Internal Affairs: White Bodies as Raced and Out of Space in “Post-Racial” Bridgerton
This essay comes from an entry I submitted for a call for papers about Bridgerton that I did not end up using. It’s essentially a first draft badly in need of editing, and I’m posting because people showed interest in what I was writing (it is definitely unfinished).
In June 2021, I submitted an abstract to a Call for Papers [CFP] about the Netflix programme Bridgerton. ‘Call for Papers’ is just academic jargon for submissions from prospective writers to an ad. With the editor liking the abstract (in short, a Race/Whiteness Studies approach to Bridgerton), I wrote an essay discussing some of the examples of whiteness in the Ton.
However, with a lack of interest that summer (June 2021) after the first social season (Christmas 2020), a second CFP was created after the release of season two to garner more interest. In March 2022, I was contacted again and chose to rewrite my essay to cater for my developments in thinking since June 2021. As academics our thinking should always be changing and moving when offered new information and perspectives.
To stay static is not always helpful when there are so many contrasting yet useful and different readings to learn from
So, the essay you are about to read then is the first essay I wrote, not the one I intend to submit. It has been edited slightly in terms of pronouns (and the introduction), but this is largely unchanged from when I wrote it last summer (June 2021). It focuses on season one and it is a basic draft. And to even call it a first draft would be a scandalous statement (so please be kind!).
At Christmas 2020, streaming giant Netflix released their much-anticipated programme Bridgerton which was as celebrated as it was divisive (Tweedy and Pearson-Jones, 2020; Tu, 2020; Ventour, 2021). Yet, in terms of genre storytelling it could labelled as alternative history, as Shaun Armstead further writes, “Indeed, racial and gender formations animating Bridgerton are historical processes preserving white supremacy while simultaneously peddling a historical fantasy” (Armstead, 2021).
The conversations that I have had since 2020 and even prior, further show that white people still — are uncomfortable talking about themselves as white — and that is in-part where this essay’s main title and premise originate. The subtitle revisits a tweet written by scholar Tao Leigh Goffe. It’s also a play on the book chapter by Heidi Safia Mirza from the 2018 collection she co-edited with Jason Arday entitled Dismantling Race in Higher Education.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic that March, forced us to revisit the impact of anti-Blackness, including the screen media texts being produced by establishment broadcasters.
However, seldom have these establishment responses tried to explore whiteness as a master signifier (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000: 20). With numbers of Black people still looking to the state for acceptance (Ventour, 2021b), in Bridgerton we find a programme revolving around Black characters that charts their success in proximity to whiteness. As a period-drama super-fan, I now observe more discourses featuring race in period dramas, but rarely are those conversations about white people, since as we can see already “at a level of representation, […] whites are not of a certain race, they are just the human race” (Dyer, 1997: 3).
So, race = Black / Brown!
Even now nearly two years on after its first outing, I am concerned to see Bridgerton still peddling Black characters obsessed with white people. And with Will Mondrich’s success in boxing, he embodied the time period’s national character (Freedom, 36:04–36:21). Contrasted with the fact that historical Englishness was racialised as white (@EmmaDabiri), nationalist / patriotic discourses of boxing of the early 19th century interrupt ideas of whiteness that still exist today — as British Black and Brown people are still fighting for a British identity no questions asked (Hirsch, 2017; Goodfellow, 2019; Riz Ahmed, 2020).
In short then, this chapter originates from somebody who wants to write what he would like to see more of in film and TV criticism, including how storytelling can still write Black people as props of white supremacy.
Yet, while in Bridgerton there are two direct references to race and coloniality (in: ‘Art of the Swoon’ and ‘Oceans Apart’), the showrunners continue with the ‘fantasy’. Lady Danbury’s conversation with Simon about the Queen’s marriage to George III implicates Bridgerton into a colour-conscious society, while Lord Featherington’s conversation with Will Mondrich makes reference to Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. This was a colonial military unit of formerly enslaved Black Americans who fought for Britain during America’s War of Independence. This running adjacent to the ‘inclusion’ of Black characters into white spaces as signifiers of progress, brings me to consider the damaging nature of the Black excellence narrative being synonymous with Black proximities to ‘aspirational’ (white) wealth in the Global North.
