Seeing White

written by Robert Wallace

“Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.”
– Bertholt Brecht, On Theatre

Riding the Toronto subway, I notice an advertising campaign for a popular radio station that features contemporary rock music. The station is called The Edge. Its campaign foregrounds dozens of photographs of famous Western rock stars in illuminated spaces running the length of the subway car. All are identified by names underneath their portraits – Alanis Morissette, Kurt Cobain, Sarah Maclachlan, etc. – which is necessary because, despite their celebrity, most are unrecognizable in their pictures. The cause of this ignominy is the campaign’s gimmick: the photographs resemble reprints from high school yearbooks. The subway car is sparsely occupied – allowing me to notice a young South Asian man sitting directly to my left. He also examines the pictures across the aisle, slowly moving his eyes along the black and white portraits to consider each one in turn. Suddenly, he jumps up and crosses the aisle to take a seat underneath the ads. I watch his reflection in the darkened window of the speeding train. Is he upset by the ads? By my noticing him? His expression offers me no signs. I return to the faces above his head. Yes, they share more than youth in common. All are white. A quick survey of the other passen­gers in the car confirms the insult of this homogeneity; further, it allows me to theorize the ideological significance of the photographs and their accompanying slogan. Of the 15 or so subway riders, only one person besides me is white. The advertising slogan reads: “Everyone has some edge in them.”

In his ground-breaking studies of popular culture, Roland Barthes builds on the premise that a sign “is the external, material expression of the social conflicts to which it bears witness” (Barthes 34). Signs are always social, he contends, for they are created and interpreted in specific cultural contexts. Although the meanings of signs are arbitrary, they never are unmotivated; indeed, they are profoundly affected by the values and beliefs that people use to make them. In his useful survey Theory/Theatre, Mark Fortier, a professor at the University of Winnipeg, links Barthes’ theories of the sign with gestus, the theatrical technique developed by Bertholt Brecht for his Epic theatre during the 1930s. Fortier argues that gestus also is social for its meanings do not inhere in signs but, rather, depend on the cultural conventions that an audience uses to decode them. To illustrate this idea, Fortier constructs a hypothetical scene: “Imagine,” he begins, “being stopped for speeding by a member of the police.” Fortier suggests that both the driver and officer in this scenario facilitate meaning by employing a variety of signs – specifically, the costumes, actions, and demeanours they display. The police officer “approaches your car with an emotionless expression of authority and addresses you with a reserved. dominating correctness; you smile innocently, harmlessly and, sounding befuddled, address him/her deferentially as ‘Officer’.” Fortier reasons that “each of these artificial behaviours is a sign indicating the power relations and roles at play”. (Fortier 24)

Fortier does more than connect gestus with sign in this example; he also illustrates how life, like theatre, utilizes signs to establish and maintain meaning. In Fortier’s scenario, ordinary people use signs to represent authority and innocence. This parallels theatre where actors attempt similar transformations by using signs (gestus, in Brecht’s plays) to signify the social and psychological conditions of the characters they play.

The power of signs resides in their ability to represent something else. This idea is unremarkable only until one considers its consequence – the pervasive desire in everyday life and much contemporary theatre to determine the right sign, the perfect sign, the sign that will represent something so effectively that it will be accepted as the thing itself. This desire leads not only to the proliferation of sophisticated advertising techniques in which commodities represent lifestyles; it also elevates signs to a phenomenological level where commodities equal lifestyles. “Calvin Klein is You.”

Today, signs frequently are so powerful that people regard them as reality, not representation. Madonna is perceived as her image. News bites are received as facts. In this context, representation is easily misread as a ‘natural’ phenomenon (becoming what Barthes calls the doxa of consensus), instead of being understood as a cultural construct. Ironically, as the mediation of signs proliferates through television, movies, and the Internet, representation is more completely overlooked. Or is it?

Near the beginning of his essay “White”, Richard Dyer points out that “the norm too is constructed.” Dyer, a British film critic and cultural theorist, uses ‘norm’ to typify anything that “(carries] on as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human.” (Dyer 141). Dyer’s aim in this essay is to analyze how Western societies construct white as a ‘norm’ by examining a number of films. His analysis rests on the theory that the “property of whiteness to be everything and nothing[,] is the source of its representational power.” (Dyer 142)

For Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, cultural critics who also hail from Britain, Dyer’s essay “inaugurates a paradigmatic shift” that displaces white as an epistemological category by calling into question its universalist character. “Whiteness,” they write, “has secured universal consent to its hegemony as the ‘norm’ by masking its coercive force with the invisibility that marks off the Other (the pathologized, the disempowered, the dehumanized) as all too visible-‘coloured’.” Ironically, they point out, the “invisibility” of whiteness masks it as a category. Because of this “the white subject remains the central reference point in the power ploys of multicultural policy. The burden of representation thus falls on the Other…’ (Julien and Mercer 455).

With these comments in mind, I return to the photographs of white rock stars currently displayed in The Edge campaign. What do I make of these signs which purport that “everyone” has some edge? While the campaign invites many interpretations, one strikes me as pertinent to contemporary Canadian theatre.
The Edge campaign illustrates the construction of the white ‘norm’ that Dyer, Julien, and Mercer discuss. Someone chose the photographs that the campaign displays; inadvertently or not, this person (or agency) picked white representations to the exclusion of other possibilities. This construction of white, however, does not necessarily perpetuate its ‘normative’ status; indeed, it can lead to its diminution. Oh, I am sure that many subway passengers will fail to notice the exclusionary violence of the ads: for them, whiteness will remain invisible, the “natural, inevitable, ordinary way of being human.” But for many others, the choice will be not only conspicuous but wrong.

In Toronto, like many Western cities, white is becoming a minority colour. Although signs of whiteness still dominate Western imagery, they signify differently in this changing context. “We are all ethnically located,” Stuart Hall reminds us. (Hall quoted in Julien and Mercer 456) For those who see white as a representational construct. whiteness becomes an ethnicity like any other – except, of course, that it retains greater privilege. As more white people see white, however, the injustice of this inequity looms larger. And, slowly but surely, the burden of representation shifts its weight onto the backs of more and more people.

Ads in a Toronto subway car may seem disconnected from the practice of theatre in Canada. Because each is a form of represen­tation. However, each speaks to the social conflicts to which it bears witness, to paraphrase Barthes’ comment. As with all representation, theatre does more than express cultural values; it constitutes them as well. In this, theatre is like every form of representation: it is a sign of life. Inevitably, signs change. Do I still see rows of white faces lining Toronto stages and theatre seats? Yes, frequently. But I notice them, now, as do many people of all colours, including white. This is important, I think. For the ideologi­cal power of whiteness to be overcome, white must be recognized as a colour like any other, and it must be seen by white people first and foremost. Only then will every­ one become more visible.

Works Cited

Roland Barthes, Critical Essays (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1972).

Richard Dyer, “White” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations (London: Routledge, 1993).

Mark Fortier, Theatre/Theory: an Introduction (New York:
Routledge, 1997).

Issac Julien and Kobena Mercer, “De Margin and De Centre” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. ed. David Mozley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996).

At time of print, Robert Wallace was a Professor of English and Theatre, and held the Roberts Chair for Canadian Studies