies can provide a valuable contribution, for it is in
the realm of storytelling and imagination where social constructions, epistemology, and
individual subjectivity converge.
The dominant approach in whiteness studies is from the perspective of social science and
cultural studies. The specific qualities of literature and the methodologies of literary studies can
prompt the literary scholar to ask "what do I contribute?". However, literary analysis is
uniquely suited to address the question of whiteness, race, and trauma. Literature's focus on
subjectivity means that we can understand identity, trauma and victimhood as experience—that
is, as a complex mediation of emotion, external forces, interpellation, individuality and
embodiment. In "Why the Humanities Matter for Race Studies Today," Susan Koshy writes:
"Sociological studies may point to the permeation of psychic life and everyday experience by
racial meanings, but their analytic tools restrict them from investigating racial formation at the
level of desires, anxieties, memories, and dispositions that lie beneath the threshold of rational
consciousness" (1545). Literature has access to evidence that is outside the realm of positivistic
research.
This evidence is the terrain of literature and provides a way to map the relationship of the
individual psyche to larger social structures. This relationship is particularly salient for
studies particularly in involving white people in conversations about race (despite their
discomfort and profound desire for race to be in the past). It is in this spirit that I offer this study.
As Shu-mei Shih explains, in her introduction to the PMLA 's issue on Comparative Racialization,
humanists often feel "anxiety (and guilt) over literature's limits regarding political action"
(1360), and often "express endless anxiety over the racialization of thought through an infinite
critique of the derivative nature of disciplines and their theories" (1359).
13
understanding the effects of racial identity, racism, and whiteness. As Viet Thanh Nguyen
explains in "At Home with Race": "Racial and other formations of identity are precisely these
structures of feeling that we experience individually and yearn to understand collectively. [...]
Literature, of course, claims feeling for itself. The current of emotions that heats up the hothouse
of race, leaving us inflamed, is the same current running through literature" (1562-63). Literature
allows us to understand the interplay of the individual experience of emotion, desire and
embodiment, and the external forces of material inequality, power relations, and structures of
feeling. This is especially true in the case of racial trauma and its continued, collective effects.
The force of collective imagination is what gives race its continued power, and gives us
the potential to resist this power. In her seminal work on whiteness in American literature,
Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison suggests that literature creates "shareable imaginative
worlds" that can lead to empowerment (xii). As Morrison writes: "[Literature] offers an
unprecedented opportunity to comprehend the resilience and gravity, the inadequacy and the
force of the imaginative act" (xiii). In addition to providing a unique analytic window into racial
formation, literature in general (and fiction in particular) is imaginative and is apt for envisioning
change. Fiction is not limited to what is, but rather can include what should be, or what might be.
In Red Land, Red Power, Sean Teuton writes: "Among many Native peoples, to imagine is not to
see an illusion; it is to manifest that which once did not exist, to order the world" (27). 13 Ifthis
He draws on Karl Kroeber, who writes that there are two definitions of imagination:
"inventing mentally what has never existed and presumably never can, or willfully ignoring
physical actualities for psychically engendered "unrealities." [...] [On the other hand, imagination
is] a demand that you employ your psychic capacities to reach beyond what is immediately
present here and now and beyond routinized rational patterns toward some novel possibility. [...]
to allow your mind to move toward something not yet realized, but realizable" (qtd in Teuton 27)
14
idea can be applied to imaginative literature in general, we can see that understanding is only one
part of the contribution that is literary studies. The second contribution is to re-imagine the world
and thereby effect change. In other words, literary works spur not only analytical critique but
also creation.14 This dissertation relies not just on literary works' insight into the individual and
collective psyche, but on their imaginative and optimistic potential. This vantage point allows me
to analyze not only the subconscious, irrational functioning of whiteness and its destructive
effects, but also how we might be empowered to think and live differently.
Trauma and Whiteness
Trauma is linked to whiteness and can, thus, be a lens through which to understand
whiteness. Like literature, trauma produces a unique form of knowledge. We can therefore look
to narratives of racial trauma and victimhood to shed light on whiteness. Literature with its
access to the evidence of the irrational and unspeakable is an apt tool for accessing trauma and
the knowledge it can bring to bear on whiteness.15 However, we cannot accept traumatic
As James Kyung-Jin Lee writes in "The Transitivity of Race and the Challenge of the
Imagination": "Since the publication of both editions of [Orni and Winant's] Racial Formation,
we have taken on in ways unimaginable the question of how power—and, in this case, power as
racial hegemony—continues to impose modes of identity that we are loath to inhabit. But
somewhere along the way, in the midst of this enormous intellectual and political effort, we
missed the opportunity to do what the humanities do best: to imagine otherwise and then try to
live there" (1553). Lee calls for scholars to reclaim this ability and responsibility.
In Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth explains: "If Freud turns to literature to describe
traumatic experience, it is because literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex
relation between knowing and not knowing, and it is at this specific point at which knowing and
not knowing intersect that the psychoanalytic theory of traumatic experience and the language of
literature meet" (3).
15
narrative uncritically. Nations are invested in traumatic memory, as is white supremacy; they
work together to occlude the knowledge produced by racial victimization.
In Whiteness and Trauma, Victoria Burrows makes the important observation that the
rise of trauma studies coincides with the rise of whiteness studies, and yet there is little dialogue
between them. She writes: "It is my contention that trauma theory continues the disciplining of
knowledge within the constrictive paradigm of normative whiteness" (16). She goes on to
explain that trauma studies has relied on narrow definitions of trauma that do not include racism
(17). For example, this normative definition of trauma would not include the assault inflicted by
the white gaze on women of color (6-7).16 In addition, even for racial events that are indisputably
traumatic such as slavery, traditional literary trauma studies provides a limited purview for the
types ofrepresentation that can be examined.17 Certainly some scholars have made good use of
literary trauma studies and psychoanalysis to examine racial trauma (e.g. Claudia Tate, Ron
Eyerman). I propose that trauma can do more than simply show us the lasting, damaging effects
Burrows goes on to examine literary representations of the traumatic effects of everyday
racism. My project, on the other hand, examines how literary representations of trauma can
challenge the ameliorating relationship between whiteness, nation and victimhood.
17·
Historically, psychological disturbance has been coded as white. In Rehabilitating Bodies, Lisa
Long describes how 1 9th-century doctors saw neurasthenia as particularly affecting white
people's supposedly more sensitive nerves (197). Even when not explicitly racist, trauma theory
has not accommodated the multiple ways the trauma can be remembered and recovered from. In
Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture, Lisa Woolfork challenges "the
predominant antirepresentational ethos ofmuch current literary trauma theory" (2). Woolfork
argues "Whereas trauma is clinically viewed as private, slavery was a highly visible, public, selfreproducing system where the sentience of the enslaved was used to further implicate them in
bondage. The current designation of trauma as ephemeral or unapproachable does not take into
account the public and private, nationally and internationally, contested meanings of African
American slavery, a traumatic event that was represented even as it was happening" (3).
Woolfork therefore calls for, and produces, a more inclusive examination of traumatic
representation including the role of embodiment as a part of Black vernacular trauma theory.
16
of whiteness; it can provide insight into how whiteness works. In Playing in the Dark, Toni
Morrison argues that critical race studies has focused on the victim rather than the perpetrator of
racial injustice (90). In response, I use discourses of trauma and victimhood to look at the
perpetrator. That is to say, I examine whiteness through the lens of traumatic memory and
representation.
Traumatic memory is not limited to those who have been on the receiving end of
injustice. The racial experiences of white people are shaped by trauma as well. This is most
visible in how trauma informs white backlash, but it is also a part of the functioning of whiteness
more broadly. The backlash constructs whites as victims (Kincheloe and Steinberg, Frankenburg,
Apple). But to limit discussions of the relationship of whiteness and trauma to this point is to
miss the ways that trauma and loss are actual effects of whiteness on those of white racial
identity as well. Whites, too, are traumatized by race. In order to become white, many white
ethnics sacrificed their cultures and identities (Roediger, Wages). Perpetrators of atrocity are
psychologically injured, and this is no different for whites who engage in racial violence.18
Moreover, the legacy of racial injustice and ensuing feelings of guilt deeply shape the traumatic
emotional landscape of whites (Cheng, Gilroy). Even when white people are not actively playing
the role ofperpetrator, race is the unspeakable topic that recurs painfully. While there is trauma
1 O
Many slave narratives attest to slavery's damaging psychological effects on white people. As
Fredrick Douglass writes: "Nature has done almost nothing to prepare men and women to be
either slaves or slaveholders. Nothing but rigid training long persisted in, can perfect the
character of the one of the other. [...] Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly
broken down, who can repair the damage? It may be broken toward the slave on Sunday, and
toward the master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand entire, or it does not
stand at all" (152-53). In "The Souls of White Folks," Mab Segrest eloquently captures the
multiple tolls racism continues to take on white people in the 20th-century.
17
linked to the experience of white racial identity, too much focus on this trauma without
recognition of its role in the larger picture of injustice leads to blindness around issues of racial
injustice (essentially serving white backlash). For example, in Dark Threats and White Knights,
Sherene Razack argues that as the trauma of white peacekeepers in Rwanda became a
mainstream cause in the Canadian media, the trauma of the people they were there to help
(people of color) was erased. And, thus race disappeared as a site oftrauma.19
Nevertheless, trauma creates a specific kind of knowledge. As I've suggested, literature
can play a key role in understanding race and whiteness. Like literature, trauma presents specific
epistemological challenges and possibilities for the understanding of whiteness.20 This
dissertation makes use of these possibilities. Trauma is often understood as the absence of
knowledge—the inaccessibility of the event (even in the memory of the victim) and its defiance
of comprehension and narratability (Caruth, Felman, Laub). However, this does not relegate
traumatic memory and experience to the realm of epistemological deficiency. Rather, trauma
serves as a unique source of knowledge and as an impetus to pay attention to what this painful
knowledge might teach us. As scholars have observed, trauma is more than an injury; it is an
In Tangled Memories, Marita Sturken makes a similar argument regarding the trauma of white
Vietnam veterans; recognition-of their injuries has often obscured recognition of the suffering of
the Vietnamese.
Tal argues that there are meaningful differences between literatures written by individuals who
experienced the traumas they write about first-hand and literatures written about traumatic
events, which the authors did not experience. I am not disputing these differences, even though I
am examining fictional (though sometimes semi-autobiographical) representations of trauma.
Focusing on fiction does end up excluding many of the forms in which traumatic memory might
be expressed (including memoir, testimonials, poetry, music, film, pop culture and folklore), and
this is a limitation of this study. However, while the characters in the texts may be fictional, the
traumas they testify to—sexual abuse and racialized violence, in particular—are true.
18
ongoing effect (Erikson). This ongoing effect stems from the fact that the trauma cannot be
integrated. Because it cannot be integrated, it recurs (in silences, delays, gaps, omissions,
repetitions, compulsions, acting out). As such, the event itself is not only a rupture of the
everyday, but long after, it produces a challenge to coherent self and coherent narrative.
However, this lack of coherence need not be understood as lack of meaning. Trauma seeks to be
understood. And this is evidenced by the return of the repressed, the recurrences and
compulsions that trauma produces. This is true not only for the individual but also on a larger
scale. Such ideas have been explored in the notion of haunting, especially with respect to racial
injustice (Gordon).
Trauma has, in fact, become an increasingly important part of understanding experience,
oppression, and difference. In 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was recognized by the
American Psychiatric Association (Herman). Certainly there had been discourses on trauma
going back a century; but the recognition in 1980 was different. In particular, this discourse
included the recognition that trauma was not merely an individual experience, but also a
collective one (e.g. as a product of war or genocide). And, this understanding of collective
trauma includes the recognition of the traumatic effects of oppression (Herman, Bryant-Davis).
Not only is trauma a product of oppression, but it expresses knowledge ofthat
oppression. As such, it necessitates distinct forms ofhealing and action. In An Archive of
Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Ann Cvetkovich explains that healing
from trauma produces distinct practices and knowledges. Her view is seconded by Lynda Hart in
Between the Body and the Flesh. For Hart, the practices that allow for the healing of trauma can
19
create knowledge that counters hegemonic gender discourse.21 Trauma's potential for
challenging hegemony can be an important tool in collective identity and collective action. For
example, in Cultural Trauma, Ron Eyerman argues that African American identity stems from
the shared trauma of slavery. For groups, traumatic memory can be a source of identity and
solidarity, as well as opposition to continued oppression.
This understanding of collective post-traumatic practice requires that we consider trauma
more broadly—groups may bear some analogical similarities to individuals, but they are also
complicated, multiplicitous, and contradictory. Individual experiences of trauma are complicated
too, not always conforming to literary tropes. Traumatic events are often directed against (as well
as produce) marginalized identities. And yet, trauma is often not the term used to describe the
effects of racial violence, or racism more broadly (Cvetkovich, Burrows). This is in part because
the relationship between the haunting effects ofpast racial trauma and the more insidious forms
of present racism doesn't conform to the now-standard theoretical models of trauma.22 Ann
Cvetkovich observes that while these large-scale racial traumas haunt the present "they take
surprising forms, appearing in the textures of everyday emotional life that don't necessarily seem
traumatic and certainly don't fit the model of PTSD. [...] Everyday forms of racism, many of
which are institutional or casual and thus don't always appear visible except to those who are
In examining the s/m practices of incest survivors, Hart argues that women are able to become
their own witnesses and thus challenge patriarchal scripts. She writes; "Women who speak the
unspeakable truths of incest thus become witnesses not to private acts secret-ed by personal
shame and guilt but to an entire symbolic system that erects itself on the foundation of the
negation of their experience" (203).
22 Most of these standard theoretical models emerged out of Holocaust studies and include the
work of scholars such as Cathy Caruth, Dominick LaCapra, Dori Laub, Shoshana Felman, and
Marianne Hirsch.
attuned to them, are among the effects of longer histories of racial trauma" (6). As these
everyday textures do not take recognizably traumatic forms, such as omission and compulsion, it
is easy for some to argue that many contemporary expressions ofracism constitute oppression,
but do not produce trauma. However, while the tropes identified by trauma studies may be useful
in recognizing certain forms of trauma, the absence of these tropes does not necessarily indicate
the absence of traumatic experience or knowledge. What Cvetkovich and Burrows encourage us
to see is that it is somewhat arbitrary to draw a firm distinction between trauma and
victimization. Looking at racial victimization, whether or not it conforms to the tropes of trauma
as defined in literary trauma studies, can tell us more about the effects of whiteness and its
workings than drawing a line in the sand between traumatic and non-traumatic.
This dissertation, thus, looks to different kinds of victimhood as distinct sources of
knowledge. Victimhood is a contentious term, as I will discuss in Chapter 1 . Critics from the left
and right have argued that focusing on the relationship of victimhood and identity emphasizes
disempowerment and keeps the identity of the victim tied to a painful past rather than a hopeful
future. I believe, however, that in order to examine victimization as a mechanism, one must
acknowledge that there are victims and that those victims have unique knowledge with respect to
the processes of victimization. This is no more true than in the instance of racial victimization.
As bell hooks writes in Black Looks, black representation of whiteness "emerges as a response to
traumatic pain and anguish that remains a consequence of white racist domination, a psychic
state that informs and shapes the way that black folks 'see' whiteness" (43 in Roediger, Black on
White). Black perspectives on whiteness propose a distinct epistemology emerging from trauma.
21
There is good precedent for looking to marginalized perspectives to understand and
critique the mainstream, and in particular to examine whiteness from the perspectives and
insights of people of color. People of color have a long tradition of examining whiteness
(Roediger, Black on White). From this perspective, marginalized people are in an epistemically
privileged position with respect to understanding whiteness. This is supported by standpoint
theory (Hartsock), postpositivist realism (Mohanty, Moya and Hames-Garcia), and the concept
of embodied interpretive horizons (Alcoff).23 Such epistemic privileging is the justification for
this dissertation's focus on the writings of marginalized writers.
Despite the oppositional knowledge that traumatic narrative can express, trauma can also
be used by hegemonic narratives to eclipse that very knowledge. Trauma is the site ofpower
contestations over who owns the traumatic memory.24 The nation has a vested interest in
incorporating and ameliorating traumatic memory (Kämmen, Bhabha, Sturken, Tal). National
narratives thus attempt to make sense of traumatic history so as to maintain the idea of the
nation. For example, trauma can function as founding moment for the nation, and reconciliation
All of these theories draw heavily from feminist and/or critical race theories. The second two
acknowledge and incorporate understandings that emerged from poststructuralist thought (in
particular, that all knowledge is mediated), but they maintain that there is such a thing as reality
and that some understandings of it are more accurate than others. All three theories are based on
the significance of experience. Hartsock, coming out of a Marxist framework, maintains that the
oppressed have a better understanding of power relations precisely because of their material
conditions (which remove the vested interest in believing ideology that supports the status quo).
Postpostivist realist theorists argue that identity is an epistemology, born out of experience
(experience that is shaped by the identities that one has). Likewise, Alcoff writes that while
identity does not determine knowledge, it does produce interpretive horizons (epistemologies)
and that these emerge out of embodied experience.
For arguments that memory has an intensely social function and is produced socially, rather
than individually, see Connerton and Halbwachs.
22
can define a nation's history. As Michael Kämmen has observed, in the US the solution to its
potentially divisive and oppositional elements has been to depoliticize trauma, thus making it
palatable to a broad spectrum of Americans and allowing it to serve as a unifying event. He
writes: "That is how we healed the wounds of sectional animosity following the Civil War"
(701). In White Civility, Daniel Coleman explains how Canadian national narratives suppress
traumatic history, even while mourning it:
For Canadians, the performance of civility is a way to manage our traumatic
history [. . .] and this process means that behind, or within, the optimistic
assertions of civility, we often find a different cherishing of evil memories, an
elegiac discourse through mourning the traumatic, but supposedly necessary,
losses that were inevitable along the path of progress. The most common version
of this melancholic civil remembrance recurs in the ubiquitous myth that Natives
were or are a 'vanishing race.' (29)
While the specific mechanisms of incorporating traumatic memory into the national narrative
differ in the two countries, they share the larger function of creating a unified national identity—
one that both incorporates and obscures the injuries of specific groups. These narratives display a
mutual tie between whiteness and national identity. As the above examples suggest, the nationbuilding impulse in the national narrative's use of trauma dovetails with white supremacy,
building a fundamentally white nation that is forged in a traumatic kiln of the past to emerge as
peaceful, progressive and modern. National uses of trauma specifically obscure the privileging of
whiteness, not just the disadvantaging of marginalized people. Interestingly, denial of the more
23
painful elements of national trauma looks compellingly like the denial of white privilege, which
is one way in which its signs are erased and its power maintained.
Popular discourses of trauma reflect these national narratives and reinforce its white
supremacist underpinnings. As has been well documented, the late 20 -century saw an explosion
in the publication and attention given to narratives (particularly memoirs) about traumatic
experience (Tal; Alcoff and Gray, "Survivor Discourse"; Farrell). Kirby Farrell and Kali Tal
have convincingly argued that the national obsession with trauma narratives during this period
has something to do with national anxieties about power relations. These anxieties can be tied to
white backlash. In other words, the mainstream white population translated perceived gains made
by Civil Rights and the Women's Movement to perceived losses for whites in general, and men
in particular. This perception led to an overall obsession with trauma that obscured specific
traumas related to oppressive social and economic orders.
During the period of 1980-2000, there was a tension in both the US and Canada between
a growing recognition of the traumas experienced by minorities at the hands of the mainstream,
and a growing mainstream sense of victimization. In other words, white Canadians and
Americans felt themselves to be victimized, and this sense fueled a backlash against hearing the
traumas of minorities within each nation. Narratives of trauma can strengthen this backlash,
In States ofDenial, Stanley Cohen discusses denial at the levels of state ideology and
individual consciousness. He builds on Freudian notions of repression and denial, defining denial
as "the need to be innocent of a troubling recognition" (25). Cohen breaks denial down into the
following categories: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim,
condemnation of the condemners, appeal to higher loyalties (60-61). It is not hard to see how
these could be applied to denial of the "troubling recognition" of white privilege. This need to be
innocent is a defining element of whiteness, as I will discuss in Chapter 1 .
24
however they can also force issues of injustice into the light, and it is this form that this
dissertation examines.
Why Compare the US and Canada?
To avoid the pitfalls of exceptionalism and universalism, whiteness and trauma need to
be studied comparatively. This study focuses on national comparison to illuminate the way that
national narrative supports and is supported by whiteness. In particular, I provide a comparison
of North American whiteness by examining the US and Canada, which have a shared history and
maintain a strong connection and yet express different whitenesses. In particular, their
relationship to traumatic pasts and how they reconcile those pasts in narratives of
multiculturali sm lead to different whitenesses.
There is a need for comparative, transnational studies of whiteness. Whiteness is not a
universal and uniform phenomenon. Rather it takes on different manifestations, making it
difficult to challenge. In "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity," Robyn Wiegman
argues that white people often articulate the particularities of their experience in an attempt to
disavow or disaffiliate from undesirable associations with whiteness (i.e. overt racism), while
continuing to benefit from its privileges and their (less overt) prejudicial attitudes. She
concludes:
Far from operating as the opposite or resistant counter to the universal, then, the
particular is the necessary contradiction that affords to white power its historical
and political elasticity. In this context, the political project for the study of
whiteness entails not simply rendering whiteness particular, but engaging with the
25
ways that being particular will not divest whiteness of its universal
epistemological power. (298)
Because of this relationship between universal and particular, a comparative method is useful
because it allows us to see patterns and trends, while forming analysis flexible enough to account
for the varied contexts in which whiteness operates.
In addition, a comparative method can help avoid the pitfalls of national exceptionalism
and the blindspots it produces. In White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives,
Alastair Bonnett notes that whiteness studies has focused mainly on the US, and he calls for a
more comparative and international study ofwhiteness.26 He explains: "White identities are, if
nothing else, global phenomena, with global impacts. Indeed, the nature and implications of their
local manifestations only come into view when they are understood as locar (3).27 Moreover, he
argues that these local manifestations ofrace and whiteness are shaped by the far-reaching
impact of US imagery on very different contexts. Models of whiteness in the US do not
adequately reflect the development of whiteness elsewhere; however, as American ideas of race
are "exported," we cannot analyze these contexts in complete isolation. To do so would prevent
us from understanding the mechanisms of whiteness's "universal epistemological power."
There are also some studies of whiteness that focus on other national identities. For example,
recently, there have been some studies of Canadian whiteness (e.g. Coleman, Carr and Lund,
Rethinking the Great White North conference). There are also discussions of British whiteness
(Hewitt, Ware) and Commonwealth whiteness (Gunew). Nevertheless, few studies have the
comparative, historical scope Bonnett calls for. And, few studies have examined the
interdependence of these national formations of whiteness.
Such a methodology is echoed in Sneja Gunew's call for "situated multiculturalisms." Gunew
draws on Donna Haraway's idea of "situated knowledges" as a way to investigate "the meanings
of multiculturalism that are always deeply enmeshed in the constructions of the local, the
national, and the global" (2).
26
Analyses of whiteness, therefore, must balance the specifics of local context with global
interconnections (both economic and ideological), and yet not neglect underlying mechanism(s)
that unify these different sites of differentiation and domination under the rubric of white
supremacy. As I will explain further, the economic and cultural interconnections between the US
and Canada lend themselves to such a study.
In an era of globalization, the nation-state may have less autonomy, but it retains its
relevance through the maintenance of inequality, difference, and borders. Whiteness functions in
a similar way. Increasingly, whiteness operates as a defining feature of the "global North." While
it is a transnational phenomenon, it finds expression through specific national narratives and
identities, which is why national identity remains an important category of analysis for studies of
whiteness, particularly when used in comparison. American and Canadian national narratives
define these countries as North American and white. While each country has its own narratives,
images and ideas also flow across the US-Canada border bolstering those home narratives.
I base my definition of national identity and national narrative on Benedict Anderson's
notion of "imagined communities." I think of national identity as a shared sense of national
belonging and national narratives as being the stories that circulate to create this identity. Of
course, calling these identities and narratives shared is problematic. Nations are never
homogeneous; even within the mainstream there is dissent and there are many who are restricted
from the mainstream and even its narratives of dissent. Nevertheless these identities and
narratives are widespread and recognizable, even if they are not shared. While nations are not
enclosed units, national identity and national narrative do produce distinct types of knowledge.
In A Border Within, Ian Angus writes:
27
[Consider] if what is inside [the nation] is separated from what is outside, not by
unique content, but by a distinctive relation between contents. Similarly, the
outside is different from the inside because its contents are related such as to
constitute, as a whole, a different arrangement or pattern. While some elements
may be different on either side of the division, it is not these elements that define
the difference between inside and outside. It is defined through pattern rather than
content, (italics in original, 1 07)
I take this idea of the "distinctive relation between contents" to be particularly useful in
conceptualizing the way that whiteness works as a local and global phenomenon at the national
level. For when examining the way whiteness operates in different countries, the components of
whiteness and white supremacy remain familiar, but appear differently from context to context.
For example, in the Canadian national narrative there are ways in which the indigenous person
functions as, in Margaret Atwood's words, "Canada's Black" (97). This is a hugely problematic
comparison, without a doubt, and yet it points to certain familiar contents or patterns within
white supremacy, even as the obvious and significant contextual differences are manifest.28 What
As Sneja Gunew writes in "Unsettling Racisms": "The critical categories that appear to
dominate work on modes of racialization are mobilized with reference to African Americans and
cannot be used to illuminate every type of situation. For example, debates in settler colonies,
such as Canada and Australia, are more concerned with destabilization of hegemonic structures
by Indigeneity" (1723). Gunew is certainly right that concepts that arise out of a US context are
not universally applicable. However, there are suggestive parallels between these different
contexts. Take for example Eric Lott's Love and Theft (1995) and Terrie Goldie's Fear and
Temptation (1989). Both titles describe white attitudes toward people of color as a combination
of desire, fear and exploitation. Lott analyzes 19th-century minstrel shows to reveal "in early
blackface minstelsy the dialectical flickering of racial insult and racial envy, moments of
domination and moments of liberation, counterfeit and currency, a pattern at times amounting to
no more than the two faces of racism, at others gesturing toward a specific kind of political and
sexual danger, and all constituting a peculiarly American structure of racial feeling" (18). Goldie
28
is significant here is that comparison reveals similar patterns, which can help us identify the
"universal" element of whiteness, while at the same time, comparison reveals the differences of
particularity and how they too can support whiteness.
Given the dominance of American constructions of whiteness, US influence is somewhat
unavoidable in analyzing whiteness, although it need not always be central. However, even when
focusing on whiteness in the US, there is good reason to look beyond its geographic borders.
Indeed this has been the argument of many Americanists. Recently Americanist critics have
called for examinations of the Americas (or even the world) rather than limiting American
Studies to the territory of the US (Pease and Wiegman, Siemerling, Denning, Dimock,
Castronovo). This echoes Bonnett's call for a more international whiteness studies. They argue
that focusing solely on the United States leads to a view that the constructions and dynamics
particular to the US are either exceptional or universal. This focus does not take into account
how these constructions are interconnected with those of other nations, within and outside of US
borders (Radway). In The New North American Studies, Winfried Siemerling argues that the
American model of plurality and dissensus "ingestfs] difference as yet another form of typically
analyzes the longevity of the image of the "indigene" in white settler countries. He writes: "In
their need to become 'native,' to belong here, whites in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia
have adopted a process which I have termed "indigenization." A peculiar word, it suggests the
impossible necessity of becoming indigenous" (13). As in the US, Canadian whiteness expresses
a paradoxical desire.
While analysis of the similarities and differences of this paradox and ambivalence is
certainly revealing, it is important to be aware of what such an analysis may obscure. For
example, in examining the marginalized others who are foundational to white identity in each of
these nations, we re-inscribe the dominant logic about who belongs in the nation. For example,
by describing First Nations people as Canada's African Americans, we effectively erase the
presence of Blacks in Canada. This is in keeping with the Canadian national narrative that
imagines Black Canadians as new immigrants, neglecting the history of Black Canadians going
back to the 1 8th-century (McKittrick).
29
liberal American dissent" (25). And yet "We do know, however, that there is an outside to
'America'" (25). His solution is the New North American Studies:
Not associated with any particular nation, North America sheds light on
"America's" shadows by evoking the limits of "nation," and the liminal spaces of
its borders. Such differential limiting of the projective reach of "nation" not only
relativizes the entities in question, it brings them also into sharper focus. It
delineates national articulation in its wider context, and in this process also brings
it closer to similar issues in "hyphenated" identities within and across nations
[...]" (1-2)
In particular, this bringing "into sharper focus" is one of the most significant reasons to do
comparative work, even as we recognize the arbitrariness of "nation" as a category. This is
particularly useful in the case of constructions of whiteness, race, and belonging. For example, as
recent events attest (riots in France, subway bombings in London), the question of whiteness,
race and immigration is not a New World phenomenon. However, the New World context gives
a specific shape to these issues. Both the US and Canada have a history of defining and
redefining their national identity and who belongs in the nation. Racism and multiculturalism
have never been new to them, in quite the same way they seem to be in Europe. The ways that
the US and Canada configure whiteness, internally and in relation to the Americas as a whole,
are unique or at least uniquely patterned.
While the New World context gives good reason to examine the US and Canada in
conjunction, some critics have noted that the arguments of post-nationalist Americanists echo the
imperializing gestures of globalization, making other countries open to conquest by US thought.
30
For example, Bryce Traister argues that such a move considers nation-states to be inherently evil
and therefore all forms of national identity and national difference to be negative. He argues that
this exports an American-style counternarrative, which further colonizes and disempowers
perspectives from countries, like Canada, whose national narratives and structures function in
quite different ways. This dissertation aims to accommodate both views. It aims to examine the
specificity of the construction of whiteness and nation in the two countries, but also their
interrelationship and shared mechanisms. In the case of the imagining (or effacing) of whiteness,
a comparison between Canada and the US highlights the facets of this imagining that are shaped
by national narrative and the ways that borders between these nations work to support national
forms ofwhiteness. While both nations wrestle with issues of racism and multicuituralism, they
both re-inscribe multiple us-them binaries that obscure more complicated cultural dynamics that
cross borders. One binary is the racialized divide between North America and the rest of the
Americas—or more specifically, the divide between the US-and-Canada and all other nations to
the south. In addition, the US and Canada each maintain a North-South binary between each
other. This binary solidifies certain similarities and differences between the two nations, while
hiding others. Such a binary also strengthens the boundary between who does and does not
belong in either nation, a boundary that defines, among other things, race and whiteness.
Given that it plays a significant political and economic role in the hemisphere, it is
striking that Canada is barely visible in the New American Studies. In general, Mexico as well as
the Caribbean and Latin America, have been far more prominent. So invisible is Canada in
hemispheric studies that in 2005 the journal Comparative American Studies produced a special
issue to "redress this imbalance by locating Canada within the history and culture of the
31
Americas and, in so doing, to provide a compelling rationale for the inclusion of Canada in
current articulations of a hemispheric American Studies" (Adams and Casteel 5). In other words,
five years ago Americanists still needed convincing that Canada should be "included" in studies
of the Americas. The belief in the uninterestingness of Canada persists despite the fact of
Canada's deep and powerful involvement in the US economy. Canada and the US are both each
other's largest trading partners. They have highly integrated economies, and this has only
increased since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).30 The US
and Canada comprise the "global North" of the Western Hemisphere; and, given the US' s global
dominance and Canada's privileged trade position with the US, both nations enjoy prominence
An exception, Sadowski-Smith's Border Fictions examines the relationship between the USMexico border and the US-Canada one. She writes: "discussions of U.S. Borders in the
humanities at the turn of the twenty-first century have focused on one specific border community
and its opposition to U.S. empire" (1). "In comparison to the study of Latin American cultural
representations and to French Canadian work, English Canadian fiction and scholarship do not
even demand specific linguistic competence, so there is not a barrier preventing English speakers
from participating in the field. Reasons for the disregard of Canada are thus to be found
elsewhere: in the perpetuation of the U.S. stereotypes about the unremarkabilty of the country
that have contributed to a general disinterest in Canada and in powerful differentials in
publishing and distribution networks that make Canadian work less accessible in the United
States" (137-38).
According to the Government of Canada: "Since the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free
Trade Agreement in 1989, two-way trade has tripled. Under NAFTA, growth in bilateral trade
between Canada and the U.S. has averaged almost 6.0% annually over the last decade. In 2006,
our bilateral trade in goods and services was $577 billion, with over $1.6 billion worth of goods
and services crossing the border every single day. Canada's trade with the United States is
equivalent to 53% of our GDP. The United States represents roughly 4/5 of Canada's exports and
over 1/2 of our imports. Canada, in return, represents 22.2% of America's exports and 16.5% of
its imports. To date, Canada is the number one foreign market for goods exports for 36 of the 50
states, and ranked in the top three for another 4 states. In fact, Canada is a larger market for U.S.
goods than all 27 countries of the European Union combined, which has more than 15 times the
population of Canada. Canada and the U.S. have also one of the world's largest investment
relationships" ("The Canada-U.S. Trade and Investment Partnership")
32
within the "global North." This is not merely an economic position but a racialized one as well.
The US and Canada are imagined as dominantly "white" countries, as opposed to the "brown,"
southern countries that make up the rest of the Americas (Sadowski-Smith, Santa Ana).31 1
believe that Canada's "invisibility" has much to do with whiteness. Because of its perceived
whiteness and developed economy, Canada falls outside the purview ofmany hemispheric
analyses, as well as the American cultural imaginary in general. It is for this reason that a
comparative analysis of whiteness in these two countries is necessary.
The US and Canada both rely on New World mechanisms for the maintenance of the
relationship between race and national identity. These mechanisms grow out of a shared history.
As former colonies of Britain, both nations are deeply shaped both by British influence and a
desire to differentiate themselves from Britain.32 It is important to note here that I am focusing
on English Canada in this study. Originating with this colonial history, both the US and Canada
have traumatic histories, which trouble the coherence and "goodness" of the nation and its
narrative(s). The US has a violent and troubled history that includes slavery, Reconstruction
31 Of course it is more complicated than that. In Latin America, for example, race functions
differently, such that there most definitely is a Latin American whiteness (Bonnett).
Of course, this is also a distinction between them. It has long been understood that one of the
defining differences between Canada and the US was that Canada did not have a revolution and
maintains stronger ties to Britain. However, Daniel Coleman argues distinguishing themselves
from Britain was still very important in the construction of Canadian identity.
This is problematic as Canada's bilingual and bi-national structure creates a fundamental
difference with the US. Nevertheless, I focus on English Canada for a few reasons. 1) English
Canada is the dominant part, while Quebec is marginalized and understood as a distinct ethnicity.
In this way, English Canadian whiteness lends itself to comparison with American whiteness. 2)
English Canada largely shapes the debate on ethnicity and multiculturalism (often in ways that
the Québécois object to). Official Canadian multiculturalism subsumes the indigenous and the
Québécois into "multicultures," where English Canada remains "culture" (Bannerji Dark Side).
33
(including lynching and segregation), continued racism against African Americans, the Trail of
Tears and other atrocities against Native Americans, a wide variety of hostile treatments of
immigrant and minority populations (in particular, Chinese, Japanese, Latino, Jewish), the Civil
War, and many international wars (WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Cold War, Gulf War). And,
although Canadian history is shorter and overlaps for a longer time with British and French
colonial history, it too has its share of traumatic events. The longest history of violence and
oppression in Canada is the conquest and treatment of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people—
including stolen land, the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and perhaps most dramatically
the genocide of the Beothuk tribe in Newfoundland. Other traumatic moments include the
expulsion of the Acadians, the Louis Riel Rebellion, Japanese internment and repatriation during
WWII, both world wars, the Montreal Massacre (in which 14 women were targeted and killed),
and a history of mistreatment of immigrants. Lesser known in Canada is a history of slavery and
eugenics.
In the mid to late 20th-century, both countries have seen large demographic shifts as the
result of changes in immigration policy.35 In addition, progressive movements in each nation
have made for significant gains in minority rights and have successfully promoted the idea of
Although Canada's economy did not make for a slave industry comparable to that of the
American South, chattel slavery was practiced in Canada until 1 834, when Britain ended slavery
in all of its colonies. For more on Canadian slavery, see Cooper, Driedger, and Clarke. For
history of eugenics in Canada, see McLaren.
In the US, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ended immigration quotas based on
national origin. Canada also enacted several changes to its immigration policies removing
discrimination based on race and national origin. The most significant one was the new
Immigration Act of 1976 (although it had precursors in the Acts of 1962 and 1968). These acts
introduced the Point Systems, created four categories for immigration, and removed policies
barring specific groups.
34
"tolerance" as a shared national value. Nevertheless, racism remains powerful in both. Despite
perceptions to the contrary, the US and Canada share a great deal in this regard. In "Prejudice
and Discrimination in Canada and the United States: A Comparison," Jeffrey Reitz and
Raymond Breton conclude that Canadians and Americans share essentially the same racist
attitudes and behaviors. In this context it is not surprising, then, to find both countries
expressing white backlash towards the end of the 20 -century. In the US, the election of Reagan,
the so-called culture wars, and the beginning of rollbacks in civil rights gains reflect this
backlash. And, even though Bill Clinton was touted as "America's first black president" and his
racial politics were better, he presided over the rise of the neoliberal racial project in which race
could not longer be a part of the mainstream political conversation.37 The Canadian backlash
Reitz and Breton write: "Despite the historical differences between race relations in Canada
and race relations in the United States, Canadians and Americans are roughly similar in their
attitudes toward racial minorities. In both countries blatant racism is marginal and the social
distance between racial minorities and other groups is diminishing. [...] [However,] a majority of
both Canadians and American feel that minorities are responsible for their own inequality, that
discrimination is not a major cause of inequality and that government should not intervene to
ensure equality. [. . .] Depending on the dimension of social distance, Canadian attitudes may be
either comparable to American attitudes or decade or a more ahead of them. [. . .] The crossnational differences in social distance do not seem to produce significant differences between the
two countries in regard to racial stereotyping, racial discrimination in employment and other
important areas, the perception of discrimination as a cause of inequality, or willingness to
support government intervention to oppose discrimination. Nor does the decline in social
distance over time in both countries seem to have produced much change in any of these other
matters. [. . .] Individualism in the United States may work against the adoption of public policies
such as affirmative action. But Canadians, too, have been extremely reluctant to adopt such
policies and, in fact, have adopted fewer of them" (65-66). While Reitz and Breton observe that
Canadian attitudes are "ahead" of American ones, the difference is one of degree rather than
kind, and is overshadowed by the similarity.
See Orni and Winant, particularly their epilogue to the new edition "Closing Pandora's Box—
Race and the 'New Democrats". They write: "in its quest to avoid the potentially divisive aspects
of racial politics by rearticulation, by learning from the enemy, neoliberalism has quite
deliberately fostered neglect of issues of race. It has, in effect, buried race as a significant
35
developed slightly later, in the late eighties with the rise of the Reform Party, a coalition of
Christian Conservatives, nativists and economic conservatives, who had been operating
io
separately for some time (Hewitt). In addition, as a result of NAFTA, Canada's economic
policies became closer to those in the US, resulting in rollbacks of longstanding services. I
believe the backlash in both countries came to a peak in period of 1980-2000.40
While the backlash was broad—it was also against women's rights, recognition of LGBT
people, and other perceived forms of so-called political correctness—race clearly played a large
role. We need look no further than Newt Gingrich's self-identified "angry white men" to see as
much. Indeed, whiteness studies, as a field, places a great deal of emphasis on this period—for
example, studying challenges to Affirmative Action and interrogating the idea of "minoritized"
whiteness. This racial backlash was not limited to the United States. Sociologists argue that
while Canadians are largely welcoming to immigrants and value multiculturalism, a growing
minority want to "do away with" multiculturalism at together (Driedger, Kirkam). In "The
dimension of its politics. [...] At best it advances a 'hidden agenda' which seeks to improve the
lot of racial minorities while avoiding race-baiting from the right. But such a perspective,
although ostensibly premised on creating community and avoiding divisive political conflicts,
misses the depth and degree to which competing definitions of race continue to structure and
signify politics in the U.S." (152).
The Reform Party was the precursor to the now governing Conservative Party, led by Prime
Minister Stephen Harper.
"In the final twenty years of the twentieth century, politics in the Western world apparently
turned cold and bloodless. In Canada's big cities, the children of cutbacks started panhandling on
street corners—something unimaginable only a generation earlier" (Penikett 98).
This is somewhat arbitrary, but starting in 2001 with election of George W. Bush, I think
backlash turned in to full assault. And shortly after, Canada followed suit. But inevitably such
characterizations are simplistic ignoring the complexity of underlying causes as well as the way
that time does not mark off clear boundaries in human experience.
36
Canadian Model of Multiculturalism in a Comparative Perspective," Will Kymlicka observes: "If
we track public support for multiculturalism since its adoption in 1971, we find it was at its
lowest in the early 1990s" (72).41 In addition both countries, a few people of color became
spokespeople for this backlash, arguing that multiculturalism and its attendant policies actually
harm people of color and the nation as a whole.42 This phenomenon suggests that white backlash
in this period developed with an awareness of the oppression of other groups, and thus, often
expressed white supremacist ideology through the language of multiculturalism (i.e. using
images of multiculturalism to undercut policies aimed at rectifying inequality). Interestingly,
amid the backlash, both nations also display rhetoric of recognition and apology. In 1988,
President Reagan apologized for Japanese internment during World War II and presided over
reparations. And, in 1998 President Clinton apologized for American chattel slavery. In 2008,
Prime Minister Harper apologized for the residential schools for First Nations children and
initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As I will demonstrate in the first two chapters,
whiteness also mobilizes ideas of oppression and victimhood, in recognition of the power these
ideas have to define the moral high ground.
These two nations are strikingly similar in their histories and constructions of race. These
similarities arise out of a shared history, similar contemporary contexts, as well as the
41 Kymlicka explains that multiculturalism was initially conceived to manage "white ethnics"
and that it wasn't until the late 1970s and 1980s that multiculturalism began to address and
include non-white groups. In response, in the early 1990s, "there was concerted effort by critics
to persuade Canadians that multiculturalism was grounded in the idea of cultural relativism and,
hence, that it required tolerating whatever practices immigrant groups brought with them to
Canada" (72).
42 In the US, Dinesh D'Souza and Ward Connerly come to mind. In Canada, Neil Bissoondath's
Selling Illusions: The Cult ofMulticulturalism in Canada is widely cited.
37
interrelationship between the two nations. To ignore the baseline similarities between the two
nations, their shared histories, and the interrelationships of their national identities is to play
ignorant of the "big picture." However, there are significant differences, and these differences
shape the particular forms of whiteness expressed in each nation, and in particular, how in each
nation, whiteness seeks to reestablish its dominance through national narratives about
victimhood.
With respect to contemporary white responses to marginalized others, Canada and the US
seem to mirror each other, but in other ways they diverge quite dramatically. In 1980, Americans
elected Ronald Reagan to his first term, initiating rollbacks on gains made by Civil Rights in the
previous decades and hardening the boundaries between citizen and immigrant. By contrast, in
Canada, 1982 saw the passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing equality of
the basis of race, national and ethnic origin, color, religion, sex, age, and disability. This
document is widely cited within popular Canadian discourse as defining multicultural Canada,
despite the fact that the ideal set out in the charter does not always meet reality. In Canada, this
period is also defined by an increased connection with the US in terms economic and foreign
policy, a connection that is matched by increased anti-American sentiment and Canadian
nationalism (Hillmer and Granatstein, Davey).
One of the major differences lies in how each nation attempts to reconcile the ideas of
national unity and the perception of national multiplicity. In other words, one of their basic
similarities sheds light on some their basic differences. Because of the centuries-long struggle
with Québec separatism, Canadian policy has long dealt with the question of national unity and
difference. The Multiculturalism Act developed as an attempt to create a coherent Canadian
38
identity from the fracture between the two 'founding races,' that is Anglophone and
Francophone. It led, however, to a more far-reaching policy. Kymlicka writes:
Canada was a leader in this regard [immigrant multiculturalism]. Its formal
declaration of a multiculturalism policy in 1971 was the first in the world, and it
strongly influenced subsequent official declarations by Australia and New
Zealand and shaped public debates and public policies in many other countries.
[. . .] these policies have been more successful in Canada than in other countries"
(69).
This policy is not merely words on a page; it is "institutionally embedded not just in a particular
federal government department but also in virtually every public institution—multiculturalism
had been written into the mandate of CBC, public schools, social services, museums, and so
on—not to mention its inclusion in the Constitution of 1982" (Kymlicka 73). While
multiculturalism is state policy in Canada, response to diversity in the US has taken place in
distinct realms: intellectual, cultural, political, and corporate. Multiculturalism has not been
understood as foundational to the United States. In "Multiculturalism in the Nineties" Rejeswari
Mohan writes:
It emerged under pressure to: "reinforce the 'equality' of the two 'charter groups,' while
[recognizing] the contributions of the various 'ethnic' groups to the building of the nation. [...]
Prime Minister Trudeau launched multiculturalism as the official state policy in 1971, a policy
which committed the state to: aid communities in growing and contributing to the nation, help
communities overcome cultural barriers to their full participation in society, promote cultural
exchange in the course of promoting national unity, and assist immigrants to gain proficiency in
one of the two official languages" (Thobani 255). For more on the history of Canadian
multiculturalism policy, see Day.
39
In its incarnation in the 1980s, multiculturalism was a code word for 'race,' yoked
to signifiers that included 'affirmative action' and 'quotas,' among others. Since
the 1992 controversy over New York City's rainbow curriculum, the term has
become a code word for lesbian and gay issues. Despite shins in the ideological
freight carried by the term, what remains constant is its connotation of 'special
interest' that supposedly weigh against an implied general interest. (18, qtd. in
Gunew 2004).
Even in the 1 990s, as multiculturalism became more widely adopted as "American," it was never
unified state policy. In both Canada and the US, debates over literary canon formation reflected
these different approaches as well as the importance of finding a narrative that made sense of the
traumatic history on the one hand and national pluralism on the other.44
Both nations incorporate ideas of multiculturalism into their narratives of national
identity as a way to ameliorate the violence of traumatic racial histories. However, there are
significant differences in the role ofrace, ethnicity, and multiculturalism in the national identity
Debates over canonization reflect the cultural contestations in both countries—in Canada the
canonization debates have been over what can be defined as "truly" Canadian, while in the US
the contestation is about inclusion versus tradition. In Canada, the state plays an active role in
-promoting multiethnic Canadian literature (Coleman). In addition, the state has a vested interest
in promoting a public image of Canada as multiethnic, thus, its support ofmultiethnic Canadian
writers serves these interests. In the US, contestation has moved from resistance to inclusion on
supposedly aesthetic grounds to embrace of inclusion on politics ones. As Viet Thanh Nguyen
writes: "The political equivalent of canonization has domesticated multiculturalism in general.
Once deemed an assault on Western civilization by conservative critics in the 1980s,
multiculturalism is now part of the bureaucratic jargon of government, corporations and
academia. Diversity names this process of inoculating the American body politic against the
more serious pox of class warfare. The fact that literature is more effective in ensuring individual
authorial success than collective equality evidences how the state and the culture industry
collaborate" (1560).
40
of each country. The US narrative includes the idea of having overcome a history of racial
violence to achieve a peaceable post-racial society. In this narrative, contemporary Americans
recognize that this is a "nation of immigrants." Such a narrative works despite realities and
policies that go directly against this. In Canada's ameliorating narrative, Canada has always
been multicultural and inclusive, and, indeed, this is what differentiates it from the US.46 This
narrative effaces a history of specifically Canadian racism, such as eugenics, slavery and racist
immigration restrictions. These narratives about multiculturalism shape and strengthen
contemporary national identity. They also work to shape and re-stabilize whiteness in each
nation.
Canada has been described as producing a "weak" national identity, and it is
multiculturalism that has come closest to creating a strong sense of nation in Canadians. The
mid-to-late 20th-century saw many debates among Canadian scholars about the nature, or even
possibility, of a distinct Canadian identity. Some argued that Canadian identity was simply not a
unifying force, some saw Canadian identity as a binding identity, and some argued that Canada
is an "anti-nation" or even the first "postmodern nation."47 However, I find most compelling the
45 For example, since 1988 Congress has required Citizen and Immigration Services to cover all
of its expenses through fees paid by would-be immigrants and would-be citizens (Preston). This
makes immigration prohibitively expensive for many.
See Day. Even in the early days of Canadian multiculturalism, this idea was powerful
(although not especially accurate), see Palmer.
47 Some scholars find that Canadian identity is a strong force (see Mandel and Taras 1987,
Lipset, Traister 2002). Others focus on its weakness (see Frye, Laponce and Safran 1996,
Birbalsingh). Indeed, many have noted the role that literature has played in attempting to define
and create a national identity (and the government's role in promoting this) (see Metcalf 1988,
Lecker, Coleman). Many scholars have seen Canada's weak identity as itself a strong identity in
itself. For example, John Raison Saul's Unconcious Civilization argues that "Canada could be
41
arguments emerging in the early 21st-century that recognize that contemporary Canadian identity
is most strongly unified under a identity as being the 'good, tolerant, white' nation. This identity
applies both to domestic affairs and Canada's position within the world. Within Canada, the state
policy of multicuituralism defines Canada and Canadian expressions of whiteness. The
government actively markets the image of Canada as a uniquely successful multicultural country
both internationally and to the Canadian population.
48
Multiculturalism policy has come to stand for Canada's "goodness," and paradoxically
has supported its whiteness. As Sunera Thobani writes in "Cultured Girls: Race Multiculturalism
and the Canadian State": "Official multiculturalism has become the signifier of the
compassionate and humanitarian values held by the nation, an irrefutable marker of its
progressive commitments. Multiculturalism has since become the hegemonic paradigm for
addressing questions of 'difference' in the country" (255). It is clear that the understanding of
Canada as "good" and "tolerant" grows out of this paradigm. Perhaps less clear is how this
supports whiteness. As Himani Bannerji writes, the policy of multiculturalism has more to do
with "managing" diverse populations than with addressing the needs of marginalized
communities.49 The policy, which ostensibly recognizes difference, also works to efface the
significance of those differences. As Thobani explains:
the first postmodern nation: the first nation in which incredulity toward national identity actually
comes to define and to legitimate the state" (qtd in Hulan 1 87). See also Grace "Comparing
Mythologies" and Davey for Canada as anti-nation and post-national, respectively.
For the marketing of Canadian multiculturalism, see Kymlicka. For more on nation branding
see, Potter and Nimijean.
Bannerji writes: "There were no strong multicultural demands on the part of third world
immigrants themselves to force such a policy [as state multiculturalism]. The issues raised by
42
[Official] multiculturalist discourse, specifically ignores the question of power
and its fundamental relation to racism, focusing on the question of tolerance at the
interpersonal level. [...] Multiculturalism leads to minimizing the recognition of
the widespread nature of racism within society. In fact, it is often used to deny
that racism exists at all in the Canadian context, with 'cultural tolerance' having
been made into a signifier for a supposedly non-racist society. (277)
Such "tolerance" subsumes race into ethnicity, and inequality into mere difference. Meanwhile
difference is still understood in relation to a white norm (Gonick). Discussions of
multiculturalism often center on whether Canada has gone "too far" in embracing diversity
(implicitly, to the disadvantage of white Canadians). Furthermore, the dominance of whiteness is
not limited to an assessment of white Canadians as being simply the most populous or powerful.
Rather, it goes into deeply held understandings about what constitutes justice and good
government. For example, in Dark Threats and White Knights, Sherene Razack compellingly
argues that the idea of the "white man's burden" strongly informs Canada's investment in
peacekeeping around the world. So, while Canada gains authority on the world stage as a model
ofmulticulturalism, its own unexamined racisms shape its actions on that stage. Both in Canada
and internationally, this image of a Canadian multicultural utopia persists. Within Canada, the
them were about racism, legal discrimination involving immigration and family reunification,
about job discrimination on the basis of Canadian experience, and various adjustment
difficulties, mainly of child care and language. [...] Immigrant demands were not then, or even
now, primarily cultural, nor was multiculturalism initially their formulation of the solution to
their problems. [...] These legitimation gestures were more directed at the discontented
Canadians than the discriminated others"(DarÂ: Side 44). Critics of the policy (from the left) have
distinguished between multiculturalism as state policy for "managing diverse populations," and
multiculturalism "from below," which refers to the desires for and activism around antiracism
and equality (see Bannerji Dark Side, Thobani, Das Gupta, Ng).
43
belief that Canadians have perfected multiculturalism leads to a belief that Canadian whites are
the "good whites" as opposed to the racist whites of the United States. (Razack, Brand and
Bhaggiyadatta Rivers Have Sources). Unsurprisingly, this shapes Canadian whiteness in a
profound way.
Late 20 -century American whiteness has also been shaped by ideas ofmulticulturalism.
However, while the white Canadian relationship to multiculturalism can be described as one of
denial, the white American relationship to multiculturalism is more strongly tied to guilt (Caoette
and Taylor). American whiteness is shaped in relation to American Blackness, both as
Blackness is the Other against which American whiteness is defined and because of the guilt
surrounding slavery and segregation that shapes American whiteness. As a result of civil rights
and progressive movements, American whiteness adapted to include multiculturalism by
merging it with the myth of American exceptionalism (i.e E pluribus unum). The mosaic or salad
bowl model became mainstream, as did the rhetoric that the US is a "nation of immigrants" and
"the most diverse nation in the world." However, alongside discourses of diversity in education
as well as in the corporate sphere, discourses of colorblindness also emerged.51 In Canada,
multiculturalism is supported the ubiquitous term "visible minority" that denotes the different
colors of the "mosaic." In contrast, in the US the rhetoric of colorblindness advocates a willful
refusal to see color. Essentially, in light of the mainstreaming of multiculturalism in the US,
whiteness found multiple ways to incorporate ideas of diversity into its own dominance. In
This is, of course, a broad generalization that needs to be qualified. Guilt and denial work
together in both nations, as I will subsequently demonstrate.
See Orni and Winant for brief discussion of color-blind rhetoric and how it obfuscates the
continued significance of race.
44
Urban Triage James Kyung-Jin Lee argues that embracing a multiculturalism that maintains the
structures of white dominance is how American whiteness adapts to the destabilizing effects of
the demographic shift of the 4 wave of immigration and the gains made by progressive
movements. In other words, multiculturalism in the US allows that dominance be afforded to
certain nonwhites (who represent the exceptional success of America) so long as the lack of
power of most marginalized groups (including some white people) remains disassociated from
the success enjoyed by those in power. This process thus deflects the guilt that structures
American whiteness.53
Clearly, national identity in both nations in the late 20th-century has had to incorporate
ideas of multiculturalism. An examination of the mainstreaming of multiculturalism in the US
Lee writes: "The power of white supremacy has always been in a state of crisis; and this crisis
has compelled the architects of whiteness to work feverishly to transform its boundaries in order
to maintain its power. [. . .] In the latter half of the twentieth century, we have become so used to
particular ideas about racial identities and groups that we forget that the contours of race have
always been in flux, that definitions of whiteness have been much more elastic than its rhetoric
of sameness asserts. Immigration has been viewed almost always as a movement ofnonwhite
people into the United States; whites have simply embraced, not without contention, some of
these new groups as their own. What makes this "fourth wave" different is not [. . . that] its
demographic [is seen as] nonwhite so much as it is the response to this newest threat to
whiteness. If the cultural imperative, thanks to multiculturalism, no longer rests in the strident
adoption of nonwhites into the orbit of whiteness, and palatable strands of "ethnic" identity are
now celebrated [...], then what changes are in store for whiteness, and by extension, for "white"
people, to avoid their racial obsolescence? If civil rights and liberation movements compelled
whites to accept, however grudgingly, the seizure and uneven expansion of social rights, then
what are white people, living in urban spaces of racial heterogeneity, to do in order to survive?
