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Living with anxiety: race and the renarration of white identity in contemporary popular culture

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Journal of Communication Inquiry, Oct 1998 v22 n4 p354(11)

Living with anxiety: race and the renarration of white identity in contemporary popular culture. (Constructing (Mis)Representations) Cameron McCarthy.

Abstract: Electronic media, especially film and television, increasingly produce, coordinate, and channel white suburban resentment toward the depressed inner cities. Confronted with social unrest and crime, it becomes easier for many white people to see their diminishing numerical and economic superiority as targets for anger from non-white races. Racial identity, without sufficient psychological resources, can be traumatized by expanding multiculturalism.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Iowa

Oh god, I feel I am falling.

--Madonna, "Like a Prayer"

Questioning the positionality of "whiteness" and its devious articulations in contemporary life takes us to the threshold of the new dynamics taking place in the U.S. racial order at late century. In this article, I discuss new ideological configurations in our popular culture and civic life that foreground the dangerous expansion of identity politics into the white suburbs and the triumphant prosecution of middle-class, narrow-minded morality in the discourses of popular culture and public policy. I argue that these developments are part of a broader pattern of racial instability, racial recoding, and racial incorporation taking place in American society as we enter the twenty-first century.

Living with Anxiety, Living in New Times

We are living in new racial times, new racial circumstances. In these new times, racial dangers have multiplied, but so have the possibilities for renewal and change. That is, that we are living in a historical moment in which the racial order is being reconfigured in the tiniest crevices of everyday life. As I have argued elsewhere (McCarthy 1997), we need new ways to talk about race and identity that would help us to better understand the powerful rearticulations that are taking place in popular culture and in the common sense of the whole body politic. A significant new development in contemporary life is the growing anxiety and restlessness that characterize the white middle class. This tumult and restlessness are most strongly foregrounded at the level of the production of identities and representations. We are living in a time of the production of crass identity politics. By identity politics, I am talking about the strategic deployment of the discourse of group distinctiveness in everyday struggles over political representation and scarce resources (the distribution of goods and services) in education and society. Far too often, identity politics are discussed in ways that suggest that only minority groups--particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos--practice, promote, and benefit from the strategic deployment of identity. And the case is made further that minorities are the only ones who experience the effects of group politics in terms of the fragmentation of identity, social disorientation and dislocation, and so forth. This claim is manifestly false. White people also practice and benefit from identity politics. Nowhere is this more powerfully registered than in the popular culture. One only has to look at the respective coverage of whites and minorities in television evening news to see the coordinating role the media play in the elaboration of white identity. By contrast, practices of representation in contemporary media culture work toward a corresponding disorganization and subversion of minority identity formation.

In what follows, I try to understand these developments in racial identity formation and popular culture. I direct attention in this area to the twin processes of racial simulation (or the constant fabrication of racial identity through the production of the pure space of racial origins) and resentment (the process of defining one's identity through the negation of the other) (Nietzsche 1967). I look at the operation of these two processes in popular culture and in education. I argue that these two processes operate in tandem in the prosecution of the politics of racial affiliation and racial exclusion in our times.

Recoding Racial Identity

In his book Simulations, Jean Baudrillard (1983, 1) recounts a story told by the Latin American writer, Jorge Luis Borges. It is the story of some special map makers, the cartographers of the empire, who draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the entire territory that was the object of the cartographers' map making. Baudrillard uses the fable to announce the ushering in of the epoch of simulation--our age, the age in which the real is replaced by the hyperreal and the line between reality and fiction is forever deferred. The photo opportunity is our only contact with the president. The patriarch only blooms in autumn. The copy has in this case completely usurped the original. There is no place like home any more in this new world order of boundary transgression and constantly collapsing global space.

