Learning to be White: Class, White Shame and The Oxygen Man

Gregory Meyerson

It is well-known that the relation between Marxism and feminism has been described as an unhappy marriage. Marxism's totalizing imperative, according to one standard narrative, demanded the subordination of gender to class. But gender fought back against this new form of patriarchy and the outcome gave us dual systems theory. If sexism serves capitalism, the argument goes, it also serves an autonomous and prior patriarchy. The relative autonomy of patriarchy turns out, upon investigation, not to be a rival social system but a system rooted in masculine desire. But dual systems theory has been countered by a revitalized feminist Marxism that has successfully returned class analysis to primacy of place. This Marxism has done so by challenging the overly homogenous anthropology and history that produced an artificially seamless patriarchy and by challenging the vulgar reductionist characterizations of Marxism leveled by its critics. 

If class and gender have been unhappily married, one could say the same for race and class. As David Roediger famously put it, "[t]o set race within social formations is absolutely necessary but to reduce race to class is damaging" (5). Here too Marxist critics have responded to the "both race and class" interpretation by challenging both this views characterization of class as economic reductionism and its affiliated theorization of race in essentially psychoanalytic terms. The reconstructed Marxian theory of racism is most obviously represented by the work of Theodore Allen, whose class analytic social control explanation has shown how in fact a distorted[1] understanding of class needs a psychoanalytic supplement to handle "the problem of the subject," a supplement which itself turns out to be an essentialist theory often resting on dubious, even ridiculous Freudian premises and a cherry picked historiography.[2] Allen's argument, ultimately, asserts that "white identity" is required in order to displace proletarian class consciousness.

It is in this context that I wish to approach Thandeka's recent, important text, Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America. It combines the historiography principally of Allen and Roediger with a non-Freudian psychoanalysis emphasizing the concept of "white shame." It is the contention of this essay that this new attempt at a marriage between Marxism and psychoanalysis, "race and class," fails for reasons quite similar to prior attempts to combine class analysis and psychoanalysis, even if the brand of psychoanalysis has changed from the theory of anality to the theory of object relations. 

First, Thandeka's text suffers from a coherence problem: Roediger's race/class theory cannot be combined with Allen's social control theory since they are rival theories, as several critics have pointed out, including Allen himself. But the problem once again comes down to the problems posed by a "class/race" theory: it is imprecise in its understanding of class. She never explicitly roots it in social relations of production, one consequence of which is that her use of the term often resembles the non-marxist understanding of class as status.Correlatively, it lacks an adequate concept of ideology (Thandeka fails to theorize it at all in any independent way). These two problems pave the way for further difficulties of any theory that gives significant causal weight in its explanation of racism to a psychoanalytic account. As we will see toward the end of this paper, though Thandeka combines Allen and Roediger, she repeats the problems that characterize Roediger's analysis of white working class self-making. 

There are two major weaknesses to any theory of racism with a significant psychoanalytic component, whatever the particular theory. Such theories rely on notions of "mass psychology," which do not account well for variation, change and resistance. Correlatively, they overpathologize racism and those it tends to pathologize are workers, in this case white workers. My own perspective is of course Marxist. In its broader formulation, the Marxist position I defend argues that racism, sexism, nationalism, individualism and anti-communism, with different elements carrying different emphases depending on the particulars of class struggle, function to consolidate the rule of Capital nationally and internationally by dividing the working class and its allies through both the superprofits accruing to Capital from a racist and sexist international division of labor and through more properly ideological mechanisms. It emphasizes on one side changing processes of class rule and a rich, complex theory of ideology, necessary for accommodating both the persistence of racist ideologies and their changing character. It emphasizes on the other side equally complex processes of working class formation and working class struggles—the latter two shaped at every turn by anti racist and anti sexist struggles. It is important to note that this Marxism rests on a tacit theory of the subject and human psyche that can accommodate human beings as they really are: complex, contradictory, relatively healthy and at times seriously dysfunctional. It does not presuppose either a hyperrational subject (ruling classes who know exactly what they're doing at all moments) or workers as dupes, easily brainwashed, or suffering from psychopathology. Perhaps the central flaw in Thandeka's analysis is its lack of an adequate concept of ideology. As a result, racism becomes for Thandeka primarily an irrational phenomenon rooted in the wounded "white" psyche. "Racial formation" becomes thus for all practical purposes autonomous of the social relations of production and exploitation, and thus autonomous from the ongoing processes of class rule as social control. 

If, as I suggest, we understand racism among workers as primarily an ideological phenomenon that serves the ruling class in its constant hegemonic struggles against the working class, we better understand racism's evident ideological complexity (the way racism and racist ideology are reinforced by other ideologies superficially independent of it), its often rational character (patent in the phenomenon of "enlightened racism" discussed later), and anti-racist resistance. 

In what follows, I will pair Thandeka's text with an analysis of Steve Yarbrough's great antiracist novel The Oxygen Man. I have chosen this novel because it offers a thick description—as imaginative literature is often credited with doing—of the affectively charged thoroughly entangled psychological and ideological processes that influence subject formation. It is especially pertinent for our analysis since it at once beautifully captures the grains of truth in Thandeka's psychoanalytic categories, while helping us see the problems of giving inappropriate causal weight to a largely autonomous white psychodynamics. I will start by outlining Thandeka's main argument, assess this argument's adequacy through a reading of Yarbrough's novel and then proceed to a fuller critique of Thandeka's analysis of white racism. 

On balance, Thandeka sees the costs of learning to be white outweighing the benefits. What she emphasizes more than most is the psychic injury done to whites resulting from the dynamics of what she calls white shame.[3] Still, it should be noted that she never really thinks through this problem of "white benefit," and several times will note quite straightforwardly that whites benefit from racism. As Allen notes, and her failure to cite Allen here is telling, if "whites" actually benefit from racial oppression, "the implications of ridding our society of the curse of racism are… unfavorable" (19).  

