Maurice Yacowar is right that The Sopranos "bears the critical analysis routinely accorded good
literature, drama, and films" (19). Yet critical discussion of the program so far has not considered
its interest in race. This is certainly not for lack of provocation. In almost every episode, Tony Soprano
invents a new epithet for the racial "others" he encounters at work and at home. He curses out an
African-American traffic cop as an "affirmative action cocksucker" (S3E5) and describes his daughter's Black
and Jewish boyfriend as a "Hasidic homeboy." Nor is Tony's "racist
retrograde fucking asshole personality," to quote his daughter Meadow (S3E4), an anomaly in the series.
Tony's description of the police officer, in particular, reiterates sentiments about affirmative action and
racial equality that circulate in the Soprano household during Meadow's process of applying to college, which
plays out during the entire second season of the series. One of the more memorable moments in that season is
the scene in which Carmella Soprano offers Joan Cusamano, Secretary of the Georgetown
University Alumni Association,
a ricotta pie with pineapples in return for a letter of recommendation for Meadow. Neither Joan's refusal to
be threatened nor the fact that she has already written a letter for a "wonderful young Dominican boy from
the projects" (S2E8) holds any sway with Carmella Soprano, who goes so far as to
suggest a viable lie about the
boy in the interest of promoting her daughter. Although books and
articles about the series have engaged claims, like those of Camille Paglia, that the show stereotypes
Italian-Americans, there has been little effort to endow the construction of racial and ethnic difference in
The Sopranos with the same degree of complexity accorded its treatment of gangster cinema,
psychoanalysis, or gender. Tony's reactions to figures like the
African-American police officer are far from simple. In light of his wealth and connections to highly placed
civic officials, the irony of Tony's claims about victimization and his use of affirmative action as a term
to ground that victimization speak to the way in which he negotiates his status as both a privileged white
subject and an ethnic victim. Scenes like this establish a subtext that runs throughout the series, engaging
cultural anxieties about the representation of whiteness in a way that helps account for the show's
A common assumption in "whiteness studies" is that in Western culture, those designated or able to pass as
white experience whiteness as an unacknowledged system of privileges whose operation is difficult to
recognize since whiteness appears, to them, as an "empty" cultural category. Hence to analyze the emergence
and functioning of whiteness is to engage in a form of anti-racist practice.
Recently, however, interventions in this field have taken aim at the notion that whiteness has
ever been invisible, even to whites. In turn, some proponents of whiteness studies have begun to
doubt their initial assumption that heightening white racial consciousness might help end racism.
Ruth Frankenburg and Mike Hill have been careful to register their own changing and conflicted relationship with
the subject they helped popularize. In "The Mirage of Unmarked Whiteness" (2001), Frankenburg challenges the idea that
she had advanced--that whiteness is invisible--by arguing that "the more one
scrutinizes it . . . the more the notion of whiteness as an unmarked norm is revealed to be a mirage or indeed, to put it
even more strongly, a white delusion" (73). According to Frankenburg, despite the prevailing opinion of most theorists
of whiteness, white racial consciousness has actually been on the rise for some time in the United States owing to
affirmative action and the challenges put to it in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Moreover, this new racial awareness denies
a facile correlation between racial self-consciousness and anti-racist sentiment among white subjects. Analyzing
interviews with whites from across the United States, Frankenburg finds that most interviewees, regardless of class or
location, tend to see whiteness not as a system of privilege but of victimization. Her conclusion is that many
whites now exhibit a more complex and contradictory understanding of whiteness than even its theorists tend to admit:
On one level white people were more conscious of themselves as white and more conscious of themselves as
living and acting in a racialized world. But in these interviews, race consciousness did not
correlate with antiracism. Rather, what I witnessed as I listened to these accounts was neither race
cognizance nor color- and power-evasiveness, but rather a hybrid of the two, that which one might name
"power-evasive race cognizance." . . . It is now possible to make two claims simultaneously. One
is that African Americans and Latinos do not need the "handouts" of affirmative action because they are
perfectly capable of achieving without help. The second is that when African Americans and Latinos do
succeed alongside whites, this is not because of their own efforts and talents, but rather because of unfair
- Frankenburg's observations lend weight to Hill's recent analysis of the romanticized "white
minority" that has come to obsess both the popular and academic imagination. Hill introduces his After Whiteness: Unmaking an American
Majority, with an account of a trip to a 2002 conference of the American Renaissance--a group devoted
to preserving the white race on the verge of its supposed collapse into minority status. Hill makes
discomfiting comparisons between the "memory of whiteness" sought by this overtly racist group and the first
popular surge of whiteness studies in the late 1990s, in which "particularizing whiteness as a normative
historical fiction, combined with an under-interrogated desire to see that race on the margins, carried good
professional and even political currency" (3). According to Hill, the study of whiteness will never be able
to surmount the politically disturbing contradictions in which it is rooted and which, in its more naïve
forms, it pins exclusively on mass culture (8). For that reason, the most responsible form of whiteness
studies in Hill's view is that which examines "how the white majority's imagined move into the past is
coordinated with its thoroughly agitated status in the present" (8). This amounts to a study of
"after-whiteness," which focuses not on the invisibility or unrepresentability of whiteness as such,
but on the "various forms of misrecognition that now accompany the act of racial self-regard" (12).
