English 875/Deconstructing Whiteness

Professor Gregory Jay/Department of English/University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee
Fall 2001

Course Description

This doctoral-level research seminar will provide the opportunity to study the relatively new interdisciplinary field of “whiteness studies.” Built on a long tradition of scholarly and cultural analysis, the field has lately gained prominence through the work of novelist Toni Morrison, historian David Roediger, film scholar Richard Dyer, educator Christine Sleeter, and many others that we will read in the course of the seminar. Whiteness studies scholars investigate how the cultural imagination of “whiteness” functions in our social practices, artistic traditions, and political economy. The seminar will familiarize participants with the competing claims of whiteness studies scholars and ask them to critique these claims. By the end, participants should possess an enhanced understanding of how race, particularly the concept of “whiteness,” is imagined in modern culture, specifically in literary texts, historical study, popular media, and humanities pedagogy. All seminar participants will construct a term-long research project focused on analyzing the construction of whiteness in a particular cultural arena or theoretical debate. Project proposals will be due by the fourth week. Participants will also make oral presentations to the class.


Sept. 5 Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege" (online)
Screening: Blue-Eyed
Sept. 12 Valerie Babb, Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture
Sept. 19 Jane Lazarre, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons
Sept. 26 David Roediger, ed., Black on White (pages 1-199)
Oct. 3 David Roediger, ed., Black on White (pages 199-350)
Oct. 10 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Oct. 17 Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness (including essays on Conrad in Norton Critical Edition)
Oct. 24 Richard Dyer, White
Screening: King Kong
Oct. 31 F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Offshore Pirate" (online) and The Great Gatsby
Nov.7 Nella Larsen, Passing
Screening: The Jazz Singer 
Nov.14 Michael Paul Rogin, Blackface, White Noise (pages 1-120)
Seminar paper prospectus due (500 words, copies for everyone)
Nov.21 William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (pages 1-106)
Discussion of seminar paper plans 
Nov.28 William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (pages 106-234)
Dec. 5 William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (pages 235-end)
First draft of seminar paper due (appx. 15 pages; copies for everyone) 
Dec. 12 Seminar paper workshop
Dec. 19 Final drafts of seminar papers due 4:00 Garland Hall 324

 Seminar Paper Assignment

The seminar paper will be modeled on the publishable critical/scholarly article as found in such journals as American Literature, American Literary History, African American Review, Contemporary Literature, PMLA, College English, Cinema Journal, American Quarterly, etc. In terms of format, this means a manuscript of 25 pages, double-spaced, plus footnotes or endnotes (plus the works cited page if you use MLA format--you may use either the MLA or Chicago Manual styles, but be consistent.). In terms of content, this means a paper strongly grounded in the previous scholarship and criticism in the field and cognizant of relevant historical and theoretical materials. The paper should reflect your research and your debt to previous scholarship through its discussion of other books and articles as well as in the citational and bibliographical apparatus. A research paper usually reflects and expresses the author's own opinions and judgments, but unlike the expressive essay the critical paper must be primarily grounded in evidence drawn from some combination of close reading, historical and biographical facts, and theoretical argumentation.

Topics for the paper are open, both in terms of media and issues. Thus papers on film, pedagogy, and race theory are welcome, as of course are papers on literary and non-fictional texts. Papers need not focus on assigned readings, though they should take account of these readings and reflect a knowledge of them.

October 17: Initial paper topics due (50 words, copies for everyone)
November 14: Seminar paper prospectus due (500 words, 10 item bibliography, copies for everyone)
November 21: Discussion of seminar paper prospectuses
Dec. 5: First draft of seminar paper due (at least 15 pages, plus bibliography; copies for everyone)
Dec. 12: Seminar paper workshop
Dec. 19, 4:00 p.m. Final papers due in Garland 324