What does whiteness mean in the age of multiculturalism [. . .]?" (146). In his reading of Tom
Wolfe's Bonfire ofthe Vanities, Lee argues that whiteness responds in two ways, or develops in
two directions: as normative and as primitive. In other words, whiteness must appear to be the
effortless norm, on the one hand, while on the other hand, aggressively defending its dominance.
Cl
Of course whiteness is multiplicitous, even within a nation. For example, liberal whiteness in
the US bears much resemblance to Canadian whiteness, in that liberal whites believe they are the
"good whites" unlike conservative, racist whites.
45
and Canada demonstrates the way that whiteness adapts to challenges in a way that is both
nationally-specific and informed by discourses of race and backlash that move across borders. In
both cases, national whiteness is relational—Canada as opposed to the US and the US as
opposed to the rest of the world—as well as being context-specific. Implied, but never explicit,
the relationship between whiteness, multiculturalism and national identity reveals what Toni
Morrison calls "the sychophancy of white identity" in Playing in the Dark (19). That is, white
identity can only exist in relation to an other. This idea is evident in literary constructions of
whiteness, and why there has been much discussion of literary otherness while naming and
describing whiteness has proven far more evasive.
There has been some initial work on how white writers construct national whiteness in
literature. In the US, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark is seminal. In Canada, Daniel
Coleman's White Civility takes up the specifically Canadian construction of whiteness by white
writers. Morrison and Coleman reveal distinct national projects in the construction of whiteness.
For Morrison, the Africanist presence as depicted in white-authored literature is central to
American-ness and the creation of a white American identity. The concept of freedom so integral
to American-ness could only emerge alongside the abject unfreedom of black slavery in the US.
In White¦XJivility, Daniel Coleman examines early white English Canadian fiction to understand
how white English Canadian-ness came about. He argues that four tropes (the Loyalist, the
Scottish orphan, muscular Christian, and the maturing colonial son) have most strongly shaped a
distinct English Canadian whiteness. This Canadian whiteness is defined by ambivalence
regarding the atrocities committed against First Nations people as well as the search for
definition in relation to Britain.
46
My project does not focus on constructions of whiteness by white writers (although I
hope that some of the insights from this project will be applicable to such studies). The
comparative nature of this project both uses and disrupts notions of national uniqueness, and this
affects my choice of texts. Nation, as a category, is a useful unit of analysis, but it can also be
obscuring. The writers I have chosen fit within national literary boundaries, but for many of them
"nation" is a questionable concept. I focus on minority writers because, as I have described
above, they are in a position of epistemic privilege from which to understand and critique the
functioning of whiteness. The potential drawback to this approach is a lack of in-depth study of a
single group.54 My hope is that this multi-ethnic study will contribute a new understanding, not a
complete understanding. In addition, I have chosen texts that take different perspectives on the
problem of whiteness, helping us to better understand how it functions in nationally mediated
ways. As such, rather than examine how white canonical writings produce a national whiteness, I
investigate texts that are marginal not solely on the basis of their authors' racial identity, but ones
that have yet to be fully incorporated into the national narrative via canonization (although some
are getting there). These texts' oppositional position in relation to the nation reveals the
interconnections, distinctions and similarities between the functioning of whiteness in these two
countries.
This reflects my own lack of specialization in the literature of a single ethnic or racial group. I
recognize the problem, especially as a white scholar, of claiming knowledge of these diverse
literatures. I am indebted to the works and perspectives of these writers, and my goal is to put
them in conversation in a new way. Rather than convey (or pretend to convey) comprehensive
knowledge, I hope to contribute to an ongoing conversation about race, a conversation that white
people must participate in.
47
Comparative methodology
This dissertation is not a strict comparison. Each text and concept in the US is not paired
with a corollary in Canada.55 Rather I have juxtaposed concepts and texts from these two
countries to reveal the mechanisms in the construction of whiteness in each nation.
Comparison is important, especially in the context of trauma studies. But it is also
fraught, especially in trauma studies. In other words, comparison is an important way that we
come to understand our experiences, especially those that exceed normal human experience;
however, comparison runs the risk of eliding important differences. For example, the Holocaust
is at once unique and part of a larger series of genocidal events in the 20* -century—to consider it
as either entirely unique or solely as part of a pattern is to misrepresent and misunderstand the
event. In order to deal with these problems, it is crucial to emphasize context and specificity.
This is also very important in terms of a Canada-US comparison, because of the risk of
universalizing the US context, and erasing (and thus misunderstanding) the specific dynamics of
the Canadian context. Such contexualization reveals the limits of comparison, and the ethics (and
I had originally conceived of this project as a comparison. Each chapter was to contain one US
and one Canadian text, each dealing with a single theme. As I have researched, I have found a
straightforward comparison of this nature produces rather simplistic characterizations of the
relative roles of whiteness in each country (e.g. American whiteness is characterized by guilt,
while Canadian whiteness is characterized by denial). While such comparisons can be useful,
they also maintain illusory boundaries between the two nations that serve to uphold certain logics
of domination within each nation. My goal in these chapters is to demonstrate the interrelation of
the whitenesses expressed, rather than to draw clear distinctions and oppositions. For example, in
my Chapter 3, when examining the logic that connects safety, desire and whiteness in Canada, it
is not necessary to find a corollary in the US to see how this analysis is both relevant to the US
context and quite different from it. The Canadian conflation of safety and whiteness is premised
on an opposition to the US (and is therefore interdependent with US whiteness). Yet at the same
time, the logic that produces this conflation is very active within the US (both in expressions of
what makes the US a desirable place and in left-wing idealizing of Canada).
48
ethical problems) of comparing. It is important not to cover up differences, homogenize, or
conflate events and experiences on a single scale. For example in Chapter Two of this
dissertation, I discuss how the situation of First Nations people in Canada is different from that
of Native Americans in the US, as well as the similarities and overlap.
In order to reveal the most from comparison, it is crucial to look at interconnections. It is
important to look at genealogy and paths of influence in order to understand the relationship
between the entities being compared. In other words, my goal is to reveal relationality rather than
relativism (to paraphrase Shu-mei Shih).56 This has the potential to deepen our understanding of
the mutual construction of whiteness. This requires a method of selection that is not arbitrary, but
rather historical and structural.57 In the case of Canada and the US, they have a historical,
political and economic relationship as well as structural similarities. So, for example, Canadian
whiteness evolves from its strange relationship with the US (including anti-Americanism and
admiration).
In her introduction to the PMLA''s issue on Comparative Racialization (October 2008),
Shu-mei Shih provides an argument for the importance of comparison in studying race and
racism. She quotes Frantz Fanon "The black man is comparison" (1349) and explains that
Shih writes: "Comparison between the colony and the métropole [...] is about relationality, not
relativism" (1350).
en
For models, see Eric Sundquist's Strangers in the Land and Alastair Bonnett's White
Identities. Sundquist studies the parallels in experience as well as the end of coalition and
cooperation between African Americans and Jewish Americans in the mid-20th-century. For
example, he notes how the 3rd Reich was influenced by Jim Crow segregation in the US and how
African Americans conceived of their own oppression by observing the results of the Holocaust.
Bonnett shows how US forms of whiteness shaped the emergence of whiteness in Britain, for
example.
49
racialization is context specific (both in terms of time and location) and that "comparison is
constitutive of the process of racialization" (1350). For Shih, triangulation is a useful
comparative method to avoid binaries. Although I'm not using this method, I aim to "bring into
view relationalities the conventional binary models obscure or displace," as she argues
triangulation allows (1351). I do so by emphasizing the interconnections between the two
nations. In addition, several of the texts themselves take a more transnational perspective.
As Sneja Gunew writes "Such a comparative study [...] will inevitably raise expectations
that all and not merely some of the local differences will be taken into account. In a sense it will
please no one because there will always be gaps—by definition" (3).58 Like Gunew, I know that
my project will not be comprehensive and will thus raise objections. In each chapter, I have tried
to paint a picture of the context in each country using current events and critical debates. Of
course, sweeping claims about national identity and attitudes are suspect and can be refuted by
any number of specific instances. My goal, however, is to better understand the functioning of
whiteness in a way that can be applied to the specifics of instances not discussed herein.
Chapter Outlines
The first two chapters emerge from an "originary trauma" that is foundational to national
identity and specifically nationally mediated whiteness. While American chattel slavery is not at
CQ
She elaborates on her method: "While those located in the various contexts where
multiculturalism is a term used can indeed learn from each other, the point remains that these
principles cannot be universalized because this inevitably flattens or blunts the analytical value
of the concepts used. Thus the book is not an attempt to produce comprehensive accounts if the
workings of multiculturalism in the various sites mentioned: Canada, Australia, the United States
and the United Kingdom. It uses particular sites, particular events or examples, in order to show
the complex and nuanced workings" (3).
50
all central to Bastard out ofCarolina, the role of the black-white binary that originates in that
trauma is. Poor white identity (especially in the South) is constructed out of the tensions this
binary creates, and even though slavery is long over, these tensions are still active so much that
they shape the identity of a poor white child 100 years after the Civil War. In Chapter Two, I
examine violence against First Nations people, the violence that is at the traumatic heart of
Canadian national identity. Again, rather than looking at events early in Canada's colonial
history, I look to contemporary effects of this violence. These chapters allow me to define the
way that victimhood shapes national identity and whiteness in the late 20th-century in the US and
Canada.
The second two chapters examine immigration in its late 20th-century context and attempt
to move beyond a binaristic assessment of whiteness. While Black people in the US and First
Nations people in Canada are foundational to the emergence of the (white) nation in each
national narrative, other nonwhite populations have not been seen as such. Both of these chapters
are shot through with political, neocolonial violence ofthe 20th-century as the site of ongoing
(national) trauma and the continuing shaping of whiteness. In keeping with the move from
imagined origin outwards, the first two chapters focus on violence against children, while the
second two examine traumas of adults. In addition to their traumatic experiences, the characters'
engagement with feelings of love and loss shed light on the functioning of whiteness. Moreover,
these chapters takes a more transnational approach. They do so, first, by considering experiences
of immigration, both within the Americas and across the Pacific. Migration in these texts
illustrates the transnational effects of trauma. Second, in these chapters, distinct boundaries
between Canada and the US become blurred, not by a simple erasing of difference, but by
51
exploring the complexity of interconnections. In these chapters, the US and Canadian national
narratives don't just support each other from the outside; the authors themselves each have
experiences in both the US and Canada that shape their perspectives on whiteness. They describe
the national specificity of whiteness while also testifying to its fluid transnational character.
In Chapter One, I argue that Dorothy Allison's depiction of a child abuse victim, Bone, in
Bastard out ofCarolina, undermines national characterizations of victimhood prevalent in the
US during the 1980s and 1990s. In this characterization, victimhood is understood to confer
innocence, so that it becomes a way to restore white innocence in the face of claims of racism. In
this characterization, individual harm is divorced from systemic injustice, and claims of racial
injury are described as pathological. The novel emphasizes the institutional causes of
victimhood, but also dramatizes the blindnesses produced by whiteness, even whiteness that is
mediated by class, regional, and sexual marginalization. Bone's suffering and marginalization
does not mean that she is not also a beneficiary of white privilege. This chapter is a jumping off
point for understanding how whiteness uses rhetoric of victimhood to reestablish its dominance
and to examine a specifically American whiteness.
Chapter Two takes up national characterizations of victimhood and its relationship to race in
Canada—in particular, white Canadians' identification with First Nations people, as a way to
conceptualize their relationship to the United States. Both Richard Van Camp and Tomson
Highway deal with the impact of sexual abuse of First Nations children in church-run residential
schools that attempted to assimilate the children to Canadian whiteness. Van Camp's novel The
Lesser Blessed suggests a reconceptualization of victimhood as a state that requires healing and
coalition building, rather than the static, passive state presupposed by white Canadian uses of
52
victimhood. In Kiss ofthe Fur Queen, Highway suggests that such healing can only occur with a
reconfiguration of whiteness itself. As in the US, ideas of victimhood can work as a way to
stabilize whiteness in Canada. This chapter at once examines the particularity of Canadian
whiteness but also the more universal mechanism by which whiteness makes use of concepts of
victimhood.
In both national narratives, victimhood is implicitly contrasted with safety. In terms of
immigration, they share a perception of the relationship between trauma and migration that is
one-directional: immigrants come from a violent, unsafe home country to a safe North American
country. The third chapter examines the image of Canada as a "safe" haven for immigrants.
Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here not only challenges the belief that Canada is a
haven, but also questions the foundations ofthat belief, which relies on white values and
epistemologies. Brand demonstrates how entrance into Canada's territorial boundaries does not
result in safety. Moreover, even when the safety it supposedly offers is possible, it is not
necessarily desirable as it is psychologically damaging for the characters. Through the
representation of lesbian desire in the novel, Brand suggests forms of desire not premised on the
equation of whiteness and safety. In other words, these forms of desire are not based on
domination, and I suggest that this opens the possibility for white people to participate in this
process.
The fourth chapter begins with an examination of misrecognitions and failed
identification in the short story, "The Cariboo Cafe" in Helena Maria Viramontes's The Moths.
The chapter argues that identification, via recognition rather than appropriation, is an important
component in white people's active participation in challenging the effects of whiteness. In other
53
words, recognition of experiences of victimhood, trauma, and loss among white people can have
productive value for hearing and understanding claims of racial victimhood. This, however, can
only happen when the analogy is dropped and we consider how experiences of loss provide a
way to adjudicate between different claims of victimhood and to accept responsibility. I read
Bharati Mukherjee's short story "Fathering" as indicating the potential for such a project. In
"The Cariboo Café" two children are locked out of their home, a mourning mother kidnaps them,
and an emotionally damaged café owner turns her in to the police. In "Fathering" a Vietnam
veteran adopts a Vietnamese child. These stories illustrate that the surplus of suffering may
provide a way to mediate between different experiences of loss and injury without losing sight of
distinctions, obscuring the specifics of injustice, or leading to apathy.
Ultimately, I conclude that the similarities and differences between whiteness in the US
and Canada are less important than what their comparison reveals. The comparison here
demonstrates the way in which whiteness in the multicultural era is nationally mediated by ideas
of victimhood. Moreover, such an analysis applies to how the relationality of whiteness may
work in other contexts, not just national ones. This dissertation follows a trajectory from
conceptualizing a problem to imagining solutions. The first two chapters, in particular, work to
characterize the problem of white uses of victimhood in the late 20l -century and how this is
supported via national identity. The second two chapters focus more on what these texts tell us
about how to face the wounds of racial trauma in a way that promotes reconciliation rather than
simply amnesiac amelioration that promotes the dominance of whiteness.
Chapter 1
"When I wanted us to be like the families in the books": American Victimhood and the
Maintenance of White Innocence
The nation is conceived of discursively and, although not monolithic, it is defined by
what one might call national narrative(s). Individual identity and experience are shaped by these
narratives, but are not determined by them. Instead, the individual reveals the contradictions that
the narrative cannot resolve. In memory of traumatic injury, these contradictions are particularly
visible because of the breakdown of narration, comprehension, and the logics of everyday life.
Where an entire group is victimized, this visibility produces a problem: the relationship between
trauma and group identity. As I will explain, during the period of 1980-2000 this relationship
became particularly contested. It is my contention that the intensity of the debate over this issue
expresses the anxieties of whiteness in this period. At the crux of the debate is the underlying
belief that any relationship between trauma and group identity translates into a singular identity:
victim. This chapter and the one that follows examine what it means to be a victim within the
Canadian and US national imaginarles, and how two authors, Dorothy Allison and Richard Van
Camp, write of victimhood in ways that challenge these national conceptions of victimhood. In
Bastard Out ofCarolina and The Lesser Blessed, the authors speak of traumatic experience and
particularly how it relates to group identity one the one hand and nation on the other. I argue that
that by doing so they reveal tensions in the unspoken relationship between whiteness and
victimhood (differently) present in each nation.
55
Bastard Out ofCarolina is narrated by the main character, Bone, who begins the story
with her birth, concluding it when she is twelve.1 The novel documents her mother's marriage to
Glen Waddell , who beats, molests, and ultimately rapes Bone. A testament to Bone's survival of
poverty as well as Glen's abuse, the novel dramatizes the connection between individual
experience, national narrative, and systemic inequality. Reflecting on how the abuse makes her
feel worthless, Bone thinks: "The worst thing in the world was the way I felt when I wanted us to
be like the families in the books in the library, when I just wanted Daddy Glen to love me like
the father in Robinson Crusoe" (209). Earlier in this passage, she realizes that she can survive her
shame by responding with anger; however, anger does not compensate for her basic desire to be
loved. She thinks "Love would make me beautiful; a father's love would purify my heart, turn
my bitter soul sweet, and lighten my Cherokee eyes" (209).
On one level, this passage is a poignant description of the emotional effect of abuse on
children. Unable to sustain anger, she has nowhere to direct her pain but against herself: "Why
didn't he love me?" (209). On another level, this passage indicates a broader public culture
beyond the domestic relationship of child and stepparent. In describing her despair, Bone turns to
literature. There are plenty of literary examples of hardship, but rather than analogizing her
plight to that of a suffering protagonist, Bone feels her pain most keenly in contrast to her
idealized reading of the father-son relationship in Robinson Crusoe. The contrast illustrates the
disconnect between the story of what is supposed to be and the experience of what is. Although
our individual experiences are interpreted through the hegemonic narratives that structure our
A note on capitalization. Allison's book was copyrighted in 1992 as Bastard Out ofCarolina,
but subsequent editions have printed the title as Bastard Out ofCarolina. I have used the latter as
it emphasizes the novel's queer themes.
56
subjectivities, individual experience can be so at odds with those narratives that it leads us to
question them. Bone's awareness of her suffering is heightened by the distance she observes
between her lived experience and the normative narratives she's read, observed, and internalized.
This awareness, I will argue, produces a distinct counter-knowledge to the dominant ideology
surrounding victimhood.
Allison's choice of Robinson Crusoe for a touchstone in this passage is significant
because it reminds us that the stories of individuals are also the stories of nations. Robinson
Crusoe is the prototypical English novel, and as such has long been recognized as model of
British national identity. By alluding to Robinson Crusoe, Allison references the traditional role
of novels in national culture—to construct a normative national narrative—and indicates that her
novel does something different. While Defoe represents a relatively privileged young man in
18l -century England, Allison's protagonist is a poor white girl in the American South during the
mid-201 -century. Allison's novel critiques a dominant American narrative, one that is racist,
classisi, and sexist. Indeed, we can read an American racial history in Bone's belief that her
stepfather's love would "lighten [her] Cherokee eyes." Gesturing at the erasure of Native
Americans at the genesis of the "American" narrative, Bone' belief shows not only the power the
patriarchal figure has over her well being, but also the power he has to determine her worth,
worth that is expressed by her increasing whiteness (the lightening of her eyes). For Bone,
however, this validation never comes. Rather than a bildungsroman in which the (wealthy, white,
heterosexual male) protagonist leaves comfort and conformity only to return to that same norm,
Bone's ordeal ends with further marginalization and exile from the norm—she is rejected by her
mother, moves in with her lesbian aunt, and embraces her "white trash" identity. Bone's
57
experience thereby produces a counter-narrative to the dominant stories surrounding whiteness
and victimhood.
In this chapter, I lay out dominant attitudes about victimhood in the US in the 1980s and
1990s. I argue that these attitudes work to bolster white supremacy in this era. I examine
Allison's novel in this context. In my reading, Bastard Out ofCarolina at once challenges the
dominant rhetoric surrounding victimhood and illustrates that changing our understanding of
what constitutes a victim alone is not enough to counter white supremacy; rather we must
investigate and engage with the specific blind spots that white privilege produces.
Victimhood in the US at the end of the 20th-century
Victimhood in America, 1980-2000
Victimhood seems at odds with the American national character, if there can be said to be
such a thing. In a nation known for its optimism, it is almost unpatriotic to admit a relationship
between identity and victimhood, as this seems to fix identity in past injury rather than in future
prosperity. Indeed, victimhood seems to be antithetical to the idea of the "normal" American
citizen (Bickford, Berlant).2 Despite attempts to raise awareness about the universality of
victimhood (especially in terms of sexual and domestic abuse), there is still a widespread
In "Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship,"
Susan Bickford writes that "suffering and citizenship are not antithetical; they are only made so
in a context in which others hear claims of oppression solely as assertions of powerlessness"
(127). In "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics," Lauren Berlant sees
American citizenship taking two forms: the ahistorical, identityless citizen/person or the group
excluded from the American Dream because of their "difference" from the first form of
personhood (128-129). In either case, we can see that the dominant view is that victimhood is
conceptualized as un-American.
58
perception that victims are identifiable, that they are somehow different from the mainstream, if
not visibly, at least psychologically (Cole).
Claiming victimhood would seem to be un-American; however, in Post-traumatic
Culture, Kirby Farrell notes that something different started happening in the 1980s. Drawing on
Tom Engelhardt' s description of "the end of victory culture," he writes:
From the beginning, [Engelhardt] argues, American's national identity was
grounded in a tale of expanding democratic freedom and manifest destiny that
euphemized a history of exploitation. [...] But the Vietnam debacle, the Soviet
collapse, and giddy shifts in gender and class relations have undercut the victory
culture [...]. In the 1 990s the Holocaust took on new prominence in accounts of
the war, a change symptomatic of a shift in the emphasis from victors to victims.
[. . .] Englehardt thinks of this "triumphalist despair" as a "societal crisis" of
"storylessness," and I take his point. But the victory story has not vanished;
rather, it has evolved into new forms and opened up spaces in cultural imagination
for compensatory tales. Although "storylessness" constituted a shock in its own
right, some of the narratives that were developed to manage it actually heightened
the atmosphere of crisis and reinforced the sense of injury. (154-5)
This sense of injury was compelling. As Martha Minow observes in "Surviving Victim Talk":
"each of the three recent presidential candidates periodically claimed to be victims. Of course, all
Victims are conceived of as pathological, not psychologically "normal." As Alyson Cole
writes, in The Cult ofTrue Victimhood, "the 'ism' in victimism is not a designation of
victimhood as ideology as much as ofpsychology, for anti-victimists construe victimhood as
evidence of a personality type. Claims of victimization are scrutinized through a diagnostic lens
as symptoms of an impaired character rather than as matters of verifiable facts" (6-7).
59
three blamed the press at times for harassing, prying, revealing, or for paying too little attention.
In addition, both Clinton and Bush tried to convey their personal experiences of victimhood:
Clinton, as a child of an alcoholic parent, and Bush, as a parent of a child who died" (1414). That
presidential candidates, seeking to become the single most representative of the US, choose to
identity themselves as victims says much about the national sense of victimization.
This sense of the nation and the mainstream population as victims did not, however,
coincide with an increased sympathy for those who had been victimized by members of the
mainstream or by the creation of a mainstream itself. Instead, as Farrell among others has noted,
this sense of injury propelled a backlash against those who appeared to profit from their status as
victims through gains made by the Civil Rights and Women's Movements. The backlash during
this period coincided with the development of what Alyson Cole, in The Cult ofTrue
Victimhood, has called "anti-victimist" discourse. This discourse is best exemplified by popular
political writing, such as Charles Sykes's A Nation of Victims: The Decay ofthe American
Character. Such writings argue that people who claim victimhood on the basis of identity are
pathologically blaming others for their own failings rather than taking responsibility. The debates
over victimhood were multiple with a wide scope of implications, such that in 1996, there were
enough arguments to create an entire "opposing viewpoints" collection on the subject for use in
teaching critical thinking and argumentation (Winters).4 What becomes clear is that on the one
hand victimhood became a very appealing trope in this time period, and on the other hand the
very nature of victimhood and who could be rightly considered a victim became hotly contested.
Although Cole dates the rise of anti-victimism to the late eighties and early nineties, Kirby
Farrell convincingly argues that Ronald Reagan mobilized these ideas early in the 1980s (155167).
60
Anti-victimist rhetoric successfully brought together the mainstream sense of
victimization with a backlash against recognition of victimhood based in identity. Cole writes
that "Anti-victimism not only produces a 'backlash,' but categorically denies systemic
inequalities and delegitimizes collective action [...] At the same time, anti-victimists depict a
world in which a dominating victim politics victimizes society. The account of victimization has
become, paradoxically, the key trope of the anti-victimist discourse" (19). In this way, antivictimists create what Cole calls the "Cult of True Victimhood." The characteristics of true
victimhood—propriety, responsibility, individuality, innocence—maintain that only certain kinds
of people can qualify as victims, those who bear the characteristics of dominance.5 So,
paradoxically, those most privileged in society are most entitled to the title of victim.
Cole points out that anti-victimist rhetoric is not simply a partisan phenomenon. She
notes how feminists and therapists, for example, developed the rhetoric of the "survivor" of
physical and sexual violence in place of the term "victim," in order to emphasize agency over
passivity. She also points out how pervasive the move away from victimhood is in Left-leaning
scholarly work, from Wendy Brown's States ofInjury to the increased emphasis on agency
rather than oppression. All this amounts to a rejection of the term victim for those who are
injured by systemic oppression.
It is useful here to consider Robert Elias' s intervention in the field of victimology (as Cole
does). In The Politics of Victimization: Victims, Victimology, and Human Rights, Elias notes that
victimology has focused on victims of crime, rather than those of systemic injustice. By adding a
political approach, Elias aims to correct this, demonstrating the narrowness of American
definitions of victimhood. As Cole's definition ofthe Cult of True Victimhood demonstrates, a
"true victim" would logically be a victim of a crime, rather than a victim of injustice.
61
Victimhood and Whiteness
It is crucial that one of Cole's characteristics of "trae victimhood" is innocence. This
characteristic provides strong evidence of the racialized functioning of the backlash against
victimhood. This is to say, although one can also see this time as a period of backlash for
dominant groups in general (men, heterosexuals, Christians, the wealthy, etc.), the role of
victimhood and its relationship to innocence suggests that whiteness has a key part here. The
logic of whiteness includes the assumption of white innocence, whereas, masculinity, for
example, does not rely on the innocence of men. My critical intervention into the discussion of
victimhood is my claim that there is a vexed relationship between whiteness and victimhood
during this period. On the one hand, a victim is understood to be innocent. On the other hand,
one of the characteristics of whiteness is the presumption of innocence. Claims of racial
victimhood expose a tension in these two logics. A claim of racial injustice means that whiteness
does not equal innocence and results in white guilt. This is a problem for the dominance of
whiteness; it makes whiteness visible and challenges the assumed "goodness" of white people
and white values.
Victims are widely understood to be innocent (Cole, 30). As Martha Minow notes,
victimhood positions one on the moral high ground, where one cannot be blamed for one's
actions. The term "victim" is often preceded with the adjective "innocent" with no change in
meaning. The idea of the innocence of the victim is key to anti-victimist rhetoric. For example,
in The Content ofOur Character: A New Vision ofRace in America, Shelby Steele writes: "The
most obvious and unarguable source of black innocence is the victimization that blacks endured
for centuries at the hands of a race that insisted on black inferiority as a means to its own
62
innocence and power. Like all victims, what blacks lost in power they gained in innocence—
innocence that, in turn, entitled them to pursue power" (qtd. in Minow 1419). Whether a victim
of injustice or a crime, the victim is believed to have moral authority that is based in his/her
innocence.
On the other hand, while not widely recognized or discussed, white racial identity also
confers innocence. In Breaking the Code ofGood Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness,
Melanie Bush explains this referencing Peggy Mcintosh's groundbreaking work on white
privilege (1992, 1998). Invisible advantages of white racial identity include "privileges [that]
convey protection (such as the presumption ofwhite innocence as opposed to a presumption of
Black guilt" (31, italics mine). In addition to the conferral of innocence in general, whiteness
specifically presumes innocence regarding racism (71). Bush writes:
Another tendency among whites to be defensive when accused of racism, consider
the accusation, and then return to a self-defense, as though the process of
consideration clears one's name. This dynamic of a defense of white innocence,
consideration of responsibility, and then reversion back to a defense happens
frequently in organizations as well as individuals. (225)
The logic here is that not only does whiteness include assumed innocence as an element of white
racial privilege, it also maintains the innocence of white intention. In other words, white people
do not mean to be racist and therefore it is unfair/wrong to hold us accountable for our racist
beliefs, speech and practices. White innocence carries with it the impossibility ofhearing claims
of racial victimhood. Cole writes that victimhood is often understood in terms of blame. She
draws on philosophy and law to indicate that blame is "unlike casual attributions, [it] typically
63
involves a judgment (often assuming intent and an understanding of wrongdoing) of the
character of the subject being blamed" (110). Because whiteness supposedly equals innocence,
even if a white person is/behaves racist(ly), they cannot be blamed because their intent is
innocent. The relationship between victimhood and blame (and white "unblamability"),
therefore, precludes white recognition of responsibility or accountability, which are not
necessarily reliant on intent.
What this means is that white people are supposed to be inherently innocent (and those
who are guilty are assumed to be the exception and must not implicate whiteness as a whole). If
being a victim means one is innocent, white victimhood would seem to provide a way to move
away from the uncomfortable guilt that systemic racial injustice points to, and more importantly,
redirect the challenge that recognition of the systemic nature of racism levels at white innocence
at large. Cole explains how the conflation of victimhood and innocence produces a context in
which another's claims to victimhood threatens one's own claim to victim status (38), and in
which innocence "is a moral commodity [...] a zero sum game" (30). In other words, if minorities
are victims, then white people cannot be; if white people are victims, minorities are not. In order
to reconcile the apparent contradiction between white people being inherently innocent and racial
minorities being innocent on the basis of injustice committed by white people, the logic of white
backlash constructs white people as "true victims" thus restoring the innocence of whiteness and
discounting claims of racial injury.
The restoration of white innocence through the reconstitution of whites as victims,
however, is flimsy. Below, I examine how Dorothy Allison puts pressure on this logic, disrupting
this rhetorical sleight of hand.
64
Victimhood, (Whiteness), and Child Abuse
In addition to the shift in the relationship between American whiteness and victimhood
during the period under discussion, there was also an explosion of literature and memoirs on the
topic of victimhood, particularly in the form of narratives of child abuse. Anti-victimists railed
against this obsession, claiming it was turning Americans into whiners seeking special privileges
and wrongly advantaging members of groups that had historically experienced oppression.
However, as scholars have noted, these texts and their popularity reveal widespread anxieties
about shifting power relations in the US (Farrell, Tal). Not necessarily progressive, or even
"politically correct," the mainstream's fixation on trauma also worked to re-establish its
(threatened) dominance. This section examines how the fascination with child abuse supported
the status quo, before I go on to examine how Allison's narrative challenges it.
The obsession with these testimonies so abhorred by anti-victimists expressed a backlash
against the recognition of victimhood related to group identity. With respect to the surge in
testimonies of child abuse in the 1980s, Farrell writes, "However widespread sexual abuse is in
this culture, fiction resonates with concerns that go beyond the actual abuse" (195). He
continues:
The "coercive violence" at the core of social experience in America is the alluring
monster in the heart of the labyrinth. It is the irresistible "secret" at the heart of
the "literary vogue" of incest. [...] Childhood abuse in particular evokes some of
the most disturbing conflicts in American culture: gross inequalities in class and
gender; predatory economic behavior (multimillion-dollar executives, minimumwage workers in virtual peonage); the seductive glamour and treachery of
65
patriarchal power, and more. Like abuse, these conflicts violate our proclaimed
identity as a nation. We try to keep them a secret from the neighbors and
ourselves. (195-6)
Stories of sexual abuse and child abuse are both titillating enough and domestic enough that they
can be abstracted from most social content, so that we need not confront the "other conflicts" in
order to talk about child abuse. In other words, the mainstream white response to increased
awareness of oppression and the gains made in the 1960s and 70s was an overall obsession with
trauma that obscured specific traumas related to oppressive social and economic orders.
Indeed, several scholars have noted that testimonials of abuse can work to re-inscribe the
contemporary systems of power that they might appear to challenge. For example, In Between
the Body and the Flesh, Lynda Hart points out the difference between what we traditionally think
of as trauma (war, genocide) and incest trauma—whereas those "traditional" traumas supposedly
result from experiencing something beyond human experience, rape and incest are well within
human experience (173). Hart adds that the story of sexual violence is "a story that is part of the
normative violence that subtends the gender configurations of our dominant culture" (179). This
complicates the possibility for, and work of, testifying to incest trauma. The confessional form of
most abuse testimonials re-inscribes the idea of the abuse as a "secret" that is being revealed.
(Alcoff and Gray, Bell, Haaken). They inscribe themselves as the anomaly, that is, when normal
In An Archive ofFeelings, Ann Cvetkovich also explains that "forms of violence [. . .] are
forgotten or covered over by the amnesiac powers of national culture, which is adept at using one
trauma story to suppress another" (16). In her study, she examines sexual trauma, particularly
lesbian sites of trauma, rather than large scale national traumas to "resist the way that trauma can
be used to reinforce nationalism when constructed as a wound that must be healed in the name of
unity" (16).
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"went wrong." In a sense, testimonials of sexual abuse can be incorporated into a national
narrative in two ways. First, since these testimonials displace anxieties about other coercive
systems in our society (race, class, gender, etc.), readers see individuals who deserve blame.
Abusers are individuals; we can say "they should be punished" or "they need help." Thus, the
conflicts are contained and the status quo maintained. Secondly, because survivors narrate their
experiences in terms ofpersonal confession, readers can understand the abuse as an isolated
event, not a failure of the actual system as a whole.
These stories can paradoxically work as normative texts, despite their evidencing the
violence of domination. Drawing our attention to one or even several experiences of child abuse
does not challenge the authority or legitimacy of the nuclear, patriarchal, American family. If
anything, it stands as the "urban legend" that reassures the "rest of us" that we are in fact
"normal." It exists as the threat of what might happen should we deviate (or, like Daddy Glen in
Bastard Out of Carolina, lose our jobs). Kirby Farrell writes:
The trope of trauma can be viewed as a corrective or cautionary device that
modern culture uses in its efforts to regulate morale in the face of new kinds of
stress. [...] the trope has developed as one component of the increasingly complex
systems of managing motivations that made modern culture possible. (21)
Stories of sexual abuse can, in fact, function in support of a national narrative. That the abuse is
traumatic indicates that it is abnormal, so the readership can be reassured that in the "normal"
American family, such things do not happen. Also, because stories of child abuse are often
stripped of the markers of social location, the "abnormality" of the situation does not implicate
67
social institutions, in a sense validating them and labeling those who belong within them as
normal.
In Worlds ofHurt, Kali Tal notes that early collections of incest survivor narratives
(published in the late 1970s and early 1980s) themselves perpetuated this problem. She notes that
they choose the most "representative" individuals, who also tended to be white women (195),
and that even when they included minority women these testimonies were deracialized. These
collections did not recognize social location as having any relevance to the subject of abuse. For
example, they did not acknowledge that the justice system rarely helps minority women in cases
of sexual abuse, and that community-based forms ofjustice, despite their potential sexism, are
often preferable. Abuse literature that denies the exponentiating effects of race and class on
sexual abuse fundamentally distorts both the nature of the abuse and the identity of the victim.
As a result of this universalizing perspective, abuse trauma is viewed as personal and not
considered in connection with social position, let alone with respect to specifically American
institutions. We have been encouraged to understand that familial abuse occurs in all segments of
society, regardless of class, race or even gender. This "transcendent" notion of child abuse—
while being politically efficacious in helping us acknowledge its ubiquity—contributes to the
erasing of social differences and denying distinct, subjective experiences to victims (Tal 1 83).
Victims of child abuse are constituted as a separate class—victims—rather than being seen as
particular in their experiences and identity. This means that the American narrative can
incorporate the idea of child molestation into its vision without being destabilized as long as no
connection is made between structures of power and the abuse.
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What all of this suggests is that while antivictimists critique the mainstream obsession
with victimhood, this obsession itself functions on a logic not unlike that proposed by the
antivictimists. On the one hand, anti-victimists claim that a victim of systemic inequality is not a
victim, but rather a victimist, exploiting sympathy. Such a victim is pathological. The
mainstream consumption of stories of victimhood also serves to position victims as individuals
(possibly abnormal ones) who are not tied to systemic injustice. Both work to redirect attention
away from the uncomfortable awareness of systemic injustice. The always already innocent child
victim, who exists beyond the specifics of race and class, is the perfect "true victim." This logic
has specific relevance for whiteness. By de-emphasizing the context of abuse, factors such as
race and class appear irrelevant in discussions of victimhood. In this way, victimhood becomes
white—a universal category, from which nonwhite experience is deviation or supplement.
Nevertheless, abuse narratives can also function as resistance and protest to both the
pathologizing and universalizing of victimhood. By representing the non-pathological
subjectivity of the victim, as well as the ways in which their experience is inextricable from
systemic injustice, authors can challenge the major ways in which their stories, identities,
experiences are managed by dominant discourse. In the analysis that follows in this chapter and
the next, thej'where" of the abuse (i.e. its social location) is integral to understanding the abuse,
not just supplementary to it. As such, the "whiteness" of victimhood is challenged to reveal that,
as the Incite! Collective has noted, there is a "color of violence."
This claim has been argued in many ways with regard to Bastard Out ofCarolina. These
critical conversations focus on the text as a testimonial, and focus on one or more of Bone's
overlapping marginal identities (queer, abuse survivor, poor white, Southern, etc.). See Hart,
Cvetkovich, Sandell, Irving, Baker "Politics of They."
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Bastard Out ofCarolina: A Victim's Knowledge and the New Racial Innocence
I begin this dissertation, perhaps counterintuitively, with a white writer writing about a
white victim. Bastard Out ofCarolina, however, does not recreate the Cult of True Victimhood,
particularly with its effect of restoring white innocence. By beginning with this novel, I indicate
the problematic relationship of whiteness to white racial identity; the terms are intimately related,
and yet they are not synonymous. By recognizing this, we can engage whiteness not simply by
identifying and critiquing white behaviors, but by understanding its systemic functioning.8 In
addition, examining a narrative about a white victim allows us to understand what victimhood
can tell us about how dominance functions, not only oppressing but erasing the signs ofthat
oppression as well. As such, this chapter demonstrates why traumatic experience is a lens
through which to understand (otherwise invisible) whiteness, rather than simply a wounded
attachment to past injury, as anti-victimists would have it. Allison's conceptualization of
I write this in response to Eva Cherniavsky's call to resist locating whiteness as both "nowhere"
and "everywhere." In Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics ofCapital,
Cherniavsky critiques the "undoing of the elision of white identity with the culturally
normative—in what has emerged as the critical gesture for 'whiteness studies'" and she states
that "the assertion of white particularity is inadequate for critical interventions in colonial
formations of power and knowledge" (50, italies in original). She identifies three main faults in
the general approach taken by whiteness studies: 1) seeing whiteness and white identity as
identical 2) believing that rescripting white identity will result in rescripting whiteness and 3) reinscribing white privilege, as whites can still gain something (self-awareness) from difference.
According to Cherniavsky, it is not simply enough to define and recognize whiteness. While
whiteness is expressed by individuals (their epistemology, their values, the privilege they
through which they experience the world), to locate whiteness in terms of individual identity is to
at once diminish the vast impact of whiteness (and the power of white supremacist ideology) and
to over-empower white individuals (as un-doers of racism and beneficiaries of the knowledge
that racism produces). I return to Cherniavsky's critique in the later in this chapter and the one
that follows.
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victimhood takes apart the logic that equates victimhood, innocence, and whiteness. In doing so,
she presents a challenge to anti-vietimists, who reject claims of systemic injustice, and the
mainstream, which is invested in the generic idea of victimization as a smoke screen for other
more disturbing realizations. However, the critique cannot end here. There is yet another way
that whiteness can operate in relation to victimhood: whiteness can maintain dominance by
recognizing and then co-opting claims of systemic injury.
Victimhood, Knowledge, and Innocence
Bastard Out ofCarolina is a harrowing story of Bone's experience of poverty and abuse.
While the climax of the novel occurs with the rape, it is her mother's betrayal (choosing Glen
over her) that is the most devastating event and provides some of the hardest questions for the
book. Because victimhood is constitutive of Bone's identity (via her embodied experience), and
because identity functions as an epistemology, victimhood produces specific kinds of
knowledge. It would seem that Bone is hardly someone in a position to tell us anything about
the nation and nationally specific whiteness. She is a child narrator, unaware of the larger picture
around her. Yet it is precisely her lack of awareness that makes the effects of the larger world so
undeniable. Also, as her awareness develops through the book, it is an awareness that comes
about not deductively but inductively. Her inductive logic is shaped by embodied experience and
9 While I have discussed the relationship between identity and knowledge in my introduction to
the dissertation, I want to emphasize, in particular, the role of suffering in such knowledge. In
Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes: "When I use the phrase 'passion of experience,' it
encompasses many feelings but particularly suffering, for there is a particular knowledge that
comes from suffering. It is a way of knowing that is often expressed through the body, what it
knows, what has been deeply inscribed on it through experience. This complexity of experience
can rarely be voiced and named from a distance" (91). This is how Allison writes of Bone's
body.
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it produces a counter-narrative and counter-identity to the ones posed by the dominant logic of
the time. And the specific knowledge that she develops is two fold. l)Victims are produced by
institutions, whether social, economic, or governmental. Violence produces victimhood, and yet
that violence is not always visible. Thus, victimhood is productive of knowledge that might
otherwise be hidden by the "smooth functioning" and normalcy of these institutions. 2) Victims
are not passive and pathological, nor are they ideal and innocent. Essentially, she takes
innocence out of the equation. It is not Bone's innocence that makes her a victim, nor does
whiteness make her innocent. This knowledge highlights the illogic of the Cult of True
Victimhood and its implicit support of whiteness.
The setting of the novel itself indicates how to understand its response to a culture of
backlash10. The novel was published in 1992, and was presumably written in the late 1980s, in
the context of the rise of anti-victimist discourse, in the midst of the Reagan-Bush presidencies,
and during the heating up of the so-called culture wars. The novel is set, however, duringl950s.
The dominant culture in the 1980s looked back to the 1950s with nostalgia, as an idyllic and
trauma-free time.11 This vision of the 1950s with its white-picket fences and "return to
normalcy" was a reality for only a minority, composed of straight, middle class, white people.
Even for that limited population, this was also a time of fear and instability, exemplified in the
I Allison is also explicitly responding to debates within the feminist movement. In particular, in
the so-called sex wars that pitted anti-pornography feminists against sex-positive feminists. In
addition, she is part of a tradition of feminists who critique the normative politics of mainstream
feminism. For Allison, mainstream feminism had no space for the role that poverty plays in her
identity, and certainly no space for the ways in which abuse and her queer s/m sexuality
intersect. (Skin, Two or Three, Hart)
II For discussion ofhow Ronald Reagan embodied this nostalgia see Willis and Combs.
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fear of nuclear war. By re-visiting this time period (which was supposedly so nice for white
people), Allison by implication leads readers to critique the 1980s nostalgia. Moreover, she
implicates the nation in the abuse inflicted on Bone, both in terms of its institutions and in terms
of the ways in which it imagines itself.
In the novel, the national narrative is only visible in fragments, mostly in the form of its
failure or in individuals' inabilities to live up to the American Dream. Bone pieces together an
idea of the national narrative from these fragments. The national narrative in this case is the
mentality of the 1950s. In the post-World War Two boom, success, upward mobility, forgetting
the Depression and, significant to this novel, the development and industrialization of the New
South were at the forefront. In addition, this coincides with the idealization of the nuclear family.
In contrast, during the same time, the Boatwright family experiences only poverty, humiliation,
and break-up. Bone's abuse, and ultimately her rape, is fundamentally tied up with what the
national narrative conveniently omits. By occupying multiply marginalized positions, she does
not merely re-inscribe preconceived notions of the causes of child abuse, but instead shows the
way that social forces disguised by that narrative push her into a victimized position.
The epigraph to the novel is a quote from James Baldwin: "People pay for what they do,
and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply; by
the lives they lead." For Allison, the connection between life and meaning is experiential.
Meaning in Bastard Out ofCarolina comes not from the plot, the escalating patterns of abuse,
but from the texture and experience of life in the specific reality of Bone's life as a poor, white,
(queer), fatherless, female in the South. These are not symbolic attributes. That is, the
downtrodden South is not representative of a state of abjection, nor is Bone herself symbolic.
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Allison strongly resists symbolism in order to preserve specificity. Specificity is essential to the
testimonial function of the book.
Bone's body is central to our understanding of her experience
of both the abuse and her social location. Bone comes to understand her social location through
her body. Moreover, her location and bodily experience are linked to national mythology. This
allows us to see a critique of the national belief that victimhood is individual and not systematic.
For Allison, the body is important not because it symbolizes the characters or their
hardships; rather, it is where social identity is experienced and expressed. She shows the body
and the mind to be inseparable. For example, Bone's obsessions with music and religion are of
equal importance to her physical experiences and her awareness of her own and other people's
bodies. She desires these more abstract things not as an escape from her body, but as an
integrated experience of body and mind. For example, Bone's attraction to religion is rendered in
physical terms: "it was not really the baptism I wanted, [. . .]. It was that moment of sitting on the
line between salvation and damnation with the preacher and the old women pulling bodily at my
poor darkened soul" (151). The body infiltrates every event of the novel, both positive and
negative, Bone's name, or rather nickname, is itself a part of the body. It is appropriate because it
is both hard, central (to the novel), can be broken, and can also heal. Her body lives out the
marginality of her person. Moreover, the body becomes part of a non-verbal language based on
associations that do not symbolize meaning in the text but rather constitute meaning.13
For discussions of Allison's novel as testimonial and its relationship to social location see
Cvetkovich and Hart. For discussions of the style of Allison's testimony see also Horeck,
Horvitz, and Gwin.
For a detailed argument and close reading on the role of the body in Bastard Out ofCarolina,
see my undergraduate thesis "The Bodily South: Reading Physicality in William Faulkner and
Dorothy Allison" (Reed College 2000).
74
Bone's bodily awareness overlaps with her increasing sensitivity to her social identity. In
"The Battleground of the Adolescent Girl's Body," Brenda Boudreau writes about the ways in
which Bone's social identity is conflicted and how this conflict is bodily. She points out that the
body is not conceived of outside of its cultural context, and as a result, identity and physicality
are inextricable. Boudreau writes that "Bone is torn throughout the novel between needing to
identify herself with her family and being deeply ashamed ofher 'white trash' background" and
she observes that Bone's physical differences from the rest of her family are very upsetting to her
(51). Boudreau focuses on Bone's distorted view of her own body. Bone's body image is filtered
through her status as poor, in addition to, her status as a victim of abuse. She believes she is ugly,
reflecting her sense of shame. I would add that distorted perception affects her understanding of
bodies beyond her own. Initially, she describes her mother and her grandmother in terms of their
smells and touch, as much as by their appearances, privileging senses that result from their
physical closeness. As she develops a concept ofher social identity and separates herself from
her family, she also becomes aware ofhow they look, in particular the flaws in their
appearances. She knows how other people view her family: "I'm just another ignorant
Boatwright, you know. Another piece of trash barely knows enough to wipe her ass or spit away
from the wind" (258)._This shapes her view of those same bodies. Bone realizes that "[her] body,
like [her] aunts' bodies, was born to be worked to death, used up and thrown away" (206). This
discovery indicates the development of Bone's class and gender awareness. Bone attempts to
construct a positive social identity based on external appearance. She identifies with the men in
her family: "the whole Boatwright legend [. . .] He would carry a knife and kill any man who
75
dared touch her" (13) and the "nasty and strong" female Boatwrights (91). However, this
empowering vision is frequently challenged by the larger external picture, a national one.
When reading Gone with the Wind, she realizes that she is seen as an Emma Slattery type
character, not a Scarlett O'Hara type:
Aunt Alma had given me a big paperback edition of Gone with the Wind, with
tinted pictures from the movie, and told me I'd love it. I had at first, but one
evening I looked up from Vivien Leigh's pink cheeks to see Mama coming in
form work with her hair darkened from sweat and her uniform stained. A sharp
flash went through me. Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who
we were. Not Scarlett with her baking-powder cheeks. I was part of the trash
down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing
ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death. I shook
with fear and indignation. (206)
This moment expresses the conflict between subjectivity and ideology, but also the individual
embodied effect of national policy. Gone with the Wind expresses a national nostalgia for the
antebellum South, with its rigid social hierarchy. In this hierarchy, poor whites are supposedly
worse than slaves because they have no "excuse" for their poverty. The Civil War setting, as well
as the novel's tremendous ongoing popularity, suggests the power that its social logic has for the
nation as a whole. As a supposedly universal reader, Bone identifies with Scarlett; she sees
Scarlett's beauty as the norm. As a situated person (taken outside ofher "universal" role as
reader), Bone recognizes that she is not read as Scarlett, however much she may feel like her.
Moreover, this moment highlights both the historical continuity and the historical specificity of
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the bodily effects of national economic structures. While poor whites conceptually date back to
the antebellum South (Newitz and Wray 2), the Boatwright experience of poverty is specific to
the industrialization of the New South in the early 20 -century. Bone's mother's rejection of
factory work means that the only option open to her is to work in a diner. Her economic choices
are experienced through her body: her exhaustion, her sweat-stained appearance. These, in turn,
shape Bone's understanding of the national narrative; she did not really understand what Gone
with the Wind demonstrated about class inequality until she witnessed it expressed by her
mother's body. In other words, bodily experience produces knowledge of a national context of
injustice.
Allison represents poverty as a national problem, one that grows out of historical attitudes
as well as material conditions. Scholars have noted that Bone's abuse, too, reflects a national
problem. In "The Fascination of the Lesbian Fetish: A Perverse Possibility across the Body of
Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out ofCarolina," Mary Wiles examines "the manner in which social
history dynamically interacts with personal history to produce the sexual subjectivity of Bone as
the shifting point of their intersection" (147), although her analysis focuses mostly on race
relations and poverty. In An Archive ofFeelings, focusing more on sexual subjectivity and its
relationship to abuse, Ann Cvetkovich writes: "sexual trauma also has persistently national _
dimensions, [...] in the case of Allison using an incest story to incorporate southern white trash
culture into U.S. history" (13). Cvetkovich goes on to argue: "One of the book's projects, then, is
to situate sexual trauma as a national category as well as to incorporate it into national and
transnational histories that address the question of trauma. (35-6). Bone's experience of
victimhood is in fact overdetermined by national structures.
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On the surface, Bastard Out ofCarolina seems to fit with a mainstream American
narrative, in which victims are exceptions from the norm and through which anxieties about
social institutions are displaced; however, the novel challenges these mainstream investments in
victimhood. Bone's abuser, Glen, is essentially a poor, white male who cannot keep a job. He
abuses Bone, but not her sister. This seems to suggest that it is only the "good-for-nothing" who
would rape a child, and that the child herself is an anomaly—she is the only one. Nevertheless,
the failure of institutional systems (both governmental and familial) suggests that rather than
Bone being someone who fell through the cracks, she is actually pushed into the cracks by social
and institutional forces. That is, it is not that Bone is unable to access help, but rather those that
could help her refuse to. The most obvious example is the final betrayal when her mother
chooses Glen, the abuser, over Bone, the victim. Rather than blame Anney for this choice, we
see her positioned in a complex web of need, where her need for marriage and legitimacy is
stronger than her need to be a mother. While the institution of motherhood is understood to be
protective of children at all costs, the victimized "bastard" child does not validate the role of
mother. Rather than re-affirming her role as mother, staying with Bone would have further
isolated Anney from the safety of an institutionally sanctioned identity. Anney' s quest for
legitimacy is an example of the power of institutions, institutions that are invested in maintaining
unequal power relations.
By accepting and explaining rather than blaming Anney' s choice, the novel interrogates
social forces more than individuals. The initial scenes involving Bone's birth certificate set the
scene for this. Anney is unconscious at the time of Bone's birth and her mother and aunt cannot
remember Bone's father's name and "the clerk got mad, and there I was—certified a bastard by
78
the state of South Carolina" (3). While the rest of the family holds that institutional legitimacy is
useless—"Who cared what was written down? Did people read courthouse records? Did they ask
to see your birth certificate before they sat themselves on your porch?" (3)—what it says on the
birth certificate is extremely important to 1 6 year-old Anney. After three attempts at getting
Bone's birth certificate changed, Anney is vindicated when the courthouse burns down. What is
crucial here is that, for Anney, the birth certificate stamped "illegitimate" is an institutional
stamp that brands her as "poor white trash": "The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like
the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No-good, lazy, shiftless" (3). This sets the scene
for Armey's continued pursuit of legitimacy as an attempt to defy the social forces that would
keep her and her family marginalized.
Anti-victimists and the mainstream at large conceive of a victim as someone who
experiences individual, accidental misfortune that does not reflect on the supposedly impartial
institutions that structure our lives. Bastard Out ofCarolina reveals the arbitrary and deceptive
nature of this conception of victimhood. There is a telling contrast in the first few pages of the
novel between the deliberate, institutional stamping of Bone's birth certificate and the accidents
that surround the family's experience. In the first ten pages of the book, four different car
accidents are mentioned (2,5,7,9). Bone, herself, is born in a car accident. In addition, her
conception was itself an "accident." The profusion of accidents befalling this poor white family
contrasts sharply with the intentioned stamping of Bone's birth certificate, "in oversized red-
inked block letters it read "ILLEGITIMATE"" (4). The clerk explains, "This is how it's got to
be. The facts have been established" (4), and Bone tells us "the look he gave my mama and my
aunt was pure righteousness and justification" (5). Yet this certification is itself accidental, a
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result of Anney's unconsciousness after the car accident. In other words, there is a blurring
between the apparently opposed categories of "accident" versus "intent."
On the one hand, the accidents that disproportionately affect her family are not really so
accidental; they are a little too coincidental suggesting that they are in fact certified by the state.
Allison writes as much in Skin: "The first time I read the Jewish lesbian Irena Klepfisz's poems,
I experienced a frisson of recognition. It was not that my people had been 'burned off the map'
or murdered as hers had. No, we had been encouraged to destroy ourselves, made invisible
because we did not fit the myths of the noble poor generated by the middle class" (17, italics
mine). Cvetkovich writes:
Not an "alien" but a "bastard," Allison's Bone is also disenfranchised by the
official institutions of the state, registered as illegitimate in the county courthouse
that holds her birth certificate. More than merely a private sexual or family
matter, her illegitimate status becomes the sign of southern white trash culture's
backwardness. [. . .] Bastard Out ofCarolina contends with the "culture of
poverty" argument that holds white trash culture capable of producing only
"bastards," of passing down violence and deprivation as though they were genetic
conditions. (Cvetkovich 116)
In other words, in Allison's rendering the Boatwrights' apparently accidental experiences
become visible not as "facts" and "genetic conditions," but as positions into which they are
pushed by the act of "stamping" them. The accidents are in fact systemic.
The stamping scene also demonstrates that the very "facts" that supposedly justify the
state policies are themselves accidental. We see the fact of Bone's illegitimacy established by a
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prejudiced individual who "got mad" when faced with the Boatwrights. Not only are the facts
established through the irrational prejudices of authorities, those prejudices are mobilized most
strongly when the Boatwrights are in a time of crisis—in other words, when they are coping with
"accidents." This pattern is visible in the Boatwrights' multiple encounters with bureaucrats,
lawyers, and doctors, throughout the novel.
Just as the Boatwrights are "accidentally" positioned to encounter accidents by social
inequality on national and local levels, Bone is pushed into a position of vulnerability,
implicating these same institutions in her abuse. These institutions fail to prevent the abuse, let
alone the poverty. In addition, these prejudices are the reason that institutions fail to help and
further marginalize her. The institutions that fail to protect her all have connections to national
identity. Bone is betrayed by her mother—motherhood being intimately tied to conceptions of
national identity. Her extended family, likewise, is unable to stop the abuse. When her relatives
learn the extent to which Glen beats her, they beat him badly. Still, this does not prevent him
from finding and raping her. Hospitals, churches, and schools—all civic institutions that are both
local and yet symbolically tied not national identity—do not protect her. Bone passes through
these institutions, and when her abuse is recognized, nothing is done as it conforms to these
authorities' expectations about_poor whites. The abuse happens not only because of a general
power differential between Bone and Glen based in gender and age. It goes as far as it does
because of the neglect—itself a form of abuse—shown by the very institutions that could help
Bone and that had put her in this vulnerable position in the first place.