In this essay I argue that The Sopranos interrogates the problem of white racial
consciousness in keeping with the "after whiteness" theses developed by Frankenburg and Hill. Frankenburg's
notion of power-evasive race cognizance helps name and diagnose Tony and Carmella's reactions to the
African-American traffic cop and to Joan Cusamano. Their reactions recur in various forms throughout the
series and help ground its portrayal of whiteness as an American fantasy whose psychological hold over the
imagination depends on what Hill calls its "absent presence." Through its
complex treatment of Italian-American identity, The Sopranos simultaneously mourns and
celebrates the advent of a lost white majority in the United States. In this it supports the claims of
Valerie Babb and Matthew Frye Jacobson that television plays a foundational role in establishing whiteness as
an American norm (Babb 44), but with an important qualification. Where an earlier program like
Dragnet served to authorize the mainstream equation of "Caucasian" and "white" (Jacobson 97), in
The Sopranos whiteness is a tool that profits a criminal if not entirely oppositional take on
the American Way. The vehicle for this presentation is the show's central protagonist, Tony Soprano, a
character who is both deeply invested in, and in deep denial about, his status as a white male subject.
Tony's recurring panic attacks represent the racial anxiety which, in Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks's Lacanian
analysis, arises as the byproduct of the desire for whiteness in contemporary American culture. The promise
held out by the show in the form of Tony's on-again off-again therapy is that this anxiety can somehow be
"cured"--a promise whose gradual tarnishing over the first five seasons of the series reflects the fading
faith of those who have grown dubious about the political and theoretical goals of whiteness studies.
Talking to the Wrong White Man
- In an interview for the DVD box set of The Sopranos Season One, director and creator
David Chase attributes the uniqueness and appeal of the series to the fact that it tackles the domestic
issues and psychological problems attached to being a crime boss. While the germ of the series, according to
Chase, was the image of a mob boss undergoing psychoanalysis (a concept picked up the same year, apparently
coincidentally, by the film Analyze This), the form of the show stemmed from Chase's notion
that the domestic life of the gangster was the only territory left for exploration at this point in
the history of the genre. Whether or not Chase is correct about the show's appeal, it is certainly the case
that promotion of The Sopranos has consistently foregrounded Tony's divided loyalties to family
and business, from the series' tag-line, "If one family doesn't get him, the other will," to the title of
S5E1, "The Two Tonys." Meanwhile, through numerous twists and turns in
the series' narrative (and the killing of major characters at regular intervals), Tony's psychotherapy has
remained the primary vehicle through which his divided loyalties come to light. In S1E7, Tony's analyst,
Jennifer Melfi, reads Tony's frequent and debilitating panic attacks as evidence that he is afraid of losing
his family. Despite sometimes violent reactions from her patient, Jennifer repeatedly identifies Tony's
desire to protect his family as the overriding, and paradoxical, motivation for his dangerous business
By foregrounding Tony's divided self and loyalties, The Sopranos calls attention to what
Pellegrino D'Acierno calls the "double bind" of Italian-American identity. According to D'Acierno,
Italian-American subjectivity is conventionally portrayed as split between a weak, "good" family and a
strong, "bad" family, each defined through its relationship to the American Dream. The good family betrays
itself and is left powerless by its assimilation to American culture and ideals, while the bad family
prospers by interpreting the American Dream through organized crime. That these two families cannot be
represented without each other is key to the dominant mythic narration of American culture. Accordingly, the
most powerful examples of Italian-American cinema revise this mythic narrative, often by challenging the
conventions of the gangster film as a cultural blueprint for Italian-American ethnicity. In D'Acierno's view,
Francis Coppola's The Godfather trilogy disturbs the majoritarian framework through which
Italian-American identity is constructed, creating hero-figures distanced from the audience by their obvious
ethnicity. Even more powerfully, Martin Scorsese's work occupies what D'Acierno calls "the strict position of
the ethnic cinema: the cinema of 'divided consciousness' in which the 'cursed part'--the secret wound of
ethnicity--is displayed" (567). In films like Mean Streets, GoodFellas, and
Casino, this wound of ethnicity is expressed through the destruction of the patriarchal order
that grounds the mythic place of the strong Italian family. Where Coppola remains committed to a "cinema of
fathers," Scorsese's films construct a "cinema of sons" in which the family is dissolved by the brutalities
of ghetto life. Here authentic father figures come to be replaced by local mob bosses or weak godfathers who
cannot provide the centering influence of a Don Corleone. By challenging the mythic narration that defines
Italian-American identity, Scorsese's films create an ethnic cinema which forces its audience to enter
directly into the ruined lifeworld and language of its lost children.
