In my British-American literature class last semester, I was intrigued by the concept of the subaltern. Throughout my readings, though heavily crowded with Anglo-Saxon characters, I found characters often constructing others as “lesser” through underscoring their differences, ranging from wealth to gender. Another concept to integrate into ‘subaltern’ is Edward Said’s orientalism, in which the western construction of the easterner purposefully established the people of the East as alien and inferior to westerners. Although that class focused on 19th century texts of the British empire and colonialism, I can’t help but find parallels between the concepts in that course and this one.
Orientalism and the subaltern are woven throughout many colonial texts, as I learned, because colonialism is essentially the assertion of white domination. To orientalize or ‘subaltern’ the black man is to construct him as the “other,” a foreigner on Anglo-Saxon soil, which is essentially the foundation of racism. The most blatant form of the subaltern we have encountered in this course has been through Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.” I mean, one look at my notes clearly illustrates the binary in two distinct lists (see below):
This list is entirely created from the white voice—there is absolutely no black perspective. Sure, maybe it’s because Jefferson wrote this paper, but it’s more than that. That list of traits and stereotypes is nowhere near unique; it’s common rhetoric that we’ve all heard. It is tangible proof of whites constructing blacks as the subaltern in American society. Just as the texts I read proved 19th century British men subalterned women, and the white, Western male orientalized his Eastern counterparts, the white man subalterns the black man. This begs the question: Does whiteness only exist when it is defined against blackness? Do we need to construct black as the subaltern to be white? Is being white merely what being black is not?
Those questions still persist today. Although those stereotypes are seen as disrespectful and inaccurate in many regards, they have certainly not disappeared in American culture. This continued binary makes me question, have we really learned who we are? Is race enough to define who we are? I think not.