The heart of her thesis emerges in her definitions of classism and racism. Classism—at least in the following comment—refers to ruling class mechanisms reproducing racism: 

I shall use the term classism to refer to racial strategies devised to hide and thereby to promote or to protect economic class interests. The term racism will refer to racial strategies devised to hide feelings of racial shame either by diverting attention to the supposed racial flaws in others or by calling attention to oneself as racially superior. [She goes on:]  [T]he distinction between economic and psychological uses of race… will allow me to trace out how an upper class economic ploy (classism) becomes a lower class psychological need (racism). (Thandeka 42) 

Following historians of the origins of racism in the U.S. like Edmund Morgan and Theodore Allen, she shows how often Euro and African laborers cooperated and even fought side by side against the planter class: the hallmark here being Bacon's rebellion.[4] In response, planters in effect invented the white race by giving race privileges—in the form of legal entitlements— to Euroamericans so that "a new multiclass 'white race' would emerge from the Virginia laws… The laws and the racial contempt they generated would sever ties… between European and African servants and workers, provide the ruling elite with a buffer of poor whites to keep blacks down and prevent either group from challenging the class interests of the elite" (Thandeka 47). Without such apparent privileges, based in fact, the divide and conquer strategy would not have worked.

What accompanies these privileges, according to Thandeka, is class contempt of elites for the poor whites, a contempt that will become central to her analysis of white shame. She calls this class contempt producing white class shame "intraracial abuse." This contempt results in white working class self contempt—defined at once as contempt for their own class interests and a more intimate psychological self contempt that is then projected onto racial others. This concept of intraracial abuse comes from what Thandeka calls "the white community." In the latter parts of this paper, I show that this notion of "white community" inevitably undermines the class component of Thandeka's analysis. Class as rooted in the social relations of production devolves into class as status. I would also note that the language of privilege has to be used very carefully because even it raises many of the same problems as those raised in the notion of psychological wage. The danger of the term "white privilege" is that it too easily elides the fact that privilege here means less oppressed. Converting capitalism's differential status and differential rates of exploitation into a relation of privilege has serious implications for how we fight racism. Moreover, since it works to collapse the distinction between the privilege of white workers and the privilege of capitalists, it serves to block or rule out class consciousness. 

So according to Thandeka, then, classism, the economic ploy, leads to racism, a psychological need, a form—paradoxical to be sure—of self making as self destruction, a form of self protection as self fracturing that splits off class interests from racial identity and in the intimate sphere (familial relations) splits off the whited self from a nonwhite zone consisting of "positive feelings toward the proscribed other," feelings that the white child/person must deny in order to be loved by her own "white community." This split comes at the cost of serious damage to the Euroamerican's core self—a damage described by Thandeka repeatedly in the language of trauma: soul murder, racial attack against the child by members of its own community, by the child's caretakers; a "harrowing racialization process that produced a victim called the white person" —a process "too traumatic to retain in consciousness" (Thandeka, 86-7). Thandeka often characterizes this split self as intensely ambivalent—repeatedly referring to the split as civil war. At other times, this  process—the induction into whiteness—is deadening and all pervasive: "the child develops an antipathy toward its own forbidden feelings and to the persons who are the objects of these forbidden desires: the racial other" (Thandeka 24 ). These forbidden feeling or what she calls "affective set asides" so central to white shame "contribute to the development of an attitude that will function for the child like a cocked gun… Soon the child will fire the racial salvo that reduces a human being to the despised racial other" (Thandeka 25).[5] In sum, if the ruling class, according to this view, helps produce white worker dysfunction, this dysfunction then takes on a life of its own, augmenting ruling class power in a kind of positive feedback. 

Thandeka sharply distinguishes "white shame" from what she calls "white guilt." White guilt is about what whites have done to blacks and avoids the main issue for Thandeka: "white shame," or what whites have done to other whites, including making them white in the first place. I have said that Thandeka gives white shame significant explanatory weight. White shame, for Thandeka explains the roots of racial rage (as self-protection strategy), it claims to explain the failure of appeals to multiracial unity; and claims to explain self destructive white consumption patterns—in fact she explains consumerism, especially consumer debt, as in great part caused by white shame's psychodynamics; it purports to explain the psychodynamics of the promise keepers; it even claims to explain how white academic liberals can believe in the biological category of race when its socially constructed character is clear.[6] 

I will assess Thandeka's position first by way of a reading of Yarbrough's novel, which among other things does a good job of helping us see the problems of giving inappropriate causal weight to a largely autonomous white psychodynamics. I will then proceed to a fuller critique of Thandeka's analysis of white racism. 

The novel's action takes place in three years: 1972-3 and 1996. The main characters are, Ned, the oxygen man, and his sister, Daze. Ned is 39 and Daze is 40 in 1996. Ned's parents are white working class, the father an itinerant painter who takes great pride in his work, the mother, a smart woman trapped by sexist ideology and an oppressive gender division of labor that limits her to work in the 7-11, a situation to which she responds through multiple affairs and alcohol. 

The main form of work in the novel has transitioned from cotton (in '72) to catfish, in 1996 and Ned has become both foreman and oxygen man for his boss and boyhood "friend," Mack Bell. Mack Bell owns 16 catfish ponds, each filled with tens of thousands of catfish. Oxygen men must constantly monitor the oxygen in the ponds. As foreman, Ned "oversees" the work of three black workers—Larry, Q.C, and Booger. The evocation of earlier forms of labor and social relations—slavery and Jim Crow—are a persistent part of the novel's mood and figuration. What I rehearse here are key moments in Ned's induction into whiteness, to use Thandeka's useful term. Then I turn to Daze, Ned's sister, whose character seems in many ways to escape the whitening process as Thandeka understands it. Such resistance is poorly explained by Thandeka's psychoanalytic theory. 