Through Bone's lived, embodied experience, Allison makes a clear link between
victimhood and systemic injustice. American conceptions of victimhood rely on the severing of
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this link. In addition, the backlash of the 1980s and 1990s took the form of what Alyson Cole
calls the "Cult of True Victimhood." Allison's challenge to this backlash comes in the form of
demonstrating that victimhood is not something to which only middle-class whites are entitled,
and that it is in fact produced by systemic injustice that privileges those supposedly "true
victims." As such, she illustrates what Robert Elias argued in the realm of victimology—a victim
of oppression is as much a victim as a victim of a crime.
As I argued at the beginning of this chapter, the Cult of True Victimhood has particular
salience for considering the whiteness of the backlash. In particular, the Cult requires that
victims are innocent (in addition to having propriety, being responsible, and being individual
rather than collective in nature). Allison deals a blow to the shifty sleight ofhand, in which
victimhood equals innocence and, white victimhood therefore corresponds to white innocence.
She does so through her emphasis on agency. On the one hand, agency allows Bone's survival.
On the other hand, it renders victimizers responsible for their choices. Her representation of
agency is at odds with the passive, innocent conception of victimhood that upholds the Cult of
True Victimhood.
Allison is very clear about her desire to avoid conceptions of poverty that render poor
whites as "the good poor"—a myth of the noble, innocent character of those disempowered by
forces beyond their control. She writes: "I tell my stories louder all the time: mean and ugly
stories; funny, almost bitter stories; passionate desperate stories—all of them have to be told in
order not to tell the one that the world wants, the story of us broken, the story of us never
laughing out loud, never learning to enjoy sex, never being able to love or trust love again, the
story in which all that survives is the flesh" (Two or Three 71-2). Indeed, part of what Bone
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learns as she pieces together the story of her family and their relationship to the larger national
narrative is how she can be both fierce and vulnerable, how her family can be proud and
ashamed, and how they can be victimized but also responsible for their own choices. Scholars
have emphasized Bone's life-saving agency in her ability to tell stories to herself and others
(Sandell, Hart, Horvitz, Horeck, Cvetkovich). They have emphasized how the sexual and
sadomasochistic nature of her fantasies (the stories she tells herself) does not conform to a myth
that a child is an "ultimate victim" because of her complete innocence (Horeck, Cvetkovich,
Hart, Curry). Bone's victimhood is not under dispute, but this claim to victimhood is not
supported by a corresponding claim to innocence. Conversely, while Glen is himself a victim,
the ways that this leads to his abusing Bone does not render him innocent. In other words, Glen
is disempowered—by his class status, by his feelings of emasculation, by his emotionally
abusive father—yet none of these things justify his choice to abuse Bone.14 And Allison never
claims to explain this: "Two or three things I knowfor sure, but none ofthem is why a man
would rape a child, why a man would beat a child' {Two or Three 43, italics in original). This,
too, can be said of Armey's choice to abandon Bone.
Bastard Out ofCarolina responds to and challenges the culture of backlash in the 1980s
and 1990s. Through Bone's embodied subjectivity, Allison makes a clear link between
victimhood and state-sanctioned inequality. Secondly, by emphasizing agency, Allison rejects
the implied elision of victimhood and innocence. By unsettling this elision, Allison troubles the
While Allison paints a picture of Glen as himself disempowered, she also makes clear his
position of power, not only over Bone but within a larger social structure. For example, the
police officer who interviews Bone after the rape "was Daddy Glen in a uniform. The world was
full of Daddy Glens" (296).
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logic of the white backlash's grab at victimhood (and thus innocence). While she unsettles this
logic, there is the troublesome issue of her white racial identity and what this means for her
critique of whiteness.
Race, Whiteness, and Innocence
Bastard Out ofCarolina'' s representation of victimhood challenges the dominant
conception of victimhood as unrelated to systemic injustice and dependent on the absolute
innocence of the victim. This conception of victimhood makes possible the mainstream white
appropriation of victimhood as a means to render whites innocent of racial injustice. A reading
of the role of whiteness in the text raises important questions for the last part of the sleight of
hand: the relationship of whiteness and innocence. Bone's survival is tied up in her production of
a counter-narrative and counter-identity. Part of this is to create a fierce identity of which she can
be proud. Critics have noted this in terms of both her creation of a queer sexuality (Cvetkovich,
Hart, Sandell, Baker "Topography", Wiles) and in terms of her creation of "white trash" as a
distinct ethnic identity (Cvetkovich, Sandell, Bouson, Fine, Reynolds, Campbell, Thomas,
Wiles). Bone is a victim. Asserting her identity enables her survival. Her identity is, among other
things, white. What does this mean for the relationship between whiteness, victimhood and
innocence? Scholars have tried to distance her from the privilege associated with her whiteness,
but the effect of doing this is simply to erase the signs ofthat privilege, not do away with it.
Critics have convincingly demonstrated that Allison (and her character, Bone) claim a
poor white identity, and that this is important to understanding a) the complexities ofher
experience and b) the specific workings of class which is often the blindspot of American
cultural studies. Ann Cvetkovich writes:
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Sexual violence in Bastard Out ofCarolina produces not just a particular
("queer") sexual identity but in an equally risky move, a particular, and proudly
queer, national and regional one. Bone loses a family that is already lost, marked
by class as only marginally "American" because white trash is a marker of
southern regionally and hence subnational identity. In showing how Bone claims
a sexual self out of her history of violence, Allison also claims the value of white
trash origins; she claims as legitimately American literature the story of a
"Bastard Out of Carolina." In works such as Trash and Skin, Allison explores the
lesbian identity that she assumes only queerly because of her working-class
background as well as her politically incorrect sexual fantasies and desires. She
refuses to relinquish her "white trash" culture, even if to some it is not a culture at
all, and she looks to it for the materials from which to craft a story, as much as
Bone makes use of the hook she salvages from the "trash" in the river. (115-6)
According to Cvetkovich, we can only understand Bone's experience if we can see it in the
complex intersections of sexuality, abuse, class and region.
The significance of class to Allison's intervention is not to be underestimated. In "Telling
Stories of 'Queer White Trash' : Race, Class, and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison,"
Julian Sandell writes "Allison reclaims, therefore, the label "white trash" as a political strategy to
expose class-based discrimination in the United Sates and to emphasize the structural, rather than
volitional, nature of economic oppression" (215). Sandell reads the experiences of the
Boatwrights in contrast other white people to describe the significance of poor white identity, as
an identity, rather than simply a material economic status:
85
Class can mean, in others words, the relationship to the means of production
(either working for wage labor or for a salary); it can refer to crude income levels
(the rich and the poor); or it can mean a set of values either held by a class of
people or assigned to them. [...] the complicated nature of "white trash" as an
economic identity—that it refers not only to poverty and non-ownership of the
means of production, but also to a set of behaviors that, in turn, become a signifier
of economic status" (219)
Reclaiming this identity is essential because poor white identity is not merely a material
condition, but also includes values and behaviors that also become stigmatized.
By bringing class to the forefront in the specific instance of "white trash," Allison
demonstrates the ways in which whiteness is a classed term, as well as a racial one. As Kelly
Thomas writes, in "White Trash Lesbianism: Dorothy Allison's Queer Politics": "the novel
foregrounds the ways in which poverty colors whiteness, creating social hierarchies among
whites that isolate and stigmatize subcultures outside middle-class experience" (168, italics
mine). Thomas draws on the history of eugenics in America to demonstrate the ways in which
poor whites were explicitly racialized as nonwhite in the early 20th-century. This is backed up by
the ways in which Bone and the Boatwright family are racialized in the novel. In '"You Nothing
but Trash': White Trash Shame in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina," Brooks Bouson
notes how Bone's outsider status is expressed through race:
And Bone is marked as different because she, unlike the fair-haired Boatwrights,
has the blue-black hair and black eyes of her great-great-grandfather, a Cherokee
Indian according to one version of family history—Bone's mixed racial heritage
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functioning as a sign ofher racial impurity as a member of the "dysgenic" white
trash. (107)
Yet, it is not only Bone who is racialized in this way. In "The Fascination of the Lesbian Fetish:
A Perverse Possibility across the Body of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out ofCarolina" Mary
Wiles writes: "The abjection of the maternal Boatwright family is signified by the color black,
while the respectability and elevated social status of the paternal Parsons clan is characterized as
white" (148). Black people in the American South are widely understood to have experienced
systemic injustice. Poor white people, on the other hand, by virtue of their whiteness, are not
seen in a context of injustice. Critics read the color/race coding in the novel as reminding us that
that poor whites too face oppression and discrimination.
While critics have drawn a parallel between poor whites and people of color, they also
observe that poor whites are open to specific forms of discrimination, because of their whiteness.
In "White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media," Annalee
Newitz writes:
While whites may not feel comfortable publicly calling non-whites "savage" or
bestial, they nevertheless want to call someone those names—preferably a group
which cannot speak for itself and answer back very easily. Ultimately, whites in
poverty make a perfect target for displaced white racist aggression, for one can
denigrate them but avoid feeling like or even be called "racist." (152)
Allison draws our attention to the inaccuracy and damaging effects of these stereotypes of poor
white people.
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Ifpoverty is racialized, the novel also suggests that this experience gives poor white
people insight into the experiences of African Americans. In "Gender Conflicts and Their 'Dark'
Projections in Coming of Age White Female Southern Novels," Laura Fine argues that the novel
expresses this as identification:
Bone identifies strongly with the victimization of African Americans because she
feels herself to have been the despised object ofpeople of a higher social
standing. The identification is more than one of class status however. Greenville's
African Americans are insulted, despised, othered in every way by all classes of
whites. Their powerless status reminds Bone of her own as not only white "trash,"
but as a girl, and most of all as a victim of abuse" (127).
Based on much of the criticism, Bastard Out ofCarolina appears to claim that poverty in
particular, and Bone's overlapping marginalities in general, remove her from her status as white.
In other words, Bone, as a poor white, is read as a racial Other. Although she is white, her
whiteness marks her as "poor white," rather than providing her the privileged neutrality and
invisibility ofbeing of "white." And secondly, lacking the privilege of neutrality and middle
class status, Bone seems not to be a beneficiary of whiteness, and is apparently not participating
in the perpetuation of whiteness.
Critics' desire to redeem Bone from her whiteness is not unique to this text. This move of
absolving some whites of their implication as oppressors has been critiqued in whiteness studies
more broadly. As Eva Cherniavsky argues, in Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body
Politics ofCapital, one of the main faults of whiteness studies is that it ultimately signals an
attempt to "array whiteness on the side of difference" (57). She writes:
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One relatively recent development within whiteness studies has been the interest
in proletarian or subproletarian white identity as a supposedly privileged site for
the interrogation of whiteness. [...] "white trash" criticism tends to instead posit a
homology between (white) working-class and black identities, by virtue of their
supposedly shared location on the margins of (bourgeois) whiteness as marked
rather than a normative identity; and yet the visibility of whiteness in these
analyses seems to turn on attributing to the devalued white person those racialized
qualities historically attributed to African Americans and nonwhite ethnic groups,
qualities such as primitiveness, hypersexuality, a tendency toward overpopulation
(or excessive "breeding"), and unnatural domestic arrangements. On the
proletarian subject, in other words, whiteness appears in blackface. [...] whiteness
is apprehended in its supposed specificity within a generic discourse of
"minority," posed over and against a putatively monolithic center of dominance.
(58-9)
She argues that this is in fact the academic corollary to white backlash and claims of reverse
racism. Cherniavsky and others point to the collection White Trash (in which both Newitz and
Indeed, James Kyung-Jin Lee, in Urban Triage, supports this when he notes this phenomenon
(of whiteness arrayed on the side of difference) in a different context. His analysis ofBonfire of
the Vanities argues that whiteness, stripped ofprivilege, is redeemed through violence. He
writes:
Sherman's assertive whiteness, no longer an assumed privilege, appears to garner a
certain pathos as the narrative suggests that sympathy is possible because he is now on
the other side of the politics of ressentiment. [...] If Sherman's crisis in social death
leaves him orphaned from whiteness, to whom does he now turn? For white people who
have been sacrificed at the altar of whiteness for the maintenance of urban triage, and
who awaken to the realization that the little that works for them as white people cannot
mitigate the social forces that work against them—like those abandoned in urban triage—
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Sandell are published). For example, Dina Smith, in "Cultural Studies' Misfits: White Trash
Studies," argues that the collection "offers a kinder and gentler white trash, one congenial to the
politics ofmulticulturalism and difference" (375) while still producing "white trash" imagery as
commodities for white, middle-class Americans' consumption, a view seconded by Nell Sullivan
in "Academic Constructions of 'White Trash,' or How to Insult Poor People without
Really Trying."
If this is a problem for whiteness studies, it is also a significant problem for using
Allison's text as a way to understand whiteness. With respect to Allison's essays in Skin, which
have much bearing on how her novel has been understood, Kelly Thomas writes:
Although the essay's focus allows Allison to forge connections between her
sexuality and class background, the potential impact of her central metaphor
[skin] is never fully realized because she refrains from addressing the whiteness
of her own skin. [. . .] Perhaps because of the ways in which whiteness maintains
its hegemony by asserting its 'naturalness,' race, for Allison, seems to remain a
subject that can only be approached indirectly. By not examining her own
whiteness, Allison forgoes an opportunity to examine the dominance of whiteness
in gay and lesbian studies at the same time that she interjects a much-needed
discussion of class. [...] In doing so [...] she emphasizes the class component of
what recourse is left for them? The tentative answer to this question, in Sherman's case,
is a reconstituted virile white masculinity. (175)
He goes on to argue that "Sherman's identity-in-crisis made evident in his assertive masculinity
bears witness to the logical response to a more general crisis in whiteness perceived in the social
relations of the 1980s. To put it bluntly: when the naturalized hegemony of whiteness is seen to
be under attack, whiteness must reemerge as a bloc to reassert its will to power in the urban
landscape of competing racial interests" (176).
90
white trash at the expense of a thorough analysis of the discursive effects of
whiteness." (177)
Thomas does suggest that Bastard Out ofCarolina offers more fruitful reading on this (she reads
the hyperwhiteness of Shannon Pearl in this light). While I agree with Thomas that there are,
indeed, missed opportunities in Allison's work, I will argue instead—by way of conclusion—that
reading this text "against the grain" provides insight into how whiteness operates in Bone's
life.1 In the concluding analysis that follows, it's worth bearing in mind the following two
problems:
a) According to much of the discourse surrounding the book, Bone is marginalized from
whiteness by virtue of her class status. Her classed identity reduces the ways in which she is
privileged by white racial identity, since white privilege is enabled through class-specific means,
both material and cultural. Does this mean that Bone is exempt from white privilege? And, if so,
does she present a model for dismantling whiteness and white privilege? In other words is this a
claim for the possible redemption of white racial identity through disaffiliation with whiteness?17
Thomas is critical of Allison's choices. She writes: "Allison seems more concerned with
articulating her resentment over having been constantly disparaged for not being white enough
than with addressing her own whiteness per se" (176). My goal is not so much to critique Allison
for what she should have done, as to examine what she has in fact done and what it reveals about
whiteness. Here I believe I am following Toni Morrison's call to "avert the critical gaze from the
racial object to the racial subject: from the described and imagined to the describers and
imaginers; from the serving to the served" (90). And I am also taking issue with Hart's claim that
Allison adequately grapples with the complexities of cross-racial identification. According to
Hart: "Allison's citations [in Skin] can also be regarded as a set of unconscious relations,
affinities that might be understood, borrowing Raymond Williams's terminology, as a "structure
of feeling" that recognizes differences but that nonetheless acknowledges similarities without
enforcing a resolution inadequate to the task ofrepresenting the complex psychic and political
negotiations among, between, and within feminists" (168).
Think here of race traitors, race abolitionists, and race reformers.
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b) If it is not trae that Bone is without white privilege, how can we understand her utter
victimhood without denying the fact that, while multiply marginalized, she is not completely
without white privilege? In other words, how can we fully acknowledge her victimhood without
erasing the victimhood of others? How can we remain attuned to racial trauma, which she is
spared, despite what one might call ethnic discrimination? Moreover, how can we remain aware
ofthat way that her identity, as poor white, functions to perpetuate racism in the social structure
of the South?18
In a telling mirroring scene, we see Bone's direct interaction with people of color. Her
previous contact with people of color has been via association—she's said to be part Cherokee,
and possibly part Black—and via dialogue—in the racist comments made by her family. In this
scene Bone is visiting her aunt Alma, who has moved out, after catching her husband cheating.
Bone and her cousins, on the porch off the top floor, look down at the downstairs neighbors, a
Black family. As Bone observes, "It looked like there were three of them down there, taking
turns looking out, fully fascinated with us as we were with them" (84). In addition to their
mutual fascination, we find out they do indeed have a lot in common, further cementing a
mirroring between the tenants on the top and bottom floors: "Grey told me there were five of
them downstairs, same as upstairs, with the daddy off working up north" (85). While there is a
parallel between the families in general, there is no confusion about what separates them:
"'Niggers,' Grey whispered proudly. 'Scared of us'" (83). Still, the parallel between them is
i o
Poor whites have a role in maintaining the race, gender, class hierarchy of South social
structure. This role dates back to slavery. According to Smith, "Southern poor whites then
[during the Depression] acted (and still act) as a buffer labor zone, inanimate virgule, between
black/white and feminine/masculine cultures" (371).
92
unmistakable, and Bone, more so than her cousins, experiences this parallel as emotional and
psychological, rather than simply superficial and material.
I slit my eyes against the bright light. The face in the window narrowed its eyes. I
couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl—a very pretty boy or a very fierce girl for
sure. The cheekbones were as high as mine, the eyes large and delicate with long
lashes, while the mouth was small, the lips puffy as ifbee-stung, but not wide.
The chocolate skin was so smooth, so polished, the pores invisible. I put my
fingers up to my cheeks, looked over at Grey and then back down. Grey's cheeks
were pitted with blackheads and flushed with sunburn. I'd never thought about it
before, but he was almost ugly. (83-4)
As Laura Fine observes: "The way the girl looks at her, her uncertain gender identity, even the
shape ofher cheekbones^-all call to mind Bone herself. [. . .] That the little girl is attractive
attests not only to Allison's desire to portray African Americans positively, but to her desire to
locate the outsider part of Bone's self as positive, too" (126-7). I would add that Bone's
observation of the girl's ferocity is crucial. It is repeated a page later: "It was a girl, I was almost
sure, a fierce girl watching us distrustfully" (85). The ferocity (and distrust) that links them is the
product of something very wrong in both of their lives. Bone's ferocity develops as a coping
strategy for the abuse she experiences and as a way to derive strength from her sense of shame
(i.e. her belief that she is "bad" also translates into her claiming a bad-girl identity, see Bouson).
We don't know the source of the Black girl's ferocity, but we do know that she is poor and Black
in the South in the 1950s. Despite their differences, Bone recognizes something of herself in the
girl.
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This identification is problematic. One the one hand it points to exactly what keeps them
separate; on the other hand, it minimizes the ways that this separation keeps them not only apart,
but unequal. The scene highlights the physical separation of the two sets of children; they are
separated by floors, and the black children are behind a window. Notably it is the black children
who are contained and on the bottom, in this scenario. This separation is clearly an illustration of
the larger context of (de facto) segregation: "I had never seen colored people up close, and I was
curious about these" (84). This larger injustice is, however, obscured through Bone's own
awareness of class prejudice. Bone reads the Black children's containment more as a comment
on her and her family, than on racism. Her cousin claims that: "We heard [their mother] this
morning, telling 'em she'd beat their asses if they even open that door. She sure an't happy we
moved in here" and his brother responds, ""Well, neither is Daddy" (84). Bone reflects "Her
mama had probably told [the girl] all about what to expect from trash like us" (86). This has the
effect of equalizing the forces that keep the children separate. In other words, the reasons for
parental displeasure (and the resulting prohibition on interracial interaction) are attributed to
prejudices on each side, more than to the history of violent racial discrimination. While Alma
tells her children, "Don't you be mean to those kids downstairs [...] I don't want no trouble with
these people" (85), her fears (and the potential dangers to her children) are not equal to those of
the Black mother. This is made clear by the casual specter of lynching in this scene. Alma's
husband's displeasure at her new residence is expressed in the white assumption of the Black
male gaze representing desire for, and threat to, white women (86).
This inequality is further blurred by Bone's sense of identification: her sense that she
knows something about the other girl simply by looking at her. However, the text itself suggests
94
the limitation of this knowledge. After she recognizes that the other child is in fact a fierce girl,
she "tried to smile but [her] face felt stiff, nervous. The girl's face remained expressionless and
pulled back into the darkness of the apartment" (85). Moreover, Bone thinks "As nervous as the
idea made me, I wished that girl would come out so I could try to talk to her, but she never did
more than look out the window at us" (86). As the mirroring structure of the scene suggests,
based on her own experience, Bone does know something about the Black girl that she faces. She
can, in fact, recognize ferocity, and the deep pain from which it stems. Yet this also highlights
how much she doesn't know. Tellingly, she is never able to talk to the girl, even though she
would like to. This barrier is not her choice (as a white person), but it is a product of white
supremacy. She is able to imagine seeing through different eyes (e.g. her cousin looks ugly), and
yet this act of imagination on her part does not give the nameless girl a voice. The role of race in
this scene, then, is not only to liken Bone's experience as a poor white to the experience of
Blacks in the South. Rather, it demonstrates the ways that whiteness prevents the hearing of
other sites of victimhood, even in sympathy. Bone's desire for connection with the girl (through
identification and recognition) is not necessarily shared by the girl, who withdraws "into the
darkness." What this suggests is not that Bone is not utterly victimized (something like saying
"oh, it could be worse"), but rather that while her victimization produces certain kinds of
knowledge, her position as white also puts her in an epistemically disadvantaged position with
respect to understanding the violence of whiteness. Bone cannot see why identification with her
may not be safe or liberating for the other girl.
Bone is completely a victim, but this does not make her non-white, nor does this do away
with white supremacy as a structuring force in her life as well as those around her. This does not
95
necessitate a comparative evaluation of victimhood, in which some forms of oppression are
deemed worse than others (thereby minimizing the injury resulting from those others). Bone's
victimization allows us to understand how the production of victims (i.e. violence) is rendered
invisible, and her subjectivity makes it visible again. Yet, her perspective comes with its
limitations. By demonstrating the blindness produced by whiteness, Allison's text is illustrative
of exactly why the equation of whiteness to innocence (via victimhood) collapses. Bone is a
victim, and she is white. And, although she is innocent with regard to intent, her perceptions are
structured by her investment in whiteness. Her identification with the black girl gives her insight
into her own oppression, but not so much into the girl's oppression. In fact, that Bone does not
realize that she is invested in whiteness points to her investment in it. It is a privilege of
whiteness not to have to be aware of one's whiteness, and the role race plays in one's own life.
Conclusion:
There have been two different expressions of American whiteness and its relationship to
victimhood and innocence at play in this chapter. The first is backlash-inspired whiteness, which
is supported by an equation of victimhood, innocence, and whiteness. The second, which
received less focus until the end of this chapter, is would-be-progressive whiteness. This
whiteness is characterized by the active awareness of racial inequality coupled with the desire to
be innocent ofthat injustice. By recognizing systemic oppression and representing some whites
as also being victims of domination, such a stance obscures the complexities of racism and is
blind to the less concrete elements that constitute white privilege. Bone's identification with the
Black girl points to a problem of whites understanding their victimhood via racial oppression,
96
especially through analogy or identification. I will further discuss the problems of the victim
analogy as it develops in the Canadian national imaginary.
Chapter 2
Geographies of Victimhood and Whiteness:
Canadian National Identity and First Nations' Trauma
On June 29, 2007 at the beginning of the Canada Day weekend, First Nations people and
allies across Canada held a national day of action. In the build-up to the event, there was much
discussion of railroad blockades that would shut down the Canadian railroad system during the
protest, and there were, in fact, some blockades in the lead up to the day itself. According to an
Angus Reid poll taken in the preceding month, 35% of Canadians surveyed believed that these
actions were justified (Angus Reid Strategies). From an American perspective, this number is
surprising large. It is virtually unimaginable in the United States that such a significant
percentage of the population would support Aboriginal protest actions that would cause
substantial financial losses, as well as inconvenience to the mainstream.1 This suggests that the
white Canadian mainstream is significantly different from the white American mainstream with
respect to its perspective on injustice, not just historically but also in terms of compensatory
action in the present. However, this apparently progressive attitude is deceptive.2 I begin with
this anecdote because it suggests the essential questions and problems of looking at whiteness in
Canada, especially with respect to indigenous people. First, there is the issue of specifics—the
This is in part due to lack of visibility and the dwindling of public debate about the rights of
indigenous groups in the United States. See Nichols on the difference in visibilities of indigenous
people in the US and Canada.
Indeed, not only did 56% of Canadians find the protest actions unjustifiable, but 67% believed
that Native leaders should be penalized if federal money was used to plan the blockades. These
statistics indicate the widespread white Canadian perception that "settler governments have long
since paid for earlier sins by providing free housing, education, and medical care for Aboriginal
people, plus billions in welfare payments. It is time for Natives to forget the past, proponents of
this view say, to move on, join the mainstream, assimilate, and prosper" (Penikett 90).
98
Canadian context is unique. Secondly, however, there is the question of what context obscures.
In other words, if Canada is so different from the rest of the world—and, in particular, the United
States—why are patterns of discrimination in Canada so eerily familiar to one studying racism
and whiteness in the US?
It is a commonplace that Canadians define themselves against Americans. And this is
especially true with respect to their understandings of the European-Canadian treatment of First
Nations people and other minorities.3 Indeed, as Daniel Francis writes in The Imaginary Indian:
"Canadians prided themselves on the fact that they, unlike their American neighbors, did not
believe that 'the only good Indian was a dead Indian'" (59). Nevertheless, as much as Canadians
would pronounce their difference from the United States, there is a fundamental similarity in
each nation's constitution as a white settler society.4 This similarity is not merely historical
coincidence, for it continues to shape policies in both nations. For example, in September 2007,
Razack, Lund and Francis all indicate that Canadians define themselves as the "good whites" as
opposed to racist whites in the US. In "Noble Canadians, Ugly Americans," Cynthia Sugars
refers to "the erroneous but now standard perception that Canada, in contrast to the United
States, has treated its indigenous peoples fairly throughout its history. Rather than 'Othering' the
Native, the British/Canadian explorer communicates with him/her. In this context,
British/Canadian race relations are idealized, and historical guilt—along with British identity
itself—is erased as a 'new' New-World subject is constructed as decentered and postcolonial"
(107).
See Roger Nichols's Indians in the United States and Canada. In one of the few comparative
studies of the experiences of indigenous people in the US and Canada, Nichols argues that
despite variations, a historical comparison reveals the same basic pattern. He writes: "the
evidence analyzed for this study shows a distinct pattern that occurred repeatedly between 1513
and the present in what is now the United States and Canada. It includes five stages: tribal
independence, or even supremacy over the Europeans; a gradual shift to Indian-white equality;
the reduction of the tribes to a position of dependency on the colonial or national government in
each region; the further descent of Indian people to marginality at the fringes of the majority
society; and for some, a resurgence of cultural nationalism, economic recovery, and political
awareness and influence" (xiv)
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the United Nations approved a non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
After 22 years of debate, only four nations opposed it: the US, Canada, Australia and New
Zealand ("Indigenous Rights").
This reveals an interesting contradiction. There are many ways in which Canadian policy
and attitudes are more progressive than those in the US, producing materially and politically
different relationships between the nation-state and colonized indigenous people. However, upon
inspection, these differences do not account for the profound similarity with which these settler
nations treat indigenous populations. In a significant way, First Nations people in Canada have
more political power and visibility that their counterparts to the South. In Reconciliation: First
Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia, Tony Penikett explains that "Canada became the
first nation state to recognize Aboriginal rights in its constitution" and "in the country's northern
region, Canada has signed modern treaties that deal honorably with Aboriginal claims to land
and demands for self-government" (5). Indeed, the creation of Nunavut is a key example of a
Canadian policy that would be unimaginable in the United States.5 On the other hand, on both
sides of the border, Aboriginal groups share experiences of trying to work with governments that
often negotiate in bad faith and break promises. Disproportionate rates of poverty, suicide, and
incarceration plague indigenous populations in both countries. And, of course, while the details^
Nunavut is a self-governed Inuit territory about the size of Western Europe. It was created in
1999, and cedes about 1/5 of Canada's landmass to the Inuit. For a detailed history of the
creation of Nunavut see Dahl et al. As Nichols writes: "Such an action [creating Nunavut] is
beyond the possibility in the United States at present. [. . .] [In addition, in Canada] mixed-race
people, Métis, have a recognized and separate status, something that does not exist in the United
States" (322). Finally, "The political and constitutional maneuvering that has occurred in Canada
since the early 1980s has tended to accept the native peoples as part of the mainstream debates in
ways that have not occurred in the United States" (Nichols 313).
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differ, both Canada and the US have genocidal and colonial histories with respect to the
indigenous populations, and both have appropriated indigenous culture in the service of
nationalism. In other words, there are very significant differences between the situation of
indigenous people in Canada and those in the US, but similar forms of oppression exist in both.
From this perspective we can examine how whiteness operates within the specifics of national
identity, as a "distinctive relation" between familiar contents.
The factor that will be most familiar from my previous chapter is the fact that victimhood
provides a key mechanism for whiteness to re-establish its supremacy, especially in the face of
resistance. In this chapter, I argue that like whiteness in the US, whiteness in Canada mobilizes a
particular relationship to victimhood to maintain its dominance. The Canadian uses of
victimhood are nationally specific, responding to the particular context of Canadian race
relations on the one hand and Canada-US relations on the other. In order to reconcile the tension
between "replacing" indigenous peoples and recognizing their continued presence, white
Canadians claim an experience of victimhood that is analogous to the very people whom they
have historically attempted to erase.7 In examining a literary representation of the trauma of First
It is a well understood that white Canadians, like white Americans, needed to
become/absorb/replace Native people in order to become native to the New World themselves
(Goldie, Francis, Hulan, and Atwood and Frye as quoted in James). For white American
appropriation of Indian-ness, see Deloria.
Although in this chapter I focus on a white/indigenous binary, it should be noted that in some
ways a native/non-native binary might apply equally from the perspective of native people. This
is because non-native people of color also participate in the colonial project of Canada. However,
my purpose here is to show the way that Canadian whiteness, in particular, shapes itself in
relation to indigenous identity. An interesting question, outside the scope of this chapter, is how
non-white, non-aboriginal populations in Canada conceive of their relationship to First Nations
people and to their continuing oppression.
101
Nations people, this chapter reveals indigenous resistance to white Canadian uses ofvictimhood.
I begin by elaborating on white Canadians' understanding of their own victimhood, followed by
an examination of how Richard Van Camp challenges this definition of victimhood in his novel,
The Lesser Blessed. Finally, I analyze Tomson Highway's Kiss ofthe Fur Queen through the
lens of geography, in particular North-South borders. Ultimately, I see Highway as proposing
ways to change whiteness, both as it exists structurally and as it exists within individuals.
Victimhood and White Canadian National Identity
It is a cliché of Canadian national identity that Canadians are subjugated by the US. From
a popular political perspective, this belief is evident in former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau' s
famous observation that "Living next to [the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an
elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is
affected by every twitch and grunt." Canadian's perceived subjugation is two-fold: economic and
cultural. This perception increased in the 1980s and 1990s with the debates over and passage of
NAFTA, which further intertwined the two economies and limited Canadian measures to protect
national industries and cultural productions.9 Canonical Canadian literary works express a
Canadian sense of powerlessness with respect to its more powerful southern neighbor.10 In this
e
Ian Angus explains that in Canadian Left-nationalist thought (the dominant philosophical
position in English Canadian thought), subjugation defines the Canadian experience. He
summarizes and builds on the two main pillars of Canadian thought: economic dependence, as
first expressed by Harold Innis, and lack of cultural autonomy, first discussed by George Grant.
See Bryce Traister for a scholarly example based in this fear.
Many critics have asserted that in literature Canadians define themselves against Americans
(Brown 1991; Broege 1983; Barzilai 1996).
102
context, Canadian artists' "colonial mentality" has been widely discussed.11 This sense of
Canadian subjugation is bome out in contemporary Canadian theorizing.
Unlike in the US, mainstream Canadian discussions of victimhood and subordination are
less concerned with delimiting who can be considered a victim. Rather than anti-victimists who
claim that middle-class whites are "true victims" while minorities are "victimists," the
mainstream Canadian relationship to victimhood maintains that white Canadians are "good
whites" because they are like real victims: indigenous people. And, while the mainstream
American investment in victimhood served as distraction from the guilt ofrecognizing systemic
injustice, mainstream Canadian identity is reliant on recognition ofthat injustice, which is like
the unjust situation faced by Canadians in general. While this is distinct from the conception of
victimhood in the US, there remains a similar logic: victimhood equals innocence and innocence
equals goodness. In A Border Within, Ian Angus expresses this sentiment well when he writes:
"Since we have never been in charge, we do not have to take responsibility for the way things
are. One imagines Canadiansjust are more peaceable, less greedy, more concerned with justice
and so on—simply and naturally better than Americans. [...] [This is] a reversal of this
dominance [...] If all the evil is at the centre ofpower, then all is innocence and grace at the
periphery" (119). In this way, mainstream Canadian uses of victimhood most resemble the
In 1 943 Edward Brown wrote that Canadian writers have a colonial mentality "that sees more
authentic events occurring elsewhere" (Brown, "The Problem of Canadian Literature"). This
view has been discussed by many others (see Salat and Atwood Survival).
12
Angus's position differs from this statement in that he believes that there are historical and
structural causes for Canadian superiority (including the Canadian political structure, as well as
its relationship to the US and Europe). And, he does acknowledge in his conclusion that Canada
is not totally innocent and has some work to do in terms of social equality.
103
would-be-progressive American idea of victimhood, as discussed in the previous chapter. In this
context, recognition of racism coexists with recognition of other forms of systemic injustice but
erases the difference between these different forms, effectively absolving some white people of
their implication in white supremacy. In Canada, it is not only some white people, but all
Canadians, who are absolved of their roles in domination.
While this conception of Canadian innocence appears to apply to all Canadians, it is
inextricable from Canadian whiteness. In particular, this idea of innocence is shaped by white
Canadian's understanding of their relationship to First Nations people. In her 1972 book,
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood argues that while
American literature focuses on heroes and victors, Canadian literature emphasizes victims and
defeat. When discussing white Canadian authors' depictions of First Nations people she writes
that in their work there is often "white Canadian identification with the Indian-as-victim [which]
may at times conceal a syllogism something like the following: 'We are to the Americans as the
Indians are to us'" (100).13 Atwood's statement, while sweeping and problematic, expresses a
sentiment that continues to shape Canadian whiteness among a wide range of Canadians.
Atwood herself claims that she did not write Survival "for the footnote crowd" {Second Words,
105). However, a wide variety of academics, past and present, express similar sentiments. These
Since her book came out, there have been continued criticisms of Atwood's claims (for
overviews of these criticisms see Barzilai and Schlueter). My purpose here is not to argue with
Atwood, either in terms of the accuracy of her depiction of Canadian literature or the uses to
which she puts the idea of indigeneity. Rather, I begin with her because she very clearly
articulates this dominant Canadian attitude and because she focuses systematically on
victimhood as it is present in narrative, rather than as a material fact of Canadian identity.
104
sentiments have long been expressed in critical interpretations of Canadian literature.14 As
recently as the 1990s, scholarship sought to place Canada within a postcolonial framework.15
Many of these scholars uncritically ignored the continued colonial work of Canadian policies,
while others have acknowledged this contradiction but maintained the utility of considering
Canada to be postcolonial. This position has rightly come under fire, but continues to have
purchase in the Canadian critical context. In "Desiring Colonialism/Postcolonial Desire:
Encountering the Colonial Text in Canada," Bruce Erickson traces a:
process of consumption [that] exists within English Canadian postcolonial theory,
where the difference (and even traumatic experience) of the colonized Other is
used to create a voice from which English postcolonial critics speak as Canadian.
This consumption exists within their desire to establish a stable Canadian identity
instead of accepting the risk of deconstructing identity to examine colonialism.
(3)16
For example, see Nicholson. Also, see Salat for examples ofpostcolonial identification in
Canadian literature, although the term "postcolonial" itself does not appear.
Hulan, in fact, identifies Canadian desire for postcoloniality as occurring earlier and having its
origins in Romantic thought (8). Erickson, however, provides evidence for an explosion of
postcolonial-desiring criticism beginning in the 1990s. For some examples of this criticism, see
Sugars Home-Work and Unhomely States; Moss 2003.
He argues: "this English Canadian postcolonialism does not acknowledge the complicity of a
national identity within the production of colonial regimes of knowledge and continues to desire
this identity. English Canadian postcolonial identity, as all modern identities, covers up
difference, and in their desire to show Canada as colonized, the authors that I consider maintain a
consumption of the Other that runs against their attempts work against colonialism. In order to
avoid this consumption, English Canadian postcolonialism has to interrogate its desire to present
a nationalist postcolonialism, yet this interrogation is foreclosed because what English Canadian
postcolonial theory has at its heart is a desire for a Canadian identity" (5-6).
Despite these criticisms or in response to them, there has been continued work on Canada as
postcolonial, based on its double-edged position as colonized and colonizer. All of this suggests
that this cultural belief is still very strong in Canadian culture at large, and even within academic
thought.
Atwood's statement expresses an analogy that continues to be pervasive in white
Canadian conceptions of themselves and their relation to First Nations people. Atwood's
observation rests on a several important beliefs. The first is that systemic injustice occurs; in this
analogy large-scale domination is not covered over, but is in fact central. Secondly, there is an
absolute divide between Canadians and Americans, and a parallel divide between Canadians and
First Nations people. Both Canadians and indigenous peoples are victims. In this way, the
syllogism simultaneously expresses white guilt and excuses it. In Atwood's statement, racial
victimization becomes no different from economic domination, obscuring the way that Canada
consents to and benefits from its relationship with the US. In this way, it both racializes
victimization and renders the reality of race invisible. It racializes victimization because
Canadians can feel like "real victims" by aligning themselves with indigenous people. At the
same time it erases the actual significance of racial identity; Native experience becomes a
metaphor for a vague sense of disempowerment and resentment. Also, the alignment between
Canadian-ness and Indian-ness, does not result in an alliance or coalition between the two.
Recognition of structural similarities does not prompt Canadians to change structural inequality
in their relationship to First Nations people. Instead, what the syllogism displays is a
naturalization of domination. Nowhere in the statement is there the suggestion that things might
be different. Instead, stating "we are to the Americans as the Indians are to us" suggests that this
106
is the way of the world. Canadians are by definition victims, and to change this definition would
be as illogical as trying to change the way that white Canadians relate to First Nations people.17
Despite the influence of this analogical way of thinking, white Canadians also face guilt
for a history of racial violence and dispossession. While the above syllogism attempts to excuse
white guilt, it does not completely ease the anxieties surrounding it. When Atwood revisits
Survival in Second Words, she tries to relieve this guilt by addressing it. She writes: "We
sometimes forget, in our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has been
guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and outside it" (282). This
meditation on white guilt, however, is not new (as her statement implies). In fact, in Survival
even before she articulates white Canadian identification with Native people, she begins by
alluding to this guilt. In the epigraph to her chapter on First Nations people in Canadian
literature, she quotes George Grant's Technology and Empire: "When we go into the Rockies we
may have the sense that gods are there. But if so, they cannot manifest themselves to us as ours.
They are the gods of another race, and we cannot know them because of what we are, and what
we did" (90). The interplay between analogy and guilt is irresolvable and deeply structures
Canadian whiteness. In White Civility, Daniel Coleman writes: "White Canadian culture is
I would like to suggest that the connection between Canadian national identity and victimhood
functions much like what Wendy Brown has called "wounded attachment." Brown claims that
wounded attachments result in a desire for revenge: "revenge as a 'reaction,' a substitute for the
capacity to act, produces identity as both bound to the history that produced it and as a reproach
to the present which embodies that history [. . .] a will that makes not only a psychological but a
political practice of revenge, a practice that reiterates the existence of an identity whose present
past is one of insistently unredeemable injury. This past cannot be redeemed unless the identity
ceases to be invested in it, and it cannot cease to be invested in it without giving up its identity as
such" {States ofInjury 73). This description of identity that is. dependent on victimhood
resembles the white Canadian investment in victimhood far more than minority depictions of
racial trauma and demands for redress.
obsessed, and organized by its obsession, with the problem of its own civility" (5). This tension
between asserting white Canadians' own goodness by virtue of their similarity to First Nations
people (via victimization) and recognizing their own guilt (of victimization) feeds Canadian
whiteness, and indeed, explains why First Nations identity as a racial category is so foundational
to the construction of Canadian whiteness. In addition, the history of violence against indigenous
people in Canada is the blot that the Canadian national narrative cannot explain away. This is not
to deny forms of Canadian racism and violence against other minority groups. Nor is it to claim
that white Canadians are not profoundly ignorant regarding the situation of First Nations people,
especially regarding their present situation. However, because this particular violence is
fundamental to the creation of the Canadian nation, it cannot be explained away as the
"exception" to the "goodness" of Canadian whiteness, as can other forms of racism.
While white Canadian guilt about the dispossession of First Nations peoples bears a
certain kind of similarity to white American guilt about slavery—as a great injustice at the very
foundation of the nation—this parallel obscures a significant difference between the two
contexts: the problematic relationship between race and nation for First Nations people. The
relationship between white Canada and First Nations people is a colonial one. As the official
Canadian designation "First Nations" suggests, indigenous groups are nations. What this nation
status means, though, in the context of the Canadian nation-state is not so clear.18 First Nations
Like the US, Canada has a long history of denying the sovereignty of indigenous nations. This
is further complicated by the role of Quebec in Canada. The Meech Lake Accord, for example,
was an attempt to pacify Quebec separatists and more strongly unify Canada. The Accord was
derailed by opposition from Elijah Harper, a First Nations member of the Manitoba Liberal
Assembly, because the designers of the Accord did not consult with First Nations groups. In a
more contemporary example, in 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper ambiguously recognized
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people view their struggle as one for national self-determination.19 Yet, for white Canadians
these issues are very much about race. Canadian whiteness is defined by indigeneity. While
white Canadians understand their own subjugation via colonialism (i.e. American imperialism),
the ways in which they position their identity in relation to First Nations people is racial.20 For
white Canadians, then, the idea of First Nations people as a race shapes their whiteness and their
Canadian-ness. The presence of First Nations people provides a way for Canadians to re-affirm
their difference from the US—as being more benevolent to the indigenous people than
Americans. This emphasizes that Canada is not the US and establishes white Canadians as the
"good whites." Even when the injustices committed by white Canadians are discussed, these
Quebec as a nation within the nation-state of Canada. There have been subsequent calls for an
equal recognition of First Nations sovereignty (Hume).
According to Nichols, "All three [pan-Indian] organizations sought recognition of their
independent nationhood within the Dominion of Canada. The Indian Brotherhood insists that its
members are distinct and separate nations and that each retains its own sovereignty. The other
groups claim distinct national status as well. In their view they are more than just ethnic
minorities within Canadian society" (313). I recognize that the concepts of nation and selfdetermination are themselves contested and complex, and it is not my intention to represent
indigenous struggles reductively. I take to heart Daniel Heath Justice's reference to "the ironic
dangers to Native self-determination that arise from adopting a European concept of
'sovereignty,' which places Indigenous autonomy under the definition and control of European
political paradigms" (114). Justice defines self-determination more broadly: "Sovereignty and
self-determination require more than just a redefinition of political and legal relationships
between Indigenous nations and the nation-states of the Invaders; they also require a reimagining
of ourselves beyond the antiquated artifacts that the Invaders insist we become. Our traditions,
families, and nations all contribute to that reimagining, and so too do the literatures we craft in
response to this challenge" (115). See also Tim Schouls's Shifting Boundaries: Aboriginal
Identity, Pluralist Theory, and the Politics ofSelf-Government.
For mainstream perception of aboriginal people as cultural rather than political groups, see
Hulan 18. Also, see Bannerji for role of multiculturalism in subsuming national concerns in
terms of both First Nations and the Québécois {Dark Side 90-95).
109
discussions serve to render Canadian whiteness in terms of a racial other. Thus, the nonindigenous Canadian picture of First Nations identity emphasizes its construction as an
ethnic/racial category, while erasing it as a category of national identity. As such, even when
white Canadians feel guilt over their own (past) treatment of First Nations people, indigenous
claims of national sovereignty are by and large non-sensical to them.21
As seen in failed and stalled treaty negotiations, communication between indigenous and
non-indigenous groups frequently reaches an impasse. Literature might provide openings for
communication, where dialogue has otherwise failed. In this cultural-historical context, I
examine two First Nations authors who bring to the forefront the experience of Native trauma at
the hands of white Canada. These authors address the fundamental misunderstanding about
indigenous nationality in different ways. Tomson Highway focuses on the role of race, rather
than starting with national sovereignty. I believe this is strategic because Canadian whiteness
(and its concomitant investment in First Nations identity as a racial identity) is what prevents
white Canadians from hearing indigenous claims, including those of national sovereignty.
Richard Van Camp, on the other hand, distinguishes First Nations and Métis people from
In "Titles, Territories, Treaties," Brian Egan examines treaty-making in British Columbia and
finds that aboriginal and non-aboriginal parties have "fundamentally different understandings of
the treaty making process and, more particularly, of the idea of reconciliation" (1). He explains:
"many aboriginal groups see themselves as engaging in negotiations not as minorities in a
subordinate position to the Crown but rather on equal footing, the proper relationship in their
minds being that of nation to nation. [. . .] [Aboriginal groups] acknowledge that the Crown now
has some form of title (or sovereignty) to this same territory and exercises certain governmental
powers in this area. Given this, for many aboriginal people, the purpose of treaty making is not
about defining their rights and negotiating a complex real estate transaction, but rather about
figuring out how to work out an arrangement to share land, resources and jurisdictions in their
traditional territories" (22-23). Egan also argues that while non-aboriginals view reconciliation as
a final agreement, aboriginals see it as an ongoing negotiation.
110
Canadians, implying that the distinction is one of nationality as well as race. In The Lesser
Blessed, racial categories are applied inconsistently and the role that the nation-state plays in
promoting inequality is more visible.
Confronting the White Canadian Idea of Victimhood
The longstanding guilt of Canadian whiteness was brought to the fore in the 1 990s when
testimonies about the widespread physical and sexual abuse in Canadian residential schools for
aboriginal students became public.22 The residential schools were commissioned by the Canadian
government and run by the Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches, from
1879 into the 1960s (the last federally operated residential school closed in 1998 ("History")).
Native children were coercively, and sometimes forcibly, taken from their parents and their
communities to attend these schools where they were forced to abandon their languages,
religions, and cultures in favor of English, Christianity, and assimilation to European-Canadian
values. The purpose of these schools was to assimilate First Nations children and "to kill the
Indian inside the child."23 Beginning in the 1990s, public testimonies about the abuse that took
place in these schools were followed by individual and class action lawsuits, some government
In 1990, Phil Fontaine, then leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, issued the first widely
recognized testimony of abuse in the residential schools. He noted that "his statement prompted
hundreds of calls from other victims of abuse at the schools" (Wilson, 1991).
This policy dates from the 1920s. "Duncan Campbell Scott, who was Canada's deputy
superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, wrote in a government document: "I want to
get rid of the Indian problem. . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in
Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic." The "kill the Indian in the child"
wording is attributed to Scott" (Brown, 2008). Whatever the origin, the phrase is widely known
and associated with the schools. For more on the history and purpose of the residential schools
see Fournier and Crey, Deiter, and Haig-Brown.
Ill
efforts at compensation (as well as attempts to reign in compensation), and eventually a formal
apology and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.24
This chapter examines how two novels, by First Nations authors, represent violence at the
hands of Canada, in the form of these residential schools. These novels' publications coincide
with the public testimony and lawsuits about the abuse of Native children in the schools. Both
Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed (1996) and Tomson Highway's Kiss ofthe Fur Queen
(1998) testify to this abuse and to the culturally genocidal mission of the schools, revealing
Canada's white supremacist history. I have chosen these two novels because they represent
In 1998 Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart issued a formal apology and set aside a $350
million dollar "healing fund" (Cheney). That same year, a landmark lawsuit required the United
Church and the federal government to compensate 30 victims (Cheney). By 2000, Indian Affairs
Minister Bob Nault testified that "residential school abuse lawsuits were coming in at a rate of 20
per week" and there had been 5900 individual lawsuits and 7 class action lawsuits against the
federal government (Mofina). By 2005, over 13,000 had filed claims (Simpson). In 2008,
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, providing some reparations,
as well as establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to record the testimony of
victims and promote healing and reconcilation. While these acknowledgements suggest progress,
the Canadian government's responses toward First Nations' claims have often been adversarial
and their concessions often more a matter of public image rather than substance. In fact, a 1998
federal report advocated avoiding the word "apology" and suggested "an acknowledgment or
expression ofregret [. . .] [that] could be worded in such a fashion so as to not lay blame on
anyone" (quoted in Cox). "The federal government, which unwaveringly declared for a decade it
would never offer former students a comprehensive settlement package, [only] backed down in
the face of pending huge class-action suits" (Valpy and Galloway). In addition, Jeremy Harrison,
a member of parliament, notes: "Authoritative accounts have pegged the cost of the IRSRC at
more than $125-million so far—less than $1 -million of which has gone to actually compensating
survivors." And, although the formal apology and TRC did come, the Canadian government had
long been reluctant to formally apologize claiming that this would encourage claims for
compensation (DePalma).
112
instances of 20l -century violence rather than pre-Confederation history, in order to highlight the
continuing role of violence and colonial practices underlying Canadian whiteness.25
I begin with The Lesser Blessed, in which Richard Van Camp responds to the problems
present in the mainstream belief that Canadians are victims like the First Nations people they
victimize. I argue that the novel troubles the conception of victimhood expressed through this
analogy. Similar to Dorothy Allison, Van Camp presents a victim who does not conform to the
white, national expectations surrounding victimhood. In The Lesser Blessed, victimhood is not a
fixed state, remaining isolated from other sources of violence and victimization in the world. In
my reading, for Van Camp healing is a necessary response to victimization, and healing is
incomplete without engagement with larger systems of domination.
The novel is narrated by the main character, Larry Sole, a teenage boy, who has been
sexually abused by his father (himself a product of the residential schools). The residential
schools are barely visible in this novel; they are mentioned only once, in reference to the father
as he enacts abuse. But this parallel makes a clear link between the abuse that Larry experiences
at the hands of his father and the abuse suffered by First Nations children in the schools. Most of
the novel is concerned with Larry's healing. The unfolds during several months of Larry's grade
eleven year of high school. In the present, Larry meets the new kid and bad-boy at school,
Kiss ofthe Fur Queen begins in the 1960s, the dying days of the residential school system.
This was not the end, however, of the abduction of First Nations children nor of the abuse they
faced at the hands of their white "guardians." This period began the "Sixties Scoop"—which
lasted into thel 970s— in which the government renewed its effort to assimilate indigenous
people through adopting out First Nations children to white Canadian foster homes (Fournier and
Crey)
113
Johnny Beck, and pines for Juliet, branded as the school "whore."26 He also observes the ups and
downs ofhis mother's relationship with her boyfriend, Jed, who acts as a father-figure and friend
to Larry. The present-time narration is shot through with memories of Larry's traumatic past.
Larry remembers being sexually abused by his father, as well as the day he killed him and
burned down the house.27 Larry is severely burned in the fire, and he has flashbacks ofhis
painful healing process. Although physically healed, Larry is plagued by flashbacks. He is only
able to heal through telling his story to other teenagers and through reclaiming his sexuality by
having sex with Juliet.
The trajectory is, thus, somewhat formulaic, as well as normative. It follows a therapeutic
formula, as Larry must testify to his trauma before he can heal. Moreover, it follows a
masculinist coming-of-age formula, which is structured by rivalry with, and betrayal by, male
peers and concludes with Larry losing his virginity to the flat character of Juliet. This conclusion
results in his emotional independence (from both male peers and Juliet) as well as a restored
sense of wholeness. This leads us to the primary problem of the novel. The deep and in some
ways irreparable damage done by the abuse is neatly and simply healed by a clichéd sex scene
which reads more like a teenage boy's fantasy than a turning point of any psychic depth.28 In this
As Juliet astutely notes, "Every high school needs a whore" (113). Although she is sexually
active, the novel gives evidence that her reputation has to do far more with this "need" than
anything about her behavior.
The latter is somewhat ambiguous. While the novel makes clear that Larry was sexually
abused by his father and severely burned in a fire, Larry's flashbacks about murdering his father
and burning down the house are not corroborated elsewhere in the text.
The following quotation gives some sense of this quality: '"Don't you want to crawl into this
shirt with me?' she asked. [. . .] I grabbed her and kissed she kissed back and I blew shhhh
grabbing her ass and she pushed me away and threw me down pulled the covers up and over us
114
conclusion, the long-lasting effects of the abuse, and its connection to the legacy of colonialism,
are rendered irrelevant. However, I argue that the novel leaves the reader unsettled by this
resolution. The resolution suggests that victimhood is a fixed and isolated identity, and that
healing involves only the individual; however, the discomfort the novel produces gives hints that
real healing would require something quite different—developing connections with others who
have been oppressed and traumatized. Reading into the discomfort produced by the resolution,
allows us to see the problems with the white Canadian conception of victimhood and to
understand how victimhood should be re-conceptualized.
Although Canada appears only spectrally in it,29 the novel documents experiences of
indigenous people in Canada and the lasting effects of colonial violence, especially of the
residential schools. While Larry's abuse is perpetrated by his own father, this abuse is linked to
Canada, historically and culturally. In the single instance when the residential schools are
mentioned, Larry describes a scene of sexual violence (although not one describing his own
victimhood):
My dad stood over my mom. He had called me out of my room. He was holding
the yellow broom. He was speaking French. He had learned it in the residential
schools. He never talked about what had happened there, but he always talked
French when he drank.
pulled her pants and panties off pulled me close! [. . .] She was hot giving flesh that I took with
my tusk and she was hotter than the centre of the sun [. . .] We gathered it together and I was not
alone; I was not forgotten" (110).
For example, when Johnny steals the flag, it is the Canadian flag (16). In addition, the school
represents institutional Canada; the only two teachers mentioned teach English and French. The
place names in the Northwest Territories also emphasize the Canadian locale.
115
My mom was passed out on the couch. A couch like this one. This was
back when she used to drink. She had gone to the residential schools, too. She was
passed out, in her bathrobe. My father took the broomstick and started laughing.
