Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


To See, or Not to See?: Shakespeare, Whiteness, and the Intraracial Color-Line

David Sterling Brown

[Illustrations to Shakespeare – group scenes – unfinished] [graphic] / J.M. Wright.

What is required for people to see race or racial difference? When do people notice either? Beyond that, what does it take for people to become aware of pervasive global anti-Blackness? And what is required for them to acknowledge racism and its centuries-old effects? Is it a little Black girl’s beautiful dark skin and afro puffs? Or must it be a Black man with a knee pressed into his neck for nearly ten minutes as he cries out for his mama with his last breaths? Does someone have to be called a racial slur for race(ism) to be happening? Or must 50 bullets bury into my bleeding Black body before racial awareness comes alive? Is all or any of that necessary for acknowledging race, racism, and anti-Blackness?

In the absence of Blackness, people racialized as white often choose not to, or do not have to, see and reflect on race, their own racial makeup or the racial makeup of the white people around them in any given moment. And yet, their race matters. Their whiteness matters, even in the absence of Blackness or racial Otherness. How it matters and why it matters, especially in relationship to global anti-Blackness, are two of many motivating forces that drive the focus of my first book Shakespeare’s White Others. This study contains an Introduction that begins with a set of provocative questions serving as guiding inquiries for readers of all races and backgrounds, readers who are interested in such subjects as racial profiling, history, racial construction, sociology, social psychology, whiteness, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, dramatic literature, Black feminism, mental health, performance studies, sound studies, trauma studies, and more.

The critical inquiries found throughout Shakespeare’s White Others are generative questions for all who want to understand Shakespeare’s contributions to the early modern construction of racial whiteness, contributions that anticipated our modern understanding of race and anti-Black racism. Moreover, the inquiries found throughout Shakespeare’s White Others challenge readers, offering a program of action for folks who consider themselves pro-Black or “anti-racist” and for folks who are not yet committed but desire to eradicate anti-Black racism from their daily practices for the betterment of our global society.

Following two epigraphs, the first by New York Times bestselling author Claudia Rankine (Just Us and Citizen) and the second by Dr. Veronica T. Watson (The Souls of White Folk), the Introduction for Shakespeare’s White Others begins:

‘If I could resurrect William Shakespeare from the dead and ask him a question that I am dying to pose, it would be this: “How does it feel to be a problem?”[i] If I could be certain that he would not become defensive; that Shakespeare would not irrationally accuse me of “reverse racism,” of being racist toward white people, for respectfully naming and recognizing his whiteness; that he would not remain silent but would actually answer my burning question,[ii] then I would ask more pointedly, “How does it feel to be a white problem?”[iii]

In the context of race, “white” changes everything. Here, in fact, “white” refocuses a question W. E. B. Du Bois considered in relationship to Blackness in his early twentieth-century treatise The Souls of Black Folk. For me, if it is clear that Blackness, understood more generally as one’s race, is a problem, then of course whiteness, too, is a problem. Yet, white people “do not live with constant reminders that [they] are seen as problems due to [their] race.”[iv] Therefore, white people do not actively or regularly consider the abovementioned inquiries because the idea of being problematic is estranged from their collective racial consciousness. For white people, the problem is always the somatically different Other.[v] That is to say, I am the problem. To that I say, “What about you?”[vi]

The white “you” in that question could refer to you, as in bardolator, reader, student, teacher, theatergoer, actor, director, or whomever. “You” could also map onto a Shakespeare play, any Shakespeare play: Titus Andronicus or Macbeth or Hamlet or Othello or Much Ado About Nothing. And thus, one could pose “What about you?” to a white character such as Titus or Lady Macbeth or Claudius or Iago or Hero, characters who can and should be critiqued just like Black figures such as Aaron, Othello, Cleopatra, Prince of Morocco, and the imagined “Ethiop” Claudio conjures up in Much Ado’s final act. Forget Aaron or Othello for a moment. How is the Roman General Titus a problem with respect to race, how does he contribute to the play’s intraracial color-line, or white-on-white, dynamics that instigate the play’s conflicts? In what ways do gender and race intersect when Hero’s father Leonato says “she is fallen” into the metaphorical “pit of ink” in Much Ado, for instance?

