15 November 2011
Wide Sargasso Sea and the Illusion of Race
Raised in a conservative Korean family, race was often discussed in my home. And while our discussions usually addressed politics and culture, I would often catch my parents’ allusions to skin pigment. My parents associated a person’s speech and bodily habits, including gestures, with his/her ethnic background, which they usually based on skin color. Ian F. Haney Lopez attempts to eliminate this notion of linking physical traits with culture by postulating, “human interaction rather than natural differentiation must be seen as the source and continued basis for racial categorization” (969).
In “The Social Construction of Race”, Lopez uses several court cases and other historical examples to question the notion that race is tied to genealogy. In this essay, I will use Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea to prove Lopez’s postulate that race is, in fact, a man-made, social construct.
According to Lopez, race “manifests itself in our speech, dance, neighbors, and friends – ‘our very ways of talking, walking, eating and dreaming are ineluctably shaped by notions of race.’” (965). This is easily demonstrated in the way that the Europeans of Wide Sargasso Sea treat one of their own. Antoinette, though a Creole, is a woman of pure European descent. Yet, even though she has English blood flowing in her veins, her husband does not accept her as an “English or European” (61) woman. Even her own mother felt Antoinette was “growing up like a white nigger” (120). In their eyes, Antoinette’s decorum and speech resemble the blacks of the community far too much. To them, Antoinette was a girl of the Caribbean.
Lopez, too, rejects the affiliation of skin pigment with race because of its clear impracticality. Skin color, he says, “differs greatly among persons of the same race, even among Anglo-Saxons, ranging by imperceptible gradations from the fair blond to the swarthy brunette…” (968). He makes a reference to Judge Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court, who attacks the idea of policy being reduced to “a question of blood…blood, not background and environment” (968). It is clear in Wide Sargasso Sea that Antoinette’s husband and mother indeed do not use physical attributes to assess Antoinette.
Yes, it would not be a stretch to call Antoinette a Creole woman – even her Caribbean nurse calls her a “Creole girl” who has “the sun in her” (143) – however, the society that she lives in do not accept her as one. People call her “white nigger” (22) and “white cockroach” (91), referring to her as a being not suited for either the Caribbean society or the European society. Lopez would likely interpret this as a reaction to the oppression they were recently emancipated from. He remarks that there is a “close interconnection between racial and class structures” (971). Rhys uses the simplistic language of a child to inform Antoinette that Antoinette’s family is not made up of “real white people…Real white people got gold money” (22). The black community molests Antoinette and her mother because they have no social and economic power. “Real white people…didn’t look at [the blacks], nobody see [real white people] come near [the blacks.” (22). Because Antoinette’s family was in no position to remove themselves from the black community, they faced the brunt of the blacks’ animosity. As aforementioned, Lopez would deem the blacks’ judgment inappropriate, however, he would also find it understandable.
Lopez says, “Race is neither an essence nor an illusion, but rather an ongoing, contradictory, self-reinforcing, plastic process subject to the macro forces of social and political struggle and the micro effects of daily decisions” (966), and that it is because of this whites form a social group of their own. If looking at the situation in this light, it is easier to understand why the blacks harassed a former slave-owning family. Essentially, I am arguing that the community attacked Antoinette’s family, not because they were white or poor, but because of a social construction. Antoinette’s family is persecuted even when they become wealthy because of social tension that stems from the past. The uniform trait of the blacks’ persecutors was their white skin, hence why they spite all those that bear the trait and those that associate with those with white skin – they are lumped together into a group of their own.
“Race has its genesis and maintains its vigorous strength in the realm of social beliefs.” (Lopez 972). “They are produced by myriad conflicting social forces; they overlap and…make sense only in relationship to other racial categories.” (Lopez 971).
It’s still rough around the edges! That last paragraph is not the actual conclusion, but merely the two quotes I am going to center it around.
Lopez, Ian F. Haney. “The Social Construction of Race.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2004). 964-972. Print.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966. Print.