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Our January 2022 meeting (and our first meeting of the spring 2022 semester) for LMCC took place on Wed. Jan. 26 at 5:30pm est via Zoom. We discussed Julian B. Carter’s 2007 monograph from Duke University Press, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940, specifically the introduction, “The Search for Norma” (pp. 1-41).

If you missed the meeting, you can still access the text on the Readings page of this site!Cover of The Heart of Whiteness by Julian B. Carter

Although we usually try to record our virtual meetings, due to some technical issues, we were unable to record this particular meeting. However, for recordings of our other past virtual meetings, click here.

Schedule Update: Because of various scheduling conflicts, we are adjusting the meeting times for LMCC for the rest of the spring 2022 semester. Our February, March, and April meetings will be held on the last Thursday of each month at 5:30pm est. We will still meet via Zoom using the same link we’ve been using. We have updated the “Events” on our site, listing each meeting to reflect this change; please update your calendars. We will send out monthly reminders with more details as the readings for each upcoming meeting are chosen.

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Carter, Julian B. “The Search for Norma.” The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940. Duke UP, 2007, pp. 1-41.


Some key passages:

“Her [the statue of ‘Norma’] stance proclaimed her right to a prominent place in ‘A Portrait of the American People,’ cast in plaster and on display in the Cleveland Health Museum. The portrait was a flattering one. Norma was young, healthy, and unashamed, and she was as ‘normal’ as the combined forces of science and art could make her. That is, her curves and planes were three-dimensional renderings of the statistical ‘norm or average American woman of 18 to 20 years of age.’ Norma was an emblem of the national body, modern era, sexed female” (1).

“They [Norma and the accompanying statue named ‘Normman’] represent this book’s major theme: the early twentieth-century emergence of the ideal of the ‘normal’ American, through which a particular kind of person came to be perceived as uniquely modern, uniquely qualified for citizenship, uniquely natural and healthy” (2).

“Yet the following chapters demonstrate that Norma and Normman should be understood as icons of a constitutively white kind of heterosexual eroticism in marriage. The normality they represented was inseparable from their race, at the same time that it was formed and expressed through rich cultural codes that gradually rendered overtly racial language redundant in many white-dominated contexts…. By 1945, when Norma and Normman made their debut, important elements of white racial identity were conventionally communicated through discreet depictions of normal sexuality. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the ‘normal’ whiteness these statues represented was the ability to construct and teach white racial meanings without appearing to do so” (2).

“Normality discourse drew on and extended several earlier conceptual vocabularies, especially those of civilization and evolution, in a way which made it possible to talk about whiteness indirectly, in terms of the affectionate, reproductive heterosexuality of ‘normal’ married couples. That is, ‘normality’ made it possible to discuss race and sexuality without engaging the relations of power in which they were embedded and through which they acquired much of their relevance” (3-4).

“From its inception, then, modern ‘normality’ involved both a positivistic claim about the pure neutrality of facts, and a distinctly eugenic element of judgment about which human bodies and behaviors were best. It also involved what would turn out to be a productive definitional confusion between what is common and what is ideal” (4).

“As normality discourse entered U.S. popular culture in the early twentieth century, it drew on well-established conventions for representing conflict over issues of race, citizenship, and cultural reproduction through the language of ‘civilization’” (4).

“We will see that ‘normality’ was deeply indebted to ‘civilization’ for its conceptual content; normal Americans were necessarily civilized ones, and the two terms were sometimes used in the interwar years as though they were synonyms. But while their contents overlapped, their effects were significantly different. Where civilization discourse could facilitate political debate, the following chapters show that normality discourse generally worked to shut it down” (4-5).

“One of the most important effects of the concept of ‘normality,’ and the sign of its power in dominant American culture, was the increasing occlusion of racial and sexual politics in ‘polite’ white speech” (5).

“Even though the language of civilization could be mobilized in overtly political contexts, evolutionist perspectives on civilization implied that social inequality—the dominance of native-born, financially secure, educated white men—was determined by heredity and so was beyond the bounds of meaningful dissent” (5).

“Representations of modern American civilization as an evolutionary achievement, in short, record the attempted depoliticization of white dominance in response to challenges to the entrenched racial order. This is where sex comes in. Because evolutionary thought emphasizes reproduction as the vector for inheritance and therefore as the primary mechanism for racial development or degeneration, an evolutionist perspective on civilization drew attention to the importance of a specifically sexual ‘fitness’ among modern whites. During the era between the two world wars, that evolved sexual fitness increasingly went by the name of ‘normality’” (5).