As radical psychologist Guialine Kinouani writes
“Black excellence is linked to the idea of transcendence … [it] is of course exclusionary and arguably reproduces materialistic takes on what success looks like. It fundamentally centres whiteness as the kid to impress” (Kinouani, 2021: 162).
The White Wo/man’s Burden
For many Black people who live in ‘white nations’ (Hage, 1998; Hunter, 2010), the experience of being confused with a Black friend and / or colleague by a white person is a commonality (Nathloo, 2021). Two summers ago in June 2020, British MP Florence Eshalomi said she had been twice mistaken for other Black colleagues in the House of Commons (BBC, 2020), whilst British barrister Alexandra Wilson was also victim in a case of mistaken identity — for a Black defendant in court (Mohdin, 2020). Furthermore, in January 2020 the BBC confused basketball players LeBron James and Kobe Bryant (Andersson, 2020) while soon after, the broadcaster then confused Black MPs Marsha de Cordova and Dawn Butler (Ng, 2020).
All this said, I was amused when I saw viewers confusing the three white male Bridgerton brothers during the first season of the Netflix programme (@MrT_Miah; @BeccaPhin; @meghannirl). In Power, Politics and the Emotions, Shona Hunter describes whiteness as “… the ethos of the impulse to govern … it is not just … whiteness is sameness. It is the generalizing universalizing impulse … to have power over live, the ultimate controlling impulse” (Hunter, 2015: 12). Juxtaposed to the ‘real world’, the tables have been turned — and through white gazes, Black people can be mistaken for others of the same race, in this “myth of sameness” (hooks, 1992: 167) permeating the white male Bridgerton leads:
“Ok I’m sorry all these white men look the same. Took me forever to realize there was more than one Bridgerton son” (@InaDash).
“the bridgerton brothers look alike because they are all white men with brown hair and every white man with brown hair looks the same” (@jazzrchy)
“In personal news, I might be racist against my own people because I definitely combined the two older brothers in Bridgerton into one dude. All brunette white men look the same?” (@dogfanhan)
The assertions of Shona Hunter and bell hooks are as relevant now in the 2020s as they are in the 1810s when Bridgerton is set — since by the Regency era, notably still in the days of colonial enslavement, whiteness was on the ascendancy in a world of global colonialism and empire-building. For the Bridgerton men who won the lottery of privilege in being white, male, cisgender — and straight (mostly sort of) — we see Anthony reanimating Enlightenment ideas of ‘perfect bodies’ with whiteness almost depicted as a ‘posthuman’ moment. As one author writes:
“There is an undeclared white masculine body underlying the universal construction of the enlightenment ‘individual’. Critics of the universal ideal human type in Western thought elaborate on the exclusionary somebody in the nobody of political theory that proclaims to include everybody. In the face of a determined effort to disavow the (male) body, critics have insisted that the ‘individual’ is embodied, and that it is the white male figure, of a changing habitus, who is actually taken as the central point of reference. The successive unveiling of the disembodied human ‘individual’ by class theorists, feminists and race theorists has collectively revealed the corporeal specificity of the absolute human type. It is against this template, one that is defined in opposition to women and non-whites — after all, these are the relational terms in which masculinity and whiteness are constituted — that women and ‘black’ people who enter these spaces are measured” (Puwar, 2004: 141).
Anthony plays his role as the ‘reasonable and pragmatic’ ‘protector’, ‘almost too well. It’s shown through season one in his relationship with his sister Daphne “defending” her ‘innocence’ from potential suitors — very much performing his masculinity as a “healthy”, able-bodied white man in the spirit of the British Empire (Dyer, 1997: 145–183). In ‘Diamond of the First Water’, he acts as her chaperone hesitant to “allow” her to socialise with any potential suitors. Through his positionality as a white man and the head of his family with his father dead, we see how Daphne experiences the moral patriarchy via the guiding white hand of her brother: “the ultimate controlling impulse” (Hunter, 2015: 12) protected by the figurative muscles of white men.