Ned's induction does not pass through the parents, who are not, it ought to be noted, emotionally racist, but through the educational system. Ned is visited in 1972 by founding members—Russell Gautreaux, the banker, Carter Bell, large landowner and father of Mack Bell—of the Red and Grey Foundation, a ruling class organization that recruits select working class whites to attend the elite Indianola Academy.  While the father notes that Ned got along fine at his public school (Ned noting he had a couple of black kids in his class and "liked em pretty well") Carter Bell, whose son Mack will play the key role in Ned's "education," tells him that while it might be fine to think this in private, it's best not to say it in public, which he then amends to "actually it's better not even to think it" (Yarbrough 51).  Russell, the banker and polite racist, remarks that "bad things" can happen to a kid like Ned, "and even worse stuff could happen to Daze" (51). Instead of taking the bait here, Vonnie, the children's mother, knowing exactly what Russel means, looks straight at Gautreaux and asks "what sort of worse stuff have you got in mind?"—intending thru the question to scandalize him with her unladylike sexual and racial impropriety, a question that deflates the power of the racist remark, relying as it does on tacit white bonding over the taboo issues Gautreaux assumes need not be spoken. Also important for understanding how the educational system in Indianola operates, as we learn thru Daze's narrative, is the fact that the school punished whites who couldn't afford the school but tried to pay on their own, without the help of the foundation—the ruling class contempt for whites that Thandeka says produces white shame. 

Ned's education continues as he joins the football team, becoming friends with powerful whites, primarily Mack Bell, and others. His success as a football player allows him to claim a fraudulent psychic independence—the benefits of white masculinity. The others allow him this show while continually reminding him of his difference in status, a difference deep enough that it becomes quasi racialized in the novel. While Thandeka psychologizes this process by calling it intraracial abuse, Marxists would refer to the inculcation of racism and white shame thru the schools (one of the central components of the ideological state apparatus.) Ideology is a material force whose inductions—Althusser would say interpellations—usually succeed but can often fail, as with Daze, and then later with Ned himself, depending on the context, as we will see.  

In addition, it ought to be noted that Ned's success on the team is a product of the racist elites' paternalist affirmative action, as Ned would not stand a chance—he is reminded—against the black players in the public schools, who are described in standard racist discourse.  In Thandeka's terms, he is continually shamed even as he is granted a false equality. It is important to note that this shaming/recruitment process involves persistent gender shaming as Ned's football masculinity is often questioned due to Ned's less than eager desire to "hunt women." "You queer or what? You a dick likker, Ned? You don't like pussy do you?" says his best friend and future boss, Mack (Yarbrough 99). This gender shaming occurs a day after Ned's parents make a spectacle of themselves at the football game and are made into a spectacle by Ned's best friends, thus intensifying Ned's class shame. 

At the heart of the novel are two murders, but I will discuss only the first, the murder—which will be covered up like many other racist murders—of a black "mom and pop" convenient store clerk by Ned in 1972, yet "triggered" by his rich racist friends—the psychologically charged role they play in an essentially ideological recruitment process. The first murder is a culminating moment in Ned's education. Ned—wishing only to go to sleep yet avoiding home out of guilt and shame one day after his parents' airing of their dirty laundry at the football game—and the boys—bored—are cruising for beer.  Their fake IDs look too fake and so in Mack's words, "what the fuck?  We'll go to a nigger store" (Yarbrough 102 ). Ned is broke as usual so Mack supplies the money—in a bizarre paternalist recap of the school situation at Indianola where working class whites, as I mentioned above, are almost forced not to pay their own way—but Ned must confront the clerk and when Ned asks what to do if asked for an ID, Mack states: "He's a nigger.  You're white… act like you know it and you won't have no problem" (102).   

The clerk won't sell the beer to Ned, Ned looks out to the car and Mack and Rick, who look back, shake their heads, knowing that he will "fail whatever test this was just as his momma and daddy failed the test last night" (Yarbrough 104).[7] A female psychology student at Ole Miss, who the boys hours earlier had failed to "hunt down," studied rats "to learn how a certain kind of pain might affect us over a period of time" (95).  Ned—figuratively the lab rat so that test contains pedagogical and Skinnerian meanings—is here racially shamed on the heels of gender and class shaming. Just before blindly striking out with a coke bottle against the side of the clerk's head, thereby killing him, he sees himself as a "walking raging nothing" who "three or four years from now… might be working in a country store himself, having to deal with some young asshole getting out of a big car trying to make a fool out of him." He reckoned "he'd let the little asshole do it when the time came, he knew he would, so it wasn't right for an old colored man to make a fool out of him now" (104).  Then he recalls Mack's teachings: 

He's a nigger.

You're white.

Just act like you know it. (104)

Ned is here both the racist kid who kills a "colored man" and the black clerk. In the context of the intense shaming coming from his upper class friends, Ned, we could say, kills both himself and the "blackness within." In certain respects, then, this scene resembles the psychodynamics of setting aside or attacking the "nonwhite zone." 

As I noted, Thandeka compares white shame's psychological force for the child "to a cocked gun… poised for action." The metaphor of the cocked gun is not far off as a description of Ned's psychology but—taking subject formation in Ned as a realistic representation of "interpellation"—it is clear that Thandeka seriously underestimates the complexity and function of the shaming of a Euroamerican worker in this particular context of class rule, shaped as it is by the social relations of the plantation. She also underestimates the complexity of resisting agency, even in a situation like this. 