“…normality, unlike eugenicism or civilizationism, managed to acquire a mantle of political neutrality that remained powerful at least through the end of the twentieth century and that retains its dominance in many areas of U.S. culture to the present day” (6).

The book’s goals: “This book has two chief goals: first, to document the disavowed and mutually dependent racial and sexual hierarchies condensed in the notion of the normal; and second, to show that normality discourse appeared to be politically neutral in large part because it so often framed its racially loaded dreams for the reproduction of white civilization in the language of romantic and familial love” (6).

“By 1940, this enframement had had the effect of helping to expand white racial definition to include most European Americans who adhered to these racialized sexual and relational norms. Erotically and affectively charged marriage became the privileged site for the literal and metaphorical reproduction of white civilization. At the same time and through the same gestures, that civilization’s core racial value was redefined in terms of love. Though the statistical referent of the normal helped make its claim to neutrality plausible, it is as significant that the actual contents of the category were extremely difficult to contest: love was, by dominant cultural definition, an inherently benign force, politically relevant only in its ability to resolve conflict. ‘Normality’ thus provided a common, and deeply sexualized, vocabulary through which an increasingly diverse group of whites could articulate their common racial and political values to one another, while nonetheless avoiding direct acknowledgment of or confrontation with the many hierarchies that fractured the polity” (6).

“The statues of the ‘normal’ American boy and girl illustrate the way in which vague references to heredity and cultural development across generations could forge an ostensibly natural, objective, and politically innocent connection between whiteness, reproductive marital heterosexuality, and modern American civilization” (7).

“Taken together, the three sets of statues constitute a visual argument that modern American civilization was the legitimately inherited, morally upright racial property of ‘normal’ whites…. These emblems of normality, that is, are also representations of the legitimacy and innocence of white dominance. Eons of material and cultural advances, transmitted via the marital sexuality of successive white generations, produced normal moderns organically rather than agonistically” (9).

“Norma and Normman were at the top of the evolutionary tree not only because they were white but because they were modern. As representatives of the mid-twentieth-century United States, an apartheid state which increasingly staked its identity and international status on its commitment to democracy, their whiteness was necessarily more inclusive of class and ethnic variation than that of earlier eras—that is, it was less restrictively defined by reference to high Anglo culture” (9-10).

“At mass-cultural as on elite levels, then, normality discourse used the common cultural vocabulary of civilization’s evolutionary progress in a way that tended to flatten out the distinction between political struggle and natural development” (11).

“Whether it was represented in noble statuary or down-home colloquialisms, normal modern whiteness invoked the democratic dream of universal access to enlightened morality and free self-government, while it looked away from the struggles through which American government and white dominance were extended across the continent and, increasingly, across the globe” (11).

“Chapter 1 engages the late-nineteenth-century medical formulation of a particular kind of white body as the somaticization of modern civilization. I read theoretical, clinical, and popular narrative representations of nervous illness as constituting an attempt to define and describe the core essence of whiteness in the post-slavery United States” (12).

“Normal Americans, by definition, were whites who used their respectably reproductive sexuality for the betterment of race and nation” (12).

“In neurasthenia discourse, the fear of white sterility found expression in exhortations to men and women of the ‘better sort’ to preserve white dominance over civilization by cultivating sexual self-control. Sexual restraint enabled them to harness their sensitivity to the future of the race, directing their nervous resources toward the production of the next white generation. At the same time, the construction of whiteness as weakness helped to gloss over the social, political, and economic benefits whites gained from the real racial maldistribution of national resources” (12).

“In chapter 2 I argue that modern heterosexuality, which emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as an ideal of erotic discipline in marriage, was a central discursive site for the solidification of white power-evasiveness under the sign of the normal” (13).

“By the 1920s, fears about white reproductive weakness had realigned around the nightmare figure of the primitive pervert. Queer forms of sexual desire and gender expression acquired the capacity to represent sexual disability, which in the context of evolutionary discourses of civilization meant that failures of development and self-control were increasingly associated with same-sex object choice and opposite-gender presentation” (13-14).

“Thus a vast mass-marketed literature on modern marital sexuality represented intercourse as a miniature rehearsal of the social and political values at the core of democratic ideology. It was becoming possible to imagine erotically charged marriage as inseparable from American citizenship in a way that legitimized the exclusion of homosexuals and other sexual ‘deviants’ from full membership in the polity” (14).

“This is the subject of chapter 3, where I examine the way in which mass sex instruction for young people served to reinforce the correlation of heterosexual whiteness to normality. Early-twentieth-century sex education existed to convince students of the natural, apolitical connection between sexual self-restraint, an erotic ethic of monogamy in marriage, and the strength of white civilization” (15).