When his mother Violet criticises his affair with opera singer Siena Rosso, it is hard to ignore that in the hierarchy of whiteness the so-called ‘subordinate’ (Violet) holds power over her son interrupting the (white) patriarchal social order. She says that he must choose between being Daphne’s brother and the head of their household further showing how Bridgerton’s women are viewed through what film scholar Laura Mulvey termed as the ‘Male Gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975). Whilst his positionality is not central to this scenario, under a white supremacist system white women are still viewed to be protected — always.
DarkSkyLady further writes:
“… this sensitivity to the feelings and emotions of white women. As BIPOC we, despite our best efforts, occasionally fall victim to that misheld belief that white women are more sensitive and fragile. Even worse, we sometimes try to rationalize our actions and behaviors so that we don’t have to reflect on the fact that we are furthering this belief that white women must be coddled. Or, we sacrifice a BIPOC to protect or “shield” a white woman” (DarkSkyLady, 2019).
Via the showrunners, the Netflix programme continues to perform hypermasculinity in its presentation of boxing as a ‘macho’ capitalist endeavour. In Will taking part in this sport, we not only see Black men subjugated under the whiteness of ‘racial capitalism’ (Rodney, 1976; Leong, 2012), but we further see ‘white-male mediocrity’ struggling to maintain the pace of Black men in the ring. For instance, in ‘Shock and Delight’, on finding out Simon the Duke of Hastings is “courting” Daphne, Anthony spars with him and loses in comical fashion.
Moreover, Bridgerton does not come with a lack of scenes encompassed by half-naked (Black) male bodies. On the surface, viewers may label this as storytelling through the (heteronormative) feminine and (let’s be honest) white gaze of (Black) male bodies. However, I would take this further to say it acts as a mirror to our society where especially Black bodies, talent and success are fetishised in the white gaze of the western world. As in a British context, music continues to comment on how whiteness fetishises Blackness:
“Black is so confusin’, ’cause the culture? They’re in love with it
They take our features when they want and have their fun with it
Never seem to help with all the things we know would come with it” (Dave, 2019)
While Dave’s anthem ‘Black’ from his 2019 album Psychodrama aptly describes this experience, there is more writing which also previously talked about how whiteness devours Blackness via cultural appropriation (as an example) and ‘reinvents’ historically Black expressions with a white face (i.e rock n roll music). In her 1992 essay ‘Eating the Other’ the late activist-scholar bell hooks describes how:
“The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, 1992: 367).
Dave contrasted with bell hooks reminds me how whiteness continues to “Eat the Other.” Thinking about boxing, our bodies in Bridgerton and Britain’s “alternative” nineteenth century racialises the aggression of Black men while presenting Black men as an embodiment of the British national character (via Bill Richmond/Will Mondrich). White capitalists then profited from the skills of Black men in the ring while also presenting white men as inherrently ‘reasonable’ and ‘common sense’. Today, we see stereotypes of violent angry Black men regurgitated by mass media — an additive to the stereotypes of Black men (like hypersexuality) being reproduced as well.
As scholar Renée Landell further tweeted:
The presentation of half-naked Black male bodies has implications beyond the screen where Black men are still presented as aggressive, violent, and / or hypersexual in the white gaze. For Black men to fight white men has racialised connotations, but to do so while semi-naked brings with it, the sexualisation of Black male bodies through whiteness. A further reminder of the fetishisation Black men experience in white minds where until the 1980s, as Richard Dyer writes
“… it was rare to see a white man semi-naked in popular fictions … In the Western, the plantation drama and the jungle adventure film, the non-white body is routinely on display” (p146).