He spread her legs with the yellow broomstick— (58)
In addition to referring to the residential schools and alluding to the sexual and physical abuse
perpetrated there, the passage gestures to Canadian cultural domination, through the mention
French, a dominant language learned in the school to supplant indigenous languages. This
suggests that the father not only perpetuates a cycle of abuse, but has also internalized the
language and values of the colonizer. The fact that he "never talked about what happened there,
but [. . .] always talked French when he drank" indicates trauma which he has never testified to,
and which has thus remained unhealed. The sentence itself implies a causal relationship between
"what happened there" and his "talk[ing] French" as he drinks and enacts abuse. Whatever
happened to him as a child, Larry's father now performs violence with sadistic pleasure: "My
father took the broomstick and started laughing." Larry's father is not a psychologically complex
character. He exists almost entirely as an abuser; he physically and sexually abuses Larry's
mother and aunt, as well as Larry himself. As such he serves a figurative role, embodying the
continued impact of violence long after the event. Larry's mother's differently destructive
response to the trauma of the schools suggests another relationship between victimization by
white Canadians and present Native life. Rather than becoming a victimizer, she is a perpetual
victim, as seen through her passivity and alcoholism.30 Larry's father calls Larry to witness the
In addition, the novel shows her to be complicit in the rape of Larry's aunt (88). This may
imply that she was complicit in Larry's abuse. In one of his "stories," he describes a mother who
is to blame for her son's death, suggesting that either his mother was complicit in his abuse or
116
rape. Significantly, the violence occurs on a "couch like this one." This scene clearly indicates
the legacy of the schools in the present lives of First Nations people, as it leaves psychic scarring
not just in the immediate victims, but in their descendents as well.
This flashback is firmly lodged within the present. It occurs while Larry is at Johnny's,
waiting on the couch while Johnny and Juliet have sex. It is preceded by Larry reflecting "I had
it bad for Juliet" (57). The chapter is entitled "Kiss," and it ends with Johnny kissing Juliet as she
leaves "with her damn sweater on inside out" (59). To illustrate dense layering of past and
present, I will summarize what occurs in this thirteen page chapter: Larry continues doing drugs
(he started in the previous chapter); Larry finds out that Johnny's younger brother, Donny, has a
cigarette burn on his hand from a man at one of his mother's parties; Johnny takes a fatherly role
toward Donny, requiring him to do his homework and fretting about his smoking; Larry and
Johnny talk about sex and fighting; Johnny asks Larry about his full-blooded Native identity
(Johnny is Métis); Larry tells a creation story about the Dogrib people (revealing his talent for
storytelling); Larry shaves, on Johnny's recommendation, before the party; in the bathroom he
finds Johnny's mother's bottles of whiskey; he observes some of Donny' s tortured drawings;
Larry has a jumbled flashback, combining a memory of the violent death of a puppy, being
forced by nurses too look at his burned face in the mirror, sexual abuse by his father, and then
killing his father; Larry punches a peer who is dancing with Juliet; Larry has the flashback
described above and then tries to remember a different moment in the past (which also involves
drugs and the memory of sexual violence); Juliet leaves and Johnny asks Larry to go for a walk.
that she punished him for challenging her complicity in his aunt's rape (99). So, she has a role in
victimizing as well.
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This frenetic chapter is not uncharacteristic of the novel. On the one hand, it indicates repression
of a deep-seated trauma, the effects of which are still present. One the other hand, trauma alone
does not adequately explain Larry's attitudes, actions and experiences in the novel.
Certainly past trauma infuses the present, but the present itself is not uncomplicated.
Larry's relationship to his past illustrates the return of the repressed. It keeps emerging
inappropriately, despite his desire to keep it a secret. He has uncontrolled, disturbing flashbacks.
And these flashbacks shape his reaction to events in the present, often in inappropriate ways. For
example, he has a flashback ofhis father's abuse and then punches a peer who teases him (56).
In addition, he cannot integrate these experiences of the past with his present and he cannot
maintain a coherent self. In a drug-induced hallucination, Larry cannot maintain his present
image and he notes "I guess I spooked everyone 'cause it sure got quiet" (38). However, these
symptoms of past trauma do not alone make sense of Larry's life in the present. In particular, the
trauma does not account for his experiences with racism, poverty (as an individual and as a
member of an impoverished community), his relationship with his single mother, and his teenage
experiences and desires.
In fact, Larry's teenage-ness is his most defining characteristic and it shapes the narrative
style of the novel, its contents and its trajectory. The overall trajectory deals with his healing
from the abuse by his father, but the narration on the whole emphasizes the everyday concerns of
a teenage boy, including his obsession with doing it "doggy-style" (see p. 22, 25, 47, 101 to
name a few) and ruminations such as "I'm not psycho or anything but I had to admit my mom
had nice feet" (7). Moreover, the novel is punctuated by his hypervivid observations of the
beauty and despair of the world around him such as "The fireweed surrounding us sang with her
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brightest voice: purple, bloody, fresh. I almost didn't see the empty Lysol bottles or brown
broken glass as we walked by" (13). This narration identifies Larry as an in-between figure. As
an adolescent, Larry is multiply in-between. He is torn between childishness and adulthood. For
example, he extols the virtues of Juliet's rear, but then draws a heart in the snow: "with my feet I
created two incredible hearts [. . .] One heart said, 'JED + MOM T.L.F.E." with a huge arrow
slicing through it. T.L.F.E. equaled 'True Love Forever.' The other heart, the bigger one, said
'LARRY + JULIET T.I.D.' T.I.D. equaled "True if Destroyed" (29). He is torn between romance
and cynicism. He tells us "I wanted him and my mom to get together. I really needed some
stability. I know that sounds lame, but it's true" (3). He is torn sexually; there is a suggestion of
homoerotic desire for Johnny, in addition to his explicit desire for Juliet.31 Also, Larry's teenage
voice is self-contradictory, full of bravado and insecurity. He explains "I have hungers, you
know. Man hungers" (11), but slips up when he asks Johnny "What's it like?" (43). With respect
to ethnic identity, Larry is also torn. Larry's in-between-ness is important because he is at a
Larry is obsessed with Johnny in the way of straightman-narrators who write books about the
uninhibited loners they admire. However, Larry also has a heightened awareness of Johnny's
attractiveness. They "joke" about the potential for homosexuality in their friendship. For
example, Johnny explains his interest in Larry "Well, Lare, if you must know, the Big Kahoona
has the strangest urge to hump the skinniest boy in town!" (22-23). Moreover, their friendship
begins with a kind of awkward flirtation that culminates in a coffee date in the chapter entitled
"Our Beginning." In some ways, this is more a story about Larry's love for Johnny, than Juliet,
who mediates their relationship.
He embraces his Indian-ness, but his life is saturated with dominant culture, which he also
embraces. He defines himself as being a full-blooded Dogrib tribe member, and is asked by
Johnny (who is mixed-blood) about the significance of this identity (51). For Larry, his Native
identity constitutes a specific life-experience and way of being in the world. He tells us
repeatedly "I'm an Indian and I gotta watch it" (2). However, he defines his emotions and
experiences in terms of musicians whose desires and angst seem directly related to their
whiteness (e.g. ACDC, Van Halen, Guns ? Roses). He is also somewhat distanced from his
Native heritage (he and his mother are the only full-blooded Dogrib tribe members he knows).
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cusp. He is necessarily immature, but also has the potential for maturation and, even, wisdom.
His relationship to victimhood and healing reflects this in-between-ness. It is Larry's own inbetween position, as a teenager, that allows the reader to see the tension between two
conceptions of victimhood—as static and individual or dynamic and collaborative—and to see
beyond what his teenaged-masculinist voice claims to want.
The resolution of the novel reflects the normative perspective on healing. It is isolated,
individual, and fixed. At the end of the novel, Larry's father is dead. His mother is changing and
healing. And, Larry feels healed. All ofthese events are isolated from larger systems of
domination. The abuser is dead, so ostensibly justice has been done (by the victim himself
enacting revenge). Larry's mother has stopped drinking and has devoted herself to succeeding;
she has returned to school with the goal of being a teacher. Larry's sexual encounter has allowed
him to move from believing that "I am already buried" (1) to exclaiming "I knew my life was
still unwrapped" (119). Like the anti-victimist discourse Alyson Cole identifies, in the novel the
source of violence, and thus the need for redress, appears to be isolated.
Not only are these signs of closure separated from any systemic cause, but they are also
separated from each other. Larry's healing trajectory seems completely divorced from his
mother's. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, she is already a good student and is working on
her relationship with Jed (3). Towards the end of the novel and Larry's ostensible healing, he
tells us "I was avoiding my mom these days" (101). Moreover, in order to feel healed, Larry
Early in the book, he asks his mother to make banana bread (a pretty WASPish food), and she
responds by suggesting that he make bannock, which he proudly does (6). The significance of
this is that he does not yet have a firm sense of group identity (whether as Dogrib, white, hybrid,
etc.).
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actively disconnects himself from the immediate source of his healing, Juliet. After they sleep
together, Juliet tells him about her own traumatic experience and Larry thinks to himself "I knew
I should feel bad, but I was holding a little piece of heaven in my heart" (116). Larry's inability
to empathize with Juliet makes all the more selfish his "healed" proclamation that "I wept
because I knew I had someone/ someone to remember my name/ someone to cry out my name/
someone to greet me naked in the snow/ someone to mourn me in death" (119).
While the novel appears to advocate an anti-victimist attitude toward trauma, Larry's
individual healing is at odds with the novel's portrayal violence and betrayal surrounding him, to
say nothing of the poverty and racism. At the end of the novel, nothing in the larger context has
changed—that is a fixed reality. In the final scenes, Juliet is leaving town (to Edmonton because
she is pregnant by Johnny) and Johnny is being wrestled into a car by his neglectful father, as his
mother throws his clothing on the ground yelling "you fuckin' kids" (118). In the context of the
harsh present, one must question whether Larry really is healed just because hefeels healed. And
this question troubles the easy resolution of the novel. As a victim of abuse, Larry runs a risk of
becoming an abuser himself, especially if he, like his father, has not fully healed. Larry seems
like a kind enough person, but his character reveals shades of violence. For example, he is
indifferent toward Juliet's pain, he irrationally punches a peer at a party, and he betrays Johnny.33
Moreover, while Larry testifies to other teenagers, as part of his healing trajectory, his testimony
is half-way, in-between like his teenage identity. For example, when Juliet asks about his burn
scars after they have sex, he tries to change the subject to their connection, which he thinks of in
Larry betrays both Johnny and Juliet. At a dance, he kisses Juliet even though she is seeing
Johnny (76). When they are getting stoned, Larry "accidentally" drops the joint and in the
ensuing chaos, he gropes Juliet and sets fire to the trim of Johnny's new coat.
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terms ofuniversals: "It must feel like that for every man who's ever been inside a woman. I bet it
feels the same" (1 1 1). Juliet presses him to explain his burns and Larry tells us: "I thought about
it for a long time. I wanted to get it perfect. ? was sewn into the belly of an animal'" (1 1 1).
While he believes that his explanation "perfectly" testifies to his experience, his statement fails
to communicate. Larry tells us "She was quiet and I waited for something. She started to giggle.
'God, you are so weird,' she said" (1 12). Her failure to understand his poetic rendering of his
trauma is not a character flaw; Juliet is not simply insensitive. Indeed, unlike Larry's attempt to
universalize their experience, she tries to build a connection with him based on trauma: "I have
this God-shaped hole in my heart, and I think you do too" (112). While Larry tries to evade her
direct question with his cryptic answer, she fully discloses the details of her own traumatic
experience. In contrast to Larry, Juliet tries to develop intimacy based around shared experiences
ofpain. Larry's failure to make himself fully understood suggests that despite his feeling of
euphoria after sex with Juliet, he may not be as fully healed as he believes. Nevertheless, the
novel is full of signs that something different is possible, something that individual healing alone
does not reflect.
This possibility is illustrated in the potential that Larry has as teenager. While he may not
be healed from these experiences, the novel does suggest that healing is still possible for Larry.
As a teenager, he lacks the language and emotional maturity to be able to express his
experiences, but he may yet develop these. Indeed, Jed as an adult male represents this
possibility. Moreover, the novel is full of signs of Larry's potential for maturity. For example, he
is critical of Johnny when he speaks derogatorily of Juliet ("What a fuckin' thing to say about
Juliet. [...]! could no longer see the Jesus in Johnny" (43-44)) and he recognizes at some points
that he is really no different from Johnny ("slaughter. I was the beast. I was close to the beast"
(41)). Larry's limited realizations ofhis own victimizing potential suggest his promise to be
more reflective about his own behavior and attitudes.
Moreover, Larry has the potential to connect his experiences to those of others. These
connections are both immediate and personal and part of a larger context of racism and poverty
that surround the events in the novel. Larry is able to recognize systemic injustice on a basic
level. When Larry looks around the classroom as they are have a debate about what makes a
criminal (nature or nurture), he says "I looked around. Wasn't it fucking obvious?" (8). He notes
that his teacher, Mr. Harris, sends his daughter to "private school down south" (74) like many of
the teachers because the northern school was "so far behind the system" (8). Larry can see basic
issues of inequality, but has yet to develop a critical consciousness. From a literary perspective,
the school represents institutional Canada.34 Larry, however, never explicitly makes this
connection. In his mind, power structures are jumbled.
Likewise, racial categories and their significance are unclear in the novel. While Larry's
"full blood" Dogrib identity is very important to him, he does not consistently identify the race
of other characters in the novel. He does emphasize that Johnny is Métis, while Darcy "the
meanest, toughest, rowdiest and most feared bully in town" is white (19). Juliet, on the other
hand, is "white and pure," but it is unclear if this is a racial designation (27).35 It is clear that
The only two teachers mentioned teach English and French. Mr. Harris, the English teacher, is
extremely rigid and will not hear any discussion or change that could better accommodate his
students. In response to a student asking "But couldn't we just move things around? Couldn't we
just talk?" Mr. Harris yells "No!" (10).
Her whiteness links her to his Native identity: "I think in another life I was a great Dogrib
hunter who had Juliet in my sights. She was a white caribou, pure. I believe I let her go out of
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Larry experiences racism and that this racism is tied to national identity. For example, Larry is
harassed by one of Darcy's friends on a school fieldtrip, and after coming to Larry's defense,
Johnny immediately cracks a joke about Canadians, thus distinguishing between Native people
and white Canadians (47). However, the role of race or national identity in power relations is not
explored in Larry's narration. Those whites who have some power, Darcy and Mr. Harris, have
small scale power; they are bullies. While Mr. Harris may symbolically represent English
Canada, in the lives of the characters, he is a pathetic man who Larry describes as "a sad excuse
of a man. [. . .] His pot belly and bubble butt made him look sadly ballerina-ish as he arched his
form to and fro around the classroom" (7-8) and who is himself challenged by students who note
that he is "a teacher whose wife is leaving him [. . .] who drinks too much" (10). Likewise, Darcy
ruled the school (25), yet his power is small scale. He is himself traumatized by the death ofhis
puppy and is mocked by his peers when his lack of sexual prowess is revealed.
In some ways, this jumbling accurately represents the complexity ofpower relations as
they are experienced in the reality of everyday life. On the other hand, with no conceptualizing
frame, these isolated depictions also limit Larry's ability to understand larger systemic forces.
For example, Larry and his schoolmates participate in a school-wide "slave auction" that
explicitly draws on imagery of African American slavery. They do so completely
unselfconsciously.36 In Juliet, gendered oppression is quite obvious both in the traumatic story
respect and awe" (29). Moreover, Larry hides a piece of her hair (114), because according to Jed,
a Dogrib woman "when she dies has to go back all through her life and pick up every single hair
she ever dropped before going up to heaven" (6).
Larry explains: "At our school, all new students and teachers had to go on stage and be
auctioned off like slaves" (24). He and Johnny participate in this practice: "I sat back and
watched people buy and claim souls. [. . .] [Johnny's] hands were tied and his shirt was off for the
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that she tells Larry and her experiences in the course of the novel.37 Yet in both of these cases,
Larry does not reflect critically on his role and participation in these events and experiences.38
The novel gives some hint that Larry may become increasingly aware of the large-scale
oppressive forces at work in the lives of all the characters in the novel. This awareness is tied to
Larry's developing relationship with his mother's boyfriend, Jed. Larry recognizes a profound
need for Jed in his life (3, 66-67). Jed is both a father-figure, but more than that he represents the
mature adult who is finding ways to heal from his own painful experiences by connecting with
others. Jed is intimately tied to Larry's mother's own healing process. At the beginning of the
novel, Jed is returning after an extended absence brought on because of Larry's mother refusal to
marry him, as she feels unable to trust men again (3). By the end of the novel, Jed tells Larry
"Your mom and I are gonna give it a go—"(104). We know little about what goes on in their
relationship, except for their excitement to see each other: "I could see mom was pretty excited
about Jed, so I left her alone. She was cranking CCR and Patsy Cline. That was a good sign" (3).
One thing we do know, however, is that Jed is open and expressive about his own traumatic
slavelike effect. People roared and cheered when he was led out onto the stage. [. . .] He glared
out at the audience" (25).
In her story, she explains why she had to walk around on crutches in grade eight. While her
schoolmates assume that it is because she has contracted an STD (in typical high school logic),
the truth is that her leg was broken in violent retaliation for her lack of sexual experience: "He
was jacking off, watching me. I started laughing. He looked so stupid. I don't know why I
laughed like that. I'd never seen anyone do that before" (113). Her attacker threatens to kill her if
she tells anyone. In the course of the novel, Juliet is defined by the males who want her, and at
the end of the novel she leaves the community as a result ofher pregnancy.
¦JO
He does reflect somewhat about Juliet, indicating his potential to mature. For example, he
observes: "the Japanese fans [on her walls and ceiling], and it hit me; all the wings were clipped"
(114). He also reflects on the misogynist rumors about her, but mostly in an effort to disavow
responsibility. He notes that he didn't believe the rumors about her (112).
experiences. Before he arrives, Larry's mother notes: "Something happened to him this summer.
He sounded kind of shaken up when he called" (3). When he arrives, Larry notices "Something
had changed," but Jed also fully acknowledges this: "Excuse my Slavey, Lare, but I feel like six
pounds of shit stuffed into a five-pound bag" (66). Moreover, Jed is able to talk about his
experience: "But boy," he said, wiping his eyes, "no one told us about the killing we'd have to
do. [...] You know, after a fire, there's lots of animals that don't make it. They're burned bad and
die slow. I lost count of the bears I had to kill, the deer, rabbits, all them animals that suffered. I
started to carry a gun with me in the bush for that. Before, I just used my shovel" (67). Jed's
trauma arises from his compassion for those who are suffering and from witnessing their pain.39
His job is to end their suffering. Significantly, their suffering, like Larry's, is brought on by
fire.40
Jed figures in Larry's mother's healing and, readers are led to predict, in Larry's future
healing as well, but Jed's concerns are not purely local. While he is important to each of them as
individuals as well as to their idea of family (3), Jed recognizes the larger implications of his
identity. As Larry describes him "Jed was a firefighter, a bush cook, a Ranger, a tour guide and a
Indeed, Jed is further traumatized by an event of immense heartbreak that he witnesses. He
tells a story about a woman whose husband went hunting and never came back. Assuming that
he-had left her, she killed her children. That winter, Jed stumbles upon the body of the husband
and realizes that the husband had died hunting after all. Jed says, "That woman killed her kids
for nothing" (70). For him, the cruel irony is worse than the actual violence. Significantly, this
story is also tied to Larry and his understanding of parental violence. The woman is a Dogrib
tribal member (like Larry), and her story of infanticide strongly parallels the story Jed tells him
about the creation of the Dogrib people (52, 105). The parental desire to kill their children is a
theme in much of Larry's narration, and says much about how his abuse has shaped his
worldview.
Jed is explicitly tied to Larry's healing from the fire: "I remembered a song Jed used to sing to
me when I had my fire nightmares" (71).
whole lot of other things as well. He'd been around the world and he always had a story to tell.
He was Slavey and proud of it" (3). Jed claims the significance of his Native identity ("He was
wearing his classic 'Denendeh: One Land One People' T-shirt" (68)). Moreover, he teaches
Larry what he knows and encourages him to get more involved in the Native community. For
example, he teaches him how to make bannock and how to hunt, and he encourages him to take
drum lessons ("what about the Friendship Centre? Just go and ask" (68)). Jed's embrace of his
identity comes not from insularity, but rather from worldliness. As Larry points out, "he'd been
around the world," and this seems to shape his own clear sense of identity and its significance to
his life.
The novel resists straightforward conclusions, and while I maintain that it presents a
vision of healing that is dynamic and coalitional, this vision can at best be said to be a potential,
not a necessary, outcome of injury. In an ambiguous anecdote, Jed tells Larry of an experience
he had in India. In the anecdote, Jed is an Indian in India as a tourist. Jed and his friends were
smoking hashish and were surrounding by thieving monkeys. As a tourist, all Jed can think of is
"if I ever wanted a postcard, I wanted a postcard right then and there. I would have bought a box
of twelve pictures of these eight monkeys on this balcony as we passed the pipe" (4). The
monkeys attack them and Jed says "We just hoped they'd leave us alone because we were
tourists in India, for chrissakes. The Blue Monkeys had no right to turn this postcard into
something angry or greedy, so I prayed like mad" (5). This leads Jed to a spiritual experience,
but also the realization that "I had to get out of India. [...] If the Blue Monkeys had followed me
that far [...] I realized I had to go to Africa, the dark continent. I had a feeling the Blue Monkeys
would not follow me there" (5-6). Neither Larry nor Jed interprets this experience for us, but it
clearly has significance for Larry. He mentions it very early in his narrative and returns to the
image of the Blue Monkeys twice in this very short novel.
The scene is tantalizing but ambiguous. This might be a story in which Jed is critical of
his role as a tourist in India, or it could simply be a story about one of his travels. The story
might be suggesting that as an American Indian he should have developed solidarity with Indians
(as another colonized people) rather than participating in the neocolonial practice of tourism. In
this reading, the Blue Monkeys might symbolize local resistance to this practice. As Jed
explains, "in India every animal is sacred but at the same time there are monkeys in the city that
steal. [. . .] The monkeys have their own tribes in the city, and I guess the monkeys had been
studying me and my buddies" (4). In this reading, the monkeys are native to India and are
rebellious and resistant toward the colonizer. On the other hand, Jed's desire to go to Africa
could signify a deeper immersion into colonialism, signified by the colonial language of Africa
as "the dark continent."
I propose that this scene suggests the possibility for solidarity, but only the possibility. Its
ambiguity gestures to the fact that this possibility is only potential; it will require work and
change to make it a reality. I read the Blue Monkeys to represent the haunting effects of trauma
(which does not necessarily exclude their connection to colonial violence). Jed further describes
the look of the monkeys that "gave this postcard away": "Those eyes. It seemed as if some of
these monkeys had killed before in an elevator and the elevator had never been blessed, you
know, and the people in India would ride in this elevator all day and they would think: 'Why
does this elevator feel so spooky? Is it haunted? Why does it stink?'" (4). The monkeys, thus,
carry the haunting effect of violence that has not been acknowledged or healed. In addition,
when Larry has hallucinatory visions of the Blue Monkeys, it is in conjunction with traumatic
memory (39, 80-1). The Blue Monkeys are not simply a feature of India. In fact, they followed
Jed to India, indicating that he was already haunted by them (i.e. they have something to do with
his own experience). Africa appears to offer Jed an escape from this. And I suggest that this
escape has to do with understanding the oppression of others.
Like Jed, Larry experiences a connection between trauma, the Blue Monkeys and Africa.
The traumatic memories that are paired with the Blue Monkeys are also paired with the
appearance of Shamus, the only Black person mentioned in the novel. Shamus is the janitor at
the hospital where Larry recovers from his burns, and he is the only friend that Larry makes
there. Shamus is always identified as Black. Certainly Jed's escape to Africa and Larry's
memory of Shamus could be western romanticizing, implying the redeeming effects of Africa
(and thus those of African descent). However, I posit an alternative reading. Given Larry's lack
of critical consciousness about the "slave auction," it seems plausible that this relationship is an
example ofwhy a critical perspective is necessary for Larry's healing. When Larry describes his
experience at the hospital, he says "I make a friend." This friend is neither a nurse nor a fellow
patient, but Shamus. Not only Black, but also blind and working class, Shamus experiences
several levels of oppression. He is also the only person who ever speaks to Larry's profoundly
damaged worldview. He tells Larry "this is not a world for children" (80). He also tries to protect
Larry from being re-traumatized, by covering all the mirrors (unlike the nurses who force him to
look at himself). This hints that awareness of the oppression and suffering of others is both
possible and important. And, indeed, one of Jed's defining characteristics is his compassion and
empathy for others' pain. It is presumably these qualities that make him so significant in the
healing ofboth Larry and his mother. The novel never explains how Jed developed into a mature
adult, or whether his travels resulted in his understanding of oppression. Nevertheless, the fact
remains that he has experienced his own traumas and yet found a way to heal himself and others.
This fact, coupled with the strange prominence of the Blue Monkey scene, suggests a strong
relationship between healing, maturation, critical consciousness, and coalition. And, indeed, the
novel alludes to such sites of coalition. For example, the novel mentions First Nations people
working in the northern Canadian diamond mines. While certainly this occurrence is materially
true, it also draws a connection to South Africa—a very different context, but a context of
colonialism and oppression as well.
In The Lesser Blessed victimhood occurs on many levels. These levels are distinct, rather
than analogical. In other words, unlike the white Canadian investment in being like indigenous
people vis à vis oppression, child abuse is not like colonialism or slavery. Nevertheless,
victimhood in any of these forms is not tenable as a static state (as seen by Larry's continued
flashbacks and the ongoing effects of colonial violence expressed by his father, for example).
Healing is a necessity. In my reading, the novel suggests that this necessity can only be achieved
through developing a critical consciousness and connection to others' experiences of
victimization.41
As I explained earlier, victimhood is central to white Canadian identity. Van Camp's
most important intervention is that he alters this definition of a victim. Canadian whiteness relies
The novel suggests that being a victim does not necessarily privilege one with a critical
epistemology. In other words, all the evidence is there for Larry to make connections between
his own victimization and that of others, but the novel leaves open whether he will see and act on
these connections. Such an idea is expressed by Patricia Hill Collins in "Defining Black Feminist
Thought" regarding the relationship of experience to developing a Black, feminist epistemology.
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on a definition of victimhood that is fixed. This fixity relates both to identity, as a victim, and to
the conditions that produce the victimization. It normalizes domination, suggesting nothing can
be done. It also isolates victims—there is nothing connecting Canadians to First Nations people.
What Larry's healing trajectory and its incompleteness demonstrate is that victimhood is not a
fixed state, but a condition requiring healing and that to complete this healing, connection with
others who have been hurt is necessary. In doing so, he unseats the complacent position of white
Canadian victimhood. Van Camp's novel does not so much urge white Canadians to give up the
feeling of being subjugated, but rather to recognize how that feeling should change the way they
relate to First Nations people. If white Canadians do not feel compelled to heal and connect, one
must question their investment in injury.
Un/fixing Canadian Whiteness
The white Canadian notion of victimhood is fixed, not only in terms ofbeing a static
identity produced by inequality, but also in terms of its perspective on the way the world is (i.e.
its epistemology). Highway shares Van Camp's perspective that victimhood is untenable as a
fixed state and as one moves toward healing, connection with others who have been victimized is
necessary. Highway goes further to interrogate the production of victimhood—specifically racial
victimhood—via the rigid epistemology of whiteness. Whereas Van Camp expresses the messy
reality in which racial identity is not clear-cut, Highway represents race in clear and schematic
ways in order to imagine different ways ofbeing in the world.42 Highway specifically represents
The styles of the two novels reflect these different approaches. The Lesser Blessed is narrated
from Larry's limited first person perspective, expressing a gritty realism and lyricism. Kiss ofthe
Fur Queen is narrated in a free indirect discourse that floats between different characters'
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whites and whiteness and imagines what it would take for a change in whiteness, and what this
might mean for indigenous people (as much internally as in external nation-to-nation
negotiations).
Highway's central metaphor for this change is geography. The novel begins with a
schema in which the North is Native space, while the South is white space. The novel focuses on
children who were taken from their Northern communities to a school in the South. As such, it
expresses a parallel between geography and whiteness, as the children were taken from their
Northern, indigenous homes to assimilate (i.e. become white) in the South. In the novel,
geographic difference maintains not simply a material, but an ideological role as well. However,
Highway blurs distinctions between North and South. This blurring of geography points to a
necessary reconfiguration of whiteness and illustrates what needs to happen for healing to take
place both on an individual level and with respect to the relationship between whites and nonwhites. This blurring is not simply a hybridity (and a consequential erasing of difference);
instead, it suggests a flexibility and play, which still recalls the history and materiality of
oppression. In other words, it is not that Native people can adapt to colonization through
integrating aspects of European culture and identity into themselves—that is merely a by-product
of colonization. Rather the role of play and the unexpected serves to challenge the certainty and
fixity that sustain whiteness as an epistemology.
Geography is defining for Canadian national identity and in particular the "North" is
significant, representing at once Canadian potential and the hardships placed upon those who live
perspectives. Highway draws more from the epic tradition where myths are not only stories but
spiritual entities that penetrate everyday reality.
there (Grace, Canada and the Idea ofNorth; Atwood Survival; Hulan). This geography is also
brought to bear on white Canadian feelings of victimhood. As previously mentioned, Canadians
see themselves as part of the "periphery" to the American "métropole" (Angus). This relation is
understood on a North-South axis. Canadians as Northern are victimized by the dominant South,
the United States. This geographic relationship is paralleled in the white Canadian perception of
their relationships with indigenous people. Atwood' s syllogism, for example, implies a
geographic relationship. While the location of the "Indians" is never specified in the syllogism,
its structure suggests a parallel spatial separation on a North-South axis. Native people are not
among Canadians, but rather separate and dominated. This parallel appears to be supported by
the fact that most native self-government occurs in the north, while in the south native claims are
far more contested. While this spatial conception of the relationship of domination holds some
explanatory power, it does not (and has never) mapped onto the actual lives of indigenous
people. In addition, as Renée Hulan has pointed out in Northern Experience and the Myths of
Canadian Culture: "It is important to understand the persistence of nationalist myths like
northern consciousness in order to unsettle the stance that spatializes difference in order to
reclaim it within the nationalist discourse" (28). In other words, Canadian colonial projects are
supported by the idea that geographic difference marks cultural and epistemological differences.
Recognizing the dangers of linking geography to identity leads us to question whether
geography can be a useful tool in understanding whiteness at all, particularly in the Canadian
First Nations are not bounded by the same national and historical boundaries that define the
Canadian nation-state. For example, the US-Canada border arbitrarily cuts through the middle of
various tribal lands. Likewise, the North-South binary within Canada serves the interests of
nation-building and national ideology more than accurately representing the geographic
distribution of different populations.
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context. There has already been examination ofhow Native writers challenge national uses of
geography. In Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics ofCapital, Eva Cherniavsky
examines Leslie Marmon Silko's novel, Almanac ofthe Dead, to explore indigenous resistance
to the "distinction between the progressive temporality of the metropolitan center and the stasis
of the tribal periphery" (51). Here she points to the problem of conflating geography with
identity; it reproduces essentialist and often demeaning notions of identity. Cherniavsky
explicitly states that locating Native-ness in a specific geography (and thus, whiteness in another
specific geography) would be to additionally commodify them as identity categories. Instead, she
writes ofNative refusal "to incorporate, to maintain and multiply territorial distinctions within
the already totalized terrain of global capital [. . .] [Almanac ofthe Dead's] insurgent people
evade the specular difference engine—the differentiation ofpeople and places in ways 'attractive
to capital'—to open up a front as broad and mobile as the flows of global capital itself (67). In
other words, in Cherniavsky' s view, resistance to continued colonialism and capitalism comes in
the form of challenging the relationship between geography and identity.
Cherniavsky does more than elucidate Silko's critique of geography; she calls for a
challenge to whiteness based on a new epistemology. She explains:
[...] a critique of whiteness would begin by unraveling the juridicaljjtolitical, and
social protocols that permit the possessors of whiteness to be at once nowhere (to
occupy the evacuated center) and everywhere (to claim the racial margins) and to
unravel them not, or not simply, by assigning whiteness a (new) location but by
rendering white subjects accountablefor the territorialising operations of
specular thought. (62, italics in original)
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According tò Cherniavsky, it is imperative to locate whiteness, and thereby prevent it from being
nowhere, but it is not enough to simply define and recognize whiteness. We must find a way to
keep it from claiming the margins in a move in which white people may try to affiliate with
nonwhites in order to disassociate themselves with the negative history of whiteness. In this way,
they also claim the margins, making both the margins and the center (i.e. everywhere) the
location of whiteness. Therefore, identifying and locating whiteness must not describe whiteness
as simply another culture. The domination inherent in the ways whiteness functions must always
be part of the analysis.
While locating Canadian whiteness in its particularity and in a specific location might
prevent it from being "nowhere" (a supposed universal norm), it would still leave open the
possibility ofbeing "everywhere." According to Cherniavsky, a variety of norms "permit the
possessors of whiteness to be at once nowhere [...] and everywhere." In this formulation,
whiteness is a commodity that can be possessed by virtue of one's location, figuratively (by
subject location) and geographically (being in the South, the metropolitan center). Moreover, this
makes Native-ness a commodity that whites can attain, locating them everywhere. This
appropriation, too, can be understood in geographic terms. By visiting the North—either literally
or figuratively by learning about it—whites can supposedly attain Native-ness. Indeed, this is
borne out in Hulan's argument that, in Canadian conceptions ofNorthern exploration, spatial
boundary crossing "substitutes" for cultural boundary crossing so that whites who go to the
North are believed to have an indigenous/Northern epistemology.44
Hulan writes: "As aboriginal voices gain strength, they are concerned with the articulation of
experience as aboriginal people. In northern studies, 'experience as' a northern inhabitant—and
the majority of northern inhabitants are aboriginal—is considered to have the greatest epistemic
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In locating whiteness, my readings ofKiss ofthe Fur Queen and The Lesser Blessed seek
not to "assign [. . .] whiteness a (new) location" by pinpointing Canadian whiteness; rather, I
suggest that we can learn from First Nations novels that do not conform to literary and
representational "protocols" that place whiteness at once everywhere and nowhere. In her
critique, Cherniavsky examines a fictional transnational coalition of indigenous peoples in the
Americas as the basis for her argument about geographic- and national-identities as
commodities. I, on the other hand, argue that while staying within the national borders of
Canada, Tomson Highway provides not only a critique of the fixed parallel between geography
and identity, but also begins to unravel the fixed shape of whiteness, itself held in place by
national identity.
Atwood's syllogism expresses the particularity of Canadian whiteness, marking it as a
product of national identity rather than as a "universal" phenomenon. However, its fixity has
limited efficacy; it simply gestures to the problematic logic that underpins Canadian whiteness.
In The Lesser Blessed, Van Camp demonstrates how the experience of victimhood resists fixity
and instead moves us to heal, thereby challenging the static notion of Canadian victimhood. Kiss
ofthe Fur Queen presses us to imagine more fully what healing on a national (or nation to
nation) level would look like; such healing would necessarily include white people. Highway
uses Canadian geography and spatial relationships between white people and Native people to
value while 'experience in' the north is next best. The understanding of 'experience as' has also
led to a general interest in 'experience as such.' Self-positioning and reflexivity becomes the
stock of critical discourse, and speakers gain epistemic privilege through experience in the north
rather than experience as a northern inhabitant. Thus, authority turns on the epistemic privilege
of the cultural insider even when the individual is in fact an outsider. The slippage between
'experience as' and 'experience in' flattens the epistemic distinction in a way that de-emphasizes
racial and cultural differences" (15).
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locate Canadian whiteness, not in a fixed location, either geographically or as personal identity.
Instead, Highway takes aim at the white Canadian desire for victimhood that effaces First
Nations experience. In this way, he "unravels" the linkage between Canadian identity and
victimhood and the fixity ofthe logic of domination. By representing Native experience as fluid
with respect to geography and whiteness, Highway imagines possibilities for change that would
require a reconfiguration of whiteness, rather than a static guilt.
There are three main locations in Kiss ofthe Fur Queen: Eemanapiteepitat (the northern
Manitoba home of the brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel), the residential school (at Birch Lake,
south from Eemanapiteepitat), and Winnipeg. In the course of the novel, both brothers are born
in Eemanapetiteepitat and are required to attend the residential school at Birch Lake. For high
school, both brothers move farther south to Winnipeg, where they remain as adults. These
locations appear to break down relatively schematically with respect to violence and whiteness.
The North is associated with indigeneity and safety, while the South is associated with whites
and violence against aboriginal people. In the first move south to the residential schools, the boys
are forced to cut their hair and they are stripped of their Cree names and given Christian ones.
The physical and sexual abuse they experience there is not limited to the school; when they
arrive in Winnipeg, they witness physical and sexual assaults perpetrated by whites against First
Nations people in the city.
In the novel, whiteness functions as a cluster of Western belief systems, forms of cultural
production, majority identity markers, and forms of domination. It is comprised, ideologically, of
Catholicism, imperialism, consumer culture, and Eurocentric history. It is expressed through the
two major forms of art represented in the novel, concert piano and ballet. It is represented in
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majority identity (e.g. all white people are blond). Finally, it is linked to violence against Native
people, in the forms of intellectual, cultural, religious, verbal, and sexual violence. Even though
the violence enacted by white domination sometimes occurs in the North,45 it still seems clear
that violence (and the victimization it produces) comes from whites and whiteness in the South.
However, Highway complicates this schema.
One of the earliest scenes in the novel introduces the problem of location and
victimization. Just previous to this scene, Jeremiah and Gabriel's parents remember that they are
to lose Jeremiah to the residential school at the end of the summer. They bemoan sending him
away and separating him from his younger brother (40). Then, as they overhear the children
playing, "A low rumble walled up beneath the children's voices." The parents cannot locate the
source:
Without warning, two dozen head of caribou burst out of the forest at the northern
end of the meadow, so fast that Abraham and Mariesis didn't even have time to
blink. Only later would they explain to themselves, with some embarrassment,
that the thought of losing Champion [aka Jeremiah] to boarding school had so
befuddled them. And that southeast wind, Mariesis tried to convince Annie
Moostoos, with extreme discomfort, had done so much to hide any sound coming
from the north (43)
Notably, the danger comes from the north, while it is obscured by sound from the south. As the
herd of caribou stampede over the spot where the two boys were playing:
For example, the novel alludes to the cultural and religious violence practiced by missionaries
in the North to undermine Native religion and community values and to white ethnographers
committing intellectual violence in their studies of people in the North.
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The only sound Mariesis's mouth could emit should have come out as a piercing
shriek; instead, against such a monolithic rumble, it was small and distant.
Everything now moved as though swimming through a sea of honey. Mariesis
floated up from her sitting position, intent on plunging headlong into the herd, but
her husband clamped both arms around her waist. [...] Mariesis couldn't see. The
tears were nothing; it was rage that was blinding her, rage at this man who dared
to call himself the father ofher children, rage for giving up, so soon, so easily.
How could he, this champion of the world? And rage at herself for being caught
unprepared (45)
Yet through an apparently supernatural intervention, Jeremiah walks through the herd and takes
Gabriel's hand. Both brothers emerge unharmed. This scene is immediately followed by
Jeremiah boarding a plane to go to south to the residential school.
In this scene, the danger of the caribou herd is likened to the effect to European
colonization and the residential schools—a "monolithic rumble" from which the parents cannot
protect their children. Notably, while Mariesis unfairly blames herself for "being unprepared,"
her anger at Abraham suggests the ways in which he is both complicit and helpless in this
situation. It would have been futile for him to try to savethem, and yet his resignation appears to
doom them. This gestures to his embrace of Christianity and thus silencing of his sons. The
location of the danger is undefined (particularly in terms of North and South, Indigenous and
European).
In this scene, Jeremiah is able to protect Gabriel. It seems the very fact of their being
together gives them a supernatural power to survive. At the school, however, they are separated,
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both physically and as a result of the sexual abuse that each suffers. Jeremiah witnesses Father
LaFleur abusing Gabriel: "No, Jeremiah wailed to himself, please. Not him again" (79). His
recognition of what is happening is immediately followed by denial: "Had this really happened
before? Or had it not? But some chamber deep inside his mind slammed permanently shut. It had
happened to nobody. He had not seen what he was seeing" (80). It is Jeremiah's inability to
protect Gabriel, as he had in the past, that results in his forgetting of his own abuse and his
further separation from Gabriel. This separation represents the rupture produced by white
violence. It is the effect of victimization that sends the brothers on parallel, but separate, courses.
The caribou scene sets the stage for Highway's reconsideration of the location of
victimization. In examining the brothers' experiences of victimization, their ultimate healing and
the return of their ability to protect each other, we will see how Highway reconfigures whiteness
and Canada's relationship to victimization, in ways that do not merely re-inscribe the ideas
expressed in Atwood's syllogism nor place whiteness as everywhere and nowhere. Importantly,
while Van Camp represented the limited critical consciousness of a teenage boy, Highway allows
us to see the big picture, historically, geographically, epistemologically, and emotionally.
The novel begins by setting up a geographic relationship between location and identity
wherein staying in the North allows the characters to maintain their Cree heritage and moving
south means assimilation. Jeremiah and Gabriel each have a "native" artistic talent, music and
dance respectively. In the South, each "translates" his talent into a white cultural form; Jeremiah
becomes a concert pianist, while Gabriel becomes a ballet dancer. For both of them, embrace of
this cultural form distances them from their Native identity and each other. When they return to
the North, Jeremiah wonders, "How for God's sake, did one say 'concert pianist' in Cree?"
(1 89), while his mother says, "I haven't a clue what a bailee sleeper is but these sure are funny
moccasins you city folks wear" (194). For both brothers, their embrace of certain aspects of
whiteness make them unable to "fit" back in their Native community and in the North more
generally. This would seem to suggest that hybridization makes the boys unfit to live in their
"pure" Native community (that it essentially forces assimilation on them). However, while the
boys have embraced white cultural forms, making them mis-fits in the North, their parents have
so embraced white, Christian spirituality, that the Northern family is unfit for the Cree boys
(especially Gabriel) to return to.
Gabriel is driven from his family and the North because of his parents' (especially his
father's) zealous Christianity. Abraham asks Gabriel ifhe misses the residential school, and as
Gabriel remembers the abuse by Father LaFleur, Abraham says:
"The Catholic Church saved our people. Without it, we wouldn't be here today.
[...] You follow any other religion and you go straight to hell, that's for goddamn
sure." It was at that moment that Gabriel Okimasis understood that there was no
place for him in Eemanapiteepitat or the north. Suddenly, he would join Jeremiah
in the south. (109)
In this moment, it becomes clear that the north is no longer associated with indigeneity and
safety. The European/white ideology of Catholicism makes it psychologically unsafe for him. He
cannot tell his father, and so although he is away from the abuse, the impossibility of
acknowledging it means it will continue to hurt him. Additionally, Gabriel can find no room for
his gay identity in his family's zealously Christian home.
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Conversely, Jeremiah learns that the south can be a place that allows for the preservation
ofNative identity and experience (even if at that time, he's unsure that this is what he wants). At
a powwow at the Winnipeg Indian Friendship Centre, an old woman says to Jeremiah, '"You
northern people,' she sighed, as with nostalgia, 'it's too bad you lost all them dances, you know?
All them beautiful songs? Thousands of years of... But never mind. We have it here'" (175). It is
ultimately, First Nations people from the south who help Jeremiah reconnect with his Native
identity.
In these two instances the notion of the safety and "pure" indigeneity of the North and the
danger and "pure" whiteness of the South has been disrupted. Still, Highway reminds us that
these disruptions are historical; there is a cause and effect relationship. It is the history of
Christian missionaries coming to the North coupled with the history of the Canadian
government's policy of residential schools that produce the abuse the brothers' experience and
their inability to heal from it at home. It is the effects of colonialism that have produced both the
loss of Native cultural forms in the North and the efforts at preservation in the South.46
The brothers' alienation from the North—Jeremiah in terms of art, Gabriel in terms of
sexuality—combined with the disruption of distinct geographic-racial boundaries suggests that a
safety in an essential, Northern, indigenous state is not possible (even if such a state ever
existed). Yet the broken state, in which the trauma of the residential schools has left the brothers,
is also untenable. The novel documents their movements from his state. Jeremiah and Gabriel
seem to follow parallel paths with respect to whiteness and the South. They both move to the
While Highway points to these historical events, it is important to keep in mind that neither the
North nor the South was ever "pure."
South, to Winnipeg, and they make Western artistic choices. Yet they also define themselves
against each other. This self-definition in terms of opposition is a result of the separation
produced by the abuse they experienced. The narrative thrust of the book is the brothers'
divergent responses to the trauma and their resulting separation. By showing that overcoming
this separation is necessary to the brothers' healing, Highway suggests that victimhood is not a
fixed state, but one that requires change and healing. In other words, the brothers do not have a
fixed identity "as a victim," as Atwood's syllogism so neatly expresses. Instead, their
victimization puts them in an untenable state, and they must find a way to make life livable and
coherent again. In the novel, overcoming their separation and healing can only occur when
blurring becomes, more than an internalization of whiteness (i.e. assimilation). Instead blurring
must involve a reconfiguration of whiteness, which Highway expresses through geography and
the figure of the Fur Queen, which I will discuss later.
The biggest divisions between the brothers surround whiteness and sexuality, the fallout
from the abusive convergence of the two terms in Father LaFleur. In broad terms, Jeremiah
represses the abuse, suppresses his own sexuality, embraces Christianity and sees his piano
playing as making him white (although he is quite ambivalent about this). Gabriel, on the other
hand, remembers the abuse, eroticizes his memory of it, over-expresses his own sexuality
(through promiscuous gay sex), rejects Christianity, and although he, too, has an ambivalent
relationship to whiteness, he criticizes Jeremiah for trying to be white. There is no single turning
point reversing this divergence. Instead, a series of realizations and regressions mark the
brothers' coming back together. This reunion does not return them to a state of "pure Indianness" and pre-abuse innocence. However, it does restore their ability to protect each other and to
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heal. These turning points often accompany blurring of geography and the appearance of the Fur
Queen.
One of these turning point occurs when Gabriel convinces Jeremiah to return to the city
(south) after Jeremiah has betrayed him at the powwow, by abandoning him to be harassed
because of his sexual identity. In this scene, Gabriel's body is represented as physically divided,
north and south, yet it results in the reunification of the brothers:
"So, you coming home?" though Gabriel tried his best at sounding cold,
even angry [. . .] For, naked as the day, he lay luxuriating in black satin sheets, his
lower limbs entangled in some unseen task. [. . .] Three hundred miles north of the
rose-hued bedroom, Jeremiah stood huddled in a telephone booth [explaining
where he was]. "By land and water," Gabriel stated with machine-like precision
despite virtually surging with joy, "it'll take you nine hours." At his waist, his
fingers sank into a head of golden curls. [...] "Then I'll see you tonight." And see,
Gabriel thrilled at the prospect, what revenge I dream up for your treachery. [. . .]
Gabriel set the telephone down, flexed his thighs, and, distractedly, gazed at the
opposite wall. Zebra stripped by noonlight through the horizontal blinds (263-4)
While, initially, it appears that Gabriel is divided between north (connection to brother) and
south (sex with white men), this division is not so clean. His pleasure at "revenge" on his brother
is blended with his sexual pleasure; this blending is re-iterated in the "zebra-striped" shadows on
the wall. It is also this conversation that brings the brothers back into physical proximity (both in
the south) and begins their artistic collaboration. Gabriel's "revenge" is to require Jeremiah to
develop a performance with him. Significantly, this artistic collaboration is what allows Jeremiah
to access his memory of the abuse. After this recognition, the brothers begin to reconnect
successfully. For example, immediately after this collaboration, Jeremiah finds Gabriel's AIDS
medications. Although Gabriel is fearful of telling him, Jeremiah begins to talk to Gabriel about
his diagnosis and to become involved (rather than judgmental) in this aspect of his identity. This
is crucial because in the final scene Jeremiah regains his ability to protect Gabriel, as he once did
when they were children swallowed up by the caribou stampede.
Highway suggests that it is only through recognition of shared trauma—and allowing that
recognition to overcome other differences (in this case, sexuality)—that Jeremiah can fully heal
and regain his power. Moreover, it is not through either a physical return to the north, nor
through a return to a "pure" Native identity that this occurs. Instead, their artistic expressions,
which are in fact hybrid productions, allow for political testimony. As I explain below, this
reconnection cannot occur without a reconfiguration of whiteness, geographically and
ideologically. This means blurring is not only taking on whiteness (assimilation), but changing
whiteness.
The reconfiguration of whiteness is most clearly expressed through the figure of the Fur
Queen. The Fur Queen is a mythic, spiritual 'figure in the book. She is the trickster, who
Highway (in an introductory note) explains is the most "pivotal and important figure in our
world as Christ is in Christian mythology."47 In the novel, the Fur Queen emerges out of an
In "Eaten Up", Terry Goldie (2003) writes that "one of the central problems with non-Native
criticism of Native texts [is] many make the assumption that the Native text in some way
documents Native culture and thus allows the reader to 'see' that culture" (205). He gestures to
Drew Hayden Taylor's observation that "white criticism of Native literature could best be
defined as finding the trickster" (207). Indeed, this type of criticism illustrates one way in which
whiteness attempts to exist "everywhere," since limited knowledge leads to white readers to
believe that they "know" about indigenous spirituality by generalizing (i.e. all indigenous people
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encounter between Cree and white cultures. The father, Abraham Okimasis, becomes the first
Indian to win the Millington Cup World Championship Dog Derby. His trophy is awarded to him
by the winner of the Fur Queen Beauty Pageant, a white woman. This moment is photographed
and becomes transformed into a spiritual image that presides over the rest of the novel—the Fur
Queen appearing at Jeremiah's conception and birth, at Abraham and Gabriel's deaths, for
example. In the transformation, the Fur Queen takes on the characteristics of the trickster; in
particular, she becomes playful and comic.
As a trickster figure, she blurs gender; but in the novel she also blends race. She is both
literally white and bears symbolic markers of whiteness. And yet, she is very Cree. In particular,
her humor and play disrupt norms of European logic and spirituality. For example, she appears to
Jeremiah when he's feeling desolate as a result of his separation from Gabriel, "coo[ing] with a
voluptuous, full-fleshed languor. [...] leaning against a grand piano made of ice, stood a torchsinging fox with fur so white it hurt the eyes [...] She was far too spectacular: missile-like tits,
ice-blond meringue hair" (23 1) and she says to him "Show me the bastard who come up with this
notion that who's running the goddamn show is some grumpy, embittered, sexually frustrated
old fart with a long white beard hiding like a gutless coward behind some puffed-up cloud and
I'll slice his balls off (234). In "Surviving the Residential School System: Resisting Hegemonic
Canadianness in Tomson Highway's Kiss ofthe Fur Queen" Richard Lane describes the Fur
Queen as "trickster camp," a combination of postmodern Native and queer perspectives that
are the same and believe the same things, etc.). Nevertheless, Highway includes this preliminary
note, clearly intending readers to use this idea as an interpretive guide for the novel.
works to reclaim memory. Lane argues that this combination "functions to stop restitution
being a memorialization that simply reproduces some unsullied state ofbeing. In other words, if
all that restitution achieves is a return prior to, say, the act of abduction and then the sexual
abuse, the subject or community remains just as unprepared for the catastrophe, has learnt no
lessons, no strategies for the future" (194). Indeed, such memorialization re-inscribes the fixed
state of victimhood that Highway works to unseat.
It is clear that the Fur Queen performs the function of Lane's trickster camp by
reclaiming memory in a dynamic way. I append that it is the way the Fur Queen reconfigures
whiteness that allows her to perform this function. In particular, I argue that the Fur Queen
represents whiteness in a way that challenges what Cherniavsky refers to as "specular thought"
and resists placing whiteness nowhere and everywhere. The Fur Queen performs "whiteness" in
drag. As such, whiteness becomes hypervisible, while the blindnesses and invisibility it produces
are highlighted. As hypervisible, the Fur Queen takes markers of whiteness out of normal-ness
and neutrality, and in fact, beyond stereotype. While this suggests that anyone can perform
whiteness (as Jeremiah does in his piano playing), doing so is neither "fun" nor spiritual, if it is
taken seriously, that is as truth and lightness. This does not locate whiteness "nowhere" because
it is now recognizable and visible in those who carry those markers unselfconsciously, without
play. In other words, her distortion of whiteness undermines a privilege of whiteness. Making
whiteness hypervisible strips it of its authority and its naturalness. Her performance allows us to
see "normal" everyday whiteness as performed. As a result, the white characteristics of the Fur
Other critics have discussed the trickster aspect of the Fur Queen (see McKegney, Sugars
"Weetigos and Weasels"). Dickinson writes about Highway's plays and his use of the Trickster
and two-spirit tradition
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Queen worn by everyday whites in the novel become not simply stereotypes of white people, but
are pulled into the play/playfulness established by her performance. For example, the Fur
Queen's white fur and pink accessories are carried by the white women teachers who attempt to
rigidly shape the brothers' artistic productions, yet in these scenes humor and play burst through.
For example, the ballet teacher, a "ghost-pale, muscle-bound young woman in jeans and white
blouse" who is surrounded by "pink little girls," grabs Gabriel with a "vise-like grip", to which
Gabriel responds by "will[ing] himself into a state of rubber-like pliancy" (152-153). Although
her whiteness dovetails with her rigidity, Gabriel's presence there is both comic ("few of these
five- and six-year-old girls came up to his navel") and libratory for him. In his participation and
disruption of this scene, Gabriel felt "free of gravity, trying out this newfound language that
spoke to him in a way nothing else had ever done" (153).
While she is a performer, the Fur Queen is not visible to everyone. This points to the
blindness of those who possess whiteness.49 For example, while Gabriel keeps her picture as a
keepsake, Jeremiah, who has more fully internalized whiteness, rarely encounters her directly.50
Whiteness cannot be "everywhere" because of the blindnesses that it produces. When Jeremiah
finally meets the Fur Queen, he is on the brink of collapse. As he struggles through the snow, the
49 Jeremiah does not "see" the Fur Queen; in the same way, his white audience cannot "see" what
his first play is showing them. In the play, the mythical Weetigo removes his costume and the
audience sees that underneath he is a priest. The reviewers, representing a mainstream white
audience, write that this final scene "confuses the viewer," and Gabriel tells Jeremiah "You
didn't say it loud enough" (285). In other words, the white audience cannot fathom that the story
about the man-eating spirit applies to real injustices, not just quaint cultural beliefs. These two
instances suggest that whiteness and blindness (to what a performance is saying) go hand in
hand.
For example, throughout the course of the novel he has seen her as a victim of sexual brutality,
but has ignored her role as a spiritual figure.
Fur Queen appears and parodies whiteness in her torch-singing act. She not only parodies
whiteness—her performance presses him to become more flexible in his own identity categories.
She feminizes him, referring to him as "Alice" and "honeypot," forcing him out of his rigid
gender identity (233). By directing him away from his rigid beliefs and self-image, she thus
guides him away from his judgmental position with respect to Gabriel. In sum, Jeremiah has to
become less white (rigidly binary) and more Cree in order to truly see her, and this is facilitated
by his exhaustion. Furthermore, seeing her further loosens the rigid ("right" and "true")
categories upon which he has structured his relations to others.
While the Fur Queen originates in the North, she is not restricted to geographical
boundaries. In the final scene, Gabriel's death in a Winnipeg hospital, the Fur Queen presides
over his death and displaces the white dominance of this location. If whiteness begins in the
novel as a "monolithic rumble," it ends as slapstick. In the final scene, the white characters
representing white institutions are comic and virtually powerless:
The smoke detector shrieked. Then an alarm down the hall started ringing. And
another and another. Until the entire institution reverberated. Fire trucks pulled up, then
ambulances.
"Open zat door!" What now, raved Jeremiah, the army? He poked his nose out.
And came face to face with a towering blonde nurse.
Jeremiah's sweating face reappeared in the crack. The fire chief begged him. "Sir,
unless the smoke detector inside that room is stopped, the whole hospital has to be
evacuated."
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[...]