As an example of such incipient resistance, what Thandeka might call the traumatizing ambivalence that turns Ned into a raging nothing also turns him into a serious threat to Mack. One year later, Mack and the rich boys are again out "hunting women."  Ned does not like this but cannot tell them so—"he almost… told Mack No"— for fear of being called a queer (his friends indirectly do this anyway).  When he meets Mack and Rick, he locks up his truck, an act that leads Mack to say, "You worried about theft?  Man, a self-respecting nigger wouldn't be caught dead in that shit heap" (Yarbrough 219 ). Having been compared negatively to those who are worthless in Mack's eyes, Ned leaps upon Mack and begins choking him, leading Mack to call Ned crazy and Rick to wonder, part tongue-in-cheek, but only part, if Ned aims to kill Mack. The scene continues with Rick responding to Mack's story of what his father once "did to a nigger." Rick says, "what would we do without niggers?"  Here's the remaining conversation: 

'Niggers was meant to amuse,' Mack said.  'Niggers amuse you, Ned?  That nigger amuse you when you hit him on the head?'


'You know I'm holding a bottle right now?' Ned said.

'Say you are?'

'Sure am.'

'Just like the one you whacked that nigger with?'

'More or less.''

'I ain't a nigger.'

'You got a skull and it's not much different from his.'

'Might be a little bit thinner,' Salter said. You know damn well a nigger's skull's thicker than a white man's.'

'What I'm saying,' Ned said 'is you bring a heavy object down on anybody's head,  it's apt to cause him damage. Only question is how much,'


…'I got your life, Mack was hollering. 'Man, I got your fucking life in my hands.'

…'You ain't got shit, then.' (222)

In this scene, Ned partially "rearticulates" his worthlessness as a danger to Mack's life. Ned links Mac to the black man he killed, suggesting that all men are equal in their susceptibility to being hurt—countering Salter's unconscious allusion to mid-nineteenth century racist anthropology.  We see, here, then, quite clearly the volatile character of shaming, suggesting the metaphorical cocked gun may fire in more than one direction. But soon after this episode, Ned, along with the boys, in the midst of their failed "hunt," come upon his sister and her boyfriend, Denny, making love in Denny's Mercedes. This reawakens the full force of Ned's complex shame as Daze becomes a stand-in for their "trashy" mother and puts Ned's life squarely and firmly back in Mack's hands, back in the hands of white supremacy. 

It takes 23 more years to trigger the class anger buried in this morass of interlinked shaming and complex guilt but the articulation of this anger requires the mediation of class conscious black workers. I cannot go into the rich, ethnographic details of Ned's transformation that lead him to shoot and kill Mack in what is plausibly interpreted as a suicide mission—suicide mission because his identity as a "nothing," and "a zero" is shaped not just by shame, contra Thandeka, but by guilt for the murder he commits. Both the shame and the guilt are appropriately invoked in a class conscious way by the black workers with whom Ned identifies but cannot—tragically—fully join. Larry, who Ned calls jokingly a "black rationalist," in recognition of Larry's political acumen, asks Ned about his subordination to Mack: "Mack treat you like a nigger too. Why you let him do you that way" (Yarbrough 25, italics in original)? This remark merges with Ned's at this point clearer understanding that he "wasn't white in the same way Mack Bell was white."  Then Q.C., who Ned is forced to fire, positions Ned as a white person who like many white people, is blind and narcissistic, seeing only their own problems, on the "insides of their own guts." He tells Ned: "You ain't nothing man. You a zero. You just a empty blank for Mack Bell to fill in" (44-5).[8] 

For Thandeka, "guilt" should trigger the cocked gun and produce self protective rage.  What Larry does is call Ned's attention to his white shame, the presumed true source of his broken self.  But the shame, not just white as I have shown, cannot be privileged over "the guilt" in the way Thandeka's psychoanalysis requires. Both might be rewritten as moments in what Marxists would call an emergent process of class consciousness, a process of political formation that is indissociably affective and cognitive, involving the centrality of ideological struggle to the affective work that leads Ned to save Larry's life twice, the second time by killing the boss—literally turning the cocked gun against the real enemy—in what becomes a figurative "slave revolt."  

Toward the end of the novel, Larry and Ned are talking, and Ned is trying to warn Larry without communicating directly that Mack is planning on murdering him.  Larry shook his head at Ned's indirection "as if Ned had just committed some childish misdemeanor": "That's just like white folks… Wanting to say it and not say it.  You people's got a problem with your presentation, Ned" (Yarbrough 265 ).  During this conversation, Larry is sitting on Mack's sixty thousand dollar tractor and notes to Ned that "[t]hem implement companies making a killing." In what Yarbrough makes clear is a clear eyed critique of "the workings of the free enterprise system," Larry says "[e]verybody involved in this business making a killing… [e]xcept the people that do all the work" (265). Ned replies that that's the way business is to which Larry says "Yeah, but that don't make it right." Ned agrees and Larry then notes that sometimes "a person got to take corrective action" (265). The corrective action here is to sink the tractor in the pond, an act of class conscious sabotage with which Ned is now in agreement as they stand together admiring their work. This is the novel's "utopian moment," a moment of class solidarity and friendship: "the natural order of things and anybody that upset it would have to pay for fucking it up" (266). Larry tells Ned he hopes "it don't never come down to me having to hurt you" as "[t]hat ain't nothing I got no urge to do" (266-7). 