And nearly for the most part, the Netflix show also plays into this trope with white men nearly always clothed (from my perception), their Black counterparts less so. However, in “popular fictions” via iterations of jungle adventure films such as Tarzan, especially, we see a “champion/built body and a colonial setting — set terms for looking at the naked white male body” (ibid). Here, I argue if depictions of Black men on screen have moved on from the 1980s. In Bridgerton (at least season one), Black men appear to be a fetish for white families. A literal nakedness through white gazes in some aspects, but also a figurative nakedness — where through both the white masculine and white feminine, characters like Simon and Will are exposed and vulnerable — especially Simon in the eyes of the Ton’s many white women.
Discussing late Georgian boxer Bill Richmond, historian David Olusoga states
“the world of prize fighting, of bare-knuckle boxing, was special to the British in a way no other sport was — because the fighter was said to be the embodiment of the national characteristics of bravery, manliness and resilience. All the things the British liked to believe made them who they were” (Freedom, 36:04–36:21).
This was underpinned by the racialisation of Englishness:
Mondrich navigating a colour-conscious society as a Black boxer embodying the national characteristic interrupts racial formations of “localness” being white (Nassy Brown, 2006: 5). Thinking about pugilism as symbolic of the nation and as a macro material cultural whitening, the roles of Will Mondrich and Bill Richmond still apply today where British Black and Brown people are pushed to the margins of Britishness since our belonging is always scrutinised “… every single day, often multiple times” (Hirsch, 2017: 33).
Rereading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 2020, I recall thinking how white women were not simply innocent bystanders in histories of racism in the Global North, but were a vital part of its maintenance (Ware, 1992; Schuller, 2021). The character Mayella Ewell still resonates for me today in conversations about racist caricatures, seen more recently in iterations like ‘Karen’ and ‘Becky’. The racial politics of Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson reflect today’s narratives of white women calling the police on innocent Black civilians, and complaining about Black people enjoying the countryside (Dosani, 2021). The interesting thing about Ewell is how her gender identity is tethered to an existence in need of protection, where no such protection would be allotted to Black women (or Black people in general actually).
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white girl Mayella Ewell. On the say-so of this white girl, this Black man finds himself subject to America’s penal system.
Today, Black children are adultified (Dancy III, 2014; Epstein and Colleagues, 2017), so it is logical to consider adultification’s historical precedent. In the days of enslavement, Black women and girls were routinely raped by white men (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 4; Jones-Rogers, 2019: 153) — and connotations of vulnerability have seldom been linked to Black people in the Global North, but cisgender white women continue to be positioned as victims (Phipps, 2021). No less than while being active contributors in white supremacy weaponising their emotions (@notwildin Tik Tok), with white women as
“… the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing. White people … as terrorists, especially those who dared to enter that segregated space of blackness” (hooks, 1992: 170).
Daphne is a prime example. Towards the end of ‘Swish’, she sexually assaults Simon. However, if we apply his experience to present-day legal terminology, his experience would not be defined as rape. It would only go as far as being described as ‘sexual assault’ because rape must include penetration of the penis (as per the Sexual Offences Act 2003). Whilst theoretically it would carry the same jail sentence as rape if convicted, it would not be termed as rape. With white womanhood constructed as “in-need of protecting”, would Simon’s experience even be considered in a nineteenth century context?
Throughout season one, Simon states quite emphatically he does not want children, only for Daphne to prevent him from “pulling out” during a sexual encounter. Furthermore, in said encounter he tells her to “wait” and in book one The Duke and I, admittedly in which Simon’s race is unmentioned (presumably then written as white), author Julia Quinn writes
“… Daphne felt the strangest, most intoxicating surge of power. He was in her control, she realized. He was asleep, and probably still more than a little bit drunk, and she could do whatever she wanted with him” (p285).