The indebtedness of The Sopranos to the work of Coppola and especially of Scorsese has
received ample critical attention. Much scholarly celebration of the show as an icon of postmodernism hinges
on its nostalgic engagement with previous gangster films. But beyond the
unprecedented attention paid by the series to the domestic side of Mafia life (a focus well-suited to its
televisual medium), much of the uniqueness of The Sopranos resides in the way it interrogates
the mythic two-family structure of Italian-American identity. If previous installments of the gangster genre
sought to foreground the wound of Italian-American ethnicity, The Sopranos foregrounds
and interrogates the (fantasmatic) wound of white racial identification that is the result of the Soprano
family's near-total assimilation into mainstream American culture. This "wound" is revealed in various forms
of power-evasive race cognizance, such as Tony's reaction to his speeding ticket, that are predicated on a
perceived or threatened loss of a white majoritarian order. Unlike the very real demise of the Italian
patriarchal order in Scorsese's films, the passing of the white patriarchal order in The
Sopranos is consistently portrayed as a fantasmatic loss--yet one with real effects for those who
might mourn or celebrate it. The result, I suggest, is that The Sopranos sheds light on the
political and economic stakes of perpetuating cultural fantasies of a lost white majority in contemporary
For Mike Hill, the need to analyze fantasies of a post-white world derives from the fact that such fantasies
have captured progressive and reactionary poles of the American cultural imaginary. Backed by statistical
trends which appear to forecast a coming "white minority," numerous groups--including academic
multiculturalists, the Promise Keepers (a Christian men's group), and the neofascist National
Alliance--describe a post-white America in which the earlier black/white dichotomy of U.S. race relations
gives way to a new multiethnic or post-ethnic reality. In these formulations, the civil rights movement of
the 1950s and 60s is an important statistical and political benchmark, since the drive to promote models of
racial and ethnic multiplicity is often made in the name of civil rights reforms and the decline (based on
official reports like the U.S. census) in white identification since that time (39). Yet for Hill the
promotion of a post-binaristic, post-white national imaginary is problematic given the statistical
persistence of a clear non-white/white divide where income is concerned.
Hill asks: "What happens to civil rights-inspired forms of racial identity in the post-binaristic future
intimated here? The question is crucial, since the distribution of wealth is still stubbornly sutured to a
recognizably race-divided social order" (35). Hill's answer, which is also the central argument of his book,
is that the new form of identity politics encouraged by proponents of post-whiteness violates the civil
rights legacy (and the ideals of the liberal state) on which it appears to rely. The "post-white analytic"
developed by Hill thus seeks to place under suspicion "the idea of racial self-recognition and to link the
various forms of misrecognition that accompany that act to the terminal permutations of a waning
liberal state" (9; 25).
The Sopranos depicts a world in which Hill's worst suspicions about the cultural fantasy
of lost whiteness are borne out. In particular, the series frequently demonstrates how visions of a lost
white majority are deliberately deployed in order to mask and perpetuate black/white economic
boundaries. Several of the series' subplots focus on the way whites manipulate nostalgia for a black and
white model of U.S. race relations. Here references abound to the civil rights movement and its immediate
legacy, the urban race riots of the late 1960s. In S4E7, Tony, Ralph Siforetto (one of Tony's captains), and
Assemblyman Zellman (a highly placed friend) meet in a sauna to discuss an urban housing development scam
with one of Zellman's African-American compatriots, Maurice. The business under negotiation involves the
misuse of government funds designed to assist low-income, inner city families, a plan that leads to group
recollections of an "earlier" period in U.S. race relations:
Zellman: "Summer of '67, we were both home on break. I'm interning at the state legislature and he
[to Maurice]--what were you doing?"