With such questions in mind—and many others—that engage topics (some quite heavy) like sexual violence, Black Lives Matter, sartorial choices, gentrification, sexuality, misogynoir, intimate partner violence, pedagogy, enslavement, homosexuality, borderline personality disorder, domestic violence, the sound of whiteness, and more, Shakespeare’s White Others offers its readers numerous entry points into a critical conversation that can enhance understanding about how seeing or not seeing whiteness, seeing or not seeing the effects of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, is a conscious choice. It is a choice with dire consequences for all. It is a choice that has an impact within and outside of academia, thus making Shakespeare’s White Others “essential and insightful reading for those interested in the invention of racism in modern literature, and more generally in modern society,” as asserted by Shakespeare’s White Others endorser Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, University of Pennsylvania Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations.

Shakespeare’s White Others is a book that moves beyond the scholarly by way of my “critical-personal-experiential” methodology that employs what I call “productive discomfort” to guide readers through each chapter. Furthermore, the book includes moments that should prompt readers to consider how anti-Black racism and white supremacy affect them, how those social ills affect Black people like me. As Rankine asserts in her generous endorsement, this book “seamlessly blends genres while reimagining the scholarly monograph mode.” One way Shakespeare’s White Others pushes the boundaries of what the scholarly monograph mode can do is through a free, publicly accessible resource I created: the David Sterling Brown Gallery, a virtual-reality art gallery whose first exhibition—“Visualizing Race Virtually”—displays Folger Shakespeare Library artwork that allows my audience to understand how we both see and hear race, and whiteness, along the interracial, sonic, and intraracial color-lines. Through Shakespeare’s White Others, and through the art exhibition, it is my hope, it is my dream, that readers and gallery visitors will allow me, allow my work, to push the boundaries of their thinking.

To access the virtual reality David Sterling Brown Gallery exhibition: Visit www.DavidSterlingBrown.com and click “Enter Site and then click “VRV Exhibition” on the top menu bar. Next, click “Join Room” and then “Enter Room.” Use your keyboard’s arrow keys and mouse or touchpad to navigate the gallery. To “fly” in the room and have the ability to raise yourself up higher, press the “G” key on your computer’s keyboard to enable “fly mode,” which also enables you to walk through the gallery’s walls. For an even more immersive experience, you can explore the gallery with VR goggles, such as Meta Quest 2. Once you connect your goggles, enter the gallery by following the instructions above and then click “Enter On Device” instead of “Join Room.” For more information, see this resource on how to join rooms in Mozilla Hubs

Shakespeare’s White Others by David Sterling Brown

[i] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (United States: Tribeca Books, 2011), 2.

[ii] Bridget M. Newell, “Being a White Problem and Feeling It,” White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-racism: How Does it Feel to Be a White Problem?, ed. George Yancy (New York: Lexington Books, 2015), 121.

[iii] George Yancy, ed. “Introduction: Un-Sutured,” White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-racism: How Does it Feel to Be a White Problem? (New York: Lexington Books, 2015), xii-xiii, xvii.

[iv] Newell, 121-122.

[v] See Arthur L. Little, Jr., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, ed. Ayanna Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), “Is It Possible to Read Shakespeare through Critical White Studies?,” 269, 277.

[vi] Channeling sentiments from Nikki Giovanni, Dennis Austin Britton recognizes that all “scholarly inquiry is mediated by the social, cultural, and economic realities in which we all must live our lives […] Giovanni’s essay asks us to think critically about the cultural politics of literary studies in general, but it expressly challenges the institution of Shakespeare Studies to reconsider how it defines what ‘matters’.” With Shakespeare’s White Others, I am interested in examining a racial identity, racial wehiteness, that often still gets rendered invisible. See “Ain’t She a Shakespearean: Truth, Giovani, and Shakespeare,” Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. Cassander Smith, Nicholas Jones and Miles P. Grier (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 226.

About The Author

David Sterling Brown

David Sterling Brown is Associate Professor of English at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, and a member of the Curatorial Team for The Racial Imaginary Institute, founded by...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!