While in the book, he tells her he left her after this because he hated his own failings, the show emphasises that he’s angry about the assault. There are nods throughout the programme that acknowledge the society as raced, and for a white woman to sexually assault a Black man, comes with different sorts of social powers (Schifano, 2021) as an afterthought of the encounters between the white planter-class and enslaved Black people. Often, we read about the frequency in which white men raped enslaved Black women in the plantation society (Andrews, 2019: 187), and we also see it in screen media texts (McQueen, 2013; Levy and Williams, 2019). Yet we hear little about planter-class white women that sexually assaulted enslaved Black men.
In her autobiography detailing her experience of enslavement in the American South, Harriet Jacobs tell us:
“They know that the women slaves are subject to their father’s authority in all things; and in some cases they exercise the same authority over the men slaves. I have myself seen the master of such a household whose head was bowed down in shame; for it was known in the neighborhood that his daughter had selected one of the meanest slaves on his plantation to be the father of his first grandchild. She did not make her advances to her equals, nor even to her father’s more intelligent servants. She selected the most brutalized, over whom her authority could be exercised with less fear of exposure. Her father, half frantic with rage, sought to revenge himself on the offending black man; but his daughter, foreseeing the storm that would arise, had given him free papers, and sent him out of the state” (Jacobs, 1861: 57–58).
Though lesser talked about in discourses to enslavement, if white women can own enslaved Black people, why wouldn’t they have committed horrific acts of sexual assault on them too? With the social powers in play in the plantation society, the emotional abuse would suffice. What enslaved Black man would dare say no to the daughter of their master? What lies could she fabricate? Black men have been killed for less.
In relation to Bridgerton, Daphne like many women her age , has no idea about sex or consent because they are not taught it until marriage. However, in her ignorance and a possible “violent mistake”, we revisit the colonial binaries of “white terror” (hooks, 1992: 170) further to Daphne acting like a victim centring herself. Here, the writers shift perspective from Black pain to weaponised white emotions to silence Black trauma. Through her tears afterward, she embodies the violence that often comes with ‘white defense’ (Awesomely Luvvie, 2018; Hamad, 2019) reiterating that encounters between white and Black people are never equal, including the policing of Black pain and expression (Chawla in @ZohrinM) as “…whiteness ascends as the cultural manifestation of governmental power through a delusional fantasy structure enacted through paranoid forms of belonging via feelings of persecution, jealousy and exaggerated self-importance” (Hunter, 2015: 180).
Birds of a Featherington
It is very easy to pick on Daphne, but she is by no means the only perpetrator of “white terrorism” on Bridgerton’s Black characters. In Lady Danbury’s acknowledgement of a colour-conscious society, I then saw how Lady Featherington’s treatment of Marina Thompson thus has a racialised interpretation. In the context of adultification (Black children being treated as more adult-like than their white counterparts), one could argue Lady Feathering in fact ‘adultifies’ Marina.
When Marina is introduced to us viewers in the pilot episode, she is the most desired debutante. Later, finding out she has arrived in London pregnant, Lady Featherington seeks to marry her off quickly. In Thompson’s encounters with her, it is intriguing to note how despite the stigma against pregnant single mothers in the 1800s, there is the added ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw, 1989) of being pregnant while Black to consider. As in that same period (at least in the US), enslaved Black women that had recently given birth were pressured to breastfeed the babies of their mistress, much to the harm of their own children (Golden, 1996; Knight and West, 2017; Kirti, 2020).
Meanwhile, in Britain today, Black women are up to four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts (Knight and Colleagues, 2021: i). The revelation of Marina’s pregnancy brings Lady Featherington to treat Marina like she is a guilty not taking her pain seriously. In ‘Shock and Delight’ she calls Marina’s condition “catching” which implies she thinks her pregnancy is contagious. Then, Lady Featherington cuts her off from her daughters, more specifically Penelope, who Marina had befriended and leaned on for emotional support. It’s possible to argue that Lady Featherington’s actions are a direct risk to Marina’s baby, especially considering how stress, loneliness, and mental ill-health impact the immune system. Today, this biological weathering. Bridgerton takes place in a colour-conscious society, so what is it like for Marina to be pregnant while Black in the 19th century with a guardian that’s ambivalent to her wellbeing?
