The Chafing Dish and the White Man’s Burden in Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park reveals the nature of casual racism in the United States and our need for a comprehensive understanding of it. Like Bev, a white housewife living in the 1950s, we tend to view racism in a rather single-minded way. We recognize that racism exists and, hopefully, we want to stop it, but sometimes we have difficulty applying what we know about racism to real people in our lives. Bev reminds the modern viewer that casual racism is still a problem that we must contend with.

When Bev offers the chafing dish to her black housemaid Francine, she is being racist. Rather than helping Francine, Bev humiliates her, makes assumptions about her, and flaunts her own wealth (a product of white privilege, which is itself a product of institutionalized racism).

To use writer and activist’s Teju Cole’s words, “[a]ll [s]he sees is need, and [s]he sees no need to reason out the need for the need” (Cole). Since Bev and her husband are getting ready to move, it is likely that Bev just wants to get rid of the chafing dish. Considering she doesn’t even know how many children Francine has, it is doubtful that Bev means to give Francine the dish as a sign of friendship or gratitude (97). Her intentions may be pure, but the assumption that Francine would want her trash is concerning. Bev knows that Francine and her husband are poor. What she doesn’t realize, however, is why they are poor.

Cole writes that in order to help victims of discrimination, “there is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them” (Cole). In order to really help Francine and Albert, Bev must be able to comprehend how their situation came about. Institutionalized racism is what prevents Francine and Albert from gaining financial success as Bev knows it. Forcing the family to accept a useless gift is not only a thinly-veiled act of racism, but an insult as well.

Rather than doing something about institutionalized racism, Bev seeks only to “help” individuals, which suggests that she is either unaware of the extent of the problem or unwilling to take meaningful steps toward change. This proves Bev’s ignorance as well as her reluctance to let go of her position of white power. Instead, Bev makes herself believe that she is helping a family in need and that she is therefore not a racist. This is reminiscent of some of the sentiments explored in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” in which imperialism and colonialism are practically regarded as righteous.

Bev is more concerned about not seeming racist than she is about not being racist. The fact that none of this ever crosses her mind shows just how deeply rooted institutionalized racism was (and is) in American society. Albert is very cordial until he realizes that Bev doesn’t understand the implications of her own actions. Even then, he is apologetic, pleading, “Ma’am, we don’t want your things. Please. We got our own things” (96). When Bev seeks to selfishly gratify her own desire to be a good Samaritan, she places more value on her reputation than she does on Francine and Albert’s livelihood and well-being. She even remarks, “that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place?” (10). Bev is clearly more concerned about maintaining her place than helping others to an attain an equal one. This insidious form of racism is so steeped into her social consciousness that she is completely ignorant of the fact that she is a racist.

“The white man’s burden” serves only to perpetuate racism and to gratify misguided white egos. Because of this, it creates the illusion of white concern for black people while maintaining a racial hierarchy. Even black speech and expression are limited. Cole writes,

“There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say ‘racist’ … One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative.” (Cole)

When we police language, we restrict power and agency. Bev does this too, when she laments, “Well if that’s the attitude, then I just don’t know what to say anymore. I really don’t. If that’s what we’re coming to” (96). Bev suggests that Albert is being disrespectful, though, in truth, she disrespects his rights as an equal when she checks his language and tone. Bev imposes her power as a white woman onto Albert when she blames him for creating a problem.

To stop this kind of behavior, Cole suggests, “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement” (Cole). Bev interferes without diligence. She doesn’t know Francine or Albert as well as she puts on, she ignores their humanity, and she stifles their ideas, all while feigning care and concern. She even goes so far as to trick herself. She pretends, “Maybe we should learn what the other person eats. Maybe that would be the solution to some of the – If someday we could all sit down together, at one big table and, and, and, and…” (97). Clearly Bev has no intention of doing learning what the other person eats.” She can’t even bring herself to address racism in explicit words. Whether she knows it or not, she is so ensconced in the racist system that she cannot even see it. Though Clybourne Park addresses many problems with race, the most insidious is the kind that manifests itself in Bev: the “white savior” who inadvertently slows the process of change because of her own righteous indignance.

Works Cited:

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. 12 March 2012. The Atlantic. Web.

Kippling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” 1889. Online.

Norris, Bruce. Clybourne Park. New York: Faber & Faber Inc. Print.

Pledged, IJS

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