Banned to the hilt and consequently a bestseller, a book set in 1920s smalltown Georgia. It is often billed as a tale of interracial love, between Tracy Deen, a young white man from a wealthy family, and Nonnie Anderson, a young black woman who is a college graduate and is now working as a maid. But it is certainly no “forbidden romance” in the genre of “Romeo and Juliet” – this is a story of white supremacy, the misogyny at the heart of heterosexual coupledom, the objectification and trafficking of black women by white men, and the damage done by “well-meaning” progressives. Thankfully, there is no construction of a pre-existing force of romantic love that clashes with cruel social forces and ends in tragedy. Smith therefore gets at something far more insightful than many “feel-good” narratives that simply aim to tell us that, after all, love is love, and offer very little understanding of the violence done by inscriptions of normativity. The novel skips between characters almost dizzily, taking us into the heads of many townspeople who reflect on the Tracy and Nonnie, a murder that takes place, and a lynching. We see how white supremacy is reproduced and how it shores up the identity of white citizens, including those liberals who espouse social justice. Towards the end of the novel, the psychic fragmentation experienced by some characters is depicted in exhilarating modernist prose. There are many reflections of the 1940s white supremacist culture Smith herself wrote out of, representations of black characters that are jarring to a twenty-first century reader. But her striving for representation of this white supremacy, her vivid and daring representation of queerness, sexuality, and desire, as well as the racist and sexist violence that pervades the novel, is a reminder of what we still need from radical writers today.
A fundamental text of critical race theory and film studies, still ominously resonant. Dyer’s contention that until white people see how whiteness is constructed, represented, and privileged, white supremacy (though he doesn’t use that term) will thrive. The scope of his study is stunning: his own awareness of his whiteness, his privileged consciousness of racial difference, the gradual conflation of Christianity and whiteness, the technology of photography and film, the privileging of a “culture of light,” heroic white masculinity in Westerns and muscle-man action cinema, the representation of white women as divine/destructive, and the associations of whiteness with death in horror and cult dystopian films. There are many vital photographs throughout, both black and white and colour, that illustrate the aestheticisation of whiteness. Dyer’s argument that white people are allowed to inhabit ordinariness, the human race, the standard of humanity, even escaping racial identity, while non-white people are raced, particular, and different, is a simple and powerful contribution to any work interested in power. Certainly, he makes strange whiteness, forcing us to consider why connotations of purity, light, goodness, and cleanness have become attached to a simple colour – or, as he discusses, a non-colour. He unravels so much of what we have taken as read in this white-saturated culture. For example, what does it mean to be “white”? It is surely not a literal skin colour possessed by many humans, yet its slipperiness is part of its privilege. Dyer’s call to examine the unexamined is unfortunately still urgent twenty years after its first issue.