Taking her to one of London’s poorer areas, Lady Featherington tries to threaten Marina with the ‘realities’ of being a single mother:
“LF: … I wanted you to see your future first-hand should you refuse to follow my instructions … This is what your life will be if you do not agree to be married.”
MT: “You must have me mistaken for one of your soft-handed daughters, ma’am. It is terribly presumptuous of you to think that a visit to this neighbourhood full of good, hardworking people who happen to be less fortunate than yourself would ever sway me to change my mind”
(Art of the Swoon, 28:56–29:22).
Here, a white woman threatens and attempts to demote a Black girl. We must also recognise that because white womanhood and thus white femininity are seen to be in constant need of protection ,the Featherington daughters are never in danger of this. Marina is their distant cousin, and she arrives in London as a stranger. In a show lauded for its diversity, Black characters are treated as the objects of white people culminating in Marina having to ‘prove herself’ by belittling another Black woman (Madame Delacroix).
“Madame Delacroix, that reminds me. You have such a unique accent, and yet I have never asked where in France you’re from. My mother was French, you see, and I am not fooled by your little act. I would hate for the other ladies of the Ton to learn they have been taken in as well. I believe Madame Delacroix will be somewhat more amenable to our requests now, Lady Featherington. Très bon?” (Swish, 20:34–21:00)
Marina’s behaviour towards the seamstress comes to the mutual benefit of her and her white guardian and thus the white family. It’s in proximity to the elevation of her white family that’s important. At this point, Marina is set to marry Colin Bridgerton. In this “alternative” Britain, appearance means everything, even if its fake. Madame Delacroix’s accent is as fake as the social hierarchies themselves. Her customers are attracted to her accent, representing ‘exoticism’ where race/culture “becomes spice” (hooks, 1992: 367) and a signifier of difference. The fact she is Black (played by Katherine Drysdale) may further bring connotations of ‘exoticism’ under the global colonial whiteness Bridgerton is situated in. This further implicates ‘misogynoir’ (Bailey, 2010) and the specific experiences Black women experience across society under white supremacy.
In reality, these connotations of ‘exoticism’ find themselves reproduced in our world where Black women continue to be fetishised and exoticised under a racist system (Banks, 2000; Dabiri, 2019). A further embodiment of how Black people are treated in white nations — countries “… whose self-understanding, collective symbolic and affective practices, as well as material relations, are enacted through the naturalisation of whiteness via processes of external … and internal … colonisation of Black subjects (Hunter, 2015b).
Characters like Marina wander through this “alternative” Britain that still embodies the white nation we see in real life. Reliant on the guiding white hand of Lady Featherington for comfort and safety, the person that was supposed to care for her is also the person that treats her worse. I question if one of the Featherington daughters had fallen pregnant under the same circumstances, would Lady Featherington have been so nasty? And linked with Lady Danbury’s monologue to Simon in ‘An Affair with Honour’ we revisit a show that is colour consciousness even if it does not always say.
Lady Danbury says:
“I understand that you believe such subjects as love and devotion, affection and attachment, you find it all trite and frivolous. But have you any idea those very things are precisely what have allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society? Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your grace, conquers all.” (20:22–21:03).
This viewer believes that Lady Danbury’s speech is a weak attempt at addressing race. Using the concept of interracial marriage, she really claims that for Black people to be taken seriously, centering white emotions and feelings was required. A deeply problematic venture that today’s anti-racist discourse is trying to move away from. Though, Diversity & Inclusion [D&I] still revisits suspect ideas of ‘integration’ as the only way for marginalised people to succeed (more bodies included into our institutions, but ultimately left to fend for themselves once we’re “allowed in”), D&I thus has become the neoliberal face of white supremacy.