I would like to take up the Borges story as a point of departure in my Exploration of the articulation of race relations and racial identities in popular culture and in education at the end of the century. In doing so, I draw directly on Baudrillard's (1983) ostensible theme in the above passage that recounts the trials and tribulations of the emperor's cartographers--the theme of the centrality of simulation in our contemporary age. For the idea of the copy that constantly recodes, usurps, and appropriates the original is a very precise insight on the way in which racial difference operates in popular culture and intellectual life. And it is this theme of simulation that I will want to return to in a moment. I believe that the Borges's allegory is a fable about identity that I understand to be a drama of social crisis and recuperation, of exclusion and affiliation, of exile and return. Racially dominant identities do depend on the constant ideological appropriation of the other. Racial identity, racial affiliation, and racial exclusion are the products of human work, human effort (Said 1993). The field of race relations in popular culture, but also in education, is a field of simulation. The story of map making is also a story, ultimately, of the excess of language that is involved in racial discourse. There is always something left over in language that never allows us to gather up our racial identities in one place and to fix them in invariant racial slots. The emperor needs the empire. The emperor exists for the fact of empire. Without it, he does not exist. Worst yet, as Baudrillard might suggest, without the empire, he does not know himself to exist. He is like the devil-landlord in Derek Walcott's (1970) "Ti Jean and His Brothers" who wants to drink at the pool of mortality. He wants to be human. But the peasants will burn down his Great House. The landlord is a homeless devil.

Understanding the operation of racial logics in education, paradoxically, requires an understanding of their constant simulation outside the laboratory of the educational field itself--in literature and popular culture, in the imaginary. It is this blend of the educational and the popular that I want to explore briefly here, for one of the current difficulties in the educational literature on race relations is its refusal of the popular. American middle-class white youth and adults get more of their social construction of inner-city blacks through the media--particularly, television and film--than through personal or classroom interaction or even in textbooks. And nowadays textbooks are looking intertextually more and more like TV with their high definition graphics and illustrations and their glossy, polysemic treatment of subject matter. In addition, anti-institutional educational projects such as Teach for America(1)--with its mission to save the urban poor for God, for capitalism, and for country--are deeply inscribed in a language of the racial other pulled off the television set, as we will see in a moment. We live in a time when "pseudo-events'--as Daniel Boorstin (1975) called media-driven representations in the 1970s--have usurped any relic of reality beyond that which is staged. Media simulations have driven incredibly deep and perhaps permanent wedges of difference between the world of the suburban dweller and his or her inner-city counterpart. Argues Boorstin (1975, 3), "We have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create a thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life." These facts of life--notions of what, for example, black people are like or what Native Americans or Latinos are like--are invented and reinvented in the media, in popular magazines, in the newspaper, and in television and popular films. In this sense, popular culture is always a step ahead of educational institutions in terms of strategies of incorporation and mobilization of racial identities. As authors such as Katherine Frith (1997) point out, by the end of the teenage years, the average student will have spent more time watching television than he or she would have spent in school. It is increasingly television and film, more so than the school curriculum, that educate American youth about race.

The War over Signs

Even more crucially, to take up further the implications of Baudrillard's (1983) Simulations, contemporary conflicts in education and in popular culture are fundamentally battles over signs and the occupation and territorialization of symbolic as well as material resources and urban and suburban space. Central to these developments is the rise of resentment politics. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche (1967) conceptualized resentment as the specific practice of identity displacement in which the social actor consolidates his or her own identity by complete disavowal of the merits and existence of his or her social other. This practice of ethnocentric consolidation and cultural exceptionalism now characterizes much of the tug-of-war over educational reform and multiculturalism. This battle over culture, self, and group has spread throughout society as a whole. Resentment and racial reaction therefore define school life, as expressed in the extent to which there has been an infiltration of a culture war over signs and identity in the arena of everyday practices. Education is indeed a critical site over which struggles over the organization and concentration of emotional and political investment and moral affiliation are taking place. These battles over identity involve the powerful manipulation of group symbols and strategies of articulation and rearticulation of public slogans and popular discourses. These signs and symbols are used in the making of identity and the definition of social and political projects.

An important feature of these developments is the radical recoding and renarration of public life now taking place. Traditional distinctions between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, and the Left versus the Right have collapsed. Radically distorting and conservative energies and drives have taken over the body politic, displacing concerns about inequality and poverty. What we have is the mushrooming of opportunistic discourses activated within the suburban middle class itself. These discourses center on the protection of the home and the defense of the neighborhood from inner-city predators. They narrate the preservation of the nostalgic ancestral record of the group and its insulation from the contaminating racial other. These opportunistic discourses spawned within the past decade and a half or so foreground new priorities in the public arena: concerns with identity, history, popular memory, nation, family, crime, and so forth now drive the engines of popular will and the public imagination. This shift away from the issue of social inequality of the 1960s and 1970s has meant that America is now willing to spend more on law enforcement and prisons than it is on educating inner-city youth. On the other hand, some minority advocates seem more preoccupied with cultural assertion and cultural distinctiveness than with the braising socioeconomic isolation of minority youth.