Jeremiah yanked the door, reached under the fire chiefs armpit, shoved the
midget priest away, pulled Mariesis inside, and slammed the door a third time. (304-5)
The ethos of the Fur Queen dominates the scene. As the medicine woman begins a traditional
ceremony "[ajbout to throw the rosary in the trash can, she hung it, instead, on a Ken doll
sporting a cowboy hat and white tasselled skirt" (303). Whiteness is not done away with but
becomes incorporated in play that both disrupts its power yet maintains real significance to the
characters.51 By shutting out the priest, nurse, and fire chief, Jeremiah does not create a "pure"
Native space, so much as shut out the dominant institutional logics that have no flexibility for his
and Gabriel's identities. No longer unstoppable forces, whites and whiteness can be shut out, and
Jeremiah's ability to protect his brother returns.
As a result of their experience in the residential school, both the trauma of abuse and their
pursuit of white forms of cultural production, the brothers follow two parallel (although
sometimes opposing) paths in relation to whiteness. Their different attitudes toward whiteness
push them further apart. It is only by recognizing their shared trauma (across their differences)
that the brothers can be brought back together and that a strong, healing and protective
relationship can again develop. Highway suggests that victimhood as a fixed state—unable to
change forces of domination and isolated from other victims of such domination—is not an
Ken traditionally represents the normative, especially with respect to whiteness and
heterosexuality. Yet in this scene, he becomes a figure representing Gabriel's homosexuality and
presiding at a Cree ceremony. His normativity is not, therefore, removed—it is part of the joke,
part of the meaning of the whole. However, it is not something to be taken seriously or emulated.
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accurate portrayal of First Nations experience. This leads to a questioning of the belief in
Canadian identity as victimhood, which is reliant on a fixed idea of the "Indian-as-victim."
The reunification of the brothers is brought about by the blurring of fixed categories:
geography and race. Highway both highlights these categories and blurs them in order to
demonstrate the ways in which they overdetermine identity and how the ideology that produces
this overdetermination must be reconfigured. That is, it is not simply a belief that is
demonstrated to be false—for example, that victimhood is raced or that race is not significant.
Rather, it is the logic of such statements, based in the kind of rigidity Highway attributes to
whiteness—whether with respect to religion or art—that needs to be revised. In the rigid
equation of geography with racial identity, it seems as if the brothers' traumatic relocations will
irreparably tie them to loss—the loss of a "pure" identity. However, in the novel, that which
seemed so separate is not. The initial separation of the brothers (an outcome of the trauma) is
healed through a recognition of the not-so-separate. This does not mean there are no differences,
nor does it erase history or power disparities. Instead, it suggests play with the fixity of
categories. In other words, it is not hybidity per se that is healing; the brothers become hybrid
quite early in the novel. Rather, what is healing is the play and flexibility found in Cree
spirituality, which changes their relationship to whiteness' s supposed certainty. At the beginning
of the story, the parents are helpless to protect the brothers from the caribou herd (a force they
didn't see coming); at the end Jeremiah is able to protect Gabriel, not from death, but from a
rumbling force of Christianity. In a tragic-comic ending, all this rumbling is reduced to a
ridiculous-looking cleric and some unenforced rules. This suggests that understanding whiteness
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as an unlocated, unlocatable force makes one helpless, while identifying how it is expressed
through individuals gives one agency.
Rejecting binaries and fixity (two aspects of Atwood's syllogism), in favor of healing and
protection, Highway locates whiteness as a cluster that perhaps can be de-clustered. In addition,
as Cherniavsky calls for, Highway distinguishes between white identity and whiteness. In the
novel, whiteness is a cluster of belief systems, forms of cultural production, majority identity,
and domination. Institutions often represent these, and individuals often express and embody
these. Not all individuals, however, express whiteness equally. For example, two of Gabriel's
lovers, Gregory Newman and Robin Beatty, are not parodies of whiteness as are many of the
other whites depicted. This does not mean that they are allowed to exist "everywhere." Their
white privilege is visible and apparent, and more importantly, their blindnesses are also visible.
Gregory is unable to understand the nature of Gabriel and Jeremiah's relationship. He callously
presses Gabriel to choose between them (210) and when Gabriel performs with Jeremiah, he can
only think of Gabriel's infidelity (266-67). Robin, on the other hand, understands Gabriel's plea
"Don't ... please don't... tell Jeremiah" about his AIDS diagnosis (285). Robin is present at
Gabriel's death (303); however his role is limited, overshadowed by the roles played by the Fur
Queen and Jeremiah. Robin's peripheral-ness in this scene illustrates that he is not everywhere.
While he represents an important part of Gabriel's life (his sexuality), he cannot intervene in the
Gabriel-Jeremiah relationship, nor in the spiritual elements of the scene. In the novel, the place
of the originary trauma is not the same as the other locations of whiteness and the violence of
whiteness. The abuse occurs at the southern, but isolated, residential school. However, other
instances of racialized violence occur in the brothers' Northern home as well as in southern,
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urban, and contemporary settings. In this way, Highway prevents white Canadian readers from
distancing themselves from the effects of whiteness simply by distancing themselves from the
residential schools.
In both The Lesser Blessed and Kiss ofthe Fur Queen, racial violence enacted by the
Canadian nation-state leaves indigenous victims in an untenable traumatized state. Both novels
depict the ongoing effects of this state but also the fact that the need for healing pushes
characters out of a fixed state of victimhood. This healing does not absolve the state or racist
actors of their culpability and responsibility, and importantly this healing involves developing a
political, critical consciousness and coalition with others who have been victimized. While The
Lesser Blessed represents white people and economic structural inequality, Van Camp does not
conceptualize whiteness structurally. Kiss ofthe Fur Queen explicitly examines the identity of
the perpetrators of racial violence, not simply in terms of the state or individual actors, but also
in that "universal" thing called whiteness, which moved European colonizers and continues to
move white Canadians. He suggests that healing can only come about from incorporating Cree
spirituality as a challenge to the rigid epistemology of whiteness. This heals Jeremiah, the
character who has most internalized this epistemology, and allows him to protect his brother
from further racial violence. To me, this indicates that it is whiteness that needs to become more
hybrid not in the appropriative manner that emerges simply from encounter, but rather in a way
that acknowledges the profound need to disrupt the damaging logic that supports domination.
As this chapter has demonstrated, Canadian whiteness shares much with whiteness in the
US, in particular in its use of victimhood to lend it renewed authority. But while, the American
uses of victimhood are a new development, Canadians have "always" understood themselves as
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victims. Moreover, rather than locating a subset of white people (poor whites) who are "like"
Black people (as we saw in some readings of Bastard Out ofCarolina), the Canadian conception
of victimhood locates dominance outside of the nation-state altogether, freeing Canadian whites
of guilt over their implication in structures of dominance. In other words, it represents another
maneuver to disown privilege and ignore inequality. According to such a logic, legitimate claims
of disempowerment become a means to appropriate racial claims of injustice so that Canadians
are like people of color and Canadians identify with people of color. As such, they are innocent
of racism and white innocence is restored.
It is important to note at that First Nations people function as the exception in Canadian
race relations. That is, while white Canadians identify and appropriate their claims to injury, they
do not necessary do so with other racialized minority groups. Moreover, this identification with
First Nations people is largely symbolic, carrying much less weight in the economic and political
realm. While there is more support for First Nations' claims in Canada than in the US, there is
also a stronger backlash against them. In particular, the Canadian mainstream is resentful of
Native claims and benefits that they receive through the federal government (Penikett, Francis).
Both the support and resentment are likely due to the greater visibility of indigenous issues and
political actors in Canada.
In the next chapter, I move away from how the victimhood of "foundational" racial
identities shapes whiteness and toward an examination of racialized immigration and its relation
to whiteness, victimhood and national identity.
Chapter 3
Immigrant Desire: Contesting Canadian Safety
in Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here
But this cowardice, this necessity ofjustifying a totallyfalse
identity and ofjustifying what must be called a genocidal history,
has placed everyone now living into the hands ofthe most ignorant
andpowerful people the world has ever seen. And how did they get
that way? By deciding that they were white; by optingfor safety
instead oflife.—James Baldwin
Perhaps "race " isn 't something that locks us into separate groups.
Perhaps it is a state thatfloats back andforth between us, equally
solid and unreal, as ifour body and soul were kept apart and, like
a kind ofSiamese twins, joined only by the thin cord ofdesire.—
Toi Derricotte
Canada is frequently imagined as a haven (for British Loyalists, runaway slaves, draft
dodgers, and refugees, to name a few). Such an image presents a Canada that is by definition
"safe"—or at least safer than the places that drive people there.1 Thus, safety and the nation
This notion is reinforced by American depictions of Canada as a mythical haven. This is
especially true in the genres of slave and neo-slave narratives. In "Written in the Scars: History,
Genre, and Materiality in Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here," Pamela McCallum and
Christian Olbey write:
[In "? Was Born': Slave Narratives and Their Status as Autobiography," James] Olney
notes that the depiction of flight from the slave South to the free North is a stock
convention of the antebellum slave narrative. [...] However, Olney' s explication of the
convention of flight can be made more specific once we recall that after the American
passing of the fugitive slave bill into law (1851), the slave narrator's depiction is not just
of some general, abstract notion of flight but of flight to a specific and concrete
geographical and national space—Canada, as Ishmael Reed so perceptively realizes. Of
the thirty most widely read slave narratives, observes historian Robin Winks, Canada is
mentioned in all but four (241). For these past writers constructions of Canada are always
already utopie ones, standing as ideal antitheses to the material reality of the slave states
of the U.S. (167-168)
Furthermore, as Katherine McKittrick notes in Demonic Grounds: "Canada is often solely
positioned as a safe haven (to US fugitive slaves) and a land of opportunity (for black migrant
workers, the Caribbean community, and migrants from the continent of Africa" (97-98) and this
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become synonymous in Canada. However, despite its diverse population and institutional
commitment to multiculturalism as policy, Canada remains a nation built on white identity.
Whites are considered the mainstream which "tolerates" other populations. As a haven, then,
Canada functions as a "white nation" that embraces "others." What becomes clear in analysis is
that the safety promised by the Canadian nation is contingent upon the embrace of whiteness. By
showing immigrant subjectivities that do not embrace whiteness in her novel, In Another Place,
Not Here, Dionne Brand exposes the coercive violence (both physical and psychological) at the
heart ofthe notion of Canadian safety.2 Moreover, while she demonstrates how Canada fails to
function as a haven, she interrogates the fundamental desirability of the kind of safety that this
safe-haven myth is "one of the key ways in which the nation secures both its disconnection from
blackness and its seeming exoneration from difficult histories" (119)
Published in 1 996, In Another Place, Not Here participates in a conversation about race in
Canada that is happening contemporaneously among Canadian critical race theorists. In
Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought, Enakshi Dua and Angela
Robertson argue that the Third Wave of Canadian anti-racist feminist thought began around
1990. They argue that this wave goes beyond making Canadian racism visible and critiques the
epistemologies that underlie it. They place Brand in a grouping that emphasizes standpoint
theory (i.e. that identity has epistemological consequences), along with Himani Bannerji. In
particular, Himani Bannerji's Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and AntiRacism (1995) and The Dark Side ofthe Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and
Gender (2000), and Sherene Razack's Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair,
Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism (2004) and Looking White People in the Eye: Gender,
Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms fl998) are illuminating for Brand's critique of
racism within Canada, as is Brand's own critical work. Razack writes that the Canadian national
narrative presents Canada as the "good white" nation, as a middle power that is engaged in
peacekeeping around the world. Her emphasis is on Canadian foreign policy, imaginings ofthat
policy, and how they are premised on white supremacist notions of the "white man's burden."
Bannerji focuses more on domestic policy in Canada, examining how Canadian policies of
multiculturalism function as ways to "manage" diverse populations rather than to promote the
wellbeing of people within those groups. Brand's critical writing discusses the over-emphasis
that Canadians put on their being "better" than Americans with respect to racism. She criticizes
"the not-as-bad racism" (Bread out ofStone, 10) and "veiled racism" {Rivers Have Sources, 4)
that characterize the Canadian cultural landscape.
haven is supposed to provide in the first place. This troubles the conflation of whiteness and
safety—as being desirable states, achieved within desirable nation-states.
Brand questions the desirability of this kind of safety and shows how such a desire
obscures oppression, violence and trauma. She suggests that coming to terms with trauma and
loss may be at odds with the "desirable safety" promoted by the idea of a haven. The
implications go beyond critique of the Canadian national imaginary. The questions of the
relationship between safety and whiteness and what constitutes safety shed light on what is
needed for healing on national, cultural, and individual levels. Brand suggests that healing,
coalition, and conversation may be enabled through desires that are not reliant on a supposed
safety.
Brand's novel opens in Grenada with the beginning of a lesbian relationship between
Elizete and Verlia, both of whom are originally from the Caribbean (Elizete has lived there all
her life, while Verlia immigrated to Canada at the age of 17). Verlia joins the Black Power
Movement in Canada, but comes to Grenada at age 30 to help with socialist organizing, and it is
then that she becomes involved with Elizete. After Verlia dies in the US invasion, Elizete
immigrates to Canada (illegally) to make sense of Verlia and her death. Her arrival in Canada
results in her homelessness, exploitation, and rape. She continues to search for Verlia through
her own haze of depression and exhaustion. It is at a shelter that she finds Abena, Verlia' s former
lover, who is also from the Caribbean, and through conversation, Elizete and Abena come to a
combined understanding of Verlia.
To make sense of their choices, this chapter focuses on Verlia and Elizete' s desires as
windows into their subjectivities. I base this analysis on Brand's description of desire in her
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memoir, A Map to the Door ofNo Return: Notes to Belonging. According to Brand, for people of
the Black Diaspora, desire is complicated and contradictory. It combines desire for revolution
with faith and love. Desire for revolution and the love that accompanies it diverge from the idea
of safety defined by the Canadian nation. This alternative description of desire allows us to
understand the actions of characters who do not desire the safety that is supposedly offered by
immigration to Canada.4 For two main characters in the novel, pursuing their desires goes against
their immediate safety. Desire, for something other than a normative lifestyle and the safety it
bestows, allows the two main characters to grow and heal, rather than just survive. I examine
desire in terms of the central lesbian relationship and in terms of immigration (i.e. the desire to
leave, the desire to arrive). These desires demonstrate the interconnections between the personal
and the political within each character's subjectivity, and how those subjectivities are at odds
with dominant, white epistemology. In addition, I examine the characters' relationships and
encounters with whites, white epistemology, and safety.
The novel is structured by a central rupture, in which Verlia jumps offa cliff during the
US invasion of Grenada, a choice that is not so much a suicidal response to depression, as it is an
effort to escape overwhelming oppression. Elizete likens her loss of Verlia to the experience of a
Her concept of desire emerges out of the Haitian Revolution, and combines desire for
revolution and overthrow of white supremacy with a faith in and love of one's people.
Canada purports to offer material safety from violence and poverty; however, this normative
safety is invisibly predicated on white privilege. Not only is material safety not universally
available within Canadian borders, physical safety and material acquisition are equated with
achieving normalcy (racial, religious, economic, heterosexual, patriarchal).
158
slave's trauma of arrival in the New World.5 This moment, then, is imbued with the historical
legacy of slavery and colonialism. The jump both echoes the Ibo Landing myth while gesturing
to the flawed epistemology of whiteness.6 As myth, the Ibo Landing story proposes a collective
alternative to the dominant white imaginings of slavery. White slave traders could not
comprehend why African slaves would turn back to the sea upon arrival in the New World,
rejecting the apparent safety of "civilization." Likewise, modern day white epistemologies are
blind to alternative subjectivities and desires, which are premised on a different idea of safety.
Normative safety disregards the trans-generational effects oftraumatic memory and the ongoing
effects of oppression. Verlia's jump crystallizes the intersection of desire, safety, trauma and
race, and suggests that there is a logic which cannot be understood from a normative perspective.
Later, when Elizete immigrates to Canada, she conceives of her migration as a jump, like
Verlia's, rather than a move to somewhere safer. Multiple jumps link the two lovers, as both
jump at different points, and for each, the jump represents a kind ofjoining with the other.7 At
the heart of the rupture is the question "why jump?" The combination of their desires with their
She compares herself to Adela, a slave and possible ancestor: "[Adela] could not hold on to the
turquoise sea what bring her here [. . .] she didn't catch sheself until it was she true name slipping
away [...] Her heart just shut [...] Here. Much later I myself get to understand when I look and
see with my own eyes Verba in flight, feel red explosion in my heart draining me of tenderness. I
know it don't have no word for what happen just then as it don't have none now. I know Adela
set her mind to stopping her breath after that" (22-23).
Particularities of the myth vary, but essentially the newly-arrived slaves turned around and
walked across the water back to Africa. This connection has been discussed in Brand (see
McCallum and Olbey and Smyth)
7 On the airplane to Canada, Elizete hopes to die and "slipped into Verlia's skin until she could
not tell who had died" (105-106). As I will discuss later in this paper, when Verlia jumps off the
cliff, she too sees it as an opportunity to join with Elizete.
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relationship to whiteness will make legible the characters' various literal and figurative jumps.
From a normative perspective, jumping makes no sense. But once their desires for revolution and
healing are taken into account, jumping becomes a logical and empowering solution. Initially
illegible desires are revealed to be strategies for survival and growth for Black women for whom
the world (both the Caribbean and Canada) is a profoundly unsafe place. These desires challenge
the relationship between nation and safety, and also suggest that safety (as it is conceived on in
terms ofhaven) is at odds with healing from trauma.
Their desires, degrees of safety, and relationship to whiteness are quite different. For
Elizete, whiteness is a worldwide system that intersects with patriarchy and capitalism. As such,
it is fixed, and she is utterly marginalized. Elizete' s desire does not map onto normative safety;
she does not attempt to move up in status or gain appreciable physical safety. Instead she desires
Verlia, with whom she is not safe, and then decides to move to Canada, where she remains
unsafe. This is to say, her actions seem counter-intuitive until we can understand that her need
for healing motivates her jumps. Her desire does not allow her to escape oppression in any
physical way, but rather to be able to envision something different—a life with Verlia and
revolution. Canada is thus bound up in her desire, but not because it is safe. The healing that
Elizete begins with Verlia in Grenada (and continues with Abena in Canada) is suggestive of
how to recover from trauma and survive oppression. Dealing with trauma and continued
inequality is a struggle, not a relief Such a conception of recovery ultimately has implications
for national or inter-group healing. First, it suggests that recovery and reconciliation (as opposed
to simply attaining a superficial safety) entails pain, and is an ongoing effort rather than an
ultimate solution. Second, it suggests that sameness is not necessary for participation in this
process. Elizete's desire, however, does not suggest a role for white people in recovery and
reconciliation. As part of a fixed system and invested in the ideology ofnormative safety, whites
cannot change nor participate. Elizete's healing, although collaborative, is limited because white
people cannot participate and therefore cannot be allies in systemic change.
Verlia's relationship to whiteness and her desires add to and complicate the ideas of
safety suggested by Elizete's story. Verlia's world is also unsafe, but her lack of safety is
represented as more psychological; she lives in a state of fear. Her solution to this is to be in a
constant state of motion. The influence of whiteness, however, is something she cannot escape.
What is most significant for Verlia's desire is the extent to which she has internalized white
epistemologies and white desires. Even after she rejects white supremacy, she still views the
world in a hierarchical, binary way that is structured by dominant, white thought. However, her
desires change as her relationship to whiteness changes. She goes from desiring to assimilate, to
rejecting whiteness, to desiring revolution and Elizete. Verlia's changing relationship to
whiteness suggests the possibility that whites too can participate in healing processes.
Disentanglement from whiteness, for both whites and nonwhites, is a complex struggle only
made possible through desire. In other words, it is not enough to reject or distance oneself from
whiteness; one must change the very way that whiteness constitutes one's self. One must
unlearn, rather than simply reject, the epistemologies that guarantee white racial privilege and
replace them with something else, a different desire.
The two characters demonstrate different things about the relationship of whiteness,
safety and nation. Elizete's healing is more complete than Verlia's, and it is enabled by fully
enacting the complexities of desire as Brand describes them. While Verlia is ultimately unable to
161
reconcile these different elements of desire, her story is illuminating because of the way that she
is able to move with respect to whiteness, suggesting that there may be a way to unravel our
multilayered imbrication with whiteness, and therefore a way for white people to enter into the
healing and recovery process.
Desire According to Brand:
Desire is profoundly tied to identity, our motivations, and the stories we tell about our
o
motivations . Desires can be individual or they can be communal; they can be oppositional or
they can be normative. National narratives express homogenized desires that are attributed to
every citizen, although the assumed citizen is white, male, and heterosexual. These homogenized
desires in turn are linked back to national narratives, which justify national policies (why we go
to war, our tax structure). Moreover, these desires often conflate national identity with our
economic and consumer identity.
In national imaginarles, the immigrant is assumed to have these same desires, perhaps
even more strongly. Such imaginarles are intensely assimilationist. Like the US national
narrative, the Canadian national narrative relies on a conception that immigrants come "here" for
a better life. "Better" is often conceived of in economic terms, but it also has a relationship to
whiteness, safety and trauma. Trauma is associated with nations of origin (immigrants may have
escaped as refugees or asylum seekers). Thus the immigration narrative conceives of trauma in
one-way direction; immigrants supposedly come to a safe country like Canada or the US to
o
Desire is what we lack (a mirror image of who we are). Also, desire is our aspirations, what we
want to have, achieve, and be. In this sense, they are future prospects of who we are. Finally,
desire is tied to our social location - our ability to attain our desires and what desires we have are
bound up in our social positions.
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escape violence and leave trauma in the past. Such a logic conflates homogenized desires (for
economic gain and normative lifestyles) with safety. Safety is, therefore, conceived of as a
convergence of geographical and cultural placement within a "safe" nation. The safety and
implicit "betterness" ofthe Northern nation is racialized.9 Moreover, immigrant desire is
constructed as entirely legible in terms of desire for what "we" have and are.
In her memoir, A Map to the Door ofNo Return: Notes to Belonging, Brand lays out an
alternative vision of desire, one that applies to the Black Diaspora, rather than a specific national
identity. In particular, in the section "Arriving at Desire," Brand explains how desire is not
In my reading oíIn Another Place, Not Here, Brand critiques two myths that sustain the haven
notion of the Canadian imaginary and obscure the racism that supports that imaginary.
Moreover, I suggest that these myths represent a specifically Canadian white epistemology, but
that they are also demonstrative of epistemologies and values more widely attributable to
whiteness in general (especially North American whiteness).
The first myth is that of North-South binaries. The Canadian national narrative relies on
two such binaries. The first binary is between North America as a "civilized" and white region,
and the global as "uncivilized" and non-white (Razack). The second binary is one between
Canada (as Northern and tolerant) and the US (as Southern and intolerant) (Razack, Brand,
Breadfrom Stone). In the second binary, Canada avoids implication in the history and
continuation of racism in the US.
The second myth is the Mosaic Model of Multiculturalism. This myth posits a "mosaic"
of separate ethnic groups, which are separate enough to maintain their distinctive "colour" but
together contribute to a beautiful whole (Day). Such model suggests that ethnic groups are
homogeneous and more importantly, it obscures unequal power relations both between groups
and within groups (Bannerji Dark Side). The Mosaic Model relies on the North-South binary myth. In other words, the Canadian national narrative retains a fixed notion of the assimilationist
American melting-pot as a contrast to its more progressive mosaic. Brand's novel demonstrates
the failures of each of the above two myths but it also reveals a third assimilationist myth. The
mosaic model suggests that Canada does not require assimilation from its non-white residents
and citizens (unlike the US). Brand shows that, in fact, assimilation is expected. She
demonstrates this through the role of desire and its relationship to trauma.
On the one hand, the myths of thé Canadian national narrative represent a kind of
Canadian exceptionalism. On the other hand, they are also demonstrative of a broader white
epistemology. These myths reveal white supremacist assumptions about immigration, trauma and
desire.
simple, as it is often imagined, but is rather a combination of courage, resistance, embodiment,
complication and sense-making (182-195). She conceptualizes desire in terms of two books that
shaped who she is: The Black Napoleon (about the Haitian Revolution) and Lady Chatterley's
Lover. The Black Napoleon is the first book she remembers reading, a forbidden book, hidden in
the back of her grandmother's closet with sugary treats. Reading it Brand experiences a loss of
innocence, in which desire becomes more complicated (going from sugar to words, concrete to
abstract); however, sweets and revolutionary history remain "entwined and indistinguishable in
[her] sensual knowledge" (1 88). It is in this moment that she learns a history she'd never been
taught. She describes how two figures, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines,
embodied two aspects of desire for her, faith and ferocity, respectively. Reading Lady
Chatterley 's Lover had less to do with the content of the book (which she barely remembers)
than with the context and experience of reading it. She describes a fluid sense of desire in which
she identified with both male and female characters, additionally complicated by a Third World
double consciousness. She then goes on to describe the recognition of beauty that comes from
ruins, the result of violence and oppression. She adds that desire is envy, to want to become. But
she explains that desire is also to complicate.
Essentially, in this conception, desire is contradictory and complicated. It involves both
faith and ferocity, which I take to mean love and empowerment/vision, respectively. That the
desire of oppressed people is of "finding beauty in ruins" makes desire necessarily resistant and
oppositional. Moreover, it makes desire a response to loss and trauma. This is further supported
by Brand's conclusion that "Making sense may be what desire is. Or, putting the senses back
together" (195). Desire is making sense of a world that does not make sense as it is, for example
the need to make sense of experiences for which white epistemologies lack sufficient
explanatory power. In addition, the idea of "putting the senses back together" is an explicit
reference to responding to trauma. If trauma is world-destroying (think, Elaine Scarry), putting
the senses back together recreates the self and the world after traumatic experiences. As a result,
desire is tied to a history of oppression, but most importantly it is embodied, complicated
resistance to that oppression.
Brand's conception of desire is in opposition to desires based in domination. She
proposes desires that are not based on consumer desires (i.e. capitalism), desire to be recognized
by the Other (i.e. racism, master-slave), or sexual mastery/conquest (i.e. patriarchy).10 Brand
writes about commodified desires, as the antithesis of the kind of complicated, oppositional
desire that she is advocating:
We become the repetition despite our best efforts. We become numb. And though
against the impressive strength of this I can't hope to say all that desire might be,
I wanted to talk about it not as it is sold to us but as one collects it, piece by piece,
proceeding through a life. I wanted to say that life, if we are lucky, is a collection
of aesthetic experiences as it is a collection of practical experiences, which may
be one and the same sometimes, and which if we are lucky we make a sense of.
Making sense may be what desire is. Or, putting the senses back together. (1 95)
McKittrick observes this same phenomenon in terms of Brand's representation of black
geographies. She writes "What is striking here, and very useful in terms of black women's
geographies, is that the poetics of landscape are not derived from the desire for socioeconomic
possession" (xxiii). Later she notes "the diaspora subject exists, in place, without destination and,
Brand argues, destination desire" (104). While McKittrick shows what these subjects do not
desire, I examine what they do desire, and how these desires motivate Brand's characters in
potentially healing ways.
165
For Brand, desire is experiential ("a collection of practical experiences") rather than the
abstraction of unattainableness.n
In In Another Place, Not Here Brand demonstrates the inaccuracy of the Canadian
national narrative's simplistic assessment of immigrant motivations, and represents immigrant
desires that are not accounted for by the myth. In this way she shows the dangers of normative
desires and suggests alternative desires that separate the naturalized conflation of nation,
whiteness and safety.
Elizete and Whiteness
In the novel, Elizete and Verlia have quite different experiences regarding nation,
whiteness and safety. These differences help explain the role that desire plays for each of them.
For Elizete, whiteness is directly connected to the history of slavery and colonialism. Her
experience of whiteness makes a clear link between the history of slavery and immigration
policies as a kind of modern-day slavery (McCallum and Olbey). Whiteness is explicitly linked
to nation, as well as North America. It is also explicitly connected to patriarchy and sexual
Desire, then, is does not follow the model of Lacanian unattainability (see Seshadri-Crooks'
Desiring Whiteness for example of this model with regard to race). Rather, desire is potentially
liberatory, in the vein of Gilles Deleuze. In Claire Colebook's description, for Deleuze, "Desire
does not begin from a lack—desiring what we do not have. Desire begins from connection; life
strives to preserve and enhance itself and does so by connecting with other desires. These
connections and productions eventually form social wholes; when bodies connect with other
bodies to enhance their power they eventually form communities or societies. Power is,
therefore, not the repression of desire but the expansion of desire. Against the notion that social
wholes are formed through ideology—some repressive idea to which we submit—Deleuze
argues for social wholes as positive and productive. Social wholes take desires—or those
connections which enhance life—in order to produce interests—'coded,' regular, collective and
organized forms of desire" (91). Thus, desire can be empowering and liberating (rather than
indicative of failure, lack, and incommensurability).
violence. Her experiences map onto a clear schematic of domination. Assimilation is not an
option for her. In fact, the intersection of capitalism, patriarchy and racism constitutes a
worldwide system, which is premised on her unassimilability.
The history of slavery is still very much present in Elizete's consciousness, through the
figure of Adela. And Adela's understanding of whiteness shapes Elizete's:
They say she kill the man that buy she and keep she in that place, for she look him
full in his face until he dead. [...] They say she could work good obeah but she say
is not obeah what kill him, is his own wicked mind what make him die in his
wicked name. She had spit all his evil into that circle and he could not resist
himself. They say she curse him and all his generations into perpetuity. [...] Even
now, long since she gone, all how they prosper, they soul damn to hell and none
of them is ever happy with life. (18-19)
For Elizete, whiteness is synonymous with evil. In the above formulation, whiteness is also a
kind of curse—unhappiness as the result of committing and benefiting from exploitation and
atrocities. In Elizete's understanding, white people are irredeemable.
Elizete understands the ultimate evil of whiteness (chattel slavery) in terms of its
intersection with patriarchy and capitalism: "They [Afro-Caribbean people] had surpassed the
pettiness of their oppressors who measured origins speaking of a great patriarch and property
marked out by violence, a rope, some iron; who measured time in the future only and who
discarded memory like useless news" (42-43). Elizete is constantly aware of oppression on all
three fronts. She clearly connects contemporary systems to historical slavery. In describing the
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lives of illegal immigrants in Canada, she notes: "The immigration consultants were another
story again. Money. And the immigration officers, well they dealt in flesh strictly" (59).
To survive in a world dominated by white people, Elizete becomes an observer of
whiteness:
Watched everything, melted into the television until they could step out on the
street confidently, smiling, secretly, saying to the people they passed, I know you
people good now, I can read you Bible, verse and chapter. The TV open up all
your business. All how you eat and drink and sleep, all how you treat your family,
everything you say, everything you do, all how you born and all how you dead, all
how you evil. (57)
The dominance of whites in the media expressing the "universality" of white values and culture,
render white people transparent to Elizete. She sees these representations as revealing evil, even
as they try to conceal it. Moreover, she observes white people to be as unhappy as Adela did.
The first white people she encounters are drunk (46), and she notes that in Canada, no one looks
at her or looks anyone in the face (48).
While in Canada she is far removed from slavery (both temporally, and from her job as a
cane worker), yet there is a persistence of economic exploitation and itintersects with racism and
sexual violence. Brand represents this through a trajectory of scenes involving white men,
economic exploitation and rape. Although Elizete resists, her resistance becomes increasingly
futile in the face of overwhelming oppression.
T.V. supposedly idealizes what it represents. For example a "T.V. family" is both idealized
and normative. While T.V. is supposedly idealizing, to Elizete it still reveals the evil of
whiteness.
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In the first scene, Elizete is working in a shoe factory. She resists the power structure, in
the form of her white supervisor, by pretending to (and then actually) losing her hearing:
This white man in front of me don't know anything about me. What he think
already of a Black woman gluing the soles of shoes in his factory. [...] "What the
hell you want from me? It's not my goddamned name. You blasted people always
want something. I look like any Gloria to you? You ever know any damn Gloria
to look like me? You come out of your mother's arsehole or what? Which Gloria
you know look like me? Is not my so- and-so name, what the hell you want now?
Is not my name. You see any Gloria here? Is not my fucking name, you hear me."
(85)
Elizete' s resistance takes on a few forms here. First clearly is anger. Second is her unreadability.
The white man cannot read or understand her, and this is somewhat her doing (after all, she tells
him that her name is Gloria). However, his inability to see her is also linked to economic
production—she is producing shoes and the only reason he is talking to her is because he
"want[s] something." Elizete' s resistance may protect her psychologically at least somewhat, but
it does not change the overall situation. Her final act of resistance in this scene is to lose her
hearing. Doing so means that she can no longer hear the demands of her supervisor, but she also
loses part of herself in the process. And she ultimately loses this job, leading to further
exploitation. Although, not a rape scene itself, this scene is connected to an earlier rape, through
the image of shoes: "she'd ended up in a room with a man. He lay on a bed with blood on his
hands. He was asleep. [...] He rolled to one side and made a sound; she grabbed his shoe ready to
hit him but he was quiet again" (56). This connection ties the scene in the factory more closely
with the scenes of rape and exploitation that follow.
Elizete' s experience as an illegal immigrant in Canada is described as a both a literal and
figurative rape:
She wants to tear them with her teeth, hate is an extra head, another heart. God,
she knows is deaf, male and graceless. A man you don't know bends you against
a wall, a wall in a room, your room. He says this is the procedure, he says you
have no rights here, he says I can make it easier for you if I want, you could get
sent back. [...] Elizete, flat against the immense white wall, the continent. (89)
If in the previous scene, racism and economic exploitation were at the forefront, in this scene
racism and sexual violence are central. The continent is white and male; God is white (implicitly)
and male, suggesting a complete world order that is against her (or set on exploiting and
violating her). In this scene, it is unclear whether this is an event that happens once or multiple
times, whether the rapist is a single individual or a larger power structure. This puts emphasis on
the structural causes rather than on a single experience.13 Elizete still resists through anger, but
her anger is silent and invisible.
In the final scene of this trajectory, economic exploitation and sexual violence are most
clearly linked, thereby solidifying the intersection of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. After
losing her job at the shoe factory, Elizete takes a job as a cleaning woman: "The man had said to
her, 'Don't worry dear. Just someone to clean the house. I spend so much time at the job I don't
Indeed as Melanie Bush notes, one way that white privilege works is to deny systemic
injustice, attributing discrimination or racial violence to a few "bad apples" (63).
have time to do it myself. I'm hardly even there'" (90). He then rapes her. As an undocumented
worker, and his employee, Elizete is especially vulnerable. His lie ("just someone to clean the
house") and his entitlement (to her work and her body) are linked to his wealth. During the rape,
Elizete notices "the couch, the velveteen fabric hanging towards the floor, a raised pattern gold
and beige" (92). His wealth, his implicit whiteness, and maleness insulate him from the violence
he enacts:
She knows that in the house she's just left the man has not moved. He is sitting on
the velveteen sofa or perhaps looking at sand out his window. He does not fear
her, he knows that she will not tell anyone. He knows that the fingers ofher left
hand will be numb for some time to come. [...] He knows she will not go to a
hospital. He knows that she will not go to a police station. She knows that she
cannot go back to the sewing factory. She won't tell anyone. Not even Jocelyn
[her roommate]. Perhaps she'll move. (92-93)
In this scene, the rapist is unaffected by the rape. He has no fear; he has security (financial, as
well as security from retribution from her). She has no institutional protection, emphasized by
the fact that she will go to neither hospital nor police station. In this scene, her attempts at
resistance fail her. During the rape, she imagines a catalogue of women who violently retaliate
against the men who harm them, for example, Eva, who "cut a man from his groin to his throat"
(91). This catalogue may help her psychologically survive the rape, but it also highlights the
contrast between their violent resistance and empowerment, and her complete lack of it: "Eva,
now that was a woman" (91). Elizete's only route to survival is to disappear. In doing so, she can
get as far away from him as possible, but it also has the affect of insulating him further from the
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results of his violence. The larger conclusion is that there are no (apparent) consequences for the
perpetrators of violence (whether economic, racial, or sexual) and the victims become even more
invisible. In this case, already invisible as an undocumented worker, Elizete moves, not to a safer
place, just out of sight.
These scenes—of the shoe factory, the immigration rape scene, and the employer rape
scene—are consecutive and occur within ten pages. There is a clear trajectory: it begins with
economic exploitation and silent resistance, moves to literal and figurative rape through the
processes of immigration, and concludes in a completely literal rape (itself implicated in
economic power structures), a trajectory which exposes her complete disempowerment (her only
resistance/survival option is to disappear). While these scenes expose her complete
disempowerment, those that perpetrate and benefit from this violence remain untouched. Abena,
Verlia's former lover whom Elizete has come to Canada to find, re-iterates this when she tells
Elizete, "Go home, this is not a place for us [...]Look, this is where a white man stabs your Black
woman body eleven times and goes back to work the next morning; down east, it happened,
calmly" (109).
What Elizete knows, however, is that there is no such place as "home," at least not in the
sense of a safe place to be, if you are a poor Black woman. Elizete thinks "Go home. And really
no country will do. Not any now on the face of the earth when she though about it. Nothing
existed that she could live in. What did this woman know? She know anything about cane,
anything about Isaiah, anything about Verlia flying offa cliff?" (110). The intersecting elements
of domination affected her as much in Grenada as they do in Canada.
For Elizete, whiteness is fixed, a static part of a system of domination. She recognizes her
structural position. Elizete observes how desire for wealth and security entices other immigrants
not just to come to North America, but to buy into its values:
Here a whiff of the most aggressive perfume could not change the air around you,
could not displace that smell of travel which once came like the American dream
in suitcases from abroad and which were so seductive, so delicious, so envy
filling you wanted to reach out of your skin and say, here, I am like you, here, of
course I am not what I appear. (64)
Desire for the American Dream results in self-loathing, the desire to "reach out of your skin".
The dream itself, then, is racialized; it pits desire (envy) against visible identity. Abena furthers
this: "She simply could not fathom her mother not seeing what she saw. How she saw her
mother, in the middle of her life, all foolish and pretentious and wanting what white people had,
which was like wanting us all dead" (237). Both of these quotations suggest the conflation of
"having" with "being." Desire for the material privileges of First World wealth, result in the
desire to be white ("I am like you, here, of course I am not what I appear"). Elizete, in contrast,
knows that she is unassimilable and, moreover, does not desire assimilation (discussed below).
She does not try to "reach out of her skin." Her encounter with whites re-affirms what she
already knows, that there is no safe place for her.14
Elizete' s experiences with whiteness trouble the North-South binary myth of Canadian
national identity. For Elizete, "here" is no different than "there" (Luft, among others, makes this
observation). She is equally disempowered in either place. Both places are physically unsafe for
her, and in both places, she seems to exist only to be exploited, sexually and for her labor.
Elizete' s experience in Canada troubles the binary in another way. It turns out that Canadians
(such as Abena) need her help to heal from trauma. It is not just that nowhere is safe for Elizete.
She provides something that women in North America have not been able to provide. This
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Elizete's Desire: Beckoning
It is my contention that, for Elizete, desire is a strategy for survival and growth in a
context of overwhelming disempowerment and trauma. A reading ofhow desire functions in this
way will help in understanding the alternative notion of safety that Brand is positing. In other
words, how does non-homogenized desire can create a new kind of safety and how is this safety
different from more conventional notions of safety, on which Canadian national identity and
whiteness are reliant?
The first half of In Another Place, Not Here is called "Elizete, beckoned" and I see this
half of the novel, and Elizete's story throughout, as answering the question "why come?". The
question is double: Why come to Canada? Why enter into a lesbian relationship? The answer to
both of these questions lies in Elizete's desire for Verlia. Elizete's love for Verlia demonstrates
how the lesbian relationship functions as a way to do more than survive, but also become
empowered. Her love for Verlia fits Brand's criteria for desire (faith, ferocity, embodiment,
sense-making). The flipside of desire is not having. Elizete's loss of Verlia, then, corresponds to
the question of why she immigrates to Canada, for reasons that are illegible to the national
narrative. Elizete's desire, expressed as both love and loss, suggests a model for healing from
traumatic experience and defying the psychological effects of oppression.
Love
As mentioned before, Elizete experiences her love for Verlia in a context connected to a
history of slavery. Besides seeing herself historically and continuously connected to slavery,
suggests that the idea that North is an escape from trauma and violence of the South is false, and
that a one-way direction of immigration does not account for the complicated needs of healing
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Elizete sees Verlia's value in the context of her life of exploitation. Of all the characters, Elizete
is the most disempowered (in every context, Grenada and Canada). Before Verlia, her life is
hopeless. Being orphaned, she is adopted by a woman who refuses to love her. When this woman
dies, she is "given" to Isaiah to whom she is essentially a laborer and sexual slave. So, when
Verlia arrives, Elizete understands her to be "grace."
The book opens with Elizete' s voice: "GRACE. IS GRACE, YES. And I take it, quiet,
quiet, like thiefmg sugar" (3). Elizete' s acceptance of this grace is the first "jump" in the novel.
Elizete does not question her choice; she elaborates:
[...] no one could tell her that this wasn't grace. And no maybe it was not just the
woman with her back to her now and that frightened sound in her voice,
frightened by Elizete' s need. Maybe Verlia had simply come at the right time but
that was what grace was. Everything changing for good. It was hard to explain
this to a woman who had grown up refusing these things as Verlia had. Hard to
say, spirits exist and you can call them and they come though of course you must
be very careful who you call. Hard to say, who you don't call comes too. (74)
Grace is opposed to the "graceless," white, male God, who is the ostensible head of the systems
that oppress her. Grace is female-identified, and unlike the "deaf God, it is the result of spirits
that come when called or even unbidden. Elizete embraces this grace. As her allusion to obeah
religion suggests, it is faith; you can't question it.15 This faith exemplifies one ofthe key
15 Grace, however, is not unambiguous. Spirits are dangerous ("be very careful who you call").
This is because unlike a white, male, Christian god sitting separate and unaffected like the white
men she encounters, Grace is tied to material conditions. The spirits exist because of the past—in
obeah belief, ghosts of the dead exist in the present, making the legacy of slavery real in the
present. Elizete links grace to sugar, and thus her desire is a complicated grace. Sugar is both
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characteristics Brand ascribes to desire in the Black Diaspora. When Verlia appears, Elizete
reflects: "anywhere was better than the place before Verlia. So Verlia think their nakedness was
frightening, well she would take the fright any time over what went before" (75). Elizete jumps
fully into love with Verlia because she knows what life has to offer her and she knows "grace"
when she sees it. In the face of Verlia' s doubts and hedging, she says, "I know for me" (73). For
Elizete, her love for Verlia is a leap of faith. For Brand, the figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture
represents faith. Brand writes, "Toussaint was a diplomat. When I was twenty-five or so, I would
write in a poem, 'Toussaint, I loved you as soon as I saw you on that page.' I loved his faith,
though it betrayed him" (Door 187). In this way, faith is tied to both love and revolution.
The faith with which Elizete jumps into her relationship with Verlia is not motivated by
desire for a simple kind of safety. While she observes that grace is "everything changing for
good," this change does not mean her life is physically any safer. In fact, she faces the very real
threat of Isaiah murdering her as a result (5). Her faith in Verlia has less to do with physical
safety than to be recognized as having a place in the world, a place other than being at the bottom
of the power structure. Grace has something to do with being recognized as having worth. As a
child she felt like "something in the way but not bothersome or important, the way being
desirable, sweet and distinctly Caribbean; however it is also linked to slavery. In "Sexual
Citizenship and Caribean-Canadian Fiction: Dionne Brand's 'In Another Place, Not Here' and
Shani Mootoo's 'Cereus Blooms at Night,'" Heather Smyth writes: "A constellation images
connects the two women sensually to the place they are in and to its history of (forced) labour:
sugar, sweat, and sea; cane, water, heat, and blood. [...] In other words, in these early scenes, the
novel invokes the Caribbean landscape for at least two purposes: it uses sensual imagery that
firmly situates the women's love in Caribbean space; and it links Elizete's body to the landscape
to provide a means of fantasizing her resistance" (152-153). As McCallum and Olbey write, the
result of this emphasis on the intersection between work/oppression and love resists "the
explication of her novel at the sole level of a romantic relationship either to negate an oppressive
history or to erase the indelible inscriptions of materiality" (173).
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graceless makes what you do not seen, and maybe someone would come along and move her,
place her where they felt she ought to be" (italics mine, 53). Recognition is a central theme in the
book (and not just between lovers). Yet, love represents a particular form of recognition. It is
embodied, it allows her to be known rather than invisible, and be seen as having worth as being
particular and beautiful. As Brand writes: "Desire, too, is the discovery of beauty as miraculous.
Desire in the face of ruin. [...] On any given night, even with history against you in any
hardscrabble place, beauty walks in" (Door 193). Verba' s love as recognition allows Elizete to
love herself: "I wasn't that used-to-be woman for a good while now but I love she because Verba
love she" (83).
Moreover, Verba' s recognition connects love with Elizete' s latent desire for revolution
and self-recovery. Before they've even spoken, Elizete reflects: "I pass by her going my way and
didn't that woman skin she big teeth for me and look at me so clear as if she see my mind clear
through to Maracaibo. Her look say ? know you. I know you plan to sling off a man's neck and
go to Maracaibo'" (13); Elizete feels recognized and known for her desire to kill Isaiah and
change her life. And Elizete remembers: "Revolution, my backside. Then, she say 'Sister.' And I
could not tell if it was a breeze passing in that heat-still day or if I hear the word" (14).
Something about her attraction to Verba makes revolution seem less outlandish and more
connected to her desire to kill Isaiah. Brand writes: "Dessalines was said, on the pages of this
book to have been voracious in battle [...] Dessalines' ardour never would [betray him]. I loved
his ferocity" (Door 1 87). Elizete already has this element of desire as well, however, it is her
attraction to Verba that recognizes and nurtures her ferocity. Not only does Elizete feel
recognized, she recognizes Verlia and in so doing recovers a part of herself that she thought was
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gone. When she recognizes Verlia, what she sees is that Verlia "looked like the young in me"
(15). This self-reclamation is essential for Elizete to see real change as possible. It is significant
that this recognition occurs "the first time I [Elizete] feel like licking she neck" (15). This is to
say that there is a convergence of ferocity, embodiment, recognition and reclamation, which
allow Elizete to make her leap of faith.
I would argue that Verlia' s looking "like the young in me" allows Elizete to see a
different world than the one that she has come to expect—the one that is. Elizete had certainly
made sense of her world well before Verlia' s arrival and she is her own critical thinker, indicated
by her own attempts at escape as well as her initial rejection of Verlia' s ideas. But what Verlia
gives her is a project of sense making where the end is changing the world. In other words she
gives Elizete vision, which is what her latent sense of ferocity lacked. She reflects: "I was sure of
what anybody would be sure of. Spite, hunger, rain. But Verl is sure of what she make in her
own mind and what she make didn't always exist" (6-7). While Elizete already has critical
thought, Verlia gives her vision, the ability to envision what does not yet exist and to believe in
that vision. This vision is not simply one of a "safer," more comfortable life. Rather it is a vision
which refuses to take for granted the state of the world as it is: "Though she was not sure that she
fully got Verlia' s meaning, what was interesting about Verlia was what she suggested,
abandoning the certainty of hardship, not because life had become better but because you
recognized its compulsion, the beat beat of it which you did not control and one day you said, not
enough, not enough at all" (102). Recognizing that what the world has given her is not enough,
comes from a paradigm shift brought about by her conversations with Verlia:
She liked the evening eating them up as they sat thinking, the brooding in it; the
words' dark illumination. She liked the threat of them, the breaking apart of
everything she thought steady and even desired but which came apart as not hers
at all as soon as these words were said. She liked the always coming apart of
Verlia, the always turn of the world, the thought she had not thought [...] (102)
Rather than a more comfortable life, Verlia offers Elizete a way to see things "come apart" and
become unstable—the apparent antithesis of safety. This vision comes through "words' dark
illumination," a phrase that suggests the importance of language (communication), paradox (how
can the dark illuminate? how can breaking apart make life better?), and reversal ofracial
hierarchies. Her words provide Elizete a new way of making sense of the world. And as Brand
writes: "Making sense may be what desire is" {Door 195). And, again, this desire does not
conform to normative ideas of safety. This sense making is not separate and apart from
embodiment and sex: "I lay down on that prickly bed with Verlia after we tease it and pull apart
the rough brown flex of living, fluff it up and fill the sack with all of we self and what else we
had was to say. What we had was to say wasn't much but it was plenty" (75). In other words,
making sense (producing vision) is embodied and, like sugar, desire is tied to material conditions
and contradictions.
_
This making sense of the world is not a conclusion but a project, arrived at collectively.
This is to say, it is not that Verlia simply brings a new way of seeing to Elizete. Here I think that
it's helpful to consider what about the specifically lesbian relationship makes this possible. In
"Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," Adrienne Rich gives a way of understanding the
sense-making work of desire that Brand refers to. Rich writes: "There is nothing simple or easy
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about this idea [truth]. There is not "the truth," "a truth"—truth is not one thing, or even a
system. It is an increasing complexity" (187). Verlia brings a new complexity to Elizete's world.
Rich adds: "Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our own experience. Our
future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in
the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other" (190). Their
love then is a project of better understanding the world they're in. This is evidenced in Elizete's
desire to know Verlia, to complicate her world by understanding where she comes from and
whether they are the "same": "Tell me what colour was the ground there, where you from, tell
me what your mother' face look like [...] And your hand, did you ever want to plunge it in the
stones there [...] I want to go against the ground, grind it in my teeth, but most I want to plunge
my hands in stones" (76).
But this collective sense making is painful.16 Elizete recalls "And she make things hard,
she make me have to say everything, she make me have to tell everything. She want me to open
up my head for hell to fly out" (76). She sees this emotional pain as being integral to their sexual
intimacy: "All the soft-legged oil, all the nakedness brushing, all the sup of neck and arms and
Katherine McKittrick observes that Brand's representation of place is imbued with what Toni
Morrison has called a "site of memory." McKittrick writes: "Toni Morrison's important essay
"The Site of Memory" discusses the representation of black subjects in a world that has dehumanized and erased the possibility ofblack interior lives. Her work seeks to reconstruct
these interior lives.through the "remains" she is given [. . .] This is imaginative work that
provides a "route to the reconstruction of the world," through the exploration of "two worlds—
the actual and the possible." [. . .] But this geographic work—acknowledging the real and the
possible, mapping the deep poetics of black landscapes—is also painful work. The site of
memory is also the sight of memory—imagination requires a return to and engagement with
painful places" (33). I argue that Elizete's desire for Verlia functions in the same way; it
provides a way for her to imagine "two worlds," a process which is both healing and painful.
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breasts. All that touching. Nothing simple about it. All that opening like breaking bones" (78).
Again Rich is useful; her description of honesty in a lesbian relationship is as pain: "When
someone tells me a piece of truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order
to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, seasharp wash of relief' (193).
This pain, and the truth from which it arises, emerge from the conditions and
contradictions that are present in their work of making sense. This work comes from the
differences and distance between them. Elizete's desire for Verlia is not simply a vision of
something better and the hope to reach for it; rather, it is the contention between them that is so
productive and that defines Elizete's love for Verlia. They are separated by power disparities, the
inequality between First World and Third World. These inequalities are problems, but they are
not insurmountable. Elizete is deeply resentful of Verlia' s privilege, but it does not cause the
failure of their relationship:
I could not help but think that I was the one who would carry the sack into the sea
and out, I was the one ploughing sand, I was the one going to stay and she was
playing because she could leave this island any time. For this I had to find a
hatred of she, coarse too and sometime too much [...] But I can't say she ever ask
me for any of this and when we in the same room I wonder what catch me. Is a
different person that I imagine. Not she. She take nothing, she never do me
nothing bad when I really think. (77)
Instead, their relationship is at its weakest when Verlia hides and withdraws (73).
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Corning together into a lesbian relationship allows Elizete to develop. Her desire grows
into the complicated, oppositional desire described by Brand—the kind of desire that brought
about the Haitian Revolution. This desire brings together faith, recognition, embodiment,
ferocity, vision, and a collaborative, painful sense-making. This collaborative sense-making is a
model for healing and change.17
17
This model for healing and change complicates the Canadian conception of the multicultural
mosaic, and thus ideas about immigration and safety. As Himani Bannerji has written, the
Mosaic model relies on the idea of distinct, yet internally homogeneous cultural groups coexisting in harmony. This idea obscures the power relations between groups and the multiplicity
within groups, including internal power relations.
Elizete, Verba, and later Abena, constitute a small and superficially, homogenous
community—Black, Caribbean, lesbian women who have spent at least their childhoods in the
Caribbean and have immigrated to Canada at some point in their lives. The power-relations
between the women give lie to the idea that similarity and shared experience mean idealized and
equal interactions in a homogeneous group. Verba is unable to fully commit to either of Elizete
or Abena because she sees this as compromising her political desire, fighting inequality. Thus,
the inequalities (both in Canada and Grenada) infiltrate and sabotage these relationships.
Moreover, these relationships are not without internal power disparities. In the case of Verlia and
Elizete, Verlia is educated in the first world; she chooses her position in Grenada. Elizete, on the
other hand, is uneducated and an undocumented immigrant; when she comes to Canada she is
invisible and without the support systems that empowered Verlia. When, Elizete encounters
Abena, she is desperate and jobless, while Abena is the shelter-worker, in the position of giving
aid. These power inequalities are part of what makes it so hard for Elizete to speak and be
understood, even by those who would be most open to hearing her.
Like the Mosaic model ofmulticulturalism, there are widespread, generalized notions
that lesbians somehow better understand each other than heterosexual couples. Both of these
beliefs rely on the idea that sameness necessarily results in understanding, or even that certain
categorical similarities result in sameness (Jagose). The struggle of collective sense-making
shows that what makes these groups "safe" and meaningful is not the comfort ofbeing with
one's "own" (perhaps a traditional notion of safety), but rather it is the work and pain of trying to
understand and make oneself understood despite difference. This does not mean that there is
therefore no place for groups, rather the meaning of those groups must be reconceptualized as
places of contestation. This is somewhat along the lines of what Bannerji argues in Dark Side of
the Nation. She writes that by seeing groups as homogeneous and then accepting a few leaders
(usually men) as representatives, the Mosaic model produces patriarchal domination that is not
necessarily already the rule in a given culture (as well as reinforcing the patriarchal domination
that is already present within that culture). Recognizing the complications and contestations
within groups (as well as the power differences that exist between groups) would do less of this
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Loss
Verlia's death is not only the loss of a lover but also the loss of Elizete's newly acquired
vision and empowerment, her new sense of safety based not in security but in the belief that
change is possible. When Elizete loses Verlia, she comes to Canada, but not to find safety,
escape violence or to leave a traumatic past behind. Understanding what Elizete has lost and why
she comes to Canada does not simply refute the national narrative's explanation for why
immigrants come to Canada, which is based on normative desires; it complicates its reasoning.
This is because Elizete's immigration does ultimately result in healing, but this healing is not
reliant on safety. In other words, her immigration does not only demonstrate that Canada is not
so safe, but also that safety is not a pre-requisite (or even desirable) for healing.
Elizete's section is titled "Elizete, beckoned," and this suggests that her central question
is "why come?". Elizete is "beckoned" to her first adoptive home, to Verlia, and to Canada, so
we might consider responding to this call as a response to trauma and loss. When Elizete is
orphaned, she is left outside a woman's house.
So the child standing under the samaan had to be taken in. If she didn't move as
the dark was gathering, if she could not remember where she had come from but
stood under the samaan waiting, then the woman at the door watching had to
beckon her. [...] Just stood as if she'd been spun around and the world was upsidedown. Just stood as if she'd lost her direction. The woman beckoned. (44)
producing and re-producing. I add that Brand is showing how these internal contestations are
productive of healing, and that they are painful. Therefore, the idea of "safety" as comfort is at
odds with healing.
183
The phrase "the woman beckoned" ends this chapter, and the next chapter begins with "She'd
landed up here though, the square mall of the donut shop, gape open to the road and iron
Canadian National" (46). The juxtaposition implies that Canada has somehow beckoned the
abandoned Elizete. The question, then, arises: in what ways does Canada beckon?