This moment is the culmination of Ned's antiracist education in class solidarity and will lead Ned to shoot Mack and save Larry's life and, figuratively, his own: 

It was just something said at the edge of a fish pond on a stifling day, something said and heard over the noise of a diesel engine that was about to drown out, over the sound of sloshing water.  But saying it changed something, and hearing it changed something else.  And looking at Larry, Ned could tell he knew it too. (Yarbrough 267)

* * *

While The Oxygen Man renders some of Thandeka's categories—white shame, intraracial abuse, harrowing racialization—salient, I have tried to show that Thandeka's portrait of shame—inadequately describes the ideological and psychological complexity of the novel's main character, a complexity that a materialist theory of social relations can explain.  In essence, the point of Ned's complex shaming process that inducts him into "whiteness" is that it blunts the development of Ned's class consciousness. 

But if these intimate psychodynamics that transcend "white shame" alone are central for comprehending Ned's whiteness, they fail to comprehend his sister's escape from such dynamics. With Daze, the induction process largely misses its mark. Though Daze is forced, with Ned, to attend the elite Indianola Academy, the mechanisms available for integrating or recruiting Ned—mechanisms that do not entirely succeed as I've shown—are not available for Daze and so Daze never really "learns to be white" and is consequently able to see through some of the wages of whiteness offered to Ned. 

Daze knows that Ned only seems to escape white trash status through football: "At least once a week, on Friday night, before three thousand pairs of eyes, her brother got to look exactly like Mack Bell… and all the rest. He wore the same uniform they wore, and except for his number you couldn't tell him from them" (my italics, Yarbrough 69). Daze, on the other hand, "never got to look like most of the other girls. Her blouses might as well have had Kmart scrawled across the chest, and she'd once heard another girl refer to her shoes as Goodwill closeouts" (69). The only way Daze could fit in is through her appearance. In this culture, white women are valued only for their good looks and sex appeal, an allure inseparable from their connection to wealth—i.e., they must dress the part of contemporary Southern belle. Daze recognizes that "a lot of the girls here had spent more on this morning's makeup than she'd spent on all three pairs of shoes she owned.  They wore clothes that had been bought in specialty shops, and they looked as if their hair had been professionally done" (53). When Daze asks her mother if "looking good [is] all that matters," her mother replies, "It's not all that matters, but for a girl it's a big first step." The rest consists of "Making a boy feel good about being with you" (77). 

Needless to say, defining one's self by these values leads to a narrow and unsatisfying life. Thus Daze looks contemptuously at her 30 year-old homeroom teacher who "had breasts that everyone in the class would come to know about as well as they knew her face. She liked to flatten one hand on her desk and lean forward as she read from a textbook" (Yarbrough 53). And in Mack's wife, Ellie, we see the destructive consequences of this devaluing of women. Ellie, too, flaunts her sexuality: "She wore a skimpy two-piece, displaying cleavage north and south." lder and more desperate than Daze's teacher, Ellie has become grotesque: "Sun had burned her skin the color of a penny. She attended an aerobics class... four times a week, and all that jumping up and down had made her skinny" (8-9).  Physically and psychologically abused by her husband, this former cheerleader drinks constantly, takes Valium "to get... numb" (118), eats "whole handfuls of [diet pills], like a kid munching M&Ms" (35), parades around semi-naked, and drunkenly comes on to Ned, who ultimately empathizes with her as one more victim of "white privilege."

Though Daze suffers, she never sinks to this level of self-pity and self-parody.  She escapes doing so—and retains her dignity—in large part because of the lesson she learns from observing her mother, Vonnie, the town whore. Daze sees first-hand both the power and the limitations of female sexuality, of trying to exploit one of the few advantages available to a poor woman in this society.  Her mother can manipulate this system, at one time getting flood assistance for her family by threatening to expose a previous relationship with a married man.  But as Daze plainly sees, her mother's infidelities are vain attempts to overcome a deep sadness, and this behavior destroys her family and does nothing to elevate her from her caste, as is evident in "the names the druggist had called out when their mommas picked up prescriptions—Mrs. Bell, Vonnie May, Rose—and the illnesses those prescriptions were meant to treat" (Yarbrough 24).  In the end, Vonnie's sexuality, rather than a means of manipulating her class position, is seen as an inherent trait of lower class women. Vonnie herself seems to believe this, responding to Daze's assertion that she might not care about being with a boy by asking, "who in the world you trying to fool? You trying to mislead your own blood?" (77). 

If Ned's induction into whiteness is partially motivated by shame over his trashy mother, Daze's rejection of Vonnie does not lead her to repudiate the "trash" designation, one that Indianola's elite equates with "nigger." Accordingly, Daze shops at the Piggly Wiggly, where most whites in town won't shop, because prices are cheaper and she knows she won't run into Ned—whose "whitened" self wouldn't be caught dead in a Piggly Wiggly and who commits a racist murder to escape the designation of "trash/nigger"—though this "escape" only cements his true role as Mac's slave, his "right hand" man—a role against which, with the help of class conscious black workers, he finally revolts (Yarbrough 13). 

For Thandeka's theory of "racism" to have explanatory force, the mechanisms of white shame must be not just pervasive but relatively uniform in their effects. While they are pervasive in this novel, I have shown that the mechanisms of interpellation point toward a dynamic of intersecting oppressions driven largely by local ruling class processes. This discussion of Daze is meant to suggest that mass psychology (white shame) cannot account for how psychological and ideological mechanisms often fail. And it's a good thing too for without this variation, there could be no forms of resistance. That said, it is worth noting that while Daze "escapes" in large part the damaging affects of the racializing process, this does not oddly heighten her class consciousness. In fact, Daze's escape from racist ideology is rewarded in the text's logic by allowing her to escape her class by hooking up with the decent restaurant owner, Beer Smith. 

