"cuz today i'm gonna be a white girl"
That phrase launches a notorious monologue in Ntozake Shange's Spell #7 (1979),(1) one that satirizes the behaviors and perceptions of conditioned whitegirlhood. It became particularly notorious among those white feminists -- the "women's movement faction of white girls" -- who had perhaps too vociferously expounded upon the infamous "beau willie" episode in Shange's earlier for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf (975); after Spell #7, they began to question Shange's alliances. Is she a woman or is she black? went the inane and therefore unannounced subtext of the discussion, posed by a faction of girls who thought of themselves as women but didn't think of themselves as white. "[W]hat's the first thing white girls think in the morning?" Shange's monologue asked this group who wasn't used to hearing themselves being generalized, "do they get up being glad they aint niggahs?" White liberal feminists were outraged bY the suggestion -- "why, of course not!" -- unaware that the capacity not to be either glad or sad was a luxury of the oblivious. The fact that "such a thought would never enter their heads" was precisely, insidiously, the point.
In retrospect, I see White Noises as a kind of response to Spell #7 as well as to other moments (theatrical and otherwise) when I have been figuratively addressed as a white woman and tried to confront and to avoid the implications of that positioning. I have since come to realize how often avoidance (e.g., my self-distancing use of the third-person plural above) is mistaken for confrontation (e.g., my self-righteous use of the third person plural above) and of how their simultaneity continually frustrates the attempt to think of myself as white with as much self-consciousness as I think of myself as a woman.
"The question of where to begin is an interesting one." That phrase launches my monologue, which returns to this question to foreground the specific difficulty of remembering white privilege, that is, the specific difficulty of recounting one's own obliviousness. Though the opening sentence has such resonances for me now, it originated quite mundanely in a moment of performer's block, for it had actually been difficult to begin for quite some time. A few months earlier my colleague, Jennifer Holmes, had secured a window of time at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery and asked me to contribute a piece to an ensemble installation/performance on the subject of "memory."(2) She and Jessica Thebus (another contributor) encouraged me to create a performance based on the vaguely surreal story of my participation in the Randolph Edmonds Young Scholar contest at the Black Theatre Network the summer before. Having submitted an essay on autobiography and identity in the plays of Adrienne Kennedy, I subsequently won the contest and was invited to BTN's annual conference in Detroit. As a white female graduate student fairly steeped in the insecurities of identity politics, I anticipated the conference with a fairly typical combination of excitement and caution. I still remember the self-negotiating words circulating in my essay on this black female playwright: "similar desires are differently politicized for a white girl than an African-American woman [...], yearnings our culture instills in all of its citizens but whose racism selectively allows me their fulfillment often to the exclusion of blacks" -- the kind of self-redemptive words that usually get called "self-reflexive."
The conference was held at the Westin Hotel in the Renaissance Center, a glass-enclosed mall and conference center notorious for its conspicuous location in the midst of Detroit's nearly abandoned urbanity. As it turned out, the site was also the meeting place for another conference largely composed of white women, a group with whom I was repeatedly aligned during my stay in Detroit. This second convention was actually for saleswomen who sold lingerie, something I found out when a woman in the hotel reception line asked me cheerily whether I was "undercoverwear." Besides this parallel universe, other events contributed to the somewhat fractured nature of my stay, particularly an array of encounters during the BTN conference that dramatically exaggerated or surreptitiously bypassed the racial politics of my presence. BTN members who had not read the essay assumed that "Shannon Jackson" was black; later, when my physical presence suggested otherwise, lone white persons in this mostly black group sought me out to engage in strangely twisted forms of intraracial sociality.
I had been meaning to develop a piece about these events for a while, but now -- with a deadline, blank paper, and a blank computer screen staring me in the face -- there was a new sense of urgency as I worried my way around the dulling and paralyzing obstacles of white racial positioning. "You realize that while you were experiencing it, you didn't know you were in a story"; I wrote the sentence to alleviate my anxiety about the blankness and about the necessity of beginning without being quite sure how.
Such difficulties and uncertainties proceeded in part from an increasing impatience with the conflicted position of whites in discussions of "race" -- even in places where white feminists and other liberal-minded thinkers have begun to embrace rather than to dismiss critiques like those of Shange. In classrooms, literary colloquia, journals, theatres, and other intercultural forums, arguments often now revolve around whether white students, critics, and theatre practitioners have a "right to speak" since they have never experienced racism. Within feminist discourse, white critics have confronted the racial lacunae in their own arguments by incorporating the insights arid cultural production of women of color. The task then becomes one of figuring a subject position that …