Working Whiteness: Performing And Transgressing Cultural Identity Through Work

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Early in Richard Wright's Native Son, we see Bigger and his friend Gus “playing white.” Taking on the role of “J. P. Morgan,” the two young black men give orders and act powerful, thus performing their perceived role of whiteness. This scene is more than an ironic comment on the characters' distance from the lifestyle of the J. P. Morgans of the world; their acts of whiteness are a representation of how whiteness is constructed. Such an analysis is similar to my own focus in this dissertation. I argue that whiteness is a culturally constructed identity and that work serves ... continued below

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Polizzi, Allessandria May 2002.

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  • Polizzi, Allessandria

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Early in Richard Wright's Native Son, we see Bigger and his friend Gus “playing white.” Taking on the role of “J. P. Morgan,” the two young black men give orders and act powerful, thus performing their perceived role of whiteness. This scene is more than an ironic comment on the characters' distance from the lifestyle of the J. P. Morgans of the world; their acts of whiteness are a representation of how whiteness is constructed. Such an analysis is similar to my own focus in this dissertation. I argue that whiteness is a culturally constructed identity and that work serves as a performative space for defining and transgressing whiteness. To this end, I examine work and its influence on the performance of middle class and working class whiteness, as well as how those outside the definitions of whiteness attempt to “play white,” as Bigger does. Work enables me to explore the codes of whiteness and how they are performed, understood, and transgressed by providing a locus of cultural performance. Furthermore, by looking at novels written in the early twentieth century, I am able to analyze characters at a historical moment in which work was of great import. With the labor movement at its peak, these novels, particularly those which specifically address socialism, participate in an understanding of work as a performative act more than a means to end. Within the context of this history and using the language of whiteness studies, I look at how gendered whiteness is transgressed and reinforced through the inverted job-roles of the Knapps in Dorothy Canfield's The Home-Maker, how work can cause those who possess the physical attributes of whiteness to transgress this cultural identity, as the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath demonstrate, and how the ascribed identities as non-white for Sara in The Bread Givers, Jurgis in The Jungle, and Bigger in Native Son are by far more compelling than their performative acts.

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  • May 2002

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  • Sept. 26, 2007, 1:56 a.m.

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  • Jan. 21, 2014, 4:22 p.m.

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Polizzi, Allessandria. Working Whiteness: Performing And Transgressing Cultural Identity Through Work, dissertation, May 2002; Denton, Texas. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc3121/: accessed June 7, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; .