Wednesday, May 21, 2008

restrain themselves

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
--James Baldwin
(in a letter to his nephew)

Is it fair to say that white people are literally "tight-assed"? Do they have a tendency to hold themselves in, to restrain their bodily selves in ways that other people don't?

If so, why do they do that? As a person who lives inside a "white" body and has also studied the history of whiteness, I will offer here some tentative answers to these questions.

In "White Like Me," a classic skit from the days when Saturday Night Live used to be a good TV show, Eddie Murphy implies that white people are indeed literally tight-assed. At one point, as he transforms himself into "Mr. White" for a satiric journey into the heart of whiteness, Murphy studies videos of white people. He then says to his makeup person, "See? See how they walk? Their butts are real tight when they walk. They keep their butts tight. I've gotta remember to keep my butt real tight when I walk."

Let's pause, if you have a couple minutes, for the rest of "White Like Me" (after a short commercial break, at the unfortunate insistence of NBC):

Murphy's parody on the ways of white folks covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on a certain tightness in his performance as Mr. White. If this particular satiric point of critique is correct--if white people do have a "tighter," more restrained way of living in their bodies--then where does this tightness come from? Is it something natural, something genetically inherent to who they are? Or is it part of a racial performance, something they've been socially trained into doing?

I prefer the latter explanation, and a brief foray into white history helps to explain why. In his book Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America, Ronald Takaki uses the metaphor of entrapment to guides his analysis of what was then a new, overtly "white" American identity.

Takaki explains how after the American Revolution, religious and racial ideologies combined to produce a conception of an ideal American citizen, one who was an ascetic, individualistic, religious, and hardworking man. Expectations for women, who were not in a legal sense full citizens at the time, were somewhat different, and even more restrained. At the same time, a mind/body split occurred in terms of gender; by being cast as the bodily repository of emotions, women served to bolster the masculine identity as the bearer of heightened mental faculties.*

In this new American identity, the rational “head” was favored over the unclean, sexual, desirous (and thus irrational) “body.” Sexuality, play, and leisure were strongly discouraged, in deference to God’s expectations that people “make something” of themselves, and of the land, animals, and resources around them. Americans projected outward onto "tawny Indians" and black slaves the conception of their own sexuality, laziness, deviltry, “savagery,” and bodily looseness. They also defined themselves in the process as the opposite of those other people--intellectually superior and properly restrained in the "governance" of their bodies.

At a broader level, the newborn America was also self-conscious about how the rest of the world perceived it. Americans wanted their newly independent country to be seen, Takaki writes, as a “City upon a Hill, where men would triumph over the ‘animal’ within themselves and prove to the watching world that they could be self-governing,” that they didn’t need to be dependent on another country, such as England.

Since there were other people around, those native Indians and the imported, enslaved Africans, who were darker than the new Americans, this budding national identity also developed a racial component, as "white." The choice of that particular color (or lack of color) was not random, because whiteness itself had already developed associations with cleanliness, purity, and holiness. And so, if America was to be self-governing, it had to expunge whatever was not pure and holy from itself, and also control whatever it could not or would not expunge. This effort applied to the land itself, and also to people, both individuals and groups.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was concerned in such terms about who would populate this new, relatively empty nation. As Takaki explains,

Twenty-five years before the Declaration of Independence, Franklin had already offered his thoughts on the complexion of society in America in his essay "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind." He noted that the number of "purely white People" in the world was proportionately very small. All Africa was black or tawny, Asia chiefly tawny, and "America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so." The English were the "priniciple Body of white People," and Franklin wished there were more of them in America. "And while we are . . . Scouring our planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus," he declared, "why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White?"

In this new "world without a king," as Takaki puts it, "where men had to govern themselves," self-governance by white people meant controlling those sides of themselves that seemed so uncontrolled in non-white people. By way of explaining this self-governing part of the emerging national white identity, Takaki explores the popularity at the time of ideas promoted by a leading intellectual, Benjamin Rush, who was a physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Rush was less of what we would now call a "racist" than Benjamin Franklin was. Ahead of his time, he argued for the abolition of slavery, and the removal of freed slaves to black colonies, where they would be trained into becoming more civilized beings. This training would include learning to restrain their bodies, as white people did. One of his inventions was an actual restraining device (indeed, a retraining device) for those undergoing such treatment. "The Tranquilizer" was a chair "with straps for the patient's hands and feet, a device for holding his head in a fixed position, and a container beneath the seat to receive excreta."

Rush used such a chair for "bloodletting," the draining of significant quantities of blood from especially unrestrained patients, in order to calm them down. For Takaki, such a device aptly symbolizes the "iron cage" of a white, Christian identity that the new Americans imposed on themselves.

In a frequently quoted statement about the ongoing significance of history, American novelist William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Is it a stretch to see in these elements of early American history the roots of contemporary white ways of living in one's body?

Is this why white people can't jump? Does this history of mental and bodily restraint account for their tight smiles, or how infrequently most of them dance?

One thing's for sure--if it's true that the historical restraints on white thought and behavior still affect people today, then white folks are acting white, just as much as Eddie Murphy did in his disguise as Mr. White.


  1. I'm thinking it has something to do with white puritanical Christianity that came here?

  2. that's crazy.

    don't forget that the mind/body binary was also played out in male/female relations. The mind and reason were male, the body and emotions were female.

  3. you're right sarah j, and that point could use more acknowledgment. I added a sentence about it to the end of what I think is the post's seventh paragraph. Thanks for the reminder.

    By the way, what do you mean by "crazy"? What's crazy?

  4. Macon, just one question: have you ever been to the south? Have you ever watched the Country Music network?

    (((shakes head, walks away)))

  5. Really great post! The quote is particularly moving at the beginning. I'm glad you included some of that history too because I think that's what most white people forgot; either on purpose or practice of omission.


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