Pointing out that interpellation sometimes, even often, fails is not meant to lead us in any kind of postmarxist direction. It is a cardinal postmarxist point that ideology/psychology never sutures the subject, can always fail—and does often fail. And this point could be taken as a deep criticism of Marxism as well as psychoanalysis or any combination of the two. If the problem of variation and resistance has plagued theories of mass psychology, they have also presumably plagued Marxian functionalisms relying on any notion of false consciousness. But such interpretations of Marxism are mischaracterizations. False consciousness is widespread—"unions and freedom don't mix"—announces a bumpersticker on the car of one of Daze's male pickups—but not guaranteed.  Class analytic social control explanations of racism do not rule out resistance. In fact, they require lots of it—how could a class struggle account be otherwise? One of the reasons hegemony is indeed hard work and a Marxist theory of ideology must have significant resources is because struggle is always occurring. Ideologies need to function well enough in the interests of the ruling class so that capital accumulation and the structural domination of capital over labor can be maintained on a stable basis. 

A look at Yarbrough's Ned shows us how learning to be white can involve trauma, though a trauma whose ideological and psychological complexity and class function (not autonomous racial function) outstrips the explanatory resources of Thandeka's psychoanalysis. But Thandeka's analysis really falls short should it have to account for the phenomenon of "enlightened racism," where the social and ideological categories shaping the production of racist assumptions that serve the interests of the ruling class among whites require no trauma whatsoever. By "enlightened racism," I refer to Jhally and Lewis's book of the same name that discusses how the Cosby shows' role model antiracism—by tacitly assuming the ideological narrative underlying the American dream—renders nonfictional racial inequality inexplicable, class inequality invisible and thus naturalizes the dominant relations of production. By default, if blacks can't make it like Cosby does, it must be their own fault. 

A related point is that it is extremely unwise to equate racism with irrationality, as Thandeka's trauma theory tends to do.  In fact, what might lend initial plausibility to racist arguments like those of Dinesh D'Souza is that he equates racism with irrationality in order to make room for his notorious concept of "rational discrimination," a concept that is facilitated by D'Souza's ideological definition of rationality as market rationality. So, to take only one example, he tries to deny charges of racial discrimination in mortgage lending by claiming that such charges fail to control for wealth.  He then blithely makes the point, a central point of antiracists, that blacks and whites with similar incomes nevertheless have vastly unequal wealth. Mortgage lenders cannot be expected to ignore this fact. And can in fact "rationally discriminate" against prospective black homeowners since "predominantly black neighborhoods 'typically have high unemployment rates, lower owner occupancy rates, higher vacancy rates, more boarded up properties, older homes'" (282). That wealth inequality has its roots in racist government housing policies since the New Deal virtually guaranteeing the devaluation of black neighborhoods or genuinely multiracial ones is ignored. This inequality can then be treated as an isolated fact that equally isolated rational actors cannot be expected to ignore: "Can lenders be expected to ignore these economic patterns which are highly correlated with race" (D'Souza 282)? The point is that racism is primarily a complex ideological phenomenon, with diverse psychological realizations: some involving trauma, some not.  In this case, racism is perfectly rational, but no less ideological for that, resting as it does on racist presuppositions whose function is once again to block class consciousness by naturalizing racism as "rational," as common sense.

I would like to close this essay with a number of additional criticisms. Thandeka explains King's failure to build a poor people's movement as resulting from his failure to understand white shame. King's appeals to the class interests of white workers combined with his gentle suggestion that they confront their racism only produce self protective rage. Elsewhere in the book, Thandeka turns to the promise keepers (she does a case study of PK founder and Colorado football coach, Bill McCartney) and the efforts of white Christians to make amends for their racism and take leadership from black men as part of a project of multiracial masculine bonding in the service of renewing the patriarchal family. For Thandeka, this right wing antiracist project cannot succeed affectively since the whites diagnose the problem in terms of racial "guilt" instead of "white shame," with the consequence that white PKers antiracism and self criticism leave the "psychological foundation of the racial status quo intact" (Thandeka 117).  

So the failure to confront these psychological foundations leads, Thandeka argues, whites to hurl rocks at King out of self protective rage, metaphorically to fire "the cocked gun." In the second case, it leads to multiracial bonding in the service of patriarchy, patriotism and militarism, where white men wash the feet of black men while weeping contrite tears.  But as Mike Hill argues in After Whiteness, it is by no means clear that the white men in fact fail to confront both their racism and the whitening process. Psychology—whether or not white shame is genuinely confronted— underdetermines ideology far too much to support Thandeka's causal claims. Put another way, while there is of course a psychological component to racism, there is no psychological foundation to racism.  What is sure is that these white men do not confront the class status quo. PK ideology and social relations split racial formation from class formation and class  rule—ironically, much like Thandeka herself despite her attempt to incorporate "classism" into her analysis. 

A related problem—too much flexibility in her categories—is her imprecise definition of trauma, involving on the one hand the intimate intraracial abuse of caretakers over vulnerable loved ones, and, on the other hand, far more distant sources of trauma. I offer two examples: first, the trauma of inducting nineteenth century Euroamerican workers into wage labor ("classism"). This form of intraracial abuse leads to the worker's racist response in which black people become complex symbols of the worker's own simultaneous contempt and nostalgia for their "former" prewage labor lives; second, ruling class construction of "white difference" in the form of ranked ethnicities.[9] 

There are problems here beyond definitional overstretch. The argument in the first case, bound up with dubious theses about minstrelsy taken from Roediger and Eric Lott, has been thoroughly critiqued by Ted Allen and myself in Cultural Logic. I'll summarize the key points. There is no reason that the "trauma" (one might debate the appropriateness of this term for describing a process of this sort) of induction into waged labor should of itself lead European, mostly Irish, workers to respond by making themselves white, with a corresponding abjection or repudiation of blackness. The problem with the trauma thesis ironically mirrors the problems with the labor competition thesis that made plausible the introduction of psychoanalytic speculations in the first place. Both labor competition and induction into waged labor underdetermine racism. In other contexts (transplantation of the Irish to the Caribbean), the Irish, subjected to far worse trauma, allied with African bonded labor instead of abjecting it.[10] One of the cardinal problems with Roediger's understanding of white working class self making is that "the economic ploy," Thandeka's term is suitable to Roediger's analysis, leads to a too autonomous process of self making that then renders ruling class practice (those behind the ploy) redundant. Thandeka herself faces the same problem, for after ploy becomes "psychological need," the need so reinforces the ploy through positive feedback that it's hard to then see the need for anymore "ploys." The logic of this position is thus that the psychoanalytic supplement supplants the "economic" origin. As we have seen though, there are all sorts of empirical problems with her psychoanalytic explanation. 