“A generation learned that decent people talked about these things obliquely. Being normal required learning to substitute the vague language of normal development for political analysis or cultural critique of existing sexual and racial relations” (15).

“Though ‘normality’ attained its greatest cultural power in the second half of the twentieth century, I conclude this study in the early 1940s for several reasons. First, it is significant that evolutionary/biological explanations of racial and sexual identity found their cultural and scientific authority challenged at this time” (15).

“Approaching periodization from the perspective of race gives almost the same end date for slightly different reasons. By the early 1940s, as the criminal racial policies of fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany became known in the United States, intellectuals across the disciplines began to scramble for a new and less biologistic conception of race” (16).

“I contend that it is not possible to develop an adequate understanding of race between the Gilded Age and World War II without attending to sexuality, and vice versa, but my cutoff date is not meant to suggest that after the war the two axes of identity suddenly stopped speaking to one another” (17).

“This particular archive demonstrates that one of the ways that whiteness became ‘race-evasive’ was through the normalizing of deeply racialized sexual and relational ideals under the sign of ‘modern marriage.’ It also suggests that the collapse of normal whiteness into a marital ideal of erotic affection helped to expand the social category of whiteness across classes and, to a lesser extent, across ethnicities” (17).

“I have chosen to concentrate not on boundaries and relationships across categories of sexuality and race but on the comparatively claustrophobic subject of normality’s internal descriptions and definitions of itself. That is one reason that I have grounded my analysis in print sources from the poorly defined yet fairly consistent genre we might call ‘normal sexual science.’” (18).

“Such mass-cultural publications over access to some of the most authoritative and least controversial forms of knowledge about sexuality and race available at the time of their writing and distribution. Whatever we know or don’t know about the reach and influence of individual documents, we can be certain that the positions they advance were ‘normal’ ones. These sources not only described normality, they performed it” (18).

“Because white muteness about its raciality seems clearly connected to white irresponsibility in regard to its power, it is appropriate to push at that muteness in the process of its implantation, to explore the evidence it overs about how whiteness’s self-definition as ‘normal’ facilitated white ignorance and innocence in relation to ongoing racial inequality. There is a similar political satisfaction in mining heterosexuality’s self-congratulatory descriptions of its naturalness and innocence for evidence of its historical embeddedness in unequal relations of power” (19).

“Here I want to suggest that segregation did not actually render whiteness blank. Instead, it provided the larger context in which whites’ racial place in the nation could be displaced into discussions of marital sexuality: the (re)institutionalization of white power in the early twentieth century allowed, maybe required, a discursive shift away from the question of whether whiteness would continue to dominate, to the question of how white-dominant civilization could best be perpetuated. The popular-scientific sources on which this book is based answered that question by developing a definition of ‘normal’ heterosexuality that emphasized marital romance as the mode of white civilization’s reproduction. The internal focus of such sources, the complete erasure of sexually or racially non-normative voices that might have challenged their collapse of white raciality into the eroticization of married love, is inseparable from their claim to normality” (20).

“…sexual desire and activity between men and women constructed not only racial edges but racial centers; both biologically and culturally, potentially reproductive sex lent itself to the consolidation of racial identity as well as to its transgression. At the same time, normal sources’ insistence that ‘sex’ is potentially reproductive in its essence worked to define whiteness in terms that mandated and naturalized heterosexuality” (21).

“This leads to my conceptual reason for choosing to focus on normality in conversation with itself, which is that norms appear to be inherently solipsistic” (21).

“Being excluded from the universe of people who count meant (and means) occupying a position that was always-already constructed by reference to what it was not: not white, not a native speaker of English, not married, not male, not able-bodied, ‘not quite our class.’” (22).

“Non-normativity can be a position of considerable critical insight, because people whose lives are shaped by their difference from the normal perforce must know a great deal about both their own positions and the ones that oppress them. In contrast, being one of the normal people means being defined by reference to what you already are and so slides easily into the (empirically inaccurate) conviction that one’s own position is simply natural and devoid of political meaning” (22).

“If segregation provided the social and political context in which normality discourse developed, the self-referentiality of the norm provided the conceptual context in which whiteness and heterosexuality could focus myopically on their own small worlds, ignoring the existence of other positions while perceiving themselves as politically innocent, natural qualities of individuals” (23).

“Though their normality was profoundly self-referential in the sense that it referred only to the characteristics of potentially reproductive ‘native white Americans’ and the culture they claimed as their own, it also acquired significance through its claim to superiority over earlier generations of civilized whites. Moderns were fond of representing their own historical moment as distinctly better than the recent past, especially in terms of the organization and expression of sexuality” (23).