I examine the mise-en-scene of these cultural discourses associated with the tug-of-war of racial strife in the educational and social life of a divided society--the United States. I wish to foreground for analysis four discourses of racial difference now in use inside and outside of education in which metaphors and symbols of identity and representation are the "issues at stake." These discourses are the following.

First, there is the discourse of racial origins (as revealed, for example, in The Eurocentric/Afrocentric debate over curriculum reform). Discourses of racial origins rely on the simulation of a pastoral sense of the past in which Europe and Africa are available to American racial combatants without their modern tensions, contradictions, and conflicts. For Eurocentric combatants such as William Bennett (1994) or George Will (1989), Europe and America are a self-evident and transcendent cultural unity. For the Afrocentric combatants, Africa and the Diaspora are one "solid identity," to use the language of Molefi Asante (1993). Proponents of Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism are themselves proxies for larger impulses and desires for stability among the middle classes in American society in a time of constantly changing demographic and economic realities. The immigrants are coming. Jobs are slipping overseas into the Third World. Discourses of Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism travel in a time warp to an age when the gods stalked the earth. These discourses of racial origins provide imaginary solutions to groups and individuals who refuse the radical hybridity that is the historically evolved reality of the United States and other major Western metropolitan societies.

The second example of the discourses of resentment is the discourse of nation. This discourse is foregrounded in a spate of recent ads by multinational corporate concerns such as IBM, United, American Airlines, MCI, and General Electric (GE). These ads both feed on and provide fictive solutions to the racial anxieties of the age. They effectively appropriate multicultural symbols and redeploy them in a broad project of coordination and consolidation of corporate citizenship and consumer affiliation. The marriage of art and economy, as Stuart Ewen (1988) defines advertising in his All Consuming Images, is now commingled with the exigencies of ethnic identity and nation. These multicultural ads directly exploit difference--different races, different landscapes, different traditions and symbols. One moment the semiotic subject of advertising is a free American citizen abroad in the open seas, sailing up and down the Atlantic or the translucent aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, or lounging on the pearly white sands of Bermuda or Barbados. In another moment, the free American citizen is transported to the pastoral life of the unspoiled, undulating landscape of medieval Europe. Yet another vista reveals our American Nostromo at one with the beautiful wildlife of the forests of Africa--African forests that are just part of the scenery of one of our prominent entertainment parks.

GE's "We Bring Good Things to Life" ad is a very good example of this kind of racial recoding. In this ad, which is shown quite regularly on CNN and ABC, GE is represented as the benevolent corporate citizen extending American technology to Japan, bringing electricity to one Japanese town. Echoes of America's domination and vanquishing of Japan during the Second World War fill the atmosphere of this ad, thereby glibly eliding contemporary American anxieties about Japan's technological capabilities and possible economic superiority. Corporate advertising conducts its pedagogy via television, providing the balm for a troubled people in pursuit of origins. Ethnicity and race constitute some of the new productive locations for marketing--the new home ports for multinational corporations in search of harbor in the rough seas of international commerce.

Third, there is the discourse of popular memory and popular history. This discourse suffuses the nostalgia films of the past half decade or so. Films such as Dances with Wolves (1990), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Grand Canyon (1993), Falling Down (1993), Disclosure (1995), Time to Kill (1996), and Forrest Gump (1994) foreground a white middle-class protagonist who appropriates the subject position of racial "victim." For example, Joel Schumaker's A Time to Kill offers pedagogical insight about social problems concerning difference from the perspective of the embattled white suburban dweller. The problem with difference is, in Schumaker's world, symptomatic of a crisis of feeling for white suburban middle classes--a crisis of feeling represented in blocked opportunity and wish fulfillment, overcrowding, loss of jobs, general insecurity, crime, and so forth. The contemporary world has spun out of order, and violence and resentment are the coping strategies of white middle-class actors.