In the second case, Thandeka exaggerates the pervasiveness of the ethnicizing strategy, missing both its historically particular character—so prominent in the twenties—and its subsequent dissolution into a largely "unmarked whiteness."[11] This change—definitions and redefinitions of whiteness—cannot be explained by "shame" as shame presumably underlies both forms of whiteness. It can, I think, be well explained if such racializing processes are viewed as changing practices of class rule.  Interestingly, one can get at the difference between these two periods by looking at how racist ideology mixed with anticommunism in the two cases.

For example, the virulent racism and antiradicalism of the twenties, especially the first half, was the ruling class shaped response to the heightened class struggles nicely telescoped in the phrase "specters of 1919," to borrow the title of Barbara Foley's recent book: these struggles were closely connected to the seismic impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of "the new negro," whose anti capitalist currents have been thoroughly explored by Foley.

She in fact calls the right wing discourse of this period "racist antiradicalism" (Foley 122). This discourse underlay events like the Palmer Raids, the birth of the eugenics movement, the closely allied immigration restriction act of 1924, and the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan.  In the anti-immigrant propaganda of the time that issued in the 1924 laws, the radical was Bolshevik and immigrant, usually a Jew, a racial renegade, an underman leading the hordes of inferior racial stocks—"the rising tide of color" broadened to include a host of not quite white races—to "revolt against civilization."[12]

According to Pem Buck, the radical threats that occasioned the renewal of the Klan with accompanying  virulent racialization processes had significantly diminished by the midtwenties. On the relation between the Klan and the ruling elites, Buck notes:

Had the second Klan, like the Reconstruction Klan, not served the interests of the controlling elite, it would never have gained the respectability it did, despite its large membership. After all, large membership did not bring respectability to the Alliance or unions. There was no concerted effort to control Klan violence until the middle of the 1920s, when its credibility was undermined. (150) 

The post war (WW 2) situation led to a much different conception of whiteness. Cold war anticommunism worked hand in hand with an expanding economy and the racialization or whitening of the American Dream. The divisions among European populations and ethnic groups softened or disappeared, along with the racialized language of eugenics.  Communism became an external political threat, no longer a biologized one. The links between American, middle class, whiteness and normality were forged and strengthened and it is basically these same links that are under siege, motivating current broadsides against affirmative action undertaken in the name of neoconservative notions of color blindness. 

As Buck makes clear, changes in processes of class rule embodied in changing definitions of whiteness have also brought changing gender configurations, from twenties notions of protestant domesticity and white (100% American) purity to the fifties middle class suburban (white) housewife to the present, where gender inequality in the U.S. has diminished somewhat mostly due to the stagnation of men's wages and may be affiliated with the breaking up of whiteness (maybe not). The normalization of the two income household among heterosexual couples has been accompanied by interesting ideological ferment in which women, in one recent discursive strain, are increasingly viewed as better suited than men to academic work and the digital age even as claims of evolutionary psychology can sometimes underwrite traditional claims to male superiority in math and science.

The clearest example of what Thandeka's category of racism as white shame requires—that psychodynamics trump ideology, that "race" trumps "class"—occurs in her discussion of Martha Nussbaum—presumably one of those "lower class whites" with a psychological need to police the psychic borders sealing her off from recognition of her shame. Thandeka argues that Nussbaum's seeming acceptance of the biological notion of race (Nussbaum denies any theory of inferiority) results from not confronting her father's intraracial abuse. The intrapsychic borders that cordon off such recognition of the nonwhite zone transmute into the lines supposedly demarcating the biological "races." It is thus not the ideological power of biological categories of race in U.S. history which explains Nussbaum's error, but psychodynamics! Countering Nussbaum, Thandeka cites the European Jared Diamond, who offers a nice version of the contemporary deconstruction of biological race. Though Thandeka does not mention it, Diamond can presumably do this only because he's confronted his own intraracial abuse. But this requirement is implausible because neither ideas nor ideological processes tightly track psychodynamics and in fact the psychodynamics of shame, to cite Alexander Saxton's critique of psychoanalytic approaches to racism, seem "to work plausibly" only "when placed in a dependent relationship to prior ideological constructions" (29). This is really to say that ideology often works much like defense mechanisms: projection, repression, splitting, compromise formation, condensation, displacement, etc. But when recruited for ideological work, these mechanisms serve the interests of the ruling class. 

The flipside of Thandeka's imprecise definition of trauma is a definition of "white community" that, by the time we get to the Nussbaum example, has lost all connection to a Marxist understanding of class—so that those in the "white community" carrying out the "intraracial abuse" are just as likely to be "middle class" as "upper class." We then see to what extent her abstraction of the "white community" has erased class as social relations of production. 

In After Whiteness, briefly mentioned above, Mike Hill suggests that whiteness and white identity may be breaking up. He does not know where this will head, though one possibility is toward fascism or in Pem Buck's more dynamic terminology, the resumption of fascist processes: but a fascism or fascist process, I think, redefined, and facilitated by hybrid forms of multiculturalism. It may be the multiculturalism of a declining hegemon with disappearing legitimacy, bringing together an emerging Benetton bourgeoisie, persisting or growing class and racial inequality (for black and latin workers), even, at least domestically, diminishing gender inequality—with "antiracism" promise keepers style thrown into the mix.  

