What is absent from white is any thing; in other words, material reality. Cleanliness is the absence of dirt, spiritually the absence of flesh, virtue the absence of sin, chastity the absence of sex and so on. The cleansing  metaphor of baptism is central. Sin is seen as a stain which water washes away. Baptism unites cleanliness and goodness. A more recent, sinister and racially explicit appropriation of the metaphor is to be found in the ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of Bosnia Herzegovina.

Joel Kovel, in his study, White Racism, first published in 1970, makes dirt central to his account of white attitudes towards non-white people, from which we may extrapolate attitudes towards whiteness itself. ‘Dirt’, he argues, ‘is the fate of the sensuousness lost to the world’ in the regime of whiteness (kovel, 1998).  Kovel argues that by the late Middle Ages, the Church, as both the mediator between the individual and God and the source of moral authority and order in Europe, was increasingly fragmented and corrupt; Luther stood against the Church by insisting on the individual’s direct relation to God. ‘His central insight was that a principle of God was within man himself’ (ibid), something involving both abstraction, God as a symbol not a being, and an accentuation of the mind: body split. If God, and all that is of worth, is abstract, then everything that is concrete, and a fortiori the body, is worthless and worse. Kovel stresses the importance of images of dirt in Luther’s work and suggests that out of this emerges a disdain and disgust for the body and everything bodily: ‘the body is dirty; what comes out of the body is especially dirty; the material world corresponds to what comes out of the body, and hence it is also especially dirty (ibid).

It is in this context that Kovel makes his most vivid argument about race. Non-white people are associated in various ways with the dirt that comes out of the body, notably in the repeated racist  perception that they smell (but also, notably in the British context that their food smells,  that they eat dirty foods – offal, dogs, snakes –and that they slaughter it in direct and bloody forms). Obsessive control of faeces and  identification of them as the nadir of human dirt both characterise  Western culture: to be white is to be well potty-trained.

‘the central symbol of dirt throughout the world is faeces, known by that profane word with which the emotion of disgust is expressed: shit… when contrasted with the light colour of the body of the Caucasian person, the dark colour of faeces reinforces, from the infancy of the individual in the culture of the West, the connotation of blackness with badness’ (ibid).

To be white is to have expunged all dirt, faecial or otherwise, from oneself: to look white is to look clean.

Extract from White by  Richard Dyer Photo by Bruce La Bruce


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