In A Time to Kill, Schumaker presents us with the world of the "New South"--Clanton, Mississippi--in which social divides are extreme and blacks and whites live such different lives they might as well have been on separate planets. But this backwater of the South serves as a social laboratory to explore a burning concern of suburban America: retributive justice. When individuals break the law and commit acts of violent antisocial behavior, then the upstanding folks in civil society are justified in seeking their expulsion or elimination. The film poses the rather provocative question: when in short is it respectable society's "Time to Kill"? Are there circumstances in which retribution and revenge and resentment are warranted? The makers of A Time to Kill say resoundingly yes. This answer is impervious to class or race or gender.

To make the case for retributive justice, Schumaker puts a black man at the epicenter of this white normative discourse--what Charles Murray (1984) calls "white popular wisdom." What would you do if your ten-year-old daughter is brutally raped and battered, pissed on, and left for dead? You would want revenge? This is a role-play that has been naturalized in society to mean white victim, black assailant--the Willie Horton shuffle. In A Time to Kill, the discourse is inverted: the righteously angry are a black worker and his family. Two redneck assailants raped his daughter. Carl Lee, the black lumberyard worker, gets revenge on the two callous criminals by shooting them down on the day of their arraignment. One brutal act is answered by another. One is a crime; the other is righteous justice. Crime will not pay. In this revenge drama, the message of retributive justice is intended to override race and class lines. We are living in the time of an eye for an eye. The racial enemy is in our private garden. In the face of bureaucratic incompetence, we have to take the law into our own hands.

Nostalgic films also retell national history from the perspective of bourgeois anxieties. Hence, in Forrest Gump, the peripatetic Gump interposes himself into the raging decade of the 1960s, stealing the spotlight from the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protesters, the feminist movement, and so forth. Public history is overwhelmed by personal consumerism and wish fulfillment. "Life is," after all, "just a box of chocolates. You never know what you might get." You might get Newt Gingrich. But who cares? History will absolve the American consumer.

The fourth example of resentment is the discourse of bourgeois social voluntarism. This is an example of what I wish to call positive resentment--a resentment based on what can best be described as a post-Reaganite selfish idealism. One of the most powerful examples of this discourse is provided in Teach for America's (TFA) highly ideologically motivated intervention in the education of the inner-city child. This is a voluntarism that is backed by the leading corporations and business leaders in the country such as Xerox, IBM, Ross Perot, and Union Carbide. TFA's scarcely veiled agenda is to undermine and discredit teacher education preparation in the university and the teacher certification process as it presently exists. For TFA, the inner-city child is the tragic ballast weighing down the ship of state. In helping the inner-city child, the good TFA recruit can be projected as a timely hero rescuing society from inner-city degeneracy: crack, crime, and procreation. This is all powerfully represented in TFA's recruitment brochures and promotional literature. Of course, crime prevention tops the list of these Green Beret recruits. And crime and violence are presented in one recruitment manual as naturally residing in the heart of the inner-city child. Hence, the TFA recruit must prepare himself or herself for the pseudonormative task of crime prevention:

Let's... pretend that I'm one of your students, named [use your name],

And we're going to act out a scene. So, don't tell me what you would

do, just do it. Don't tell me what you would say, just say it. I'm

going to take out a knife [your pen] in a non-threatening manner.

School rules prohibit knives in the building, but some teachers look

the other way. Begin. (TFA 1993, 22)

It is striking how TFA's representation of the inner-city child seems to be skimmed directly from the surface of the television set. The world of the inner city is available to the middle-class actor through simulation.


Against the grain of historical variability, a present irony exists with respect to racial identity formation. That is, whereas educators insist on the master narratives of homogeneity and Western culture in their headlong retreat from diversity and hybridity, the captains and producers of the culture industry readily exploit the ambiguities of racial identity formation. Might I say, even cultural nationalism and Afrocentrism can sell goods and services well. A good example is the hot trading and hawking of the image of Malcolm X that took place in the early 1990s--the assortment of items, from the X cap to the glossy cover designs of magazines such as Newsweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine that have placed a bill of sale on the great icon. Needless to say, Eurocentrism has also been incorporated in advertising as in the United ad that pitches a trip to a homogeneous imperial England, free of the presence of the immigrant populations that have entered the mother country from every corner of England's once vast commonwealth.

