Because of its particular relationship to power, the issue of whiteness is an extraordinarily difficult one to examine plainly or fairly, and there are valid questions to be raised about the propriety of an exhibition like this at this particular time in history. Such questions hang self-consciously over each of the four essays in the show’s fine catalog. “Is all this discussion and display of difference,” Stallings himself asks, “really just titillating entertainment for whites, who know that they are still in charge? Is the cultural study of whiteness simply a way to re-center the white by appropriating the language of multiculturalism?”
The most that Stallings or the other essayists (David R. Roediger and Amelia Jones — both white, incidentally — and Ken Gonzales-Day) are really able to reply is that they hope not. In the end, of course, it will be up to individual viewers to decide, but as one who has also struggled to address racial issues in print without sounding either too ignorantly, too presumptuously or too anxiously white, I have to appreciate their earnest efforts to approach the subject at all. In establishing a safe but still rigorous space for the contemplation of these issues, the exhibition takes a decisive step toward dealing with them. As Jones, who argues compellingly in the catalog for a recognition of what she calls “the obscenity of whiteness,” points out: “[Viewed] as a performance, and one that is embodied, whiteness can be interrogated and disidentified with. We cannot change who our ancestors were, but we can change what it means to have lightly pigmented skin (or whatever else gives us access to whiteness) in today’s world.” How far these sentiments will transmit outside the museum walls, of course, remains to be seen.
WHITENESS, A WAYWARD CONSTRUCTION | At LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971 | Through July 6