Defining the terms of racial discourse:

excerpts from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary


adj.1. of the color of pure snow, of the margins of this page, etc.; reflecting nearly all the rays of sunlight or a similar light. 2. light or comparatively light in color. 3.  (of human beings) marked by slight pigmentation of the skin, as of many Caucasoids. 4. for, limited to, or predominantly made up of persons whose racial heritage is Caucasian: a white club; a white neighborhood. 5. pallid or pale, as from fear or other strong emotion: white with rage. 6. silvery, gray, or hoary: white hair. 7. snowy: a white Christmas. 8. lacking color; transparent. 9.  (politically) ultraconservative….13. Slang. decent, honorable, or dependable: That's very white of you. 14. auspicious or fortunate. 15. morally pure; innocent. 16. without malice; harmless: white magic….n.20. a color without hue at one extreme end of the scale of grays, opposite to black. A white surface reflects light of all hues completely and diffusely. Most so-called whites are very light grays: fresh snow, for example, reflects about 80 percent of the incident light, but to be strictly white, snow would have to reflect 100 percent of the incident light. It is the ultimate limit of a series of shades of any color. 21. a hue completely desaturated by admixture with white, the highest value possible. 22. quality or state of being white. 23. lightness of skin pigment. 24. a person whose racial heritage is Caucasian.


adj.1. lacking hue and brightness; absorbing light without reflecting any of the rays composing it. 2. characterized by absence of light; enveloped in darkness: a black night. 3.  (sometimes cap.)a. pertaining or belonging to any of the various populations characterized by dark skin pigmentation, specifically the dark-skinned peoples of Africa, Oceania, and Australia. b. African-American.  4. soiled or stained with dirt: That shirt was black within an hour. 5. gloomy; pessimistic; dismal: a black outlook. 6. deliberately; harmful; inexcusable: a black lie. 7. boding ill; sullen or hostile; threatening: black words; black looks. 8.  (of coffee or tea) without milk or cream. 9. without any moral quality or goodness; evil; wicked: His black heart has concocted yet another black deed. 10. indicating censure, disgrace, or liability to punishment.
—  Syn.1. dark, dusky; sooty, inky; swart, swarthy; sable, ebony. 4. dirty, dingy. 5. sad, depressing, somber, doleful, mournful, funereal. 7. disastrous, calamitous. 9. sinful, inhuman, fiendish, devilish, infernal, monstrous; atrocious, horrible; nefarious, treacherous, traitorous, villainous.—  Ant.1. white. 4. clean. 5. hopeful, cheerful.— Usage3, 22. BLACK, COLORED, and NEGRO have all been used to describe or name the dark-skinned African peoples or their descendants. COLORED, now somewhat old-fashioned, is often offensive. In the late 1950s BLACK began to replace NEGRO and today is the most widely used term. Common as an adjective (black woman, man, American, people, etc.). BLACK is also used as a noun, especially in the plural. Like other terms referring to skin color (white, yellow), BLACK is usually not capitalized, except in proper names or titles (Black Muslim; Black English). In the appropriate meanings AFRO-AMERICAN is sometimes used instead of BLACK.


n.1. a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
2. a population so related.
3. Anthropology
a. any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
b. an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, esp. formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
c. a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
4. a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock: the Slavic race.
5. any people united by common history, language

—  Syn. 1. tribe, clan, family, stock, line, breed. RACE, PEOPLE, NATION are terms for a large body of persons who may be thought of as a unit because of common characteristics. In the traditional biological and anthropological systems of classification RACE refers to a group of persons who share such genetically transmitted traits as skin color, hair texture, and eye shape or color: the white race; the yellow race. In reference to classifying the human species, RACE is now under dispute among modern biologists and anthropologists. Some feel that the term has no biological validity; others use it to specify only a partially isolated reproductive population whose members share a considerable degree of genetic similarity. In certain broader or less technical senses RACE is sometimes used interchangeably with PEOPLE. PEOPLE refers to a body of persons united usually by common interests, ideals.


adj. 1. pertaining to or characteristic of a people, esp. a group  (ethnic group‚) sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like.
2. referring to the origin, classification, characteristics, etc., of such groups.
3. being a member of an ethnic group, esp. of a group that is a minority within a larger society: ethnic Chinese in San Francisco.
4. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of members of such a group.
5. belonging to or deriving from the cultural, racial, religious, or linguistic traditions of a people or country: ethnic dances.
6. Obsolete. pagan; heathen.