While historical materialism has the resources to deal with this sort of complexity, Thandeka's marxist-psychoanalytic mix, I submit, does not.


[1] Allen critiques Edmund Morgan for his "incomplete" socioeconomic argument. As part of this, he critiques the cheap labor argument for the turn to African slave labor. His criticism of this argument is that it takes for granted social control, an assumption which basically robs labor—both black and "white" proletarians—of its agency. While the turn to slavery may have been based on mere profit considerations, the turn to "racial" slavery was based on considerations of social control, thus, of class rule.  Allen is not privileging social control over profit, of course. The former is necessary to guarantee ongoing capital accumulation. Social control enables the expansion of surplus value. 

[2] This psychoanalytic turn is quite widespread. Some texts in psychoanalytic and amalgamated traditions: Winthrop Jordan's Black Over White; Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race; Joel Kovel's White Racism; Alexander Saxton's The Indispensable Enemy; David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness; Stanley Aronowitz's, The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism and The Crisis in Historical Materialism; Howard Winant's, Racial Conditions; Iris Young's, Justice and the Politics of Difference; Cornel West's, Prophesy Deliverance; numerous essays in George Yancy, ed., What White Looks Like; Cedric Robinson's, Black Marxism. There are likely many others, and many analyses of other racisms and of sexism invoke causal pluralist amalgams. It should be noted that Saxton offers a telling critique of psychoanalysis in The Rise and Fall of the White Republic; Joel Kovel offers a serious self criticism of White Racism in the introduction to the 1984 edition, and Roediger seems to have left the psychoanalysis behind in his recent work, as has Aronowitz.   

[3] That racism can injure whites psychologically is an important corrective to theories that stress the psychological wages of whiteness. This is not the place to have this discussion but why should status consciousness and identity formations partially rooted in such consciousness be viewed as a benefit? What kind of theory of human flourishing underlies such ideas?   

[4] Allen, as mentioned, critiques Morgan sharply for the insufficiency of his sociogenic thesis, opening the door to the reductionist psychocultural analysis of Roediger that combines both mistakes. 

[5] A point of clarification: in her discussion of the period before "the invention of the white race," Thandeka, as I show, gives numerous examples of unity between the Euro and African American proletarians. But once whiteness is instituted, the mechanism of white shame, she suggests, forestalls real solidarity. 

[6] Interestingly, Thandeka's claim here about debt resembles Joel Kovel's Freudian based claim that whites purge the dirt from themselves by accumulating false value in the form of money and commodities. In making her argument, Thandeka cites Juliet Schor, who claims that white women, controlling for income, engage in more status purchasing than black or latina women. This difference, according to Thandeka, is due to white shame, what whites do to themselves. In Whitewashing Race, the authors cite statistics indicating that nonwhites save 11% of their income, whites 10 % (14). Recent statistics indicate that the nation as a whole now has a negative savings rate. If Thandeka is right, it's difficult to imagine how she could demonstrate her claim. But given the minimal difference between 10% and 11%, and the way the rate can change with changes in circumstances, the causal force of her argument would appear to be minimal. Most of the explanatory power for spiraling consumer debt would seem to lie elsewhere. That the capitalist system requires both a brake on wages and endless accumulation would go a long way to explaining debt patterns, we suspect. 

[7] This novel is filled with power-laden looks and gazes. While looks and gazes have been ripe territory for psychoanalytic investigation, and looks and gazes in this novel do objectify, "castrate," and "penetrate," their sense depends upon the ideological contexts within which they function. 

[8] In one sense, Ned is forced to fire Q.C.—that is, if he wants to keep his job and his "status." But as Ned later recognizes, what he does results on his side from his spinelessness. As the novel shows, getting his spine back is a collective project of anti-racist class formation. 

[9] Yet another example from Thandeka points to white demagogues like Wallace using white shame in the interests of racism even though in her example—white ethnics from Wisconsin with virtually no experience of minorities flocking to Wallace—the shame includes no "setting aside of a nonwhite zone" as occurs in her case studies of caretaker abuse, all involving caretakers' racist disciplining of a concretely acted upon desire for friendship across "racial borders." Thandeka notes without comment the role of anticommunism in Wallace's appeal but has nothing particular to say about this other than to hint that ideological processes—like anticommunism—going beyond white shame threaten their treasured whiteness. 

[10] See my essay "Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Labor Competition" (in Cultural Logic, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1997. 

[11] Thandeka notes that "racial abuse against Euro-Americans also takes the form of a Euro-American pecking order among ethnic groups." She notes, citing Gordon Allport, "that this scheme is widespread and remarkably uniform" (27).

[12] The Rising Tide of Color (1920) and The Revolt Against Civilization (1922) were both written by Lothrup Stoddard. See Foley's Chapter Three, "The Rhetoric of Racist Antiradicalism".

Works Cited

Allen, Theodore. The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control. Volume 1. New York: Verso, 1994.

Brown, Michael K., Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie M. Schultz, and David Wellman. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkely: California UP, 2005.

Buck, Pem. Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power & Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

D'Souza, Dinesh. The End of Racism. New York: The Free Press, 1995. 

Foley, Barbara. Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro. Chicago: Illinois UP, 2003.

Hill, Mike. After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority. New York: New York UP, 2004. 

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1990. 

Saxton, Alexander. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. New York: Verso, 1990. 

Thandeka, Learning to be White. New York: Continuum Press, 1999.   

Yarbrough, Steve. The Oxygen Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. 

THE RED CRITIQUE 12 (Winter/Spring 2007)