It is precisely this rearticulation and recoding that I call nonsynchrony. Racial difference and identities, as Said (1993) points out, are produced. I therefore want to call attention to the organization and arrangement of racial relations of domination and subordination in cultural forms and ideological practices in the mass media and in education--what Louis Althusser calls the mise-en-scene of interpellation. I am interested in the way in which moral leadership and social power are exercised in the "concrete" in this society and globally. In the past, I have pointed to the impact of these discontinuities among differently situated groups of minorities. Here, I have tried to draw attention to these dynamics as they operate in debates over identity and curriculum reform, hegemonic cultural assertions in advertising, popular film, and in the educational voluntarism of the much publicized project called Teach for America, "Our Peace Corps at Home."

What do these examples of racial simulation and resentment tell us about the contemporary state of race relations in education and society? Collectively, they point to a generalized pattern of revision and recoding of our racial landscape. They also point to the instability in the elaboration of national racial categories and identities in late-century society. They, in part, invoke the new depthlessness, radical eclecticism, and rampant nostalgia of the age. In the shadow between truth and fiction lies the new reality of racial formation in our contemporary era. On one hand, this is an age in which the emergence of subaltern racial minorities, their demands for democratic participation, and their assertion of their heritages and identities have precipitated a sense of moral panic and a series of quixotic and contradictory responses within the educational establishment that link conservative intellectuals and born-over-again liberals in the academy to some of the more vulgar anti-intellectual and fundamentalist political groups and traditions in this country. This is all summarized in what Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (1991) call "the politics of clarity" and the chants of political correctness and reverse discrimination that now provide the ideological cover for that special species of low-flying behaviorism that has been unloaded by the Right in all spheres of American cultural life. On the other hand, these new ethnicities are being rapidly colonized, incorporated, and reworked by a culture industry that radically appropriates the new to consolidate the past. Diversity can sell visits to theme parks as well as it can sell textbooks. Diversity can sell AT&T long-distance calling cards as well as the new ethnic stalls in the ethereal hearths of the shopping mall. And sometimes, in the most earnest of ways, diversity lights up the whole world and makes it available to capitalism.

But unlike Borges's map, this does not exhaust the subaltern imagination and the transformative character of new epiphanies. For this period of multinational capital is witness to the ushering in of the multicultural age--an age in which the empire has struck back, and First World exploitation of the Third World has so depressed these areas of the world that there has been a steady stream of immigrants from the periphery seeking better futures in the metropolitan centers. With the rapid growth of the indigenous minority population in the United States, there is now a formidable cultural presence of diversity in every sphere of cultural life. If this is an era of the post, it is also an era of the multicultural. And the challenge of this multicultural era is the challenge of living in a world of difference. It requires generating a mythology of social interaction that goes beyond the model of resentment that seems so securely in place in these times. It means that we must take seriously the implications of the best intuition in the Nietzschean critique of resentment as the process of identity formation that thrives on the negation of the other. The challenge is to embrace a politic that calls on the moral resources of all who are opposed to the power bloc. Indeed, as the purveyors of the identity politics of "white reign" assert themselves, they also expose their own vulnerabilities and fragilities. The floodgates have been opened and the swirling waters of difference now saturate the social field. This is the age of difference, the multicultural era. The multicultural era therefore poses new, though "difficult," tactical and strategic challenges to subaltern intellectuals and activists. A strategy that seeks to address these new challenges and openings must involve as a first condition a recognition that our differences of race, gender, and nation are merely the starting points for new solidarities and new alliances, not the terminal stations for depositing our agency and identities or the extinguishing of hope and possibility.


(1.) Teach for America is the much-talked-about voluntaristic youth organization that has sought to make a "difference" in the educational experiences of disadvantaged inner-city children. The organization, patterned on the can-do humanism of the Peace Corps, recruits graduates from elite universities and colleges around the country to serve a two-year stint in inner-city public school districts desperate for teachers for schools that are currently understaffed.


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Cameron McCarthy is a research professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches courses in cultural studies, mass communications, and curriculum theory. His most recent book, The Uses of Culture, was published last year by Routledge Kegan Paul.

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