“The white moderns whose writing informs the present work were in a unique racial position in relation to sexuality: because they believed themselves to be the legitimate heirs to western civilization in America, they felt entitled to modify their legacy as they saw fit. Their sense of racially based ownership of the civilization they inherited from the Victorians authorized their interventions in the construction of new standards of sexual sensitivity and restraint, health and happiness—that is, of sexual norms” (24).

“The present work is an attempt to forge a connection between the critical study of sexuality and the critical study of race such that ‘normality’ becomes a subject for critical analysis simultaneously along both racial and sexual axes of difference and power” (26).

“Normality seems both immense and blank, ubiquitous and insubstantial, so that it is difficult to get a critical purchase on it except by catching at its ragged edges. In the effort to focus on its center, I have found it helpful to think of normality’s apparent blankness as deriving from the power-evasiveness of its component parts, heterosexuality and whiteness” (26).

“If normality is a slippery subject, then, it is because whiteness and heterosexuality share a certain unwillingness to acknowledge their own power and the many forms of coercion and violence that uphold their unearned advantages; both prefer to perceive themselves as natural traits, simultaneously noble and innocent of political meanings” (27).

“When antiracist scholars assert that whiteness has no contents, they duplicate its claim that it is simply normal; their intervention is only at the level of evaluating normal whiteness as dangerous and violent. The attribution of ‘normality’ is, in general, equivalent to an assertion that ‘there is nothing here to see or name.’ It is therefore skating close to complicity in a system that sustains its inequities by denying their existence. Thus, though most whiteness studies are motivated by a desire to reveal the political contents and consequences of whiteness, I am concerned that assertions of its emptiness may actually work to renaturalize the category in ways that produce political stasis rather than transformation” (29).

“This study, then, rests on the premise that the identity categories of sexuality and race—like those of gender, class, nationality, religion, and some forms of ‘disability’—are condensations of historical processes saturated with relations of power. Through these processes, individuals are positioned and position themselves as white or colored, normal or perverse, men or women, modern or old-fashioned, healthy or ill, respectable or marginal, and so forth” (31).

“The following chapters tell the story of how ‘normality’ came to serve as a sort of discursive umbrella under which white, heterosexual Americans in a formally democratic society could claim both physical and cultural ownership of modern civilization. I argue that normality discourse helped root that claim in the sphere of sexual conduct and values, at a highly disciplined point of intersection between body and soul, self and civilization” (31).

“For this reason, I tend to read my sources not so much for evidence of what really happened, in terms of who exercised what forms of power in relation to whom, but rather for evidence of how a dominant racial class represented the legitimacy of its power” (32).

“Nevertheless, this project proceeds from the premise that what people said in public, in forms that reached hundreds of thousands of readers, has its own kind of truth: it tells us a great deal about the ‘official’ (read: normal, and therefore white and heterosexual) wisdom of the day, and in turn about the cultural values and beliefs in relation to which individual identities and political positions were formed. Dominant discursive constructions may tell us very little about the practices of everyday life, but they tell us a great deal about the systems of belief and power with which people had to live and contend” (32).

“This book, then, seeks to restore sexual desire and the problem of its management to its legitimate place in the construction of whiteness as ownership of the modern nation during the crucial era when mass culture was taking shape” (36).

“[Joan] Crawford’s character [in the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters] highlights the odd contradiction in the normative ideal of whiteness, which is both ‘‘natural’’ to our open-hearted heroine and the result of constant self-restraint. Modern love required erotic sensitivity, but also social respectability; white marriage and the future of the race required a carefully calibrated amalgam of passion and sober self-control” (40).

“Discipline and restraint had to be internalized if white moderns were to make the normal marriages on which the legitimate reproduction of whiteness depended. At the same time, because those white marriages had a responsibility to combine respectability with fruitfulness, discipline could not dominate sensitivity” (40).

“Though class, regional, religious, and political differences certainly influenced both the content and the tone of many such explorations, by the end of the 1930s emergent mass culture featured a relatively ‘monolithic’ ideal of normal whiteness. That whiteness was inseparable from a carefully governed normative heterosexuality. Statues like Norma and Normman and films like Our Dancing Daughters make it clear that, when it was under construction, ‘normality’ was far from invisible or opaque. The following chapters examine the process of normality’s construction, from its relatively contested origins in Gilded Age bourgeois culture to the point where it became, well, normal—so ubiquitous, so taken for granted, that its power became hard to see” (41).


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