Witnessing a man being arrested, Elizete thinks: "Caught, caught in just suggestion,
suspicion and question, why, why has she come here [...]" (61). As an immigrant, she feels that
at any time could be asked why she has come. And, indeed, those who ask (white Canadians)
expect her desire to be legible to them. However, her desire does not conform to the national
narrative. She cannot think of a simple answer, instead she thinks: "She has too much to tell.
That's the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe. And why
hasn't she met this woman [Abena] who might rescue her, because getting out and getting here
was what she had left and the woman should have appeared and said it's all right now, come"
(61-62). She is looking for a woman to beckon her. Canada does not offer Elizete safety.
However, once she finds Abena there, she is able to remember and mourn Verlia. Being in
Canada allows her to engage in a healing process through sharing traumatic memories with
Abena.
When Verlia jumps offa cliff, during the invasion, Elizete "tried to mash her own face in
with a stone when Verlia went. She'd held it in her hand and pounded and pounded, but Verlia
still gone. Over and over the stone in her hand moved to the pulp of her mouth, hoping" (50).
She attempts to erase her (recently reclaimed) self. In contrast to her earlier desire to smash
stones, she smashes herself with stones. Since "anything was better than life before Verlia," this
184
is an unbearable return. Elizete has burned her bridges with Isaiah, and she comes to Canada, but
not as a better place, not with hope.
Elizete flies to Canada because life after Verlia's death is untenable. Elizete sees coming
to Canada as jumping off a cliff like Verlia (84). The flight, like many of the departures in the
novel, is linked with the Ibo Landing myth, but what stands out in Elizete' s case is that it is not
her life of unremitting oppression, but the loss of Verlia that most strongly connects her to this
myth. Coming to Canada is her way ofjumping, and as with the many Ibo Landing-esque jumps
in the novel, the question is whether she died or flew. The novel, in fact, suggests both. On the
airplane to Canada, Elizete hopes to die and "slipped into Verlia's skin until she could not tell
who had died" (105-106). In Canada, Elizete has no desire to survive; she describes her survival
as involuntary (50). However, despite her desire to die, she is also pulled by a desire to
remember Verlia: "to get out and to be in the last place that Verlia was. Just as she would roll
over into Verlia's spot in the bed warm after her getting up" (87). Her desire to remember Verlia
is impeded, though, by the psychic rupture ofthat very trauma:
"[S]he was losing the reasons for holding on. Like hearing. [...] If the words were
not sweet, if Verlia's tongue was not at the other end of them, then what was the
use ofhearing? Or speech? If she could not speak to the best thing that ever
happened to her [...] And feeling? Touch? [...] And seeing? The worst of all if
every time she opened her eyes she saw a verdant leap, saw her own fingers
clutching stones. (87-88)
Her arrival in Canada alone does not help her hold onto Verlia, rather her thoughts of Verlia are
caught up in repetition and pain with no way of healing.
185
Brand's linking Elizete's response to Verlia's death to slaves' trauma of arrival leads us
to ask: in what way could coming to Canada represent flying back to Africa? If we believe that
slaves did actually fly back to Africa, it was a return but it was a return with a loss. In other
words, even if they returned to Africa, nothing would make up for their loss and trauma during
the Middle Passage. A return to Africa would be a consolation—a way to recover, but not a
return to a pre-traumatic state. Likewise, nothing will make things right for Elizete. However, in
Canada, she meets Abena and is able to find a way to come to terms with her loss. In other
words, Canada itself is "no place," but her interaction with Abena makes it a place of recovery,
like Africa at least in the mythical sense.18 This means that it is not the Canada that is imagined
by the national narrative that makes it a haven for her. It is not the imagined Canada as a welfare
state with "tolerant" white people that is "safe" for Elizete; rather it is Abena's presence, loss,
and alienation from Canada that makes it a place of healing.
Elizete's story concludes not with her death, but with her testifying to and with Abena.
Elizete begins searching for Abena early on. She thinks:
She had to tell her. Well, if she could form it herself, she wouldn't have anything
to tell her. When she saw her she would know. And Abena would know too.
Elizete was a woman without a reason to live if she could tell her nothing, without
a reason to have come and without a reason to have... She needed to feel the same
pain with someone else or the pain would not exist and the reason... (ellipses in
original, 103)
Joanna Luft sees the jump itself as being a kind of home. I, on the other hand, read there being
an arrival. In my reading, just as desire in the novel is not inherently unfulfillable, arrival and
healing are possible too.
186
In this passages, Elizete's immigration, her loss, and her love are woven together. In other words,
her "reason" is explanation for her actions, which are not legible in the Canadian national
imaginary. She needs Abena' s recognition in order to validate her reason for coming to Canada,
her reason to continue living and her reason for having loved Verlia. This recognition can only
occur as Abena accepts her own sense of loss. Elizete's desire, then, to come to Canada is a
desire for recognition and shared knowledge. Canada, then, becomes not a place to escape
hardship or violence, but a place where she comes to terms with the trauma of loss.19
When she finds Abena, however, this recognition does not immediately occur (232-33).
Abena misrecognizes her and her need: "[Abena] had not even spoken to her, had not even asked
her what she wanted, just assumed at first that she was pregnant and illegal as all the women who
came to her. She only needed a place to sort her head out. Pregnant all right. Call it that then.
Full of all the things that had happened to her" (233). Elizete's desire to "sort her head out"
echoes Brand's assertion that desire may be "putting the senses back together" (195). Elizete's
desire to immigrate—born of a desire to die, on the one hand, and to maintain connection with
the dead, on the other—turns out to be a desire for survival of trauma and loss through healing. It
still maintains the complicated qualities Brand ascribes to desire in the Black diaspora.
It is only when Abena realizes that she needs Elizete in order to testify to her own trauma
that recognition occurs and healing begins. Elizete despairs when she initially realizes Abena' s
This suggests that Canadian national and geographic specificity has little to do with what
makes it a place of healing, except perhaps its implication in global systems of commerce and
oppression (which makes it a country that people immigrate to). Moreover, the interaction
between all three women (Verlia, Abena, Elizete) and their various patterns of immigration and
return suggest a flow of selves between the Caribbean and Canada. Rather than the one-way
direction suggested by the national narrative, they move in a continuous circuit.
187
own hurt and inability to recognize Elizete: "She wanted to undo Abena's fist, to smooth it out
into a hand. She had come here to give help or to get help and had got some kind of wisdom she
didn't need or couldn't use" (232). But night after night, Abena talks to Elizete, telling her about
her mother, who immigrated first and then sent for Abena. She describes herself as a member of
an entire generation: "They sent for us, sent for us daughters, then washed our faces in their self-
hatred. Self-hatred they had learned from the white people whose toilets they had cleaned [...] the
sheer nastiness of white words" (231). In her despair, Elizete initially ignores Abena's testimony,
thinking "What did it matter anyway, she had only wanted to see what Verlia had meant by 'not
enough'" (235). Nevertheless, as Elizete tries to soothe herself, her presence allows Abena to
continue to testify, and thus understand and come to terms with her losses: "Elizete lying under
the window murmuring her names did not stop but gave her the music to finish" (237). Abena
recognizes how her mother's internalized racism resulted in her own emotional damage, which
sabotaged (her end of) her relationship with Verlia. Further, Elizete' s mourning then allows
Abena to finally mourn both Verlia's leaving her and ultimately her death:
"You wasn't enough and I wasn't there." Elizete under the window in the first
words Abena allowed herself to hear, seeing as how she was finished and realized
that she had not heard anything from this woman and had only allowed that she
was a woman needing help who at this moment she couldn't help because she
needed help herself. And refusing to hear her because she didn't want to hear
about Verlia yet. She heard it on the news and her head had spun with not wanting
to know and then she didn't hear and she knew. Now she was finished and it was
like knowing. She needed a woman lying under a window half out of her mind
188
who could appreciate it [...] It was soothing to be understood. [...] She stooped to
the floor putting her face against Elizete's. [...] "Not enough? She said that?" [...]
"What about you?" (241)
The chapter (and Elizete's story) concludes as Elizete begins to tell what happened. This
suggests that Elizete too will be able to tell her story and be able to heal. Abena and Elizete are
not lovers, and their testifying together does not make up for the losses that they have suffered.
However, testimony functions as a kind of consolation, something that makes their lives
survivable, allowing them to live and function with their memories. This suggests the
possibilities and need for community, but also its limits.
For Elizete, coming to Canada is unsafe both physically and psychologically. Elizete
finds healing not in Canadian national institutions but with other Caribbean women. This healing
is not immediate nor complete; it is merely a consolation. As with Verlia, making sense (or
putting the senses back together) occurs only with struggle. The healing process in not based on
safety (as it is imagined in connection both with nation and whiteness). Instead, it is based on
collaborative work growing out of complicated, oppositional desires. Elizete's story proposes
desire as a strategy for both survival and growth in the context of disempowerment and trauma.
Her story also suggests that power inequalities do not inherently prevent coalition and
conversation among those with differing degrees of power and privilege. However, her
conception of whites as unredeemable leaves no entry point for white people and thus does not
suggest a role for desire in larger projects of national healing.
Verlia' s Desire: Flying
189
Unlike Elizete, who is disempowered on virtually every front and multiply-traumatized,
Verlia is comparatively privileged. Like Elizete, however, Verlia's world is unsafe; her lack of
safety is represented as psychological rather than physical.20 Verlia lives in a world that is unsafe
and this lack of safety shapes her desire, just as lack of safety shaped Elizete' s desire. However,
"unsafety" means something different to Verlia. Unlike Elizete, Verlia has a family that takes
care of her and she attends school. At the age of 17, she immigrates to Canada. She is greeted
and taken in by family; her way is paid and she arrives legally. What exactly makes Verlia feel
unsafe?
Verlia feels unsafe in her home, where the legacy of colonialism and slavery has created
a toxic environment of hopelessness (Chapter 12). The history of oppression has damaging
psychological effects, which are nurtured in her family environment:
[...] they scanned the scarless flesh of their new born and wrote peril there
because peril was all they were familiar with.
They all walked tilting to the left like their Papa Ti, always in danger of
falling. Babies became ugly under their kisses. And she, despite trying, caught
peril like any disease in childhood, drank it in as a newborn. (124-5)
Even as a young child, Verlia tries to resist this legacy. She does so by separating herself from
her family. In so doing, she defines herself against the Other, and makes her own family the
Other. She associates her family with fleshiness and seduction. Her rejection of these two terms,
I do not mean to overstate the safety and comfort of Verlia's life; however, Brand emphasizes
the psychological effects on Verlia's character rather than physical dangers (except for the ones
that Verlia chooses, such as joining the revolutionary cell or coming to Grenada). Joanna Luft
also notes the physical/psychological distinction between the dangers facing Elizete and Verlia.
early in her life, will haunt her death as she is never again able to fully re-integrate them into her
life.
Verlia's relationship to desire is very much shaped by her rejection of her family. Her
initial rejection of fleshiness and seduction suggests that embodiment will be excluded from her
adult sense of desire. This is further reinforced as she becomes known for her prophetic dreams.
As a child, Verlia is defined by sleep and dreaming. Significantly, she separates these two terms
in a binary way. Sleep we might think of as the ability to relax, to let go. Dreaming we might
think of as vision, seeing what hasn't yet been imagined. Typically, sleeping and dreaming
coincide, but Verlia cannot sleep and she only dreams when she's awake:
Verlia didn't know how to tell [Tante Emilia] that really she never slept, but fell
into dreams when she was tired from listening for the hesitation in the frog's
throat [...] she didn't want to sleep like them, soundly in the middle of the livingroom floor with children walking all over them or in the middle of a conversation,
snoring. She didn't sleep because she had to listen, listen for what they never
seemed to hear, listen for what they missed, what they did not anticipate, what
they blundered into and out of with such damage. She didn't sleep because she
had to watch for their carelessness [...] she is their opposite._(129-130)
In addition to showing the separation between herself and her family, this quotation gestures to
Verlia's separation of vision/revolution, represented by her dreams, and embodiment/love,
represented by the bodily letting go of sleep. Later in her life, Verlia will not be able to reconcile
love with revolution.
191
In sum, the history of slavery and colonialism has produced not only an unsafe physical
environment, but also a perilous psychological one, which is defined by despair and fear. In
response to this psychological unsafety, Verlia embraces binaries, rejecting parts ofherself in the
process. She rejects her family. She rejects embodiment. Her first desire, it can be said, is to
leave. Like Elizete, Verlia's desire conforms to Brand's criteria for desire, including faith,
ferocity, embodiment, sense-making, etc. But, Verlia's desire is unfulfilled because she cannot
reconcile these different components of desire. This puts her in a constant state of motion.
While Elizete' s half of the book concerned the idea of "beckoning," Verlia's is about
"flying." If the question surrounding Elizete's desire was "why come?", the question Verlia's
desire answers is "why go?". Why leave the Caribbean? Why leave Sudbury, ON? Why leave
Toronto? Why leave her lovers? Why leave life? Verlia is always choosing between two places,
rejecting one and leaving for another, until she runs out of places. Thus, her story ends with her
death—a recognition that no place could fulfill her desire. Elizete's physical unsafety teaches her
that nowhere is safe, and so she doesn't try to find a safe place. Verlia, in contrast, searches for
safety, which begins with separating herself from family, love, domesticity, and letting go. It
makes sense, then, that her desire takes on an abstract, ideological form. Her desire becomes
sublimated, and in its first iteration, her desire is white.
Verlia and Whiteness
Verlia's desire to leave and her desire for political action and change are her solutions to
the constant state of fear that permeated her childhood. This desire contains some of the elements
that Brand explains in Map to the Door ofNo Return, in particular, ferocity and making sense.
192
These desires put Verlia in a constant state ofmotion; she is always leaving places and lovers,
and her desire is always unattainable. Verlia' s encounters with whiteness also follow this
trajectory. In fact, Verlia' s relationship to whiteness guides her movements.
Initially, Verlia desires whiteness; she sees it as an escape from disempowerment and its
psychological effects. At this point, whiteness exists as more of an idea than a reality. When she
comes to Canada, she learns that "the whites are real." After this realization and living with her
assimilationist relatives, however, she also begins to associate whiteness with coldness, sterility,
and psychological death. As a result, she rejects white people and white values, becoming a
Black separatist. She also begins to see whiteness as a system, or force, that is difficult to locate
and fight. Significantly, Verlia has internalized white supremacist values and ways of thinking.
This internalization leads both to self-loathing and to her fatal inability to connect love with
revolution.
Verlia sees whiteness as something far away from her Caribbean home, which she
associates with despair and giving in, poverty and fear. As a child in the Caribbean, Verlia
embraces whiteness:
She is imagining Sudbury, but she cannot imagine it because Sudbury is an
English name and she is told it is a northern town in the letter from her uncle, and
in the letter to the pen-pal she wrote five years ago she said how wonderful it is to
write to someone in Calgary, someone who incidentally does not write back, but
then she imagines him, gangly and blond with freckles, thinking of her. She used
the word wonderful several times in her letter. He is what she imagines. He is the
farthest that she can imagine. (135)
193
Both whiteness in general, and Canadian whiteness in particular, represent a rejection ofhome.
For Verlia, getting as far away from the fear and despair associated with home must be
"wonderful." Her expectations surrounding whiteness show how initially whiteness represents an
abstract idea. On her way to Canada, she thinks whiteness is:
a style, a way of living well that perhaps anyone could acquire. She had seen it on
the one television on her street, against the thick bulb greying into the livingroom, she had stood way back on her toes looking through the other heads of
children, towards the moving black, grey, and white, peering at it. She had
admired the showiness. She had expected to step into it as one steps into a dress.
She had anticipated it, as one anticipates a fresh sheet. She was about to step into
the world, into the thick grey flashing bulb of the world where one acts instead of
watches where one is, is, the sound of 'is' buzzing through her. [...] She does not
expect them to be really white, really all she's read about or knows. (135-136)
She sees whiteness as privilege, but privilege that can be attained by anyone. She also sees
whiteness as being visible. For example, she imagines her white pen pal thinking of her and she
imagines being on television rather than watching it. This visibility she associates with
empowerment—acting rather than watching, mattering, and being free of fear. Unlike Elizete,
the visibility of whites and whiteness does not make them transparent to Verlia, at least as a
child. She believes what she sees on television, and she doesn't see the inequality inherent in
racialization. When her pen pal doesn't write back, she doesn't think about the racism that makes
her less "wonderful" to him. Her earliest desires are linked to whiteness and express internalized
racism.
Once in Canada, Verlia sees that "the whites are real" (137). As such, the idea of
whiteness can no longer function as an escape. Instead, "she feels a glare, a standing off, a glow
around their bodies, her face burns in the grey light. She is not sure that it is the same feeling that
she had anticipated, but she feels out there, in the centre" (137). Whiteness maintains its
televisual aura, even once both whites and Canada are real. But now, Verlia experiences a
disconnection between what she should feel and what she does feel. Seeing that perhaps she
cannot simply "step into" whiteness shakes her internalized identification with whiteness. Still,
she maintains a strong binary between life in the Caribbean and the world white people live in.
Canada and whiteness is associated with order ("everything in its place") and being important
("in the centre"). In Toronto, she observes "everything in its place as it should be in the world of
a movie's world, the dark but surely manicured park with the pond at its edge, the conveniences,
nothing needing a search for a paper bag or an old newspaper, nothing muddy and needing a
sidewalk" (137).
Upon arriving in Sudbury, Verlia undergoes a radical shift in her understanding of
whiteness. Her binaries become reversed and whiteness comes to hold the place of all the other
91
While it is true that her arrival in Canada results in her recognition of whiteness as
psychological -death and her subsequent rejection of it, this does not mean that Verlia lacked
critical or oppositional thought before. What I mean is that Verlia' s rejection of whiteness does
not follow a formula in which the immigrant arrives in the new country and, after seeing that the
country was not really as wonderful after all, rejects that country. Verlia appears to leave the
Caribbean for reasons that that formula would suggest (her initial embrace of whiteness, her
criticism of 3r World culture); however, her arrival in Canada results almost instantaneously in
her rejection of whiteness and mainstream Canada (i.e. it is not that she gets disillusioned after
Canada fails). Moreover, we find out that she's been keeping a shoebox full of clippings of
revolutionaries since she was a child, and was already beginning to be politically aware and
active. For example, she wrote a letter "to the editor of the island newspaper [...] saying that the
student protest at her high school was not futile and juvenile delinquency, as the paper had
asserted, but a protest for the freedom to wear Afros and to be natural and have Black pride"
195
things she has rejected. Her aunt and uncle are intensely assimilationist. They moved to from
Toronto to Sudbury to distance themselves from Black people and, in a sense, their own
Blackness. They suggest to Verlia "You can't blame them [whites] for thinking about us that
way. Most Black people don't know what to do with opportunity" (142). For her relatives, just
like young Verlia, whiteness is equated with privilege and empowerment. Her aunt and uncle
believe in whiteness as something that "anybody could acquire." Moreover, for her aunt and
uncle, assimilation involves not only acquiring desired privilege—order, possessions,
opportunity—but also equating whiteness with normalcy, and specifically family. Her relatives
have acquired the privilege, but not the whiteness, and they attribute this to their childlessness:
"Theirs to make the kitchen and the town complete with her adolescence, perhaps her laughing,
her adoption as their child, they need her for perfection, acceptability" (140). She recognizes that
they "think that her addition will fill out some of the rest somehow, she senses, make them white
in this white town" (141).
Verlia describes how their desire to create the perfect, "white" family, has distorted their
ability to love. Their "too eager love" for their niece is linked to "the kitchen with its veneered
cupboards, its clean electric range and too full fridge. Its smell of donuts. Donuts, donuts is how
Sudbury smells and food wrapped up and frozen"_(148) Verlia observes "they must have seen
love on television" (149). In this instance, television comes to represent fakeness, rather than
glamour. The kitchen contains food as products ("wrapped up and frozen") rather than as
sensual, familial, and cultural experiences. In the same way, Verlia is a "product" brought into
(161). So, Brand shows that Verlia has an indigenous feminist antiracist perspective. So, what
this section shows is her beginning to understand what whiteness really is/means, not that
coming to Canada triggers her desire for social change.
196
their kitchen to complete their image rather than to be a part of their lives in a complicated and
intimate way.
For Verlia, whiteness becomes cold, sterile, associated with fakeness, lack of love, and
psychological death. And this coincides with her growing criticism of assimilation. "Her uncle's
kitchen is sterile which is the next place that she remembers apart from the streets which are icy
but there is no ice yet. There is no ice yet. She has never seen the ice that she is thinking of but it
is the ice she thinks of here. Ice is all she can associate with this place (139)." The place, the
people, and the values are all white, cold and hard. The "northern-ness" of Canada comes to
stand in for both Canada and whiteness.
Assimilation becomes as dangerous as despair. She reflects: "They have come here to get
away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie
will kill them" (142). Like Verlia, her relatives "other" a part of themselves in the desire to
escape. But, this sort of splitting is lethal. Verlia is convinced that her uncle's asthma and
swollen heart result from this lie. Moreover, she also believes it causes an emotional death.
Verlia lives with them for only three weeks. In this time, she comes to see assimilation as death.
She sees that they "were offering her a pillow in their grave, in their coffin engraved in ice"
(149). Assimilation is physically, but more importantly psychologically, unsafe. Thisjeads to her
next flight. She runs away to Toronto. This flight also coincides with another desire: Blackness.22
So again, Verlia makes a binary choice. Her binaries have changed (now, black is good and
white is bad), but her pattern is the same: leave one place for another. In addition, she now
I will discuss her desire for Blackness in the following section on desire.
associates assimilation in Canada with the things that she rejected from the Caribbean, in
particular, seduction and domesticity.
When she moves to Toronto to join the Black Power Movement, Verlia maintains her
binary worldview, and sees the city as divided into "two worlds" (180). She takes a Black
separatist position:
When she walks into the train nobody white dares look at her, too much
wickedness to look, too much to account for; they have some vindication to do,
repentance. All of them kill all those people in Vietnam, kill Lumumba, going to
kill George Jackson. Nobody here can claim innocence and don't lie. That's the
righteous truth. If they don't feel the weight of their history, well, just take them
longer to be human. Don't have time to save no white people, Martin Luther King
tried to do that. (158)
White people are characterized as being fearful (of Black people), lacking humanity, and
denying responsibility for violence and oppression. It is important to note here that none of the
events she lists are Canadian in origin, but that this does not make white Canadians innocent.24
"She does not want to be harmless [...] [or married] to the dry skinny Black man she expects
her uncle to bring home, because she is only half the person she expects to be and she might fall
for it. She is in as much danger of accepting the perfect picture as her uncle [...] She is terrified at
this seduction" (150).
I would argue that this kind of whiteness is both specifically Canadian and emblematic of a
more general phenomenon of whiteness. The image of a Canada as a "middle power," neutral
with respect to international power struggles and US imperialism, produces an idea of Canadian
white innocence (Razack). However, this is also typical of a kind of "white innocence" in which
white people are "innocent" of the unfair privileges race bestows upon them and of the violence
enacted to preserve those privileges (Bush).
198
It is at this point in her life that Verlia connects whiteness with global and historical
systems of domination: slavery, colonialism and capitalism. At a Movement meeting, Verlia
listens to a speaker who explains:
Don't be mistaken—we are not fighting for white folks to like us, we are not
fighting to sit beside them in restaurants and buses, we are not fighting for mere
equality with white people—we are fighting for liberation and liberation is none
of these things. [. . .] Are you tired of walking out in the street every morning
feeling as if your life, your Black life and your Black self are just worthless? Are
you tired of trying to do the best you can, following their rules just like they told
you and getting nowhere? [. . .] This backward capitalist system wasn't made for
the benefit of Black people, it was made to exploit us [. . .] Self-hate is what it has
to offer Black people, self-hate and self-destruction. (169-170)
Assimilation and white culture at large assume that equality is the goal; but equality, by this
definition, does not change economic, political or social structures. In fact, it validates those
structures and validates the idea that being like white people and able to live like white people is
the end goal of all peoples. Embracing this view of equality, which is white supremacist, would
amplify self-loathing and re-affirm the structures that have exploited Black people. Moreover,
Also, interesting is the way Verlia switches of ideas of safety here. She embraces the
stereotype of dangerousness (in opposition to her relatives' attempts to appear harmless).
Embracing this dangerousness saves her from psychological death. On the flip side, white people
are involving in killing, but she doesn't have time to "save" them. In other words, psychological
redemption (a different kind of safety) is precluded by participation in and complicity with
violence. What I'm thinking here is that whites do have something to be afraid of; however, it's
not Verlia on the train that makes them unsafe. Like the slaveowner who is cursed by Adela,
their fear is a product of their participation in oppression.
without structural change, actual equality is impossible because capitalism is premised on the
exploitation ofracial others and would require an embrace of the ideology that "your Black self
is just worthless." Whites assume that equality with white people—which is to be dominant in a
power structure tied up with capitalism, racism and patriarchy—is desirable. The speaker's
critique challenges the basis of those desires.
Verlia believes herself to be fundamentally different from whites, rejecting all white
people and white epistemologies (although she remains wedded to binary thinking). At this
stage, Verlia' s understanding of whiteness is most similar to Elizete's, although Verlia has not
yet entered gender into the equation. For Elizete, gender operates as yet another axis along which
she is oppressed. Verlia has not begun to consider gender, and when she does, it will complicate
her analysis. Unexpectedly, at the moment when she encounters white hate in its most explicit
form at a Klan rally, her experience of whiteness becomes more complicated. In this moment,
gender becomes a factor in her analysis, however, one that she cannot integrate as easily as
Elizete did. At the rally "she sees hate. She's felt hate before but never seen it [...] Feeling it is
living with chronic pain but seeing it is having a life-threatening attack" (172). But what affects
Verlia most about this encounter is seeing a woman with a KKK tattoo on her breast.
She looks at the woman expecting embarrassment, expecting her to calm him
down, pull him away before he does something stupid [. . .] She expects to find
reassurance in the woman's eyes or fright for what he is about to do [...] She had
not expected it engraved on her breast. She had not even expected it in a woman.
A man's hate she might have been ready for but not a woman's and not branded
to the body. (173)
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Verlia expects some sort of recognition or alliance based on gender. Instead the woman shares in
the hatred, representing a male-identified woman and the failure of coalition between women
across race. Verlia reflects "Well, hate looks like it's sudden and splits. Late July and she feels
cold already. She's never experienced cold like the cold coming and she feels cold already. K.
The eleventh letter of the alphabet tripling hotly on a woman's breast. Well she feels cold" (174).
The confluence of sexuality (the fact that the tattoo is on her breast, that its letters are "tripling
hotly") and whiteness (in the repetition of "cold") again emphasize the complex intersection of
racism, patriarchy and normalcy (heteronormativity being central to patriarchy and the woman's
allegiance to the racist man rather than the woman of colour).
Verlia's response is complicated. Although separatist, Verlia acknowledges shared
humanity with white people: "If she accepts that she shares something, anything, with them, this
earth, a human body, the sweetness ofbreathing, the need to eat, saliva summoning pleasure, if
she accepts this, then failure is what it all ends up being" (173-174). Unlike Elizete, who
understands whites as simply "evil," Verlia struggles with what it means to categorize people as
evil, in particular, people she might have had some kind of connection with: "she clips [the
ralliers'] photograph from a newspaper [. . .] Not to say haunting but hard not to return to if she
declared herself human.Worse, them too. [. . .] she never works it out or recovers or understands
because it would be like understanding evil" (174). This experience does not change Verlia' s
separatist politics, but it is important, I think, for understanding what Brand is saying about
whiteness. I will return to this problem later. One thing that this foreshadows is that for Verlia it
becomes increasingly complicated to separate, in other words to know how to actually live as a
Black separatist. The second important thing is that unlike Elizete, Verlia can interact with and
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affect whites. Elizete's experience with whiteness is that they are unaffected by the abuse that
they inflict. Verlia, however, sees whites who are fearful of her, or angry and hateful, but
certainly not unaffected.
This increasing complication is a strain on Verlia' s binary worldview, causing a deep
uncertainty: "When the movements in Africa triumphed, such as they did, the cell turned to
organizing for the people at home [. . .] She missed them, missed the noise, and the constant
urgency and had the feeling that what was coming would not be as simple or clearly identifiable"
(192). Her anxiety suggests that white racism is not easily locatable. How do you fight an
ideology, an epistemology? Verlia' s reaction to this uncertainty is to, again, leave. She rejects the
murkiness of political work in Toronto and goes to Grenada to join a more concrete cause.
Significantly, she sees staying in the Black community in Toronto as seduction. "Her people,
gathered in barber shops and tailor shops and basement parties reminiscing, make her weak. She
smells their seduction, it's the kind of seduction that soothes the body going home on the train,
insulates it from the place of now and what to do about it" (182). In the community, she sees the
same apathy that she saw in the Caribbean.
While Verlia attributes the increased murkiness to a change in the times, it may well be
that things were always this murky. For even within Verlia herself, things are blurred. Verlia has
very much internalized white epistemologies, and this (as I will subsequently argue) proves to be
her downfall. Her binary originates in a rejection of part of herself (the poor, the Black, the
disempowered) and an embrace of whiteness. Even as her valuation of the binaries switches, the
same structural thinking remains intact. Her worldview makes clear the way in which Verlia has
internalized white epistemologies. In addition, her revolutionary thought is structured by
Western and First World hierarchies—despite her self-education in many different revolutionary
traditions (Communist China, African American Civil Rights Movement, Ghandi, Che Guevara
and other Latin American revolutionaries), Verlia believes it is her reading that makes her a
revolutionary and fails to see how one can come by such knowledge in other ways. She recalls
her simplified perspective on Elizete's worldview:
[W]hen they'd first met she thought that she was the one who knew everything,
and how she was going to change this country woman into a revolutionary like
her, but then something made her notice that she was the one who had doubts and
what she was saying she merely said but Elizete felt and knew. (202)
Verlia' s initial misreading of Elizete indicates how her revolutionary thought (her attempt to
reverse the binaries) is still grounded in imperialist (read: white supremacist) logic.
This is not to criticize Verlia' s character. Brand represents Verlia' s attempts to resist this
impulse, her developing consciousness, and the inheritance of this internalization. Verlia has
emerged from a legacy of internalized racism, for it is not only her aunt and uncle who urge her
to assimilate. She links her uncle to his assimilationist father who "worked himself to the bone.
Shot himself in the foot. To prove he was a good servant to a white man happily dreaming of
slavery" (143). The grandfather cheats on his wife, for which his children resent him. In other _
words, he is loyal to a white man and unfaithful to his own family. The uncle is linked in his
assimilation and servitude (149-50). Verlia herself is linked to this grandfather through the
image of wounds, an allusion to Derek Walcott's Omeros:
Their sores must have bonded them. Lifelong and visible signs of a wound much
older. Sore-foot Irene [one of Papa's lovers] and Papa. God had given them
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something to take care of and to bear forever. Theirs were the incurable sores near
their ankles, bad blood. Hers is insomnia. She cannot sleep when nights come.
Perhaps she has a wound like Papa that she is only beginning to discover the
source of; he must have found it. He must have felt it walking away like that,
unable to say a tender word or to have himselfunderstood. It was all those years
ofholding water in his mouth for that white man that he could not empty it even
for his intimates. (145)
The woundedness as a result of the history of slavery is inherited. Verlia inherits this wound
despite her efforts to separate herself from history and family. As much as she resists, she is also
seduced by the possibilities of assimilation: "She is in as much danger of accepting the perfect
picture as her uncle [...] She is terrified at this seduction" (150).25 In addition, her grandfather's
assimilation has made connection to his family impossible, not only because he distances himself
from them but because he also loses the ability to be real with them. This foreshadows Verlia' s
own difficulty with intimacy.
In addition to internalizing the logics and sometimes the values of white supremacy,
Verlia internalizes self-loathing. Like her acceptance of those epistemologies, it deeply structures
her psychology and relationships, but there is still the possibility for resistance and change.
Listening to the speaker at a Black Power meeting, Verlia realizes:
oc
This seduction is explicitly linked to assimilation and whiteness, through the image of white
clothing. When she envisions her married life as "a physiotherapist married to another
physiotherapist," she visualizes a "paved driveway that she crosses in white stockings, and a
white floral mist as she opens the front door" (150). Not only is this life domestic, normative and
privileged, but her white stockings link her to her assimilationist grandfather who wore "white
shirts which were ironed stiff and kept in the wardrobe with camphor" (143).
So simple, the words coming out of his mouth. So simple, slipping into a crevice
in her back and in her memory, the thing uncomfortable about self-hate, like it
was she and nothing outside of her, that it was some sickness she was born into,
this feeling small, small in her heart. The screel ofthat winch creaking from her
heart, her chest not able to bellow air and only in this room the blood begins to
spread in its way. (1 70)
So, what's significant here is the internalization—self-hate is a part of her. Moreover, it is an
inheritance, a birthright. It is also important that this is linked to her heart. Her aunt and uncle
have a diminished capacity to love as a result of their assimilation, as does her grandfather. But,
here, the smallness affects her heart as well.26 Finally, this moment ofrealization parallels the
pain described by Elizete of telling Verlia ofher traumatic past ("all that opening like breaking
bones" (78)). So there is the possibility of freeing her heart, but this is a painful process.
Verlia's Desire Revisited
Elizete' s fixed understanding and experience of whiteness are inextricably linked with
her disempowerment and the violence she experiences. Her desire serves as a way to live, cope,
and grow despite this fixed, world-wide, system of oppression based in the intersections of
racism, patriarchy and capitalism. Verlia' s understanding and her experience of whiteness,
however, are in a state of motion. We see her relation to whiteness develop as she grows up, and
. Smallness has to do with both the idea of Caribbean islands as "small places" (think Jamaica
Kincaid's A Small Place), the small desires associated with assimilation, and the small, concrete
desires that Verlia cannot integrate with her big desires (revolution).
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see her relation to whiteness as one ofmovement. This movement also partially drives her desire
to leave various places (Caribbean, Sudbury, Toronto). Once she rejects whiteness, her desire
begins to fit to some of Brand's descriptors, in particular, ferocity and making sense.
Her attitudes towards whiteness, however, do not appear to account for all of her desires.
In particular, they do not seem to account for her romantic relationships, and significantly, why
she leaves them. However, I will argue that her internalization of some of the logics ofwhiteness
in fact do account for this. In particular, her binary thinking results in her inability to combine
the personal and the political, with devastating consequences. Just as she cannot sleep and dream
at the same time, Verlia cannot reconcile political vision with romantic love, and this is the
reason for her desire to leave her lovers.
Safety
Like Elizete, Verlia' s desires are fundamentally tied up in safety, as the result of feeling
unsafe in the world as it is. Verlia' s desire for revolution is linked to a desire for safety: "I have
work here. Nothing is safe" (72). In addition, her movements suggest an evolution in what makes
her feel safe. Initially, Verlia feels safe in Toronto (153). As she becomes more political and
critical, she feels safe in her revolutionary readings, but even this is temporary (176). Finally, she
feels safe with Elizete: "She knew that she was safe with a woman who knew how to look for
rain, what to listen for in birds, a woman who loved to feel her face melting in the sun in the
morning through a window" (202). In this instance, she seems to embrace a safety that is not
theoretical, but concrete and personal. I think the question is: if she finally feels safe with
Elizete, why does she leave? To return to the central rupture of the book, even after
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understanding Verlia's relationship to whiteness, the jump seems illegible. As with Elizete, to
understand Verlia's motivations we must look not only to her relationship to whiteness and
oppression, but also to love and desire.
Verlia's rejections and departures are matched by her desires for something better. As
mentioned before, early on in her life Verlia rejects embodiment, domesticity, and seduction. She
links these terms to whatever or whomever she leaves: her Caribbean family, her Canadian
family, Toronto, Abena, life itself. She sublimates desire into the political. Moreover, Verlia's
desire for revolution links love and empowerment:
She intends to walk right into the Movement when she arrives [in Toronto]. The
truth is she intends to find joy, just plain joy. [...] Nothing back there [with her
aunt and uncle] could be called joy. And maybe she had to find out what her self
was or change into her self. [...] She wants to live in Che's line. She's memorized
it, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is
guided by great feelings of love." There is a way that she lands in the middle of
that line, falls as if in love herself. (164-165)
Verlia's embrace of the Movement suggests that it will give her everything that assimilation
denied her. Her aunt and uncle's inability to love is contrasted with the "great feelings of love"
she associates with revolution. Moreover, the revolution is connected with self-realization.
Joining the Movement, she will "find out what her self was or change into her self." It seems,
then, that her political desires might do for Verlia what Elizete' s romantic desires do for her. And
Brand explicitly makes this connection:
What she will recall to her last minute is the crowd of them. May twenty-fifth,
nineteen seventy three. [...] She marched in the middle of it, near the front trying
to look serious but wanting to laugh for the joy bubbling in her chest, the crowd
around her like sugar, sugar is what she recalled, shook down her back by her
sister, sticky and grainy and wanting you to laugh, and the shock and strangeness
ofher skin shaking sugar. The crowd like sugar down her back, sisters and
brothers to the left and right of her marching. (167)
The image of sugar links Verlia's feelings in the Movement to Elizete's feelings for her.27 It
seems, in this moment, that Verlia has integrated vision and opposition with embodiment, in her
awareness of the feel ofthe sugar, and with family, both as her actual sister in the Caribbean and
as her political sisters and brothers. But this integration is, at best, temporary. This is because
(although not visible here) she has rejected and devalued integral parts of herself.
Verlia rigidly divides love and revolution, which serves to elevate the importance of
revolution while devaluing the significance of love. At the Black Power meeting where she has
her awakening about self-loathing, Verlia meets Abena, who becomes her lover. After she has
her awakening about self-loathing, the next line is: '"Sister, you want to sign up for a
committee?" The meeting is over and the hand face mouth beside her_belongs to a woman'"
(171). This woman is Abena. Verlia's political desires then are tied up in the personal and erotic,
but Verlia does not acknowledge this. Instead, she maintains a strict division. Elizete observes
Recall Elizete's statement that "GRACE. IS GRACE, YES. And I take it, quiet, quiet, like
thiefing sugar" (3).
"Verlia could give big but never small" (73) and further that "Verlia had a love that make she
thin. It wasn't for me, it was the revolution" (83).
Verlia' s journal entries during her time in Grenada reveal that this binary is something
that she struggles with, but is ultimately unable to fully resolve. She writes to herself: "If you're
in the struggle you're in the struggle Verlia" (206) but can't find an answer to "What I want to
know, Che, is if you ever wake up and it is all right" (214). Ofher developing relationship with
Elizete, Verlia writes "How many times have I heard that this is what fucks up revolutions? How
the fuck am I going to get out of it? She didn't talk to me all night, just touched my face" (218).
Verlia can't find a way to conceptualize a combination of revolution with love, and is instead
puzzled by their overlap: "I was going to write about the revolution; instead this book is full of
loneliness" (220). Verlia' s experience of desire does not map onto all she has read or her binary
worldview. For example, she can't understand how the complication ofpolitical and personal
can make the revolution be both right and wrong at the same time: "The comrade said to me if
the people go one way and the party another, the party is wrong no matter how correct the
political line. Then he said, 'You should know what I mean comrade.' I had the feeling that he
was talking about Elizete and me. It startled me a little and I didn't know what to say" (223).
Elizete presents a possible model for how to integrate the personal and the political, but
Verlia is unable to read this. Verlia comes very close to understanding, but her fears of seduction
and embodiment and the despair she associates with them prevail. Not only does she feel safe
with Elizete, but Elizete represents a romantic love coupled with ferocity. Verlia reflects "Had
anyone told her she would not have believed that she would wake up in this room [...] It is a
room where I will open my eyes and the woman opening the window will be the woman I will
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live with for ever" (201). And, Verlia can connect this to political vision, as the woman she
wants to spend her life with is also the one who will teach her about being a revolutionary,
despite her assumption that she would be the one doing the teaching.28 Yet despite this
revelation, Verlia "wants nothing more. Not the bed that comes with it, not the kitchen, not the
key to the door. She hates the sticky domesticity lurking behind them. She doesn't want wanting
more" (204). For Verlia, domesticity is anti-revolutionary, even white. Her aunt and uncle's
desire for a family to make them white is emblematic of this. She sees Elizete's desire for
intimacy as falling into the same category and thinks: "not another one counting what part of you
they wanted, coveting you like goods, wanting something you didn't understand how to give nor
felt the need to give it" (73). Her conception of domesticity is heteronormative, and by thinking
of love as possession, Verlia sees it as enmeshed with capitalism and racism, as being owned
connotes slavery. However, in not wanting to want more from Elizete, Verlia separates love from
politics. By making politics concrete and love abstract, love gets relegated to "forever" rather
than being tied to everyday life together, which includes things like kitchens. While for Elizete,
love allowed for healing and growth, Verlia resists this possibility, seeing only its potential for
oppression.
Verlia may seemed to have integrated the complicated forms of desire into her
sublimated desire for political change, however this sublimated desire is actually still following
the same pattern of rejecting parts of herself and leaving them behind. As Elizete's observation
Verlia conceptualizes this as "grace" just as Elizete characterized Verlia's arrival as "grace":
"That the woman would look up and catch her looking and she would hate herself for
interrupting such avenging grace. What made her notice that she was the one needing that grace
[...] anyone with such a memory would know more, be more than she" (203).
that Venia can love big but not small suggests, her binaries are hierarchical—with Verlia clearly
valuing big over small. Yet even in her life, this binary fails account for all the pieces ofher
reality. For example, as much as she attributes her desire to go to Grenada to big revolutionary
Verlia equates smallness and small desires with assimilation and psychological death. At her
uncle's house, she thinks:
Nothing is wrong with this love except that it adds nothing and love like this is
too small for her. "We lucky to be in Canada," her uncle says. "You could do
anything here." Anything, anything he keeps saying but his anything is small. He
means there will be no hunger, you will have clothes on your back, you will have
shoes on you feet, and that is enough. (148)
The smallness of assimilation is equated with domesticity and her rejection of Abena:
Abena could stay [in Canada] if she wanted—Verlia couldn't wait for her. She
needed a mission outside ofherself. [. . .] This small place getting smaller, down
to her and Abena, was stifling and hopeless. Nothing more hopeless than two
people down to themselves for company, for air [...] Nothing more hopeless than
a house where some accustomed play-acting had to be done and repeated in every
house across cities, forests, ice-caps, continents. [...] I'll not step out of this
universe of duty then. No, she wasn't flesh like that, nothing as hopeless yet. (9798)
Later when, she refers to Abena as "not enough," it resonates with her rejection of her aunt and
uncle's assimilation. As the above quotation suggests, Verlia equates comfort, domesticity, flesh
and smallness. Moreover, she sees these things as homogeneous ("in every house"), and that
these small, homogeneous desires are promoted by national narratives and white desires. The
reference to forests and ice-caps link these desires to a Canadian national narrative. She also
describes this as "hopeless," which links it to her home in the Caribbean. Essentially, then, her
rejection of Abena follows every other rejection.
It also provides a new angle on Brand's critique of the myths of Canada, in particular, the
mosaic model of multiculturalism. Elizete troubled this model by revealing the ways that the
model obscures inequality and power relations, both inside and outside cultural groups. While
this is also true in the Verlia-Abena relationship, most importantly, Verlia's rejection of Abena
and the Toronto community suggests that the mosaic model (and her Black separatism) is in
many ways just another form of assimilation. While supposedly distinct and autonomous,
separate groups do not disrupt the overall power structure (which is premised on inequality).
Rather they live their lives in parallel, forming small domestic units, essentially
undistinguishable from white units.
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causes, the fact remains that this desire was triggered by something small. A woman she meets at
the shelter reminds her of tamarinds, and she begins to miss the Caribbean: "Go back for
something so small. Or she might walk all the way up Bathurst in the drizzle thinking of
tamarinds and where things were now. But it would have to be something small in the end"
(200).
As a result ofher rigid binary between big, revolutionary desire and small, personal
desire, Verlia cannot understand what is revolutionary about personal relationships, and
therefore, devalues those relationships. Elizete observes that Verlia' s devaluing of personal
relationships is not far removed from self-loathing: "Verl could not look her in the face nor say
how she felt. She sensed Verl' s body there thinning itself distant, shedding attachment, washing
itself in self-hatred, blaming itself, forgetting her. She wanted to hold her, knowing Verlia would
think her inattentive to the revolution" (113). In addition to being binary and hierarchical,
Verlia' s rejection of romantic relationships is another manifestation of internalized racism and
self-loathing. Because she does not see any connection between personal desire and political
desire, Verlia prevents her personal desire from becoming the more complicated form of desire
that Brand describes. For Verlia, romantic relationships lack ferocity, sense-making and faith.
While for Elizete, personal desire allows for a valuing of her political desires, for Verlia, her
political desire entails a devaluing of her personal desires.
While Brand describes desire as embodied, Verlia doesn't connect embodiment to the
other elements of desire and is therefore overwhelmed and confused by how sex with Abena
could produce a kind of knowledge: "If desire could break you just so by surprise and not harm
you" (187). Verlia does not connect this experience to her awakening about self-loathing at the
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Black Power meeting, which was also overwhelming, but not harmful (170). Instead, she sees
personal relationships as being the antithesis of social change, and inherently lacking ferocity. In
arguing with Abena over political action, Verlia separates personal relationships from political
knowledge. Furthermore, Verlia separates anything that happens in personal relationships from
the sense-making that has shaped her as an activist. She says:
"Stop acting this way because we fuck for Christ' sake. What are the conditions?
When will the time be right?"
"Because we fuck? Who taught you anything? Including fucking!" (186)
Abena counters with the recognition that Verlia' s learning has in fact been an integrated
experience ofpersonal and political.30
While Verlia' s conception of love clearly excludes ferocity and sense-making, even more
importantly, it lacks is faith. It is this lack that dooms her relationships, and motivates her to keep
leaving. In her relationship with Abena, even Abena knows that Verlia has no faith.
And Abena, feeling her tense and balk, murmured in her own sweet sleep, "Don't
worry, don't worry. I won't..." Won't what? Won't say. Won't tell. Won't
remember. Won't hold you to it. Won't die. Won't hate you. Won't want you
fully. Won't come back. [...] Abena expects nothing ofher, she's already
calculated that all that could be hoped for is something silent. (188)
Verlia's wondering about what Abena won't do reflects her own ambivalence.31 This
ambivalence contrasts starkly with Elizete's faith.
TA
Verlia momentarily wants to integrate the two, but she can't fully commit to it. "[...] hungry
for declaration. [...]She waits for Abena to wake up to tell her, 'I'm here too you know,' even if
it is without conviction to start but, yes, here she was" (188).
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Verlia's lack of faith is directly proportional to her fear. Verlia's fear (and her subsequent
inability to commit fully to a relationship) is a product of both her marginalization and her
relative privilege. In other words, Verlia lacks faith as a result of fear that is produced by both
racism and whiteness, both oppression and epistemology. As with Elizete's desire, Adrienne
Rich's "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying" is helpful in understanding Verlia's desire.
For Elizete, reading Rich showed how negotiation and contestation over "truth" is productive
and necessary, ifpainful. For Verlia, Rich helps us understand the origins of lies between women
and the destructive nature ofthose lies. Rich's description of the liar articulates Verlia's fear and
lying. Rich writes, "Lying is done with words, and also with silence" (186), which describes
Verlia's evasiveness. Despite thinking that Elizete is the woman she will be with "for ever"
(201), Verlia is fearful and withholds from her. When Elizete asks her why she's with her, Verlia
responds '"You know.' In her choppy way and hiding" (73). Elizete recognizes that Verlia is
afraid of nakedness and vulnerability. This fear of vulnerability is a product of oppression and
identification with oppressors. Rich explains how oppression makes us liars: "There is a danger
run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we
carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us" (1 89). Verlia is not
consciously lying, but her internalization and fear make her not fully honest. Moreover, as Rich
explains: "The liar lives in fear of losing control" (1 87). Verlia's fear of lack of control is not
purely the result of her marginalization and self-loathing, it is also a product of her acceptance of
the logics of whiteness and dominance. In this case, it is not so much a sense of internalized
This ambivalence continues long after she leaves. When she goes to Grenada, she is essentially
two-timing. She "called Abena and became sad. I don't know why" (208), but also tells Elizete
that "nothing is there" (77) and that Abena was "not enough" (102).
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inferiority so much as acceptance of the desires promoted by domination that lead to the fear of
loss of control.
Verlia's fear, along with her rigid binaries, causes her to reject the relationship between
love and revolution. She relegates love and physical embodiment to a lesser experience, while
elevating politics and revolution. In so doing, she refuses to let love inhabit the complicated
space of desire articulated by Brand in A Map to the Door ofNo Return. Refusing to be Elizete's
"grace," Verba says: "I don't want to be. Look Elizete, don't try and seduce me. I don't believe
in seduction. If you're coming you come with your head clear. Seduction is a thing between a
man and a woman. There is no seduction between women. This is harder" (74). On the one hand,
Verlia rejects seduction (one of her terms for assimilation and hopelessness) and gendered
hierarchies. On the other hand, by demanding that Elizete "come with [her] head clear," she
denies the possibility of faith and refuses to go beyond reason, a refusal that seems decidedly
unrevolutionary.
Verlia's inability to integrate love and revolution, and combine the different elements of
desire, comes to a head in the issue of healing trauma. Brand concludes her discussion of desire
in Map to the Door ofNo Return with "Making sense may be what desire is. Or, putting the
senses back together" (195). This putting the senses back together is hugely important for
For Rich, this type of fear is not a simple identification with dominance. She writes that the
liar fears a void within her, which "is not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or
capitalism," instead it is a more basic human fear of darkness, death and unknowability "that
materialism denies" (191). As Rich writes: "We are all afraid. [. . .] What is this particular fear
that possesses the liar? She is afraid that her own truths are not good enough" (191). In this way
we can see that dominant epistemologies become a way for the liar to avoid facing her fears.
These lies, however, bolster oppression. And, Rich wants us to consider "[...] the lies of the
powerful, the lie as a false source of power. Women have to think about whether we want, in our
relationships with each other, the kind of power that can be obtained through lying" (190).
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recovering from trauma. For example, this is what connects to Elizete and Abena, and allows
them to come to terms with trauma. And this is exactly what Verlia can't do, until her jump from
the cliff.
Putting the Senses Back Together
All of Verlia' s leaving results in her cutting herself off from parts of herself and
ultimately not being able to put the pieces back together again. In Toronto, Verlia begins to feel
the burden of this fragmentation: "She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back
from wherever the pieces had gone skittering." (95). This is part of her motivation to return to
the Caribbean. However, going to Grenada does not restore Verlia' s internal unity. When the US
invasion happens, she writes: "The radio is playing up-tempo music as if nothing is happening. I
can't stand it. I wish Elizete would turn the fucking thing off. I have got to get out ofhere. IfI
don't my head will split in many, many pieces" (228). Nevertheless, it is in Grenada with Elizete
that Verlia comes closest to being able to integrate these parts of herself.
On the day of her death, Verlia merges private and public, love and revolution, by
allowing Elizete to take her hand when they join the other activists. If integrating these parts of
her life seems possible in this moment, why does Verlia jump? As Elizete puts it "She bet all she
life on this revolution. She had no place else to go, no other countries, no other revolution"
(114). However, more importantly, Verlia sees the invasion as an irreparable heartbreak, and in
this moment of bringing love and revolution together, she sees both being taken away from her:
"What did they think they were taking? Only her heart. [. . .] Well, let them take her heart too. If
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it was so important to some white man thousands of miles away, so important that all these
planes were coming for it and all these bombs were going to kill it, let them have it" (117).
The failure of the revolution, the overwhelmingness of the forces against it and her confirm
Verlia's sense that nowhere is safe. There is no place in this world where her desire, personal or
political, can be realized or can exist without being violently suppressed.
In this moment Verba tragically combines her political love with her romantic one; she
merges them by jumping off the cliff. Verlia gets all the activists running to the ocean, thinking
"her heart so big she heard it in her ear. And pushing and running and running and forgetting she
felt someone behind her, 'Comrade, run! Comrade, sister, lover, run, not today, not today' [...]
Who was behind her. Who was she leaving. 'Run, comrade!'" (245). In her jump she leaves
Elizete, but calls her to join. In this way, she blends revolution with love—Elizete is both
comrade and lover—but only in escape and death, not in this world. As with Elizete, the jump's
initial illegibility is resolved by understanding a more complicated notion of desire, one that goes
beyond the white, normative desires that the national narrative assumes from immigrants.
Verlia's jump is now legible in terms of a complex set of causes. Her fear is the result of a legacy
of slavery and continued oppression. This fear results in her internalization of white
epistemologies and values, which ultimately make it virtually impossible to integrate her life into
a complete whole. While she is more privileged, assimilable, and "white" than Elizete, Verlia has
internalized racism and binaries and Brand represents the psychological stakes of this. Verlia's
split desires represent a double bind where comfort equals psychological death and her unsafe
revolutionary life results in literal death.
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Making legible Verlia's jump also has the effect ofmaking illegible (and thus delegitimating) the white, nationalist desires that pushed her to it. From the vantage point of
Verlia's death, which puts the senses back together, the US invasion makes no sense. Through
much of her life, Verlia has valued the political above the personal, but in her death she makes an
interesting reversal; she inverts the personal and the political so that her heart becomes the object
of the invasion, rather than any "big" objective such as national security. In depicting US
militarism in this way, Brand draws our attention to a few things. First, the huge effort that
whites make to stay dominant is shown in the way that the might of the US military would be
brought in to take something so personal and small as her heart. From this perspective, the action
reads as unnecessary, mean-spirited, and purely aggressive dominance. Second, the logic
justifying the invasion was Cold War logic, which was purportedly about safety—the safety of
Americans, the American way of life and American values, such as democracy. After
understanding the different model of desire and safety from Elizete and Verlia, the idea that
safety can be conceived of in these terms is nonsensical. The invasion seems counter-intuitive,
not safe at all, where violence produces more overall unsafety. With Verlia and Elizete, the
personal provided the potential for safety in an unsafe geo-historical landscape. In the invasion's
logic, the geopolitical forces of militarism are to protect the small and personal, the lives of
"ordinary Americans." But as we see in the novel, the effects of this "protection" were to destroy
the lives and livelihoods of many. The supposed safety of the personal lives of "average white
Americans" was prioritized over the safety of Third World women of color, such as Verlia and
Elizete. Moreover, this prioritizing of certain people did not have the effect of actually making
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those same people feel safer.
Thus, the logic ofthe invasion is revealed to be even more
illogical.34
Conclusion
As I stated at the beginning of this chapter, the myth of Canadian haven expresses a
nationally specific form of whiteness that is indicative of a more general phenomenon of
whiteness. In particular, I argue that whiteness in North American national narratives assumes
the transparency of nonwhite immigrant desire. This assumption upholds a white supremacist
belief that the "Northern" nations are superior, and therefore, desirable. In Elizete's experience,
however, the North is not so different from the South, undermining the assumed relationship
between Canada and safety. Moreover, her desire to come to Canada but not to assimilate
challenges the innate desirability of the North in general, and Canada in particular. While
assimilation to Canadian-ness is at least partially possible for Verlia, it is not desirable as it
results in psychological death. For Verlia, there is in fact a difference between Canada and the
Caribbean, but that difference doesn't get to the "heart" of the problem. Moving to Canada does
not allow her to heal from trauma. In fact, it makes it worse by re-inscribing the binaries that
The Cold War mentality was defined by fear and paranoia. In addition, Verlia notes the
fearfulness of white people with respect to people of color (158).
We might extend this critique to other logics that define the white backlash. For example, anti-
affirmative action arguments often rely on the white fear that jobs or spaces in universities are
being taken away from them and "given" to minorities. However, denying admission/hiring to
those minorities who benefit from affirmative action would not radically increase the number of
spaces for white people. The larger obstacles to many white people's education and employment,
such as downsizing and lack of funding for higher education, never enter into these debates. In
other words, anti-affirmative action goes after the "small, personal" lives of minorities while not
addressing the larger issues facing struggling white people.
