Date of Award

8-13-2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Patricia Davis

Second Advisor

Tim Barouch

Third Advisor

James Darsey

Fourth Advisor

Mary E. Stuckey

Abstract

A prominent aspect of whiteness has always been and continues to be a matter of White people’s comfort and discomfort. Feelings associated with whiteness are indicative of its ideology that work to preserve whiteness, in part, by being ignorant and dismissive of its very existence and power. I argue that (dis)comfort is so central to the ideology of whiteness, so much a part of its history, that it is intuitive to whiteness. It’s not fear or hate that dominates whiteness’s reactions. Rather, the (dis)comfort is visceral as the moderate White person is consumed with attending to their comfort surrounding racial issues. Attention to the visceral nature of whiteness transcends time and cultural movements, has been used to challenge whiteness’s hegemonic structures, and is ubiquitous in past and contemporary rhetoric about race in the U.S. This dissertation takes the dynamic of White (dis)comfort—evident throughout American history, media, and popular culture—as the starting point for an examination of whiteness. Specifically, I examine the ways the U.S. remembers its racial history through popular narratives within film and theatre. This project drops in on three key moments of American history: Hamilton: An American Musical for the founding era; 12 Years a Slave for the Civil War era; and The Help for the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. The texts are read as the contemporary culture’s projections of race and history, which reveal present day concerns, issues, and anxieties. From a working understanding of public memory, I emphasize its role in determining conceptions about history and how examining the visceral nature of whiteness illuminates its ideology. This project locates whiteness and critiques narratives within the so-called “post-racial” era about America’s racial past, thereby better understanding the present. I combine rhetorical history with whiteness studies and public memory to better understand the complexities of whiteness and its hidden function in American history, politics, and discourse. I conclude by articulating whiteness’s relation to White people and antiracism. I also suggest future implications and call for an expansion of critiquing and theorizing whiteness in rhetorical studies.

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