And though Queen Charlotte (a Black woman) is represented as the authority in Bridgerton, she still had to be in proximity to her husband George III (a white man) to be taken seriously. She has power but evidently with qualifiers attached. As one scholar states, in society’s “… prioritisation of white ways of thinking and acting … Black people … are forced to adopt white ways of thinking and behaving … to succeed …” (Tom Nicholas, 2020).
In that idea of ‘fitting in’, viewers are subjected to a view of Blackness through the white gaze with most of the so-called ‘diversity’ pandering to Eurocentricism. Further to dark-skinned Black women treated like furniture in the background, the Netflix show only bolsters the pervasive narrative of colourism in media with almost all of the Black cast members being light-skinned. Will Mondrich aside, there were no dark-skinned Black characters and dark-skinned women were left as extras on the edge of this picture frame.
Here, I question if Bridgerton can be celebrated for its diversity when it does not cater for the breadth of skin tones that exist amongst Black people of African descent. Bridgerton reaffirms the destructive violence of colourism in media. And with Simon tied to Daphne, Charlotte tied to George, and Marina engaged to Philip by the finale, we revisit histories of Black bodies tethered to ‘white masters’ in intimate settings:
“As long as both white master and black slave observed the appropriate rules of address and gestural codes of behavior — etiquette is a code that binds both the dominant and subordinate, after all — then significant social distances could be maintained in the midst of intimate physical proximities. What the example of racial etiquette from antebellum America shows is that “’far more than physical separation, white southerners wanted social distance’” (Sullivan, 2014: 27)
A reading of whiteness in Bridgerton means critics of period dramas must learn to see whiteness and how it operates in not just rooms and settlements that are overwhelmingly white, but also in spaces with a breadth of Black and Brown faces. This means at least contemplating the idea, that the ‘Black excellence’ narrative is rooted in a white metric (Ventour-Griffiths, 2021) asking: ‘in measuring excellence, who are we measuring ourselves against?’
So often, Black History Month campaigns facilitate ‘Black excellence’ as how well we assimilate into capitalist systems stoking profits for patriarchal white institutions.
Bridgerton revisits these colonial binaries of white institutions (families) and Black labour, and the images of a lone ‘Black Messiah’ navigating oppressive white spaces, be it — Queen Charlotte surrounded by all those white debutantes, Lady Danbury playing matchmaker for white families, or even Will Mondrich playing into the white capitalist ventures of Regency boxing.
By learning to see whiteness, we may start to understand how Bridgerton sits adjacent (albeit fiction) to the Black and Brown MPs in the UK government — as the “diversity bunting” of institutional racism (Ash Sakar, 3:20–3:22) further to how our bodies continue to be exploited in our institutions, from high workloads to the emotional labour of equality work. Here then, this also includes how all-white period drama casts also speak to white hierarchies (DuBois, 1935; Orwell, 1937; Roediger, 1991; Ignatiev, 1995; Dyer, 1997; Jacobson, 1998; Lawler, 2005; Nayak, 2007; Painter, 2010; Dabiri, 2021).
Emma Dabiri writes:
“The myth of a unified white ‘race’ makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine kinship and solidarity with others racialized as ‘white’, while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others. The ability of whiteness to create fictive kinships where differences might outweigh similarities, or where one ‘white’ group thrives and prospers through the exploitation of another ‘white’ group, all united under the rubric of whiteness constructs at the same time a zone of exclusion for racialized ‘others’, where in fact less expected affinities and even cultural resonances might reside.
In truth, this is the work of whiteness, whose invention was to serve that very function. Saying that all ‘white’ people are the same irrespective of say, culture, nationality, location, and class literally does the work of whiteness for it. But despite the continuities of whiteness — the sense of superiority that is embedded in its existence — we cannot disregard the differences that exist. This demands a truthful reckoning with the fact that the particulars of whiteness, as well as the nature of the relationship between black and white, will show up differently in different countries and require the crafting of different responses” (p45–46).
Within period drama discourse today, this could show how whiteness operates and moves differently in these screen media texts.
Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) follows David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991), Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995), Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998) and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010) — all of which in some way show how different white groups have modifiers attached when talking about “white people.” This must be discussed interlocking with other factors including culture, place / geography, and class. Through Roediger, Ignatiev, Jacobson, Painter, Dabiri, and other scholars, we can see how whiteness splits and mutates (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000; Chow, 2002; Wiegman, 2012) to serve its purpose of divide and rule, and how white supremacy may also negatively impact against those read as white and ‘not white enough’ in different ways.
From Dickensian stories that represents the working-class as “dirty” (Orwell, 1937) to Jane Austen where the wealthy are represented as “clean” (Dyer, 1997: 76) to even stories such as Wuthering Heights — there is space for interrogations of whiteness when Emily Bronte for example, originally described Heathcliff as a “Gypsy.” Lots of the characters we meet in these texts are white but with qualifiers attached. Through a whiteness lens, we may consider how whiteness differentiates itself based on place, nationality, culture, class etc etc (as per Dabiri’s point) and where “some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of Whiteness” (Nayak, 2007: 738).
Following programmes such as Poldark or even the more mainstream Peaky Blinders, the whiteness of social mobility could be considered. For me, it has been interesting to think about how an interrogation of whiteness in these stories does not always need to include any Black or Brown people. That in some cases, there is a conversation to be had about seeing how whiteness splits. This complicates the myth of ‘white homogenity’. Not in fact dissenting against public knowledge, but simply and uncontroversially adding to it.
Although these notions are known within patriarchal white academia, pertinently in the fields of critical race studies and whiteness studies — hierarchies of whiteness may be controversial to those new to these subjects.
“Well, Make Your Case”
In writing a chapter that has sought to discuss in-part the violence against Black women and girls, I must also acknowledge my own privilege and positionality in this discussion where there are pasts and presents of Black men complicit in misogynoir (Kirabo, 2016). With histories of violence against Black women, the role of Black men in misogynoir should never be overlooked and is something that continues to be glossed over.
Additionally, as a Black person I have had to reckon with the whiteness I hold within me as a privately-educated university-educated poet-historian and writer in the UK. As Black and Brown people engaging in anti-racist work, we must all be critically looking inward to see how we have helped and / or hindered whiteness. To put not too fine a point on it — whiteness is like glitter, it attaches itself to bodies. Just it is simply a matter of volume and proximity!
Recognising one’s own whiteness is only part of the problem, since “declaring whiteness, or even ‘admitting’ to one’s own racism, when the declaration is assumed to be ‘evidence’ of an anti-racist commitment, does not do what it says” (Ahmed, 2007). In Netflix positioning themselves in trying to ‘do diversity’, this author believes in trying so hard to do diversity, they failed to see how diversity can also appear with western bias (Akel, 2019). In period dramas constructed in “… a system that not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit” (Mills, 2004: 31), we must also challenge depictions of homogenous Blacknesses and Brownnesses that seek to pacify the white pallet — where colourism is further underpinned by white gazes of our bodies at multiple sites of violence (Kinouani, 2021: 159).
In conclusion, this show is not about accuracy (look at the costumes … it’s just vibes), however, despite the intent of making a show that is “post-racial” the makers still released a product that has references to a colour-conscious society. So, this implicates the “fictional” society into a social setting that is racialised. But really thinking critically about whiteness in period costume dramas and fandom can be difficult for many of us. Maybe Bridgerton needed to get made as a lesson of what not to do.
With the ever-relevant possibility of centring white privilege and emotions and thus ‘institutional whiteness’ (Ahmed, 2006; 2007; 2012; 2014; Hunter, 2015; 2019; White Spaces) over the pain of Black and Brown people, we continue to experience ‘white terror’ (hooks, 1992: 167–170) in fandom, including white women in the portrait of what I saw social media mage Bianca Hernandez-Knight call “Lady Karen de Bourgh” (@bookhoarding).