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caused her fragmentation and inability to heal and love. If whiteness is a set of dominant values
and lifestyles that are made invisible and normative through national narratives about desire and
safety, both Elizete and Verlia's desires disrupt the way that whiteness and national identity
mutually support one another.
By critiquing the myth of Canadian haven less on the basis of its truth than on the basis of
its desirability, Verlia's story changes the direction of the critique of whiteness. Elizete's critique
of whiteness focused on the intersecting power structures ofracism, patriarchy and capitalism. In
Elizete' s summation, white people are evil, and their desires are somewhat beyond the point. In
Verlia's section, it is white desires and epistemologies that produce the oppression both she and
Elizete experience. In addition, Verlia's internalization of whiteness complicates racial binaries
and shows that the problems of white desires and epistemologies are not limited to white
individuals, but also shape people and communities of color. While for Elizete whiteness is a
static system, for Verlia whiteness moves, and in fact she moves in relation to whiteness. Her
experiences with whiteness suggest, on the one hand, that whiteness is unbeatable and hard to
challenge: "It is always changing on you though it stays the same, immovable" (180). However,
because she is able to move with respect to it—sometimes rejecting it, sometimes internalizing it,
sometimes trying to undo that internalizaton—we see that it is, in fact, possible to challenge
whiteness. Verlia works, if not entirely successfully, to unlearn the epistemologies that support
whiteness. Her efforts suggest the possibility that white people might unlearn these
epistemologies as well.
In order to unlearn epistemologies of domination, we must reconceptualize the
relationship between desire and safety, for it is Verlia's desires that propel her movements away
from whiteness. The fear betrayed by the white people who avoid looking at Verlia on the
subway and by the US invasion of Grenada suggest that while whiteness may be tied to a desire
for safety, it is also premised on the unattainability of safety. Moreover, the mainstream
conception of safety, as normative lifestyle and material gain, produces simplified desires, in
which safety means lack of pain or conflict. Desire between Elizete and Verlia, in contrast, is
more complicated and suggests a vision of safety that does not rely on the logic of whiteness and
domination. Their desire is painful, but productive. Despite the power disparities, Verlia and
Elizete recognize that they need something from the other. And what they get from the other is
the result of not only their similarities, but also their differences. Their ability to attain healing
and growth is based on a combination of shared humanity and rejection of white epistemology.
The novel leaves unresolved whether this kind of painful, collaborative healing process
can apply to white people. Certainly Elizete' s white rapist and the Klan members Verlia
encounters cannot participate in this kind of conversation; they are buffered from the violence
they inflict and they don't believe that they share humanity with those they harm. However, this
is not because of an absolute difference that makes white people and minorities mutually
unintelligible. Nor, is their inability to participate simply the result of inequality, for that existed
between Elizete and Verlia. Rather, I argue they are prevented by desire, desire structured by
whiteness. To explain this, I turn again to the image of the woman with the KKK tattoo.
It is not a matter of absolute difference nor inequality that separates Verlia from the white
woman. Verlia expects that as women, they might have some connection. Unlike the man who
rapes Elizete, the man and woman at the KKK rally are not defined by their wealth. Rather, they
are defined by their lack of it. Verlia notes: "the detail of mascaraed eyes [...] the terrible
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appliqué [. . .] the common ordinariness of T-shirts" (174). While poorer whites may bear the
stereotype-burden of representing racism, they are not the biggest beneficiaries ofracism and
capitalism. The couple's participation in the rally represents the clear failure of white people—
the inability to look across racial difference. It is not their power, per se, that prevents them from
seeing Verlia as sharing humanity with them. Their painful refusal is itself what prohibits them
from participating in shared struggle. Their refusal represents a desire, whether a desire for
perceived freedom from economic competition or a desire for cultural supremacy. Verlia
describes such a desire as: "hard to return to if she declared herselfhuman. Worse, them too. [...]
she never works it out or recovers or understands because it would be like understanding evil"
(174). Importantly, their explicitly racist desire is not the only kind of desire that prevents white
people from collaborating with people of color for justice. As I have shown, national desires are
also white supremacist, although they sometimes better mask their racism. So, the novel never
resolves the question of whether white people can participate in healing, but it does suggest that
to do so would require active relinquishing of the logic of whiteness and a return to humanity.
In conclusion, Brand represents the dangers of internalizing whiteness for Black people.
Moreover, she represents the dangers of white desires and epistemologies more broadly. She
does however suggest hope. Through her attempts to embrace a more complicated desire with
Elizete, Verlia grows in a way she was unable to with Abena. Brand suggests that death is not the
only place for growth and healing. Abena is very much affected by the same internalization as
Verlia, but she is able to heal through testifying with Elizete. In both cases, power inequalities
exist but the goal, desire, is shared. Abena and Verlia may both be more privileged and have
more power than Elizete, but they need her to heal from their own hurt. Moreover, the help they
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give her—"to sort her head out"—is not the kind of help that they had imagined that she needed.
All this suggests that healing through conversation and coalition, despite power disparities, is
possible.
In Map to the Door ofNo Return, Brand writes: "Writing is an act of desire, as is reading.
Why does someone enclose a set of apprehensions within a book? Why does someone else open
that book if not because of the act of wanting to be wanted, to be understood, to be seen, to be
loved?" (192). It seems to me that Brand is inviting a larger readership to participate in this kind
of project.
Chapter 4
(Mis)Recognition , Whiteness and the Struggle for Racial Reconciliation
For me it is a great consolation to know that whatever miserable
things happen in my lifetime, goodness will inevitably result
because I will write about it.
That's the power ofimagination, peeking beyond thefence ofyour
personal reality and seeing the possibilities thereafter.
Helena Maria Viramontes, from "Nopalitos "
While almost everyone can agree on the need for racial reconciliation and healing, there
is a rift between whites and non-whites about what this means and how to achieve it. For white
people, reconciliation means something like forgiveness and finding a fixed solution that leaves
the past in the past. In contrast, for groups injured by the effects of whiteness, something
different is needed.1 Robert Morales, ChiefNegotiator ofthe Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group,
describes this as the three R's: recognition, restoration (or restitution), and reconciliation. He
explains, first there needs to be recognition: "There has to be an acceptance by the general
public, by the politicians, by the bureaucracies, that aboriginal people have these rights [to lands,
resources, and self-determination], just like everyone else" (Egan, "From Dispossession" 34647.). As result of the "150 years of colonial attitudes and colonial destruction [in British
Columbia] and denial of those two issues, ownership of land and jurisdiction," Morales argues
As discussed in Chapter Two, with respect to racial trauma, whiteness and national narratives
promote "closing the chapter" and putting trauma behind us. In addition, Brian Egan makes a
convincing argument that the definition of reconciliation is different for white people than it is
for First Nations people. White people tend to believe that reconciliation is a one-time event,
whereas First Nations people understand it to be an ongoing negotiation (see Egan "Titles,
Territories, Treaties").
that aboriginal people need to be restored (in Egan's words "restored to ownership of lands and
resources, restored to jurisdiction over territories, restored to some semblance of their historic
wealth"). It is not until the first two Rs are achieved, that we can consider reconciliation.
I believe Morales' s description of the three Rs is applicable far beyond the context of
treaty making between the government of British Columbia and First Nations groups. While
white people want (or whiteness and the erasing of white privilege encourages us) to jump right
to the third step, bypassing the work of the first two, in this chapter, I focus on the first step:
recognition. What does recognition require of whites (and nonwhites)? Can it be something
different than "white guilt"? Might recognition be a way ofmediating the various claims to
trauma? A way to accommodate the feelings and experiences of trauma among white people,
without erasing or obscuring those of nonwhites, those produced by the very fact of whiteness
itself?
This chapter examines two short stories, one by Helena Maria Viramontes and one by
Bharati Mukherjee. In these stories, internal emotional states, in the form of grief and intimate
loss, open up the potential for changes in our external relations with others. In particular, they
suggest how recognition of one's own pain can lead to the recognition of the pain of others. It
builds on ideas of subjectivity from the previous chapter, how deeply personal experiences of
loss lead to connection and even struggle as a way to grow and heal. But it also returns to the
problems announced in the first two chapters: Is there a way for white people to identify with
Restoration is perhaps better addressed by other disciplines. That is, while some elements of
restitution might be related to discourse and representation (e.g. inclusion in the canon), much is
related to the material realm where the disciplines of the social sciences are better equipped to
consider what restoration might mean. Reconciliation is the direction I hope to pursue in the
future (my mythical "second project").
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nonwhites in a way that does not merely manage white anxieties surrounding the violence
produced by whiteness (as seen in Chapter 1)? Can identification work as something other than
appropriation via analogy (as seen in Chapter 2)? I argue, yes. I describe identification without
appropriation as a form of recognition, which is a necessary component in the active reshaping of
whiteness, and these texts suggest a potential (and a challenge) for whites to struggle in this
collective healing process.
Recognition:
Recognition can be a productive way to mediate different forms oftrauma and loss
without counterproductive guilt or appropriation. In the texts I examine, recognition is something
personal, unpredictable, and essential. It also has important valences for understanding the
functioning of whiteness in response to challenges to its dominance, and the possibility for white
people to participate in challenging white supremacy. This section lays out theoretical
approaches to recognition, beginning with recognition as a form of inclusion, to recognition as
material corrective measures, and finally as a deeper psychological commitment.
A useful starting place is Charles Taylor's "Politics of Recognition." Taylor is a
prominent philosopher, one that Canadians are proud to claim. He is known for his collectivist
critique of traditional liberalism (collectivism being something that supposedly distinctively
defines Canada).3 Taylor's oft-cited essay, "Politics of Recognition," maintains that recognition
See Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971).
is crucial in a pluralistic society, yet challenges claims made by "multiculturalists." Taylor
argues that the problem facing contemporary, pluralistic, liberal democracies is the apparent
contradiction between universality and particularity. If liberal democracy is based on rights that
apply to all of us equally regardless of our membership in collectivities, how can it also
accommodate the fact that as individuals we are constituted by these collectivities (which may
require different treatment)? As he writes: "Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm,
can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of
being" (25). As such, recognition is "a vital human need" (26). His solution is "a willingness to
be open to comparative cultural study of the kind that must displace our horizons in the resulting
fusions" (73). His main critique of multiculturalism (as he understands it) is what he sees as the
"demand [. ..] that we all recognize the equal value of different cultures; that we not only let
them survive, but acknowledge their worth" (italics in original, 64). Taylor has been critiqued on
many fronts. For example, Ian Angus argues that Taylor's call for a fusion of horizons does not
take into account the fact that, in a multicultural society, all ofus are shaped by the many
cultures we interact with (i.e. none of us are culturally pure to begin with). Most important for
me is the way that Taylor's description of recognition (and his critique of "multicuturalists")
reveals the workings of whiteness, and their connection to national identity.
In her essay "Charles Taylor's Politics of Recognition: A Critique," Himani Bannerji
most bluntly addresses this point (Dark Side). She points out that Taylor's notion of recognition
Taylor has been acknowledged as an authority or standard on politics of recognition. See
Gutmann for a collection that includes this essay with other prominent philosophers' responses.
In addition to Gutmann' s introductory essay, the collection includes responses from Jürgen
Habermas and Anthony Kwame Appiah, giving some idea of the prominence of Taylor's
thinking on the issue of pluralism and liberal democracies.
ignores power relations, relegating recognition to the realm of acknowledgement of different
cultures' "worth" rather than correcting injustice.5 Her observations go to both the content and
style of his argument. She notes that his "polite" tone makes it difficult to argue with him (133),
but that even this tone betrays itself in his angry dismissal of feminists and Marxists (132) and in
his "tone ofpanic when he reminds 'us' that our borders are 'porous,' allowing in religions such
as islam [sic] which plunge us into dilemmas of whether 'we' should refuse 'their' cultures"
(137). Indeed in her reading ofhis tone, we can see shades of the "angry white man" of the
1990s US culture wars, in Taylor's supposedly disinterested, reasoned, philosophical argument.
Bannerji astutely observes that Taylor refuses any acknowledgement of hegemony, and that he
is, in fact, quite dismissive of the philosophical work of those who investigate how power
relations shape epistemology and aesthetics. This refusal creates a significant blind spot in
Taylor's reasoning: the unquestioning of why "we" (Canadians of European descent) have the
power to grant recognition to "them" (nonwhite others) in the first place (136). Bannerji's
critique that Taylor's politics ofrecognition is based on a notion of a white, Canadian "we" and a
non-white, immigrant "they" is seconded by Winifred Siemerling in The New North American
Studies: Culture, Writing, and the Politics ofRe/cognition.
Both Bannerji and Siemerling identify how Taylor mischaracterizes claims for
"recognition"—a misunderstanding that I think has much to do with whiteness. As Bannerji
From Bannerji's perspective, multiculturalism is simply a policy for "managing" difference, a
policy that recognizes different cultures without changing the legal and economic structures of
discrimination. As discussed in Chapter Two, this form of multiculturalism is extremely
important in contemporary white Canadian national identity. Bannerji sees Taylor as an "elite
organic intellectual," who is a proponent of multiculturalism as a "ruling category" despite his
critique of "multiculturalists" (125).
points out, Taylor claims that recognition is the central issue for marginalized groups, arguing
that claims about injustice are merely cover for this more fundamental desire. As Siemerling
notes, Taylor chooses a straw man version of multiculturalism to argue against: one that
supposedly "demands" that minority cultural productions be accorded "worth." I think that this
mischaracterization is crucial. Whether it is willful or not, it reflects a perspective of embattled
whiteness that is being called upon by an unreasonable group to change in a way that is unfair. In
this formulation, whites are reasonable and fair, while non-whites are unreasonable and unfair.
For Taylor, recognition cannot include the elements called for by Morales: recognition of injury,
recognition ofrights, recognition of the need for correction of injustice. Such recognition would
challenge the supposed neutrality of his "reasoned" argument, thereby shaking one of the very
foundations of white privilege: its invisibility and neutrality.
Taylor seems like he would provide useful idea of recognition. In particular, his claim
that "misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound,
saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred" seems to suggest a concern with the connection
between injury and identity (26). However, upon closer inspection, we see that Taylor does not
conceive of injury beyond the symbolic. In other words, he seems to acknowledge the need for
some form of recognition of others' cultures and cultural productions, but this recognition does
not extend to inequality and injustice. Moreover, his depiction of the "demand" for recognition
of equal worth implies another victim: the normative white who is being bullied to make
ostensibly inauthentic judgments.
Both Bannerji and Siemerling provide more nuanced definitions of what true recognition
would require. For Bannerji "Recognition needs respect and dignity, its basic principle is
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accepting the autonomy of the other, and being honest about power relations which hinder this
autonomy" (149). Siemerling provides a less material suggestion. Building on Sacvan
Bercovitch, he argues "the recognition of the limit and thus forms of re/cognition, not the
apparently easily available 'recognition' by the standards of identity and sameness, increases the
chances of avoiding the pitfalls of projection. This implies moving not within but constantly
across the borders and against the dict(at)ions of a "home understanding" (153).6 In both cases,
challenging unquestionable whiteness is central.
Questioning whiteness is easier said than done, for white people far more progressive
than Taylor fall into similar traps. In "Rethinking Recognition," feminist scholar Nancy Fraser
attempts to address the material aspect ofrecognition—one that would allow for restitution. She
worries that current struggles for recognition either displace economic disadvantage onto the
problem of discriminatory imagery, or reify identity in a way that promotes separatism. Instead,
she argues for:
[An] alternative politics of recognition, a non-identitarian politics that can remedy
misrecognition without encouraging displacement and reification. The status
model, I have argued, provides the basis for this. By understanding recognition as
Siemerling distinguishes between recognition and re/cognition: "In the first case of recognition,
by given standards, it is a normative, repeated cognition, that is, a matching process and
recognition of sameness attributed to the other. In another sense of re-cognition, it would be
cognition of self and other in a different way that cannot retain the same ground of cognition; at
least from the present point of view of the cognizer, this model implies a certain nontransparency" (140). Siemerling argues that Taylor sees multiculturalism calling for
"recognition" and is ambivalent about the more challenging "re-cognition." As such, Taylor
limits recognition to assimilation rather than a more significant challenge to normative
perspectives (142). Siemerling advocates unhomeliness. Re-cognition is uncertainty, whereas
recognition maintains a safe, certain "home understanding."
a question of status, and by examining its relation to economic class, one can take
steps to mitigate, if not fully solve, the displacement of struggles for
redistribution; and by avoiding the identity model, one can begin to diminish, if
not fully dispel, the dangerous tendency to reify collective identities. (120)
While Fraser clearly addresses Bannerji's concern with material injustice, her dismissal of the
role of collective identity is problematic.7 1 commend her call for a politics ofredistribution and
her emphasis on structural injustice; however, downplaying identity, especially racial identity,
risks supporting a neutral, color-blind approach to recognition. Colorblindness is not Fraser's
aim for she acknowledges that misrecognition is not merely material, and includes elements such
as social discrimination. Nevertheless, her approach collapses the distinction between
recognition and restitution in ways that undermine reconciliation.
Fraser is far more committed to change than Taylor, and is not concerned with the question
of "how much is too much." Yet, it's hard not to hear whiteness speak in her desire to avoid
"valorizing group identity." Like Taylor, she argues "the identity model [...] accord[s] an a
priori privilege to approaches that valorize group specificity" (116). She sees group identity as
overshadowing the complexity of intersectionality (as if these two were mutually exclusive).
Moreover, her fear of "separatism" seems rooted in a white, national civic culture, where
To be fair, Fraser does acknowledge "Not all forms of recognition politics are equally
pernicious: some represent genuinely emancipatory responses to serious injustices that cannot be
remedied by redistribution alone. Culture, moreover, is a legitimate, even necessary, terrain of
struggle, a site of injustice in its own right and deeply imbricated with economic inequality.
Properly conceived, struggles for recognition can aid the redistribution of power and wealth and
can promote interaction and cooperation across gulfs of difference" (108-9). Nevertheless, she
consistently downplays the role of identity.
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separation is seen as "dangerous."8 Particularly striking to me is the fact that somehow, in
Fraser' s rendering, recognition seems to have less to do with a process the dominant group must
undergo than a different claim that marginalized groups should make in order to be heard. She
writes:
On the status model, then, misrecognition constitutes a form of institutionalized
subordination, and thus a serious violation ofjustice. Wherever and however it
occurs, a claim for recognition is in order. But note precisely what this means:
aimed not at valorizing group identity but rather at overcoming subordination, in
this approach claims for recognition seek to establish the subordinated party as a
full partner in social life, able to interact with others as a peer. (114)
While Taylor considered recognition to be good that "we," white people, bestow on "them,"
people of color, for Fraser recognition (and correction) of status subordination should be what
minorities and allies work for. Her model requires institutional change certainly, but not exactly
recognition on the part of dominant society. Change and justice are important goals in and of
themselves, but there remains the question of healing and reconciliation. As Anne Anlin Cheng
writes in The Melancholy ofRace:
Part of the problem has to do with how we understand social healing and the
tendency to rely on exclusively material and quantifiable terms to articulate that
Significantly, the example of status recognition that she provides is that of marriage laws
preventing gay marriage. At the risk of sounding snarky, I question whether she is really worried
about LGBT separatism. I have to wonder if LGBT identity is really her target when she talks
about the how struggles for recognition "tend, rather, to encourage separatism, intolerance and
chauvinism, patriarchalism and authoritarianism. [...] the problem ofreification." (108)
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injury. The vocabulary of grievance (and its implied logic of comparability and
compensation) that constitutes so much of American political discourse has
ironically deflected attention away from a serious look at the more immaterial,
unquantifiable repository of public and private grief that has gone into the making
of the so-called minority subject and that sustains the notion of "one nation." (6)
Cheng argues that that grief (in the form of melancholia) shapes white subjects as well. From this
perspective, Fraser' s notion recognition as the process of correcting subordination is missing a
crucial piece.
In "Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism," Fraser asserts "misrecognition is an
institutionalized social relation, not a psychological state" (141). I counter that the psychological
state is, in fact, exactly where we need to look to challenge white dominance and backlash. As
Cheng writes: "when it comes to facing discrimination, we need to understand subjective agency
as a convoluted, ongoing, generative, and at times self-contradicting negotiation with pain" (15).
This is not, of course, to deny the reality of institutionalized discrimination, but rather to
supplement it.
I argue that engaging with pain can produce a different type of recognition, and that
reading the literary productions of so-called others promotes this kind ofrecognition.9 In
Between the Body and the Flesh, Lynda Hart examines Dorothy Allison's "frisson of
recognition" upon reading the works of Irena Klepfisz, Jewish lesbian Holocaust survivor. This
As I concluded the last chapter, Dionne Brand observes "Writing is an act of desire, as is
reading. Why does someone enclose a set of apprehensions within a book? Why does someone
else open that book if not because of the act of wanting to be wanted, to be understood, to be
seen, to be loved?" (192). Recognition here is far from material.
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recognition is something quite different from the forms described above. As Hart writes:
[A]fter making her point that it was Klepfisz's poems that first engendered her
way of thinking about her own survival as 'poor white trash,' she immediately
elucidates the differences between them. Nonetheless it was that moment of
frisson that preceded her thinking about differences. Indeed it was the emotional
reaction that appears to have enabled her ability to think about differences, (italics
in original 168)
Hart also points to Allison's citing of Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga, two women of color, in
her own writing about sexuality and class. Hart is careful to question the potential problems of
recognition resulting from identification, but she importantly draws our attention to what this
recognition might also enable.10 Hart writes:
Allison's citations can also be regarded as a set of unconscious relations, affinities
that might be understood, borrowing from Raymond Williams's terminology, as a
"structure of feeling" that recognizes differences but that nonetheless
acknowledges similarities without enforcing a resolution inadequate to the task of
representing the complex psychic and political negotiations among, between, and
within feminists. (168)
10 Hart asks us to think about "how such identifications work" (170). She cites Judith Roofs
argument against analogies, but argues against completely rejecting them. She claims that
without the possibility of analogy, we are thrust into complete relativism (here she draws on
Satya Mohanty's "Us and Them") (167-68). For example, despite their differences, Allison,
Klepfisz, Lorde and Moraga all share "a common alienationfrom this allusive/illusive category
[of "lesbian"]" (170). Ultimately, Hart argues that Bastard Out ofCarolina is an important book
for the feminist movement because it offers "various points of entry and identifications" for a
wide and diverse audience (170).
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Hart's claim can be extended beyond the context of feminist coalition building. I think Hart's
idea of recognition might allow for white people to participate in the project of destabilizing
whiteness, in a way that does not falsely deny our white privilege, appropriate the experiences of
people of color, or result in paralyzing guilt. As I understand it, recognition here, as a structure of
feeling, is identification with an experience that cannot yet be articulated or conceptualized. In
terms ofreading, this suggests something beyond "identifying with" a character whom we find
sympathetic, or simply understanding that the situation a character faces is unjust.11 Recognition,
in this sense, is not cerebral, but intimate. It is intimate because it has to do with our feelings
about experiences that we cannot yet put into words. Cerebral recognition of unjust relations
without recognition of similarities can result in counterproductive feelings of guilt. In addition,
recognition can be a crucial part of healing from trauma as it can allow one to conceptualize and
articulate traumatic feelings and experiences that have not been integrated.
It is important to pair this subjective recognition with Morales' s more external view of
recognition, where we acknowledge wrongs and the need to right them. In other words, the
subjective is extremely important for the possibility of healing (and avoiding guilt), but we need
some sense of objective reality.12 Indeed, without an objective idea of injury, we can find
Simple identification allows readers to associate themselves with characters without reflecting
on the differences in their positions, and gives the affective experiences of readers primacy over
the events and experiences testified to in the text. For more on the problems with this type for
reading see the following: "Afghanistan Meets the Amazon": Reading The Kite Runner in
America" by Timothy Aubry, "The Problem with Identification" by Susan Bernstein, and "The
Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics" by Lauren Berlant.
As Satya Mohanty argues in Literary Theory and the Claims ofHistory, there must be a way to
differentiate truth claims. On the one hand, there is no reason we cannot "recognize" others: "No
matter how different cultural Others are, they are never so different that they are—as typical
members of their culture—incapable of acting purposefully, of evaluating their actions in light of
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ourselves with the problem demonstrated in Chapter One, in which white subjects can come to
understand their oppression by way of recognizing themselves in people of color, without also
coming to understand their role in oppressing those same people. In what follows here, I show
how Viramontes and Mukherjee's texts approach this combined form of recognition (external
and subjective) and perhaps guide a white readership towards it.
"The Cariboo Café": Misrecognition
Viramontes's story is a tragic one, dominated by loss, madness, meanness, and
culminating in a violent death. But it is in the overabundance of suffering that I want to suggest
something else is possible. The story is divided into three parts, each from the perspective of a
different character. It begins with two children: a boy and a girl, children of undocumented
Mexican immigrants, who have locked themselves out of their home. An undocumented
immigrant from El Salvador finds the children. Her son was disappeared by the Salvadoran
military government (or possibly the rebels); however, when she sees the children she believes
that the boy is, in fact, her son. They then enter the Cariboo Café where the white proprietor of
the café takes a shine to the young boy, who reminds him of his own son who was killed in
Vietnam. He then recognizes the child's face on_TV. The next day, when they return to the café,
their ideas and previous experiences, and of being "rational" in this minimal way" (198). Despite
this "universal humanism," he goes on to argue that some ways of understanding the world are
more accurate than others. Mohanty writes: "In the postpositivist picture ofknowledge I am
outlining here, some evaluations—from vaguely felt ethical judgments to more developed
normative theories of right and wrong—can in crucial circumstances enable and facilitate greater
accuracy in representing social reality, providing better ways of organizing the relevant or salient
facts, urging us to look in newer and more productive ways" (214). As such, we need to find a
way to adjudicate between different interpretations of the world.
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the proprietor calls the police. In the ensuing confrontation, the officer shoots the unnamed
woman in the face.
My primary concern is the parallel between the woman and the café owner. Both have
lost a child. In both cases, the loss is related to US militarism and imperialism in the Cold War
era. This parallel is highlighted in the fact that each misrecognizes the little boy as his/her own
son. Despite their parallel misrecognition, neither recognizes the other as a parent suffering the
loss of a child. Given their similarities, this disconnect is stark and ultimately motivates his
calling the authorities. The differences come down to power. She is undocumented and mentally
ill; he is a citizen (or at least legal resident), business owner, and while his loss is not resolved,
he is able to function and has firmer grasp on reality. His position ofrelative power is not only a
matter ofhis white racial identity, gender identity and citizenship. At the moment of crisis, he
grasps at the logics that privilege those same positions. As I will demonstrate, the cook's choice
is not an embrace of, but a retreat into, whiteness. The conclusion is a betrayal that is brutal and,
more importantly, heartbreaking. The cook's failure of identification is a failure of courage that
kills the woman, and isolates him—on the one hand protecting his privilege, but on the other
hand, injuring him.
There are several ways in which this story overlaps with Brand's In Another Place, Not
Here. These commonalities by different authors, of different ethnicities, writing about different
countries of origin and arrival, are significant. They reveal patterns that confirm the truth of
oppression of women of color from Central American in North America. Together they reveal a
more nuanced picture the ways whiteness works in the Americas. In both, whiteness is an
1 T
These parallels were such that initially I had hoped to include the two texts in a single chapter.
oppressive system that is tied up in imperialism and patriarchy (and national identity and
borders). Both stories respond to a North American narrative about immigrant victims, who
come to the north for a "better" life. Both texts also depict victimhood in terms of intimate
emotional experience, specifically intense grief.
Just as in In Another Place, Not Here, in "The Cariboo Café" a woman from a Central
American country left in turmoil by US foreign policy is multiply oppressed. She sees the
intersecting forces of religion, men, the military, and national borders as conspiring against her.
When, like Elizete, these intersecting forms of oppression take away the one she loves, in this
case her son, her life in her home country becomes untenable and she emigrates. The Salvadoran
woman thinks: "These four walls are no longer my house; the earth beneath it, no longer my
home" (75). Moreover, this is a matter of national identity: "Is this our home? Is this our
country? I ask Maria. Don't these men have mothers, lovers, babies, sisters?" (75).
Like Elizete, the unnamed woman immigrates to the North in order to grieve, a
combination of dying/disappearing and trying to reclaim the dead. She explains: "I have two
hands willing to work. But the heart. The heart wills only to watch the children playing in the
street" (75). Her desire to immigrate therefore does not conform to US expectations regarding
immigration. She is not moving either away from trauma or toward a better economic situation—
both are immaterial to her. When she misrecognizes the boy, Macky, as her son, Geraldo, she
embraces the delusion fully. Like Elizete, she finds only one possible response: "A million
questions, one answer: Yes. Geraldo, yes" (76). And she reacts similarly, with complete faith,
throwing herself into traffic to protect him: "I grab him because the earth is crumbling beneath
us and I must save him. We both fall to the ground" (76). As with Elizete, the earth fails to
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support one in the context of such loss. And just as the overwhelming forces against Elizete and
Verlia lead Verlia to conclude that nowhere is safe, for the Salvadoran woman death provides her
only shot at freedom—as she is "blinded by the liquid darkness" she can finally believe that "we
are going home. My son and I"(79).
In both texts, whiteness functions as an oppressive other, rendering the lives of women of
color traumatic concatenations of loss. In Brand, whiteness is a silent force that upends the lives
of women of color. Viramontes, on the other hand, provides us with the voice of a white person,
a bigoted white male to be precise. Brand depicts the difficulty of this in Verlia' s struggle to
understand racist white people:
If she accepts that she shares something, anything, with them, this earth, a human
body, the sweetness of breathing, the need to eat, saliva summoning pleasure, if
she accepts this, then failure is what it all ends up being [...] she clips their
photograph from a newspaper [. . .] Not to say haunting but hard not to return to if
she declared herself human. Worse, them too. [. . .] she never works it out or
recovers or understands because it would be like understanding evil. (174)
Rather than the destructiveness Verlia sees in imagining white people to be human, Viramontes
suggests possibility in doing just that, and highlights this white man's pain and loss. The
difference, then, comes down to the definition of "understanding evil." Humanizing the cook
does not validate his behavior or make the results less horrible. It does, however, allow us to
engage with the causes in a way that Verlia is unable to (and Elizete refuses to). This difference
has implications for white participation in challenging the dominance of whiteness, both in terms
of recognizing injustice and in terms of the processes of restitution and healing. Recognition and
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misrecognition are not purely individual and subjective because, as even Charles Taylor
acknowledges, systemic misrecognition is deeply destructive. The systemic nature of
misrecognition does not, however, negate the humanity of individuals (and the role that
humanity can have in recognition). In the previous chapter, I argued that Brand shows that
individuals can move in relation to whiteness, but she left open the question of whether white
people can do so. Here I investigate how Viramontes and Mukherjee explore this possibility
through their representation of white characters, and the workings of recognition.
In "The Cariboo Café," the cook is a straight white male. He is from the working class,
but owns his own business—the run-down Cariboo Café.15 He feels at odds with undocumented
workers, likening them to cockroaches at one point (71). But, he is also alienated from
authorities, explaining "cops ain't exactly my friends, and all I need is for bacon to be crawling
all over my place" (70). So what accounts for his choice to call the police and report the
Salvadoran woman? A facile reading would state simply that identification with whiteness and
power accounts for the cook's choice, and that he makes this choice over his own sense of
disempowerment (in this case, class-based). Viramontes' s text rejects such a straightforward and
He is never explicitly defined as white in the text, however, the consensus among critics is that
he is. I would argue that if he is not actually white, he has still internalized whiteness and racism.
As a business owner, he is a citizen or at least a legal resident. His narration reveals his sense of
entitlement and belonging, and his lexicon expresses a decidedly working-class identified
persona. That he marks himself in this way, but not racially, suggests either that he is white (i.e.
considers himself unraced) or that he identifies more with whites and whiteness than the race
ascribed to him.
15 Some critics see him as representing Whiteness, Anglo-America, capitalism, or simply
dominance (Saldívar-Hull, Rodríguez, Saldivar, Swyt). Others read him as the voice of working
class and/or marginalized whites (Wilson 1999, Simal, Garza-Falcón, Carbonell). And some
focus on him as suffering individual (Yarbro-Bejarajo in introduction to Moths)
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dehumanizing reading. In fact, the story gives an unexpected, disproportionate amount of space
to his anguish and confusion.
The cook himself is puzzled about his choice and feels torn about it. He feels the need to
defend his choice, beginning his section of the story with "Don't look at me" and protesting his
good character, repeatedly characterizing himself as honest, nice, and fair.16 Initially, he holds
off on calling the police. Although he told us that the woman's face "sticks like egg yolk on a
plate," when he contemplates calling the police, he says "her face is vague now" and decides to
wait, questioning himself (70). The next morning, he reminds himself that he is "supposed to call
the cops" (71), but he does not actually do so. Instead, a regular patron overdoses in his
bathroom, essentially summoning the police. After this, something changes for the cook, and this
is what he struggles to understand in his narration.
After the overdose, something in the cook breaks. He alerts immigration officers to three
illegal immigrants who have sought shelter in his bathroom. When the Salvadoran woman and
the two children return to his café later that day, he calls the police. In his first attempt to explain
his behavior, he chalks it up to a bad day. He tells us: "See, I go bananas. Like my mind fries
with the potatoes and by the end of the day, I'm deader than dogshit. Let me tell you what I
mean" (71). He tells us about how he woke up at 4 am with a hangover. He's had to clean up the
bathroom where "vomits and shits are all over—I mean all over the fuckin' walls" (71). He
explains that he feels "used" by the illegal immigrants hiding in his bathroom (71). And finally,
that his stomach was "dizzy" and he was "all confused."
16 Saldivar-Hull argues that he is "on trial," while Garza-Falcón argues that he is speaking to a
peer. I believe the latter. His defensiveness, to my mind, reflects his internal struggle and
feelings of guilt more than any interrogation from the outside.
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These explanations, however, are unsatisfactory even to the cook and he returns to the
scene in the third section of the story. This time, however, his experience is rendered in free
indirect discourse. It is as if the cook needs to distance himself from this experience in order to
express it at all, or as if he is not actually consciously aware of it, as if the narrator has access to
an internal narrative that he cannot even verbalize. The narrator explains:
His hands tremble as he slaps the meat on the grill; the patties hiss instantly. He
feels like vomiting. The chile over-boils and singes the fires, deep red trail of
chile crawling to the floor and puddling there. He grabs the handles, burns
himself, drops the pot on the wooden racks of the floor. He sucks his fingers, the
patties blackening and sputtering grease. He flips them, the burgers hiss anew. In
some strange way he hopes they have disappeared [. . .] (77)
His agitation manifests itselfphysically in his trembling and feeling ill. He tries to exert control
over himself and ostensibly the situation by "slap[ping] meat on grill" and later by "grabfbing]
the handles." But this fails as he burns himself and drops the pot. Instinctively, the cook nurses
his injury, by "suck[ing] his fingers." The gesture is at once infantalizing, but also telling. He
instinctively cares for his physical pain, giving himself needed comfort, even if it is child-like.
He does not, however, nurse his emotional pain, and thatis the pain that continues to fester—
indeed, it is the pain that caused his initial agitation. The source of this pain can be seen in his
perception of the food he cooks. The chile is like blood; it forms red "puddles" on the floor. In
addition, it is personified, having a will of its own as it over-boils and crawls. This suggests that
it is a force outside of him. The blood echoes several violent deaths in the story. It foreshadows
the Salvadoran woman's blood on the café floor. It also hints at the deaths of the two sons. Jojo's
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death in Vietnam is alluded to by the pairing of blood with fire (singeing and blackening).
Geraldo's death in El Salvador is gestured at by the "wooden racks" suggesting torture. Much as
the cook wants to suppress all this, the insistence of the "hissing" burgers prevents him.
His physical reaction betrays a deeper psychological one. He ultimately enacts his hope
that the woman and two children "have disappeared," by ordering their disappearance by the
police.17 His actions are subsequently explored in terms ofhis sense of loss and pain:
Aw, fuck, he says, in a fog of smoke, his eyes burning tears. He can't believe it,
but he's crying. For the first time since JoJo's death, he's crying. He becomes
angry at the lady for returning. At JoJo. At Nell for leaving him. He wishes Nell
here, but doesn't know where she's at or what part of Vietnam JoJo is all
crumbled up in. Children gotta be with their parents, family gotta be together, he
thinks. It's only right. The emergency line is ringing. (77)
His "going bananas" from the first explanation can now be understood as a form of traumatic
response.18 It becomes clear that his un-grieved loss ofboth his son and his wife are intertwined
with his choice to turn the woman in. In order to perform this action, he dissociates further. Not
17
This disappearance echoes the explicit mention of disappearances throughout this story:
Sonya' s key disappears (65), the homeless man Sonya observes disappears around a corner (66),
the nameless woman wants Macky/Geraldo's hand to "disappear in [her] own because it is so
small" (76), and of course Geraldo is disappeared by the Salvadoran police/rebels.
According to Kirby Farrell in Post-traumatic Culture: "reactions to traumatic injury can be
violent as well as depressive or anxious" (4). He writes: "As Jonathan Shay emphasizes in
Achilles in Vietnam, injustices in the war and in American culture exacerbated the combat
breakdown of troops in Vietnam. Soldiers began berserking not only out of terror and loss, but
also because they felt betrayed by their own culture" (13). Moreover, traumatic response "may
be a veiled or explicit criticism of society's defects, a cry of distress and a tool grasped in hopes
of some redress, but also a justification for aggression" (14).
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only narrated in third person, this action is separated from him entirely, as if it were simply
something happening on its own: "the emergency line is ringing."
The cook is not the only character with ungrieved losses. Both the cook and the
Salvadoran woman have unresolved losses that account for the multiple misrecognitions both
engage in. These misrecognitions have painful and often violent consequences. Conversely,
recognition can have result in healing. At the outset, the story links recognition and suffering. At
the beginning of the story Sonya, the young girl, sees a homeless man sleeping on a bench and
"became aware of their mutual loneliness" (65-66). Then, after being "gruff with her brother,
she observes "[Macky's] torn jeans and her own scraped knees, she wanted to join in his sorrow
and cry" (66). Her homelessness, having lost her key, is of course very different from that of the
man who "resembled a crumbled ball of paper, huddled up in the security of a tattered coat" (65),
and she does not mistake the meaning of their mutuality and try to talk to the man who then
"urinated between two trash bins" (66). In contrast, her recognition of Macky's pain allows her
to act. She wants to cry, but instead "snuggled so close to him she could hear his stomach
growling" leading her to realize where they can find a safe place to wait for their parents, at Mrs.
Avila' s.
On the surface, Sonya has more in common with Macky and his loss (being hungry,
scared, and locked out of their home). However, her injury (the scraped knee) and her fears (of
getting in trouble) are also significantly different from his and more closely parallel the homeless
man's. As Ian Randall Wilson writes in "The Outsiders":
Sonya has lost her key—not only to the safety of the apartment which was "the
only protection against the streets" (61) until the return of the patriarchal father
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insured complete safety, but the key to the world in a symbolic sense. [. . .] Sonya
is in the difficult position of having not only lost her key but lost it most likely
when a boy wrestled her down "so that he could see her underwear" (61). Another
value is expressed here in the prohibition against things sexual easily transmitted
to a little girl. (184-85)
Wilson goes on to write: "Viramontes continues working the insider/outsider dualism, putting
the children outside in a place of fear—outside the safety of their house, outside of society,
outside of belonging" (185). Like the homeless man, Sonya is "outside," as she has failed to
abide by the rules of the patriarchal home (by both losing her key and her virtue). Her scraped
knee apparently comes about from a position of gendered subjugation, while Macky's comes
from his acting on desire (he trips chasing a boy with an ice cream cone). In this way,
symbolically, Sonya' s situation seems to parallel the utterly marginalized homeless man more
than her brother, who is valued and protected by the other characters in the story, first Sonya and
then the Salvadoran woman and the cook.
In Sonya' s recognition of her shared loneliness with the homeless man and her
recognition of Macky's fear and hunger, Viramontes shows us two different ways that
recognition might function in relation to action. In this sense, recognition and its ability to shape
the way we relate to others is not simply reliant on similarity or analogy, but on how the "frisson
of recognition" allows for us to understand both our situation and those of others. Sonya is
similar to Macky, and her situation of "homelessness" is apparently analogous to that of the man,
but what accounts for her actions is also an awareness of her position of power (such as it is).
She can feel her own sorrow but also recognize where she has the power to make change; as the
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older sibling, she is more able to act in the world and lead Macky (and herself) to safety. After
holding Macky close, the idea of finding Mrs. Avila occurs to Sonya: "It took Sonya a few
moments to realize the depth of her idea. [. . .] She grabbed his hand. [. . .] At the major
intersection, Sonya quietly calculated their next move" (66). Of course her power is limited, and
she proceeds to get them lost. What is important, here, however, is the way that her actions
demonstrate how recognition of the similarity between her own suffering and that of others
coupled with recognition of her positionality lead to action that can help her and others. On a
larger scale, she is not in a position to help the homeless man (and would potentially put herself
in a position of danger to try to). Sonya recognizes her similarity with the homeless man, but
does not approach him, while she recognizes her similarity with her brother and takes action. Her
actions demonstrate that she understands that despite their similarity, the (adult) homeless man
cannot help her, while on the other hand, she understands that despite their similar situation, she
can help Macky (and thus herself). In other words, this scene does not demonstrate that social
change can always be enacted by recognition for it still maintains class distinction as well as
gender and age barriers. However, what I am illustrating here is that a) recognition of mutual
pain is set up as an important theme in the story from the outset and b) that this recognition need
not remain an internal state (i.e. understanding one's own pain through another's); rather it can
lead to action. This action can be coalitional in nature, but importantly it arises from an
awareness of one's relative power in a given situation.
From this vantage point we can begin to examine the various recognitions and
misrecognitions that occur in the story. The cook misrecognizes other people as his dead son,
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JoJo, and also fails to recognize himself and his pain in others. He misrecognizes his regular
patron, Paulie, as being like JoJo because he's "JoJo' s age if he were still alive" (68).
While knowing that his son would have been in his mid-thirties, the cook also sees him in
Macky: "he's a tough one, and I pinch his nose 'cause he's a real sweetheart like Jojo. You
know, my boy" (70). On the other hand, he does not recognize the Salvadoran woman as a parent
who has experienced the loss of a child, and who shares something with him.19
What becomes apparent here is a dance ofrecognition, misrecognition, and lack of
recognition. Recognition, in the sense of the "frisson," is seeing something below the surface of
apparent similarities or dissimilarities thereby creating a connection on the level of feelings that
cannot yet be articulated. Misrecognition, then, involves seeing something... but not the right
something. It seems that misrecognition is driven by the same impulse as recognition—as yet
unresolved, unarticulated feeling. However, it displaces that impulse away from the site of
injury, thereby inflicting injury on an other rather than finding connection with that other. Lack
of recognition, on the other hand, is the refusal or failure to see anything at all.
The cook misrecognizes several characters as JoJo, and he acts on this recognition,
pinching Macky' s nose and letting Paulie continue to patronize the café. He does recognize some
of the other characters, but he resists acknowledging and acting on that recognition. He
characterizes the Salvadoran woman as "bad news because she looks street to me" (69), however
he does observe that when she speaks Spanish to the children "she says something nice to them
19 There is, of course, a limit to how much he could recognize. The cook does not know what the
reader knows. He doesn't know her or her story; however, he does see how possessive she feels
about Macky/Geraldo. After he knows she's kidnapped the boy, he might recognize something
of himself in her desperation to claim this boy as her own.
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'cause it's in the same tone that Nell used when I'd rest my head in her lap" (70). Clearly he
recognizes something about her, but he does not act on it, at least not consciously. The fact that
he does not call the police right way might suggest that on some subconscious level he wants to
act on a similarity he sees between the woman and his ex-wife. Still, this remains
unacknowledged in his narration. In addition, he literally recognizes the children on television "I
see this news bulletin 'bout two missing kids. I recognize the mugs right away" (70). He does
not, however, acknowledge the depth of feeling this produces nor its origin. After seeing them on
TV, he "put [his] beer down so hard that the foam spills onto last month's Hustler. Aw, fuck"
(70). Certainly it would be upsetting to recognize that two kidnapped children have been brought
to his café and that he should do something, and his response is commensurate with that feeling.
However, instead of acting on that feeling, he tells us "See, ifNell was here, she'd know what to
do: call the cops. But I don't know" (70). His indecisiveness reflects unacknowledged feelings of
loss. Recognizing the children on TV leads him to think about the loss of his wife, and he sees
this loss as integral to his response, or lack ofresponse. However, he does not consider what it is
about the children that makes him think of his wife. The cook literally recognizes the children
but does not consciously permit a recognition on a more profound emotional level.
In addition to the unacknowledged recognition, the cook also experiences a kind of
cerebral recognition—one that he observes cognitively, but which does not create the frisson of
emotion. He observes that Sonya has "these poking eyes that follow you 'round 'cause she don't
trust no one" (70). The next day, after he calls INS on the immigrants hiding in his bathroom, he
notes "the older one, the one that looked silly in the handcuffs on account of she's old enough to
be my grandma's grandma, looks straight at my face with the same eyes [Macky's] sister gave
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me yesterday" (72). He can recognize the similarity between Sonya and the old woman, but this
recognition does not inspire a change of action. He seems to feel guilty (or as if he were being
accused) for calling INS. He tells us "I didn't expect the handcuffs" (72). The cerebral
recognition might, in fact, lead to his later lack of recognition. When the Salvadoran woman
returns with the children, he no longer likens her to his ex-wife. He cannot recognize his
emotions—he is physically agitated and suddenly feeling the loss of his son and wife, but he
doesn't seem to know why. And then he re-enacts the call to INS, this time calling the police to
come for the kidnapped children. This repetitive action exemplifies the traumatic nature of his
pain and its relation to guilt and recognition. In re-enacting the phone call to the authorities, he
experiences the same pain over again, with no healing in the process. When the police come he
"cowers" (78). In making this phone call, he is acting out, rather than working through his
trauma. Instead of recognition leading to an awareness of positionality and the possibility of
agency, his recognition (of a similarity between the girl and the old woman) leads to an
awareness of positionality (guilt) but not a sense of agency. By repeating the same pattern and by
passively hiding behind the counter and calling the police to "disappear" them, he abdicates his
potential to make change and reaffirms the boundaries that obstruct recognition across
difference.
Acting out and working through are Freudian concepts. Acting out is unconsciously repeating
actions from the traumatic past; working through is "a process by means of which analysis
implants an interpretation and overcomes the resistances to which it has given rise [...] psychical
work which allows the subject to accept certain repressed elements and to free himself from the
mechanisms of repetition" (LaCapra, 186). The cook's (passive) aggression re-enacts violence,
re-traumatizing the cook. I am suggesting that recognition of the woman's suffering would have
entailed the kind of "psychical work" that could have helped heal the cook.
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The cook is able to recognize similarities on a cerebral level, however, he is resistant to
recognizing what they might signify in the not-yet-articulated realm of his emotions.
Misrecognition seems to be a way for him to manage those emotions; he can misrecognize others
as his son without having to face the depth of his pain. This misrecognition also prevents him
from seeing his pain reflected in anyone else. He describes Macky's sister as "his doggie of a
sister" and tells us "it's his sister I don't like" (70). He resents her protectiveness of Macky: "she
flinches like I'm 'bout to tear his nose off, gives me a nasty, squinty look. She's maybe five,
maybe six, I don't know, and she acts like she owns him. Even when I bring the burgers, she
doesn't let go ofhis hand" (70). What can account for his hostility toward such a little girl? Why
is he so resentful of her protectiveness? I would argue that his inappropriate anger results from
his lack of recognition. He does not recognize her possessiveness ofMacky's vulnerability and
smallness in his own attention to Macky's "small bites on the bun" (70). Instead of recognizing a
shared desperation in their attention to Macky, the cook experiences her protectiveness as a
threat to his misrecognition of Macky as JoJo. Likewise, he does not see the Salvadoran
woman's desperation. Initially, he observes that Macky "don't look nothing like his mom" (70).
Of course at that point he can't know that she's kidnapped him or that she too is possessive and
protective of the small boy, whose hand she wants to touch and "have it disappear in [her] own
because it is so small" (76). After he has seen the children on TV, however, he knows that she
has kidnapped them. When she returns to his café with the children, "he can't believe how
different she looks" (77). This perception immediately precedes his breakdown and phone call to
the police. The text leaves the meaning of this perception ambiguous. He may see her differently
because he can understand the desire to steal a child and believe he's one's own. More likely,
though, the sight ofher and Macky cleaned up at the table looking like a "normal" family
prompts his breakdown and his assertion that "family gotta be together" (77). In this way, he
forecloses the feeling of recognition that he might experience by acknowledging a pain that both
he and the women share. If Lynda Hart's assessment of the "frisson of recognition" is correct,
despite very different social locations, the cook might have found his unresolved griefreflected
in Sonya, or even the woman, and by recognizing this find both validation for his own
experience as well as awareness of their differences and his position ofpower. He might have
been able to consider how US militarism has hurt him and his family, just as it has hurt the
Salvadoran woman. In light of this, he might not have simply felt guilty for his power, the fact
that his position affords him the ability to call the authorities to remove people who make him
uncomfortable. He might have allowed his feelings of grief, or anger, or solidarity to motivate
his actions in ways that broke out of the traumatic cycle.
Straight, white men do not have a monopoly on misrecognition. The unnamed,
Salvadoran woman both misrecognizes and fails to recognize the suffering of others. However,
their different positions with respect to power affect the nature of these errors. Most obviously,
she misrecognizes Macky as Geraldo, her son. Her misrecognition is so complete that she sees
Macky as not only like Geraldo, but in fact as being him. She also misrecognizes the American
police as the Salvadoran military who want to "take him away again" (78). Moreover, she
misrecognizes cars driving by as the agents of the military: "I've lost him once and can't lose
him again and to hell with the screeching tires and the horns and the headlights barely touching
my hips. I can't take my eyes off him because, you see, they are swift and cunning and can take
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your life with the snap of a finger" (76). This misrecognition is arguably a recognition since,
though these three things are not the same, she is right to see all of them a threat to her.
Like the cook, she fails to recognize her pain in others. She fails to recognize Sonya, and
seems to only be intermittently aware that Sonya is even there. In addition, she does not
recognize the cook as another parent who has lost a child. On one level, without knowing his
story, there is no way for her to recognize this. She sees "a man with shrunken cheeks and the
hands of a car mechanic [who] takes a liking to Geraldo" (76). On another level, the text
suggests that recognizing much similarity or connection between herself and the cook could be
dangerous for her because it would not have been reciprocated and she is comparatively
vulnerable. She mistakenly considers him an ally, at least passively. When the police arrive, she
"looks to the cowering cook. She has been betrayed" (78). On the one hand, her social position
means that unreciprocated recognition can be dangerous to her. On the other hand, her failure to
recognize Sonya injures Sonya, who remains marginal and "homeless" even during this
kidnapping. So, while the woman can acknowledge the depth of her loss, she is still unable to
recognize it in others.
For both the cook and the woman, misrecognition and lack of recognition stem from
unresolved grief. ' Both want things to be as they were before the deaths of their sons, rather
Most critics acknowledge the parallel between the cook's loss and the Salvadoran woman's.
However, most see it as an irony rather than a potential connection. Saldivar-Hull writes:
"Viramontes transforms this cynical short-order cook in a grease-stained apron into a grotesque
Uncle Sam, a living contradiction of core and periphery. The great irony here is that this man is
almost as much a victim of the capitalist system as are the undocumented workers" (146).
Fernández writes: "Although both adults have suffered the loss of a child as a direct or indirect
repercussion of ill-waged American foreign involvements, they will never be able to
communicate this to each other, for in the Cariboo Café they are natural antagonists"(72).
Probably closest to my reading, Garza-Falcón writes: "the real irony of the conditions ofhis
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than to mourn the loss. After finding Geraldo/Macky, she thinks "It will all be the way it was
before" (77). The cook sees likenesses of JoJo everywhere and obsessively thinks ofhis ex-wife
as a solution to his present problems. He can barely place Nell in the past: "That was Nell's idea.
Nell's my wife; my ex-wife" (69). His sense ofhis present is still tied to her presence; he
reflects: "See, ifNell was here, she'd know what to do" (70) and "That's why Nell was good to
have 'round. She could be a pain in the ass [. . .] but mostly she knew what to do" (71). Of
course, neither the cook nor the woman can return to the past. They both misrecognize people in
the present; however, differences in relation to power mean that their lack ofrecognition of
others will have different consequences. His misrecognition involves the forces of national
security, resulting in the violent death of the woman. Her misrecognition (temporarily) separates
two lost children from their parents and further alienates an already marginalized girl. Her lack
of the cook has, little or no effect on him, nor does her late realization of his "betrayal."
Moreover, these differing consequences and their differing responses to their grief has
something specifically to do with whiteness.22 The cook's narration is tied up in his whiteness.
He begins his narration with a white denial, "don't look at me." He wants to be absolved of
existence lies in the fact that this man, even if he is just an everyday Joe turned hero, has more in
common with the 'crazy' woman than any other character in the story" (205).
22 In "The Outsiders: Helena Maria Viramontes' 'The Cariboo Cafe'," Ian Randall Wilson
provides a reader response analysis of the story from the perspective of a white male. In
particular, he believe such readers find the text "inpenetrable." He writes that from such a
perspective, the depiction of the cook "begins to feel like an obvious and inelegant slap against
whites." It is clear that the cook is intended to represent whiteness or white people in some way.
Wilson goes on, "If the reader accepts the stereotype, it becomes easy to find a contrast against
the attitudes of the cook and to feel superior. But this is a trap for the reader because the cook is
later humanized" (187). I believe that this is at the heart of what Viramontes is doing with
whiteness.
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responsibility, and he wants to maintain his invisibility. This is further emphasized by his desire
to leave the painful past in the past, "I tried scrubbing the stains off the floor, so that my
customers won't be reminded of what happened." Of course, the repressed inevitably returns,
and the past violence returns in the various forms of (mis)recognition the cook experiences and
in the blood-like spilled chile "crawling to the floor and puddling there." Also his customers,
who are largely Latino and largely undocumented, have every reason not to forget what
happened there. Despite his efforts, his patrons "keep walking like [his] cafe ain't fit for lepers"
(68). He uses the same methods the nation does to create an amnesia surrounding violent events
for which he bears some responsibility. Such amnesia is ultimately as ineffective for the
individual as it is for the nation. Just as the nation incorporates trauma into its national narrative
in order to ameliorate the memory of historic, racialized violence, the cook tries to reconcile his
awareness of power with his sense of powerlessness. His defensiveness suggests his own
struggle with guilt.23 This struggle results in his inability to face his role as a victimizer as well
as his inability to address his own experience as a victim. On the one hand he sees himself as a
victim, but on the other hand he won't acknowledge the depth of his actual loss, and allow
himself the healing victimhood requires. He feels used by the immigrants who hide in his
The cook's struggle stems from his inability to comfortably hold two experiences in his head:
his own loss and his own participation in a murder. Melanie Bush has documented the
ambivalence felt by white people resulting from the incommensurability of their knowledge of
racism with their investment in whiteness and their own experiences of hardship (see pages 115,
230, 233). She writes: "Their [white people's] uncertainty is sometimes expressed in a tentative
tone or a thinking out loud that I suggest reflects some level of awareness of the contradictions of
mainstream narratives about race (and the economy) and the very meaning of being white in this
day and age. The mechanism whereby racism, status, and morality are measured solely through
polar and dichotomous concepts means that if whites are aware they have some privilege, they
hesitate to acknowledge it" (233).
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bathroom, but not by the US military that did not prioritize letting him know where in Vietnam
his son is "crumbled up."
