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Got Vampire Privilege Part 2: White Privilege

August 18, 2009

One of the most prevalent and enduring privileges in the real world, white privilege, also exists in the Twilight world. Much like in the real world, such privilege is not recognized but serves as an unexamined and desirable norm. As one of the most famous essays examining privilege, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh, argues whiteness works as a hidden system of advantage in our world. Yet, as McIntosh notes, the majority of whites do not recognize the unearned privilege their whiteness confers upon them. As she explains:

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege…. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.…whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us.’

For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”

In the Twilight series, the Cullen’s definitely carry what McIntosh refers to as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks,” not to mention supernatural powers (which are, interestingly, predicated on their ultra white skin).

Yet, Meyer does not represent their privilege as problematic, but as desirable; the books do not question or critique such privilege (and the requisite oppression it is built upon), but champion it.

What messages does such an under-examined representation of whiteness give to the largely young female fan base? Will readers desire a statuesque wealthy white vampire to “save” them from their lives? Do they recognize the dangers inherent in such power and privilege, noticing how it creates vast numbers of people who are seen as less-than? What does it mean that these privileges are so clearly desirable to not only Bella, but to the growing army of female fans of Twilight?

As critical race scholars have argued for decades, white is the unmarked, privileged category associated with purity (as with white weddings and white wedding dresses), with power (as with all US presidents up until now being white, and as with God and Jesus almost always being represented as white), with intelligence, invention, and democracy (as with history books that present whites as a civilizing force and non-whites as savage).

In the Twilight series, the ultra-white Cullen family are associated with benevolence, civility, wealth, heroism, and intelligence. Their desires and aims are represented as good and pure. For example, Carlisle is a selfless doctor, able to channel his hunger for blood into saving human lives. He is concerned for the souls of his vampire family, and functions as a quasi vampire-God in contrast to the power hungry, totalitarian Volturi leaders and the hot-headed alpha wolves. The Cullen’s activities and tastes tend toward those things associated with high culture: they like classical music, appreciate art, value education, like to travel, and have sophisticated fashion and home décor know-how. They partake in all-American pass times such as baseball, TV watching, and board-games, and they are hospitable hosts to all those who venture into their home. Their whiteness is constantly associated with being attractive, and their ultra-pale white skin comes to serve as a marker for classic, desirable beauty. Their power, strength, intelligence, and desirability can be linked to the unearned privileges whites have in our culture to be presumed to be smarter, more capable, more reliable, and more deserving

The Volturi, though not depicted as positively as the Cullen’s, still accord with norms of white privilege – they are, in effect, old world power in contrast to the Cullen’s modern, more democratic power, they are Europe in contrast to the US, monarchs in contrast to shared rule. As Edward tells Bella in New Moon, “The Volturi are a family…A very old, very powerful family of our kind. They are the closest thing our world has to a royal family, I suppose.” Later, in Breaking Dawn, Edward tells Bella “The Volturi aren’t supposed to be the villains, the way they seem to you. They are the foundation of our peace and civilization. Each member of the guard chooses to serve them. It’s quite prestigious; they all are proud to be there, not forced to be there…They’re only alleged to be heinous and evil by the criminals, Bella.” Here, calling them the “foundation of our peace and civilization,” Edward frames the Volturi’s power as necessary to maintain order. In so doing, Edward depicts them very much in keeping with white colonizers of the past who justified their conquest of the globe as necessary and framed their control over other cultures as a “civilizing force.” In contrast to the wolves, for example, the Volturi come off as the civilized if overly power hungry tyrants, while the wolves come across as hot-headed and stubborn animals. No doubt they are the villains of the series, but their villainy is predicated on the power they hold as white vampires.

So, why then, is this depiction of whiteness seductive to readers?

I think on the one hand many readers do not consider the whiteness of the vampires nor read them as problematically privileged. This is not surprising given that the texts themselves do not encourage readers to do so. Rather, the books romanticize “vampire privilege,” making it irresistible to not only Bella, but to readers as well. Who wouldn’t want to be beautiful, strong, smart, capable, rich, to be part of the ‘perfect family’ or one half of a ‘perfect couple’? Like so many texts before it, the series let’s white privilege stand, depicting it as enviable and advantageous.

On the other hand, white privilege also becomes a sort of disadvantage in the text, allowing the vampires to become an oppressed group and encouraging reader identification with the ‘underdog.’ They become, in effect, the irreducible Others, the group that does not ‘fit’ into society and suffers various oppressions due to this. This twist reminds me of students who bemoan their whiteness, saying it is not so much a privilege but a curse, claiming “everyone assumes I’m rich” or “I’m expected to be smart.” This ‘burden’ of whiteness rarely leads to dehumanizing speculations, though. Rather, as with Edward, whiteness more often leads to assumptions about how one’s supposed attractiveness or wealth make one conceited or ‘above it all’ (as Jessica indicates about Edward in Twilight when she claims none of the Forks High School females are good enough for him…). This type of assumption is far different than those commonly inferred about non-white males (the term “driving while black” speaks to this in its indication that one is always already suspect of breaking the law). In the text, Jacob is Edward’s non-white-privileged counterpart that, as the text confirms, is worthy of suspicion…

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