As a last resort to resolve this crisis, the cook resorts to invoking an idea of a universal,
correct, and moral normalcy. He tells us that his reason for calling the police was "Children gotta
be with their parents. It's only right" (77). His comments come, despite the fact that his own son
will never be back with him. To fend off the emotional remnants the past in the present, he
appeals authority and normativity. He invokes not only the rule of law, but also the officially
touted sanctity of the family, as justification for his decision to call the police. Here he
sublimates his loss (a child not being with his parents) into politics (the idea of normative family
being "only right"). Despite his mistrust of authority, he retreats into it in a moment of
breakdown. Here he relies on the intersection of nation and whiteness to somehow indicate his
"rightness" while also shielding him from the painful wrongness of the events that he has called
into action. His invocation of the notion of family and his earlier phone call to INS directly
express heteronormativity and xenophobia. That national and local authorities rush in to justify
his claim indicates national support for his attitudes, while his desire to erase the traumatic past
is suggestive of an investment in whiteness.
Viramontes depicts the cook's pain as genuine, as is the damage he inflicts.
Understanding his loss does not justify his actions; we do not exonerate him. He is both
recognizably human and not an overwhelming force that cannot be challenged. His loss does not
overshadow the woman's nor is it the same. But they are understandable in light of each other. In
this story there is more than enough loss and pain to go around. Moreover, there is no easy
resolution or clear "if only" that would have solved the problems. For example, if the cook had
had compassion for the woman and had not called the police, what about Sonya and Macky and
their parents? Aiding her in kidnapping would not have helped them. Perhaps he could have
reasoned with the police so things didn't escalate, although this seems unlikely given her fears
and violent response to their approach (she throws a coffee pot at one officer). The story,
however, is full of so many "if only"s. If only the military hadn't taken Geraldo, if only she
hadn't sent him for a mango, if only she had been able to have proper closure about his death, if
only Sonya hadn't lost the key (or gotten lost), if only the cook had mourned JoJo and not had
his breakdown, if only the foreign affairs and domestic policing of the US didn't result in
violence and death. The tragedy is not one, single misrecognition, but overwhelming losses,
some of which have a sinister origin, while others are merely coincidental.
From the overwhelming forces that produce the sequence of events in the story, it is clear
that individual subjectivity cannot change the course of events on such a large scale.24 In other
words, individual healing does not heal the world. This resists some of the grand claims we
would like to make about literature (about developing compassion, empathy, etc). Nevertheless,
Other critics have noted how the story's focus on the cook's experience leads us to engage
with the big picture, rather than the idea that injustice is merely the result of the "bad people"
and their actions. Indeed, understanding the forces that produce discrimination and racism
challenges the "a few bad apples" theory of racism is a staple of white denial ofracism (Bush).
As Deborah Owen Moore writes in "La Llorona Dines at the Cariboo Café": "The author also
calls into question the malignment of La Malinche, a woman, as betrayer. She, like La Llorona,
the Salvadorian woman, and the cook as well, was a product of circumstance. Her political
environment, like theirs, determined her actions to a large extent." Moore concludes "In her
recasting of the [La Llorona] legend, Viramontes relocates blame by emphasizing situation"
(286). In her description of the Cariboo Café as a Coatlicue place, Ana Maria Carbonell writes in
"From Llorona to Gritona": "A psychic and emotional process foregrounding conflict and
struggle instead of easy resolutions and compliance to social oppression [...] Coatlicue brings
suffering to the forefront of consciousness, providing a clearer vision as to whom or what to
confront. [...] instead of victimhood, Coatlicue encourages resistance against external forces that
dimmish a sense of self (53).
it is suggestive about the damaging effects unresolved trauma. In the story, unhealed trauma
promotes pain and further victimization. When the cook perpetuates the woman's victimization
by authorities, this act of victimization furthers his own pain. He does not feel vindicated, but
rather as if he has lost control. The story does not make a facile conclusion that "love is all we
need," but it does conclude that unacknowledged loss and trauma cloud our view. Such a reading
suggests that individualism alone will not produce the necessary changes, but unresolved
individual trauma will likely produce injurious individual actions and individual resistance to
large-scale change.
In this chapter, I examine writing about straight white male characters by two women of
color. I am looking at these characters in terms of loss. Both have losses due the Vietnam War,
but they are not the manufactured losses of nationalism and injured masculinity; rather they are
real, intimate losses—the literal loss of a son, the loss of wife, the experience of war, loss of
humanity. How does these losses shed light on whiteness? As Viramontes's story demonstrates,
unresolved trauma and unacknowledged loss make it impossible to recognize the shared
experience of pain across difference, especially racial difference. It appears that a similar
mechanism occurs on a larger scale in the operations of white backlash. As seen in Chapter 1,
white people's real losses and real suffering are deployed as absolution from, and denial of,
systemic racism. On a national level, real losses and fears are deployed in the maintenance of
national identity and the mutually reinforcing categories of nation and whiteness.
Take for example, contemporary US immigration debates. There are indeed losses—
unemployment, the increasing income gap, the increasing disparity between wages and cost of
living. However, whiles these losses and fears are real, their function in the immigration debate
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is to build the identity of the nation, at once victimized and white. Anti-immigration rhetoric is
both old and new. The claims that immigrants take jobs away from people who are already
established in the new country go back 150 years.25 Nativist discourse has traditionally racialized
these claims, painting immigrants as nonwhite, sinister, inferior workers who take jobs from
white American workers. In contemporary debates, the border is the key symbol ofthis
relationship between race and nation. The concrete role of the border can be seen in the way that
"Hispanic" (a language-based category) has become a racial category and that the US-Mexico
border (i.e. nationality) has come to stand in for race. The border rhetoric maintains an image of
the US as a white nation that is bounded and protected (by its border) from poverty and violence
(which are racialized). Such rhetoric makes the US a white victim, one that must be protected
and is absolved of any role in victimizing others.
In "The Cariboo Café," Viramontes challenges the naturalization of nation and whiteness
through borders, by emphasizing the arbitrariness ofborders.26 She shows that borders give an
illusory sense of absolute difference (us/them; legal/illegal; ally/enemy). Concepts of such
absolute difference support the belief that by keeping difference out, we can keep out the
suffering associated with that difference. For example, by barring entry to those who have
suffered violence, we might ourselves be spared the violence that we imagine they bring with
them. In the story, trauma and loss is not a zero sum game. There is more than enough suffering
to go around, and more importantly borders don't suffering it out. The more the cook reasserts
For example, in the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese laborers were seen as taking jobs from white
Americans. For more, consider the Workingmen's Party and Denis Kearney.
For more on how the story depicts the arbitrariness of borders in the Americas, see SaldivarHuIl, Harlow, Saldivar.
the difference between himself and the undocumented immigrants in his café, the more he
suffers. Removing them from his space does not remove his anguish; rather it exacerbates it, as
he cannot stop thinking about and recreating the scene. Instead, the story posits recognition
across difference as a way to find one's own agency despite one's own suffering.
Viramontes's story provides insight into the functioning of whiteness on individual and
national levels, but such insight came about from intersections only visible from a transnational
perspective. Interestingly, the US-Canada border played a role in Viramontes's story about the
US-Mexico border. In an interview, Viramontes reveals that her experience in Canada led to her
writing "The Cariboo Café." She explains: "I was living in Vancouver at the time [. . .] I became
very obsessively involved with the politics of Central America. The New York Times did not
provide sufficient information concerning Central America. I read a lot more through the
Canadian papers. I was thinking, 'My God, don't people in the U.S. know what's going on?'"
(Brady and Heredia 174). The coincidence ofbeing in Canada brought about the Chicana
author's move from a bi-national to a transnational politics.27
Canada is usually invisible in discussions of Latino immigration. In addition to further
opening up the hemispheric dimensions of Latino experience, Viramontes's realization goes
against the grain of Canadian transnational politics. While Canadian industries and government
are at pains to have American industries and policymakers recognize the integration of their two
economies, they work equally hard to distinguish Canada from the countries to the South (and to
Saldivar-Hull sees "Cariboo Café" as initiating a more transnational feminist politics in
Viramontes's work rather than Chicana, binational feminism. (Feminism at the Border). For
more on Viramontes's transnationalism, see Rodriguez.
cry out ifpolicies directed at keeping out "illegals" interfere with the Northern border).
Virmamontes's experience follows the same route of neo-liberal nationalism—the routes that
allow for the mobility of goods and labor between these nations and the borders that inhibit the
social mobility of individuals and families. Globalism can operate as systemic oppression on a
larger scale, but can also present opportunities for resistance in new ways. Viramontes's
revelation in Canada demonstrates how oppositional consciousness can make use of
transnational perspectives to challenge the logics of neo-liberal nationalism. Unlike the neoliberal response of Canadian government and industry that require distinction and difference
from the South, Viramontes's vantage point from Canada demanded intervention: "don't people
in the U.S. know what's going on? [...] I wanted readers to become part of the story, to stand
there and witness what was going on." This idea holds true for examining whiteness as well.
Challenging nationally-specific productions of whiteness is not limited to critiques from within
or critiques leveled only on the national level. Transnationality (in addition to privileged
marginalized epistemology) provides an important vantage point.
National narratives in both Canada and the US re-stabilize white dominance through their
deployment of limited definitions of victimhood. Such narratives obscure the role that whiteness
and white people play in victimization of racial others. By examining texts in which the authors'
positions and the texts' contents reflect transnational, relational, intersectional perspectives, we
can more fully understand victimhood and how whiteness is implicated.
Canada's business lobby emphasizes the difference between the US-Mexico border frequently
when border-tightening measures are suggested or implemented. Some of these claims are
explicitly racialized (see "Great White Threat"). Others rely on associations of Mexico with
drugs, illegal immigration, and violence (See "Security—and Trade—at the Canadian Border").
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"Fathering": Recognition and Adjudicating Victimhood
Like Viramontes, Mukherjee's perspective is shaped by transnational experience.
Mukherjee grew up in India and England and attended graduate school in the US. She then
immigrated to Canada, where she lived for fourteen years. Unlike Viramontes whose sojourn in
Canada widened her critical lens on the US, Mukherjee's time spent in Canada led her to
embrace American ideals and to return to the US. She writes: "Those years of race-related
harassments in Canada politicized me and deepened my love of the ideals embedded in the
American Bill of Rights" ("American Dreamer"). She contrasts American idealism with
Canadian resistance to change, writing:
The years in Canada were particularly harsh. Canada is a country that officially,
and proudly, resists cultural fusion. For all its rhetoric about a cultural "mosaic,"
Canada refuses to renovate its national self-image to include its changing
complexion. It is a New World country with Old World concepts of a fixed,
exclusivist national identity. Canadian official rhetoric designated me as one of
the "visible minority" who, even though I spoke the Canadian languages of
English and French, was straining "the absorptive capacity" of Canada. Canadians
of color were routinely treated as "not real" Canadians. ("American Dreamer")
While for both authors residence in Canada shapes their writing in a US context, their
experiences of Canada are neither uniform nor are the effects of those experiences on their
writing. Still, these cross-border interconnections provide a way of conceptualizing the
complexity of identity and motion in the increasingly globalized New World.
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Both Viramontes and Mukherjee depict white American males suffering, in the context of
broader transnational suffering. This brings us back to the problem outlined in Chapter One: can
(white people's) recognition of white experiences of victimhood become an avenue for inter-
racial solidarity and social change without denying our own privilege and complicity in systems
of racial dominance and appropriating the suffering of racial others? One commonality between
these two stories is that neither author allows the white voice to become dominant. In "The
Cariboo Café," the white cook's voice comprises only one third of the narrative.29 In
"Fathering," the white male narrator is wounded and unreliable. Moreover, in both texts the
reader is aware that the voice of the white male emerges out of the imagination of a woman of
color, necessarily suggesting critical distance between author and narrator. In my reading, these
texts therefore do not simply critique whiteness but explicitly engage white people. By
demonstrating recognition ofwhite suffering on the part ofwomen color, these authors suggest
that recognition is a two-way street and thereby push the imperative for white people to
recognize of racial injustice
In "Fathering," Jason, a Vietnam veteran, adopts a Vietnamese girl he fathered during the
war as a way to reconcile his past experiences. The gulf between them is in many ways
unbridgeable, but there is also tenderness between them and some hope. The story focuses on
Jason's connection to his daughter, Eng, and the competition between her and his live-in
girlfriend, Sharon. It culminates in a visit to the doctor's office, in which Sharon exclaims,
""See, I told you the child was crazy. She hates me. She's possessive about Jason" and in which
See Garza-Falcón, Saldívar-Hull, Simal, Alarcón and Moore for effects of fragmented,
multiperspectival narration in "The Cariboo Café."
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Jason grabs his "Saigon kid" and runs out the door (122). Here, Mukherjee presents an
ambiguous picture ofrecognition. Jason certainly recognizes a connection between himself and
Eng, but the nature, potential and limitations of this recognition must be explored. I argue that
Mukherjee' s story demonstrates the possibility of healing through recognition and the potential
for white people to participate in healing and reconciliation by way ofrecognition of their own
pain. In particular, the story presents a way of adjudicating victimhood on a model that
recognizes difference and does not rely on a zero-sum concept of victimhood. Her story reveals
this as a possibility, not a fact, as the depth of Jason's recognition and its results are left open.
Jason and Eng are both traumatized by the Vietnam War. Unlike the parallels of pain in
"The Cariboo Café," in which two parents are driven mad by the un-reconciled loss of their
children, "Fathering" shows pain that is relational. That is pain, like identity, is brought about by
our different and dynamic relations with others.30 In "The Cariboo Café" both parents lost their
children as the result of US militarism and imperialism. While their different social locations
account for important differences in their experiences (and in this sense they are relational), what
is most striking is their similarity. In "Fathering," Jason and Eng's traumas are not parallel so
much as they are interdependent. Eng' s trauma is the result of US involvement in Vietnam, as is
Relationality is an important concept in feminist thought. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes
in her introduction to Third World Women and the Poltics ofFeminism: "gender and race are
relational terms: they foreground a relationship (and often a hierarchy) between races and
genders. [. . . For example] ideologies of womanhood have as much to do with class and race as
they have to do with sex. Thus, during the period of American slavery, constructions of white
womanhood as chaste, domesticated, and morally pure had everything to do with corresponding
constructions ofblack slave women as promiscuous, available plantation workers" (12-13). In
addition to emphasizing that one group's dominance is only made possible by another group's
oppression, relationality conceives of these relationships as dynamic, rather than binary, and
locked into roles of victim and victimizer. For more on relationality see Friedman 1993;
Friedman 1995; Mohanty 2005, 56.
Jason s. However, they are on opposite sides of the injury. Eng' s war trauma is the result of
American soldiers, like Jason. His trauma is the result of his/American actions against the
Vietnamese. In this sense, neither' s trauma could exist without the other. It is "the Yankee
bastards" who traumatize Eng, and it is she who represents the traumatic images that stick with
Jason: "the VC mamas [who] would be at their mumbo jumbo [. . .] sticking coins and amulets
into napalm burns" (115-16). Their trauma affects them differently. For Jason, who "did the
whole war on Dexedrine," "Vietnam didn't happen" (115). It is only as the decades pass, his life
disintegrates, and finally when Eng arrives that he finally accepts that it did. Eng on the other
hand is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations of "Yankee bastards" killing her grandmother.
She self-injures, and in her dreams speaks of a desire to die: "I want to be with Grandma.
Grandma loves me. I want to be a ghost. I don't want to get better" (118).
Despite being "enemies," they are both the closest person the other has. They are linked
by blood, but more importantly, they are linked by traumatic experience, experience that takes
them outside of everyday life and isolates them.31 Jason seems to have come out of Vietnam
relatively unscathed, having returned, married, had children, etc; however, this amnesia was
untenable as "ten years later came the screw-ups with the marriage, the job, women, the works"
(115). Eng recognizes this as a point of connection. She comes to him when she needs comfort,
'"Dad, let's go down to the kitchen. Just you and me. [. . .] You got any scars you haven't shown
me yet?'" (116). Jason, too, recognizes trauma as the basis of their relationship. He is able to
understand the way that language fails in this kind of pain. He explains to Sharon '"She isn't
hungry, I think she's sick. [...] I think she's just letting us know she hurts'" (115).
Zhang argues that their blood relationship is debatable.
This recognition and identification is not uncomplicated; however, for Mukherjee
complicatedness does not render it impossible, appropriative, or meaningless. Jason, himself, is
aware of the problems of identification. He wants it to be simple and straightforward, but
acknowledges boundaries that prevent this. For example, he sees how race (and his ignorance of
race's significance) comes between a simple equation of his and Eng' s skin as being the same
flesh. Looking at her bruises, he notes: "the twins' [from his previous marriage] scrapes and cuts
never turned that ochre. I can't help wondering if maybe Asian skin bruises differently from
ours, even though I want to say skin is skin; especially hers is skin like mine" (118). Early in the
story, he emphasizes how much she is like him. He refers to her as "my girl," "my daughter,"
"my kid," and is at pains to remind both Sharon and the reader of Eng' s American-ness. He tells
Sharon: "My girl speaks English, remember?" (1 14). And he explains to us: "Eng can outcuss
any freckle-faced kid on the block" (1 14). These assertions, however, do not sit well with the
fact that Eng is not like any American kid, and Jason acknowledges "Dr. Spock can't be the
point man for Eng, for us" (1 1 8). By the end of the story, Jason appears able to reconcile his
paternal feelings for Eng with her radical difference. When he flees the doctor's office with her,
he refers to her as "my Saigon kid," an epithet that acknowledges their deep connection is partly
a result of their profound difference—one of race, one of sides in a war.
Their traumatic experiences put strain on, yet shape, their familial connection. Jason
defines himself as a paternal figure from the outset. He explains that "I know a sick little girl
when I see one. I brought up the twins without much help ten years ago" (1 14). His close
observations of Eng' s illness and his caring actions support his characterization of himself as a
good father. But, his relationship with Eng goes beyond fatherly: "I can't put my alien child
265
down, I can't comfort her. The twins had diseases with easy names, diseases we knew what to do
with. The thing is, I never felt for them what I feel for her" (121). His feelings for her are tied up
in his feelings about Vietnam: "IfI could, Fd suck the virus right out ofher. In the jungle, VC
mamas used to do that" (115). What is striking is not that the depth ofhis desire to care for his
child, but his identification with Vietnamese mothers. Of course, Jason is not a Vietnamese
mother. And Eng makes this distinction very clear. She puts him in opposition to her mother,
pitting them against each other in a pain competition, where her mother will inevitably win: "you
got any scars you haven't shown me yet? My mom had a big scar on one leg. Shrapnel. Boom
boom. I got scars. See? I got lots of bruises" (116-17). Jason's relationship with Eng is inherently
irresolvable and traumatic. On the one hand, as a survivor of the war in Vietnam, Jason shares
with Eng experiences of the violence that occurred there. On the other hand, his positionality
always already situates him as aggressor and perpetrator of those same atrocities, even as he
struggles to recover from their traumatic effect on him. In a sense, Jason and Eng are both drawn
together and pulled apart by the traumatic origin of their relationship. This torn-ness is untenable,
and propels both toward change and healing, and the story's conclusion suggests that this healing
will occur as a result of their working through things together.
The story plays with the possibilities of such together-ness. Jason understands that simple
identification with Eng (she is my flesh) would be impossible. We know also that to simply liken
Jason's trauma to hers as a Vietnam War trauma, more broadly, would be extremely
appropriative and would obscure the differences between their experiences, particularly the
salient facts ofher position as a female civilian of color in a neo-imperial American war. And
Eng, herself, resists any attempt to do equate their traumas, reminding him and us that he was an
American soldier and she was a Vietnamese civilian. Despite these differences, she goes to him
for comfort, trusting that he will understand. And, at the end of the story, he is able to provide
protection (or at least create the feeling of safety) for Eng. "Fathering" does not obscure the
difference between Jason and Eng, and in my reading, the story suggests recognition both of
difference and similarity in order to heal from traumatic loss.
In particular, the paired motifs of cures and coins in the story present a connection
between recognition and healing. In this nine page story, the term "cure" comes up four times,
three times on the final pages. Before calling the doctor, Sharon remarks "Aspirin isn't going to
cure her" (117). At the doctor's office, Jason feels that the doctor "wants to knock out my kid
with his cures" (122). Eng hysterically yells "Old way is good way. Money cure is good cure.
When they shoot my grandma, you think pills do her any good?" (122). Finally, Jason observes
"something incurable is happening to my women" (122). In their own way, each of these
statements points to a truth about traumatic experience. On the most literal level, Sharon knows
that Eng is suffering from more than a cold. Jason is also right that that what has happened is
"incurable." Indeed, the fact that there is no cure means that the white impulse to leave the past
See Marita Sturken on how an American focus on the trauma of Vietnam veterans obscured
the trauma of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. See Sherene Razack on how media focus on the
trauma of Canadian peacekeepers in Rwanda and Somalia displaced awareness of the trauma
experienced by the same people they were there to aid. Both note the way that the trauma of
white males supplants that ofpeople of color, thereby supporting white, masculine national
images.
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in the past is not an option. Instead, trauma requires engagement with the injury, and healing it is
not simply a matter of curing.
Eng's semi-delusional response gestures at the possibility of healing, without forgetting
or simply curing the injury. On one level, her response suggests compensation/reparation—
"money cure is good cure." The money does not bring back her grandmother, whom pills could
not help; however, in the context of the war and its aftermath, it could aid Eng's survival. In the
story, money has a deeper association with healing. Jason remembers raids in Vietnam where
they would find women "sticking coins and amulets into napalm burns" (116). Here the "money
cure" is not economic. The value of coins is further expressed by Eng's desire for a quarter.
"Dad, can I have a quarter?" she asks Jason (120). He gives it to her, thinking "she's quick. Like
the street kids in Saigon who dove for cigarettes and sticks of gum" (120). At the doctor's office,
however, he learns that she wants the quarter not to buy things but to use to injure herself: "she
presses the quarter I gave her deep into the soft flesh ofher arm. She presses and presses that
coin, turning it in nasty half-circles until the blood starts to pool beneath the skin" (122). In the
scene that ensues Jason appears to develop an understanding of the significance of this coin. The
doctor sees no value in the coin: "[he] has Eng by the wrist now. He has flung the quarter I gave
her on the floor" (122). Jason, however, recognizes that the coin provides Eng a mechanism for
coping with trauma. Had he not recognized this, he might have reacted with horror when he sees
her use the quarter and subjected her to re-enacted trauma in the form of the doctor's needle. His
response recognizes both the importance of this mechanism and her profound need to feel safe:
'"Coming pardner!' I whisper. ? got no end of coins.' I jiggle the change in my pocket" (122).
His actions suggest that her experiences of trauma can be understood, as he offers her more coins
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by jiggling the change in his pocket. Moreover, his "rescue" suggests that the trauma need not
be a recurring pattern and that she is in fact safe. In addition to both recognizing her trauma and
providing a healing script (rather than a simple re-enactment of violence), Jason's coins may be a
"money cure" for his own injuries. Throughout the story, he has felt powerless and has acted
indecisively. In this moment, however, "as in fairy tales, [he] know[s] what has to be done"
(122). Recognizing Eng' s suffering and his own ability to ease it leads Jason to selfempowerment and potential healing as well. At the end of the story, the two leave the office as a
"team." Importantly, this team is composed of "My Saigon kid and me," two trauma victims
whose similar experiences are defined by their differences. Jason uses the romantic language of
fairy tales and Hollywood Westerns, but the retreat to "the cold chariot of our van" belies a
simplistic notion that they are riding off into the sunset without further struggles. While to story
does not emphasize those further struggles, Mukherjee does not disguise the difficulty in
negotiating the differences between them.
The story focuses on Jason as he works to develop his connection with Eng, but the
darker aspects of race relations are displaced onto his girlfriend, Sharon. Sharon is depicted as
selfish, manipulative, and coldhearted. When Eng stands outside their bedroom door, ill, Sharon
says "For God's sake leave us alone" (114). Sharon represents middle-class white femininity and
she treats Eng "like a deafmute" (114). While she encourages Jason to adopt Eng, she cannot
accept the reality of Eng' s experience. She literally buys into a fantasy child, buying "white
girlish furniture" in preparation for the arrival of the Vietnamese girl (117). Her fantasy blends
racial and gender norms. In addition, her attitude toward the past is one we've seen before—the
desire to leave the past in the past. Jason tells us "Coming to terms with the past was Sharon's
idea. [. . .] 'For all you know, Jason,' she'd said, 'the baby died of malaria or something.' She
said, 'Go on, find out and deal with it'" (115). Sharon wants Jason to get beyond the past and is
not prepared for its painful recurrence in the present. On the verge ofbreakdown, she cries
"Everything was fine until she got here. Send her back, Jase. If you love me, send her back"
(121). Sharon's attitudes display the convergence ofrace, gender, and national belonging. She is
fixated with romantic love, and sees it as her only bargaining chip; it is what she uses to try to
get rid of Eng, the interloping nonwhite child. When she tries to explain Eng's self-inflicted
bruises to the doctor, she more explicitly invokes the nation: "Christ! no, Jason can't do enough
for her. That's not what I'm saying! What's happening to this country? You think we're
perverts? What I'm saying is that she's doing it to herself (1 17).33 For Sharon, if Jason, the
doting American father, could be construed as an abuser, there has been some kind of perversion
on the national level of what it means to be a family. Meanwhile she offers no explanation for
Eng' s injuries, but implies that Eng is what has come from outside the nation.
Sharon is depicted extremely negatively and bears the weight of representing American
xenophobia, and her character could represent a critique of white women as active participants in
American racism. However, I suggest that she represents a failure of recognition, one borne out
of an investment in white, American-ness. Despite not having experienced war trauma herself,
Sharon has the potential to connect with Eng around other sites of pain. She more readily
recognizes what is obscured by Jason's desire to claim Eng as his (American) daughter. While
See Zheng for more on the role of the nation in this story. Zheng argues that the ambiguity of
Eng' s identity and the role of fathering reveals the complexities of American engagement with
Vietnam after the war (e.g. immigration). Zheng reads of the wounds of the war as ripping the
family and the nation apart and references the double meaning of "aliens" in the story.
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Jason claims "My girl isn't crazy; she's picked up a bug in school as might anyone else," Sharon
knows that "Aspirin isn't going to cure Eng [. . .] The child's arms are covered with bruises. [. . .]
the girl is doing it to herself (117). In many ways, Jason is very attuned to Eng's war trauma, so
this blindspot sticks out. Self-injurious behavior is not isolated to civilian victims of war. Indeed,
it is widespread in many populations in which individuals feel powerless. Notably, it is not an
uncommon phenomenon in middle class white girls. Perhaps this is why Sharon is able to
identify it right away. However, unlike Jason, she sees no connection between her own position
and suffering and Eng's. For example, she can identify Eng's manipulative-ness, but not
recognize the pain and powerlessness from which it stems. This is despite her own manipulative
behavior and own sense of powerlessness.
Sharon's failure of recognition suggests that there is much to keep us from recognizing
our pain in the pain of others, and our roles in others' pain. In her case, gender oppression
intersecting with her own position of dominance (as a white middle-class, American) keeps her
from recognizing Eng. In "Fathering," the two female characters battle for Jason's undivided
attention. While being pitted against each other, they are also connected by patriarchy. This is
evident in the way they both need Jason's attention solely. The final scene in the doctor's office
emphasizes this theme. The doctor treats Sharon as a "hysterical" woman, saying that she her
condition is "nothing physical [...] She's a little exercised about a situation" (119). When Jason
comes for Sharon, bringing Eng, the doctor wants to treat her the same way. Sharon's inability to
identify with Eng represents both a failure of imagination on her part and real obstacles to
healing recognition.
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Jason, too, falls into paternalistic thinking: "Something is incurable is happening to my
women" (italics mine, 122). Indeed, this points to one of the big risks in his identification with
Eng: paternalism. This is tricky. His is literally a father; he should be paternal. The title
"Fathering" suggests that we may have to question what exactly (good) fathering entails. He
takes seriously his role to take care of Eng: a child and a trauma victim. Yet, there is good reason
to believe that Sharon is at least partly right that Eng is also manipulating him.34 His desire to
have a special relationship with Eng may have more to do with his own need to reconcile his past
in Vietnam, than with her need for a good parent. The two are not mutually exclusive, and the
story seems to suggest that they may well intersect. But there is no guarantee that they will. From
Jason's perspective, he rescues Eng from the doctor; but we do not hear any response from her.
While the risk ofpaternalism remains present throughout, and Mukherjee makes no effort
to reconcile this, the story suggests the possibility that recognition may go beyond this
paternalistic self-gratification. Jason is both able to recognize Eng' s experience and his position
ofpower, at least on some level. He is literally in a role of power as an adult and parent, but he
also cannot avoid his position as soldier and American ("She looks straight at me. 'Scram,
Yankee bastard!'" (122)). His recognition also includes an understanding of her difference from
both him and his older children. We do not hear from Eng directly, through first person
narration, and in this way she is similar to the unnamed black girl in Bastard Out ofCarolina
On page 116, Eng approaches their bed saying "Fm hungry, Dad. [. . .] Let's go down to the
kitchen. Just you and me. [...] Not her, Dad." Jason thinks "she's a sick, frightened, foreign kid,"
but Sharon can see what he's thinking and says: "You can't admit you're being manipulated.
You can't cut through the 'frightened-foreign-kid' shit." Eng, then changes her approach, saying
"I feel fire-hot, Dad." This is not to say that Eng is not ill, but she's also playing her adoptive
parents off each other.
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who was not given a voice. There are, however, significant differences between this story and the
interracial encounter described by Allison. One significant difference is the interaction between
the two people. Eng is trying to communicate with Jason, and he is trying to understand her.
Also, while his attempts to understand and protect her flirt with paternalism, the paternalistic
element also indicates what recognition has to offer Jason. That is, recognition is not a "favor"
those in power do for those who are oppressed; it can be healing (although not necessarily
redemptive) for those in positions of dominance. What this suggests is that awareness of his own
pain is better than lack of awareness ("the war didn't happen"), and that the work ofbecoming
aware of it better attunes him to connecting with and healing Eng.
A final word on Eng, here. I have so far discussed her as the female, nonwhite other to
Jason's straight, white male. But she also represents a boundary-crossing element like what I
discussed in the Cariboo Café. Like the Salvadoran woman and the two children in Viramontes's
story, Eng has literally crossed national borders. She is also biracial, and according her father's
description, a blend of "typical American-ness" with war refugee-ness. Like the other
immigrants, Eng expresses the migration of pain. Rigid categories of race and nation do not keep
pain out. Jason was suffering before he brought Eng to the US. Recognizing and acting on his
connection with her provides the potential for healing and accepting his losses.
Recognition and Healing
Viramontes and Mukherjee challenge the way that national identity and whiteness
mutually support one another. Both authors take issue with conceptions ofrigid borders, whether
national or racial. In these texts, borders are arbitrary; they do not keep trauma and loss out.
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Neither racial dominance nor legal residency in a "Northern" nation shield one from pain.
Moreover, both writers' transnational perspective shed light on the constantly evolving terrain of
national identity and whiteness. Rather than focusing on fixity, each author's own experiences,
as well as her characters' migrations, demonstrates mechanisms and patterns that are shaped by
national identity but flow across borders.
Given the the ubiquitous-ness suffering, what might its significance be in terms of
recognizing and adjudicating claims of victimhood and their potential to allow healing? If
focusing on one's own experiences of loss and injury often prevents recognition of others' pain,
should we draw attention away from our experiences and perceived losses? Indeed, as I have
argued in the first three chapters of this dissertation, the operation of white backlash includes the
claim of white victimhood. Does this mean that we should deny white claims to victimhood
insisting that white people solely claim the role of perpetrator of racial injustice? My readings of
Viramontes and Mukherjee suggest no.
In "Surviving Victim Talk," Martha Minow warns against the proliferation of claims of
victimhood. Drawing on the work of Wendy Kaminer, Minow sees the increased discussion of
victimhood in legal and political discourse as growing out of the recovery movement, which
"risks replacing hope for everyone with victimization for everyone" (1427). She writes: "When
one person claims, "I'm a victim," only to hear as a rejoinder, "I'm a victim too," the rejoinder
seeks to shift or avoid blame. But that rejoinder only works if there is a view of blame as all or
nothing." (1440). We have seen the effects of this in the conceptualization of victimhood in
1980s and 90s backlash politics in the US and in the white Canadian self-conception as victim.
Both national narratives display patterns of deflecting blame by claiming victimhood and thereby
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fit Minow's description of victim talk. Nevertheless, I argue that limiting who can be considered
a "real victim" is injurious. As Minow's legal background suggests, from a perspective of
winners and losers, defendants and plaintiffs, victimhood is a zero-sum game, in which victims
gain sympathy, freedom from responsibility, solidarity with other victims, attention, and
potentially material compensation (1415). However, as Viramontes and Mukherjee's stories
indicate, there is more than enough victimhood, suffering, and loss to go around. Recognizing
this plenitude of suffering does not, as Minow suggests, "blur distinctions between degrees of
harm, leveling all suffering to the same undifferentiated plane of equal seriousness and triviality"
(1430). Nor does it necessarily strip victims of their agency. In fact, recognizing different types
of victimhood can allow us to come to more complicated understandings of how one can be both
victim and victimizer, and how recognition of one's own suffering can lead to empowering
knowledge of what might alleviate the suffering of others. In "The Cariboo Café," Viramontes
devotes great attention to understanding the cook's pain. His pain and victimization by systemic
forces do not compete with the pain of unnamed Salvadoran woman or Sonya, nor do they
absolve him ofhis bigoted attitudes and actions. We see how unacknowledged grief leads to
traumatic repetition, further injuring the Salvadoran woman and re-traumatizing the cook. In
"Fathering," we see how a soldier's recognition of his own trauma can help him understand the
trauma of a civilian from the enemy side, and act in ways that both acknowledge and potentially
heal her suffering.
Literature models this kind of recognition, relying on subjective and sometimes
subconscious levels of connection rather than simply factual similarities. Minow is skeptical of
the value subjective experience in discussions of victimhood, writing: "When, as is typical, both
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sides of this debate couched their claims in terms ofhurt feelings, no one could disagree because
each speaker was the best judge ofpersonal feelings" (1422). However, when the model is not
one of winners and losers, when we are aware of the potential for all ofus to lose out in the same
moment, our own assessment of our hurt becomes paramount. In such an analysis, denying the
experience of victimhood to those who suffer to a lesser extent inhibits recognition of other
victims as well. For example, no one would argue that white guilt is as much a burden as being
the victim of persistent discrimination. However, to pretend that the fear and anxiety white
people experience around discussing racial injustice isn't real does not lead to a greater openness
on the part of white people to understand racism and their own role in white supremacy. In
contrast, addressing the pain of awareness of one's own participation in injustice can undermine
white attempts to appropriate victimhood and leave open the possibility of understanding other
experiences of race and racism. This awareness promotes changing actions and attitudes, rather
than fighting back unacknowledged fear with strategies of denial and displacement. Viramontes
and Mukherjee take the risky step of acknowledging the pain and loss of straight, white males
while also illuminating the oppression of women of color. In doing so, they do not minimize the
roles that these males have in oppressing, nor the relational nature of power and oppression.
These stories balance the complex needs of recognition. On the one hand, recognition is
subjective, relying on structures of feeling. On the other hand, it must also be objective; as
Morales indicates, recognition includes accepting the need for corrective measures as well as
acknowledgement of wrongs, injustices, and suffering. By balancing the two types of recognition
we must face the overabundance of pain, rather than deny acknowledgement of injury to some.
Doing so does not equalize pain so long as differences are kept in view. My reading of both
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stories suggests that recognition of victimhood can be accompanied by recognition of agency to
help oneself or others. In acknowledging our own suffering, we must not neglect our agency and
our own positions of dominance. Therefore, we must become aware our roles in oppressing
others. But we can only acknowledge that when we can recognize some part of our pain in
theirs.
In other words, accepting one's pain is not used to avoid responsibility but instead to be
able to face it, as a way of avoiding both denial and guilt. Avoiding denial and guilt, might allow
us to actual hear claims for restitution for what they are. Leading us down a productive path
toward restoration and reconciliation.
In this way, my argument differs from those of "race traitors" and "race abolitionists," which
contend that class is real source the oppression and that race is just a way of dividing up the
lower classes so that they don't overthrow the oppressive economic system. I maintain that race
is as real as class. Yes, it is true that our differences prevent us from seeing our shared
oppressions, but intersectionality plays a real role here. In other words, one can be oppressed and
a role in oppressing others. White people need to do more than "disaffiliate" from the role of
racial oppressor, for that is dishonest and undermines the possibility for coalition. What I'm
advocating, in terms of mediating victimhood, is more like how understanding of one's own
oppression can equip one to understand the oppression of others even when that means
recognizing one's own culpability and accountability.
Conclusion
In some ways the events of 9-1 1 and the subsequent fallout have changed and intensified
the operations of whiteness in North America, the white backlash becoming more of a full out
attack. Nevertheless, the mechanisms I have examined in this dissertation are still at work, albeit
sometimes more blatantly. In this context, it is worth considering the invisibility of Canada.
Since 9-11, except for periodic panics during which Americans worry that terrorists are able to
cross into the United States from Canada, Canada has remained largely invisible in the US
mainstream when it comes to talking about borders and national identity.1 Canadians tend to
believe that their invisibility is a product of their marginalization. However, I contend that the
invisibility of Canada has everything to do with its perceived whiteness in the US imaginary.
Take for example oil imports to the United States. Regardless of the side of the political
spectrum—whether the slogan is "Drill Here, Drill Now" or "No Blood for Oil"—bumper
stickers indicate the popular understanding ofthe connection between oil importation and
American military engagement in the Middle East. The political rhetoric of ridding the US of its
dependency on "foreign oil" relies on the assumption that most of the US's oil comes from the
Middle East. Post-9-1 1 rhetoric has cast Muslims and Arabs into a monolithic and racialized
mass, a civilization supposedly bent on destroying America and its values. While religion,
nationality, and neoimperialism are also at work, these different factors are unified into a
constructed other who is categorically different from the "normal" North American and
Immediately following 9-1 1, these claims were frequently repeated. Since then they crop up
intermittently. As senator, Hilary Rodham Clinton made such claim (Struck). In April 2009,
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano repeated this assertion (Alberts).
categorically antagonistic. The idea that the US is dependent on this homogeneous civilization
for its basic energy needs provides fodder for fear-mongering, surely; it also casts the US as a
(white) victim, and therefore innocent.2 However, Canada is the number one oil exporter to the
US. That most Americans do not know this does not mean that Canadians are marginalized;
rather, political rhetoric directs fear and action against perceived enemies (who are always
already racially other) while the oil and money peacefully flow across the world's longest
undefended border. This is illustrative of a kind of national white privilege. Canadians don't
have to be aware of it, but it provides an unspoken advantage in their endeavors (e.g. in
negotiations with the US). That is, while white Canadians believe that they are marginalized like
minorities, their invisibility comes more from the American conception of Canadians as like
Americans (i.e. white, albeit a more politically moderate and supposedly more boring, white).
In this dissertation, I have argued that each nation uses a specific narrative of victimhood
to re-establish the dominance of whiteness. The economic relationship between the US and
Canada, however, does not support these narratives. The US is not as beholden to racial others as
polemicists describe, nor are Canadians abjectly oppressed by American economic domination,
for they benefit at least as much from that relationship. Moreover, even the cultural constructions
of the relationship between these two_nations do not support these narratives when examined
closely. Canada's basic amenability to US interests belies the claim that the US is a victim to
Note that rhetoric from much of the counter-discourse has taken the opposite stance—the US is
a victimizer and therefore has brought violence on itself. In either case, the logic relies on the
idea that a victim is innocent and that a victimizer is always purely the aggressor.
In fact, of the top five oil exporters to the US, only one is in the Middle East. Interestingly, in
2009 Mexico was the second largest exporter of oil to the US ("Crude Oil and Total Petroleum
Imports Top 15 Countries").
malevolent foreign interests. The invisibility of Canada in US politics buffers Canada from the
political trappings (i.e. hostility) that come with being a foreign nation supplying the US with
some of its basic needs. These contradictions reveal the workings of national identity,
victimhood, and whiteness. Interestingly, international relationships bolster these national
conceptions of whiteness, demonstrating that whiteness makes use of the globalization of ideas
such as race, as well as of economic interrelationships. While the interests of whiteness operate
globally, resistance too can make use of the same transnational routes to destabilize whiteness,
providing critical perspectives not limited by national scope.
In this project, I have worked to make Canada visible, not to raise the status of Canadian
literature in the study of literatures of the Americas so much as to bring into focus the role of
Canadian whiteness in maintaining structures of racial dominance. The invisibility of Canada
works to privilege white Canadians and white Americans alike. The invisibility of Canada
protects Canadian economic interests. The invisibility of Canada (except as basically a whiter
US) also supports white US interests, making whiteness a North American norm. By examining
the functioning of whiteness in both nations, and the interrelationship between the two, I have
sought to challenge the power that invisibility gives to the operations of racial dominance in
North America.
This type of analysis is important not only for understanding the different national
expressions of whiteness in the US and Canada, but also for critiquing other instances of
whiteness. As Robyn Weigman astutely noted, whiteness uses particularity as a way to obscure
its overall systemic functioning. For example, a white academic may not express racism in the
same way as a white working class person. References to this difference in expression often
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divert from the fact that the white academic still expresses racism and benefits from white
privilege and the effects of racism. If we understand how Canadian whiteness uses
particularity—as a distinct nation that is supposedly more progressive than the US—to obscure
its own problems with racial injustice, we can use it as a model for recognizing this same
mechanism elsewhere. For example, the trends we see in Canadian whiteness might also apply to
American liberal whiteness. Or, we might see the logic of anti-immigrant, border-securing
whiteness operating in the whiteness expressed in gated-communities on either side of the border
(see Tortilla Curtain for illustration of this parallel). The conceptions of victimhood, safety, and
healing laid out in this dissertation are applicable to these different contexts.
I began this project by asking three related questions: how does the rhetoric of
victimhood and trauma re-establish white dominance; how is this rhetoric tied to national
identity; and yet, how might concepts of victimhood still provide useful knowledge for
countering oppression? I found that whiteness uses victimhood by discounting its systemic
causes while emphasizing its moral implications. That is, white uses of victimhood obscure the
violence that victimhood provides evidence of, and instead confer innocence on anyone who can
claim victimhood. In addition, white uses of victimhood allow for unproblematized analogies
where one injury is the same as any other. This unnuanced conception of victimhood has allowed
for reversals (white people claiming injury for "reverse racism") and appropriation (where white
people come to understand any experience of oppression through the lens of racial oppression).
Historically in the US, victimhood is at odds with individual agency, citizenship, and
even national identity. And, when recognized, it has been understood in terms of individuality
(either bad luck or Calvinist predestination). However, this idea of victimhood became contested
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in the 1980s and 1990s. Victimhood became something that characterized the mainstream. This
change in the status of victimhood can be partly understood in terms ofbacklash to the
recognition of systemic injustice that was so visible in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This new
mainstream attitude toward victimhood maintained some of the same premises as the old attitude
(even coexisting with it): in particular, victimhood was still understood as individual misfortune,
rather than collective injury, and therefore was distanced from systemic injustice. Secondly, this
idea of victimhood maintained white (middle class male) supremacy through its construction of
the "true victim." The history of victimhood in Canada tells a different story. Unlike the recent
mainstream American claim to victimhood, Canada has "always" understood itself as the victim.
By constructing the nation as a victim, race is obscured as a site of injury in the Canadian
national narrative. In addition, the naturalization of victimization demonstrated in the Canadian
national narrative suggests there is nothing to be done about injustices past and present,
rendering Canadian whites essentially "helpless" with respect to their own participation in racial
domination.
While the rhetoric of victimhood can be used to re-establish the dominance of whiteness,
I contend that we should not reject victimhood as an important category of analysis. Victimhood
provides knowledge of injustice; it is the evidence of victimization. Moreover, injury requires
more than compensation to be righted; it requires healing. Trauma provides an imperative for
healing that cannot be ignored. Healing is not simple; it is a struggle, an ongoing negotiation.
While many white people fear that if we engage in negotiating the trauma of race, we will face
unending guilt and punishment, the perspectives of victims show otherwise.4
Consider the accountability model for healing after sexual violence. In "Taking Risks," a
collective from Communities Against Rape and Abuse describes the processes by which the
healing of survivors of sexual violence can be consistent with larger change in their community,
changing rape culture. One important aspect is engagement with perpetrators. The authors write:
"Dehumanization of aggressors contributes to a larger context of oppression for everyone. [...]
dehumanizing the aggressor undermines the process of accountability for the whole community.
If we separate ourselves from them then we fail to see how we contributed to the conditions that
allow violence to happen" (Bierria 251). An accountability approach is conducive to healing.
They write:
[. . .] though we should make an intentional space to honor rage, it's important for
the purposes of an accountability process to have a vision for specific steps the
aggressor needs to take in order to give her a chance for redemption. Remember,
the community we are working to build is not one where a person is forever
stigmatized as a "monster" no matter what she does to transform, but a
As James Baldwin writes in "White Man's Guilt": "white people fall into the yet more stunning
and intricate trap of believing that they deserve their fate and their comparative safety and that
black people, therefore, need only do as white people have done to rise to where white people
now are. [. . .] white people carry in them a carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to
others what has been done to them. Moreover, the history of white people has lead them to a
fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality—to lose touch, that is,
with themselves—and where they certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly
safe" (Baldwin 41 1-12).
community where a person has the opportunity to provide restoration for the
damage she has done. (255)
It is easy to see how such a model might be applied to racial violence, and perhaps more broadly
to systemic injustice. Indeed, by incorporating white people into the solution, we create the
possibility for systemic change. Such a process also emphasizes victims' agency in shaping the
community. The texts that I have studied do not shy away from disclosing the traumatic effects
of whiteness; however, they do not merely demonize white people or the processes that create
white racial dominance. They suggest a role for white people in change.
My methodological intervention is related to this idea ofprivileging the knowledge of
those who are marginalized and texts that emerge out of traumatic experience. I suggest that we
read these texts not as resources on minority culture and experience (i.e. as native informants),
but as interpreters of whiteness. The texts that I have analyzed suggest that whiteness is deeply
wedded to ideas of national identity and to the idea of white Northern-ness, in the New World.
Furthermore, these texts suggest that changes in whiteness must come from the deep
psychological work of healing rather than cosmetic changes in rhetoric or one-time retributions
or reparations.
I have examined the writing of six authors who critique the workings of North American
whiteness, and further, whose texts promote counter-logics to those that support white
dominance in the late 20th-century. Chapters One and Two explained how national identity
intersected with a limited conception of victimhood in order to restabilize white dominance.
Marginalized writers during this time period recognized this process and sought to challenge the
logics that underwrite it. Dorothy Allison's Bastard out ofCarolina represented a victim who
284
was victimized by systemic oppression yet also had agency. Such a characterization challenges
the Cult of True Victimhood, an antivictimist mentality that supports white supremacy in the US.
While this challenge is valuable, it does not in itself provide critique of white privilege. That
must be faced directly, not by simple analogy. In Chapter Two, I examined two First Nations
authors to take on the white Canadian self-conception as victim of the US, which absolved white
Canadians of their role as victimizers of indigenous peoples. I examined Richard Van Camp's
The Lesser Blessed in terms of the needs of healing, needs that go beyond the simple absolution
suggested by the Canadian national narrative. Tomson Highway's Kiss ofthe Fur Queen then
posits the potential for changes in whiteness—adoption of Cree mentality would change the very
nature of whiteness, incorporating flexibility and play. In this way, Highway's text acts as a pivot
point for my project. He provides an example of a critique of whiteness that then leads into a
specific vision for change, one that includes healing and white participation.
Certainly all of these texts deal with deeply personal traumas. And, likewise, all of them
testify to systemic injustice and injury. But in Chapters Three and Four, my focus changed to
emphasize what personal loss can tell us about the needs of healing from racial trauma and the
potential for change. Also, in these later chapters my analysis moved from characterizing
nationally specific expressions of whiteness to examining how whiteness operates
transnationally. Chapter Three argued that while whiteness operates as a powerful intersection of
racism, patriarchy, and neoimperialism, it also works at the individual psychological level of
desire. My reading of Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here suggests struggle as a site of
healing, providing that the struggle is based in a complex desire for justice and truth of
experience rather than desire for domination. While Brand does not indicate whether white
285
people might participate in such struggle, I take that she leaves that option open. Chapter Four,
then, looks at the traumas of white people and how that might provide an entry point for
productive, collective struggle for healing and reconciliation. I posit recognition—a balance of
both objective and subjective accounts of injury and loss—as a mode for white people to identify
the depths of their own hurt in order to face their role in the injury of racial minorities, rather
than to overshadow those injuries. Helena Maria Viramontes's "The Cariboo Café" represents
the potential, but failure, of such a project. Bharati Mukherjee's "Fathering" presents a
tentatively hopeful picture of recognition. In both of these texts, borders are arbitrary, and
national identity is fluid and does not account for the complexity of characters' experiences. It is
recognition (and connection) across these borders than provides the possibility for healing.
These texts not only illuminate the faulty logics that support white dominance in North
America in the late 20l -century; they present alternative ways ofbeing and feeling that reject the
reductive zero-sum logics of white supremacy in favor of accountability and healing. Until racial
trauma is engaged with by white people and marginalized people collaboratively, it will continue
to morph into different expressions of denial and acting out. At the opening of the 21st-century,
racist attitudes have been emboldened by the Iraq War and War on Terror, while Barak Obama
has been elected president of the US and face of the "post-race" era. As we have seen, white
supremacy can adapt to and make use of these contradictions. Nevertheless resistance is possible,
and literature can play an important role in it. In "The Transitivity of Race and the Challenge of
the Imagination," James Kyung-Jin Lee writes: "In taking seriously the question, What is literary
studies for? in the struggle over race and its transformation, the disruption of received ideas, we
build an archive of feeling that might become the capacity to compel you and others to do things
286
you and they would not do on their own" (1555). The texts that I've examined and my readings
attempt to do just that. By challenging the privilege of invisibility, by delving into the damaging
effects of whiteness not just on material conditions but on the psyches of whites and nonwhites,
and by imagining how we can be, think, and feel otherwise, these texts do more than document
injustice; they act as impetus for doing what we did not feel capable of or did not know needed
to be done. It is through a process of understanding whiteness that white people can begin to join
the larger community (as perpetrators and beneficiaries often, but as human). Such a process is
necessary in order for us to take steps toward restitution and ultimately reconciliation.
Appendix A
I am the product of a very assimilationist lineage. My father is a Norwegian immigrant,
who shed all ethnic and class markers so that he might belong in the academic and medical
circles where he worked to place himself. My mother hails from Eastern European Jewish
immigrants, long established in the United States. My maternal great grandfather, Mandelstam,
had his name shorted to Mandel on Ellis Island. His son changed his name to Manning to get
around the quota restrictions on university admissions. Both my mother and father's sides value
high achievement and normative behavior, particularly in terms of gender roles. Both sides have
been richly rewarded for these choices, and this has enabled and facilitated my own comfort and
success. It has also made me loathe to give up the privilege that I depend on. For example, I
easily pass as straight, a deception that makes my everyday life safer and easier. There are
consequences, however, to the privileges of assimilation. Predictably, as a (upper) middle class,
white woman, I feel plenty of white guilt, as well as class guilt. Stuff White People Like well
describes the kind of white person I became—liberal, but with limited perspective on the less
tangible privileges afforded me by my race and class.
As a dual citizen of the US and Canada, I am not a hyphenated- nor border-subject in the
way typically described in borderland and postcolonial studies, for I am truly of the global North.
My two passports, which allow me to move easily between the two nations (as well as further
afield), are testament to this privilege. Yet real differences between Canada and the US have
created pulls in different directions for reasons that are not always clear to me.1 I have resisted
In this project I refer to both Canadians and Americans as "them" and as "we." I have not
determined how to be consistent without just calling everybody "them," as if I weren't one of
"them." This also occurs when I refer to white people.
288
the urge to identify as Canadian when I disagree with US foreign or domestic policy. Yet the fact
of this urge to switch national identities for moral convenience has led me to question where this
desire comes from. What does national identity mean? And what does it have to do with guilt
and culpability regarding real injustices committed in its name?
On one hand, this work stems from my desire to ease my guilt and my sense of
powerlessness with respect to the injustice I have come to see in the world. On the other hand, it
is my desire for change that motivates this project. I am not a race traitor nor a race abolitionist,
nor even perhaps a race reformer.2 I try to take Linda Alcoffs approach in "The Whiteness
Question." She calls for white people to embrace a kind of a white double consciousness—
wherein white people recognize systemic production ofpast and present inequalities and
injustices and also recognize the rich history of white people who chose to do otherwise than to
perpetuate it. Such an approach does not overprivilege agency, as if as individuals we could
simply put the painful history behind us. It does however suggest that not only do we have a
choice, but that we must choose. For in not choosing, we choose perpetuation of injustice by
default.
I recognize that as white scholar studying literature by nonwhite writers about nonwhite
subjects, I am claiming to interpret and understand positions that I do not inhabit. I realize that I
am supposing a certain transparency of these art forms and that my interpretation of them is not
entirely blinded by my own positions of dominance and privilege. Still, I believe that there is
Race traitors attempt to disaffiliate from their whiteness and rather choose identify with racial
others. Race abolitionists believe that we can "abolish" the concept of race and thereby end racial
injustice. Race reformers believe that we can recuperate white identity into something positive
that is no longer associated with racism. For more on these positions see Melanie Bush's
Breaking the Code ofGood Intentions and Eva Cherniavsky's Incorporations.
something about the study of literature that can make this a liberatory rather than appropriative
project. Books are public and they create what Toni Morrison has called "shareable imaginative
worlds." The work and bravery of putting these texts out into the world ofwhite and nonwhite
readers should be met by effort and desire to learn from them. Too often people in the dominant
culture say things like "I don't know what they (minorities) want or what they think." We say
this when people of color have been telling us all along; we often just refuse to listen. I take
seriously the claims that these texts make and that they are authorities on something I have been
brought up not to be an authority on. I am then applying those ideas to myself. In other words, I
am not reading minority literature to understand minorities, but rather to understand myself and
the things I was not brought up to question.
The white scholar bringing attention to studying whiteness raises a lot of questions. The
last conference I attended on "whiteness" was composed predominantly of white people. Being
in a room full of white folks talking about whiteness makes me a little uneasy and makes me
question what it is that are we really doing in whiteness studies. Indeed, at this conference my
concerns were borne out in the very different goals that attendees brought to this work. For some,
whiteness,studies was an opportunity for publication, while others were there out of commitment
to antiracism. The tension between these two positions resulted in a painful moment of
misunderstanding.3 This experience lead me to question where I place myself. I believe it is
important not to distance whiteness studies from critical race studies more broadly. Critical race
In this moment, a woman of color (one of the few nonwhites present) expressed her frustrations
with the racism she encounters everyday and the psychological and physical impact this has on
her. Her heartfelt disclosure was met by defensiveness on the part of a white participant who
balked at any political implications her statement may have suggested.
290
studies has always been engaged in the practice of understanding and critiquing whiteness. So
while I hesitantly refer to this project as a contribution to whiteness studies, I want to align my
work more closely with critical race studies.4
I believe change is possible. I am grateful for the opportunities, personal and
professional, that have facilitated my own change. I have grown in my ability to hear the claims
of others, to respond with something other than guilt or defensiveness (and to therefore be less
avoidant or uncomfortable talking about race), and to self-evaluate and change small practices in
my teaching and personal interactions. This does not mean that I don't still have much to learn
and many more changes to make. It just speaks to a sense ofhope that motivates my project.
In the vocabulary of Robert's Rules, I propose my project as a "friendly amendment" to the
larger movement of critical race studies.
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