Maurice: "Uh...East Nook Food Co-op."
Zellman: "Right. But come July--"
Tony: "The Newark riots."
Ralph: "What a fuckin' summer that was!"
Zellman: "Later that year Maurice and I helped organize one of the first black voting drives."
Tony: "Maurice, uh, were you around for Anthony Imperiale? The 'White Knight'?"
Maurice: "Around? Who you think he was fightin' against? "
Zellman: "'Italian pride! Keep Newark white!'"
Maurice: "Aspiring Klansmen, some of those boys." (S4E7)
- Invoking earlier, monolithic visions of whiteness in the form of Anthony Imperiale and the Ku Klux
Klan, Tony and Zellman dissociate themselves from that past, calling attention to the "new" racial dynamics
of a post-white world in which they and Maurice can discuss business in, of all places, a sauna. That
neither Tony nor Zellman actually believes in the breakdown of a black/white racial binary is made evident
later in the episode, however, when Tony instructs Zellman to hire blacks from one of Maurice's "youth gang
outreach programs" to clear out the crack houses they intend to buy. When Zellman asks Tony, "Why didn't
your guys roust 'em?" Tony responds ironically: "Oh, nice! Bunch of white guys settin' off caps in the
ghetto. That won't attract any attention at all!" Tony's response betrays his awareness of, and
identification with, a majoritarian model of whiteness whose passing he had appeared to celebrate with
Maurice. His desire not to call attention to the black/white racial binary also reveals the importance of
remaining silent about the racial dynamics reinforced by his business practices--dynamics that become clear
when Zellman is confronted outside one of his new properties by an African-American girl hoping for a "nice
house." In this episode, the absent presence of whiteness is expressed when privileged blacks and whites
share profits at the expense of African-American children.
- The subplot
of S2E2 focuses similarly on Tony's resolution of a labor dispute between an Italian-American construction
company and a group of disgruntled black joint-fitters. Early in the episode, a black preacher exhorts an
angry mob of African-American workers to shut down one of Masserone Brothers' construction sites. Amplified
by a megaphone, the reverend's voice plainly evokes that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message locates
the outrage of his listeners in the broader context of labor discrimination against blacks:
The black man industrialized the North, but we're still fighting for jobs. Over twenty-five joint-fitters on
this site, not a black man to be found! I'll tell you why. Black joint-fitters, like all black artisans,
have been shut out of the unions, out of work while the white joint-fitter is filling his stomach! (S2E2)
Despite the reverend's impassioned rhetoric, however, we soon learn that he is in cahoots with Tony, who has
been commissioned by the construction company to break up the demonstration. A later scene depicts a brutal
attack on the black workers by a horde of Tony's men, who surprise their victims while the reverend engages
and distracts them. In this episode, civil rights rhetoric is employed specifically to facilitate
white-on-black violence. When Tony and the reverend meet at the end of the episode to divide up their
profits, we witness once again a "post-white" world in which privileged black and white men share the profits
of a business whose victims are exclusively African-American.
Tony's ability to affirm or deny his whiteness, as the situation dictates, indicates the originality
of The Sopranos' treatment of the gangster genre and its two-family myth of Italian-American
identity. Where the difference between "good" and "bad" Italian families is traditionally established as a
contrast between assimilation and poverty on the one hand and ethnic difference and criminal financial
success on the other, Tony's business endeavours challenge the distinction between good and bad families by
demonstrating the instrumentality of Tony's assimilated status--his whiteness--to his criminal activities.
The fact that Tony profits by deflecting attention away from his whiteness implies a fundamental continuity
between the white majority and the Mafia itself, in which membership is defined by silence or
omerta. In this The Sopranos seconds the analytical work of early whiteness studies by
revealing that white privilege is maintained through its invisibility, enforced through silence. At the same
time, by breaking down a fundamental difference between good and bad families, the series also casts new
light on the conventional "ethnic wound" of Italian-American identity. That wound derives from the complex
and largely disavowed historical relationship between Italian-American ethnicity and whiteness itself. As
numerous theorists have observed, Italian-American ethnicity serves as a privileged site for the
investigation of whiteness in the United States. Italians, more than most other European immigrants, became
classified as white only gradually, after enduring much racial discrimination. In D'Acierno's view, the long-established status of Italian-Americans as "atavistic
Whites" explains why they continue to be constructed in popular film and television as "the Other who is not
an Other," a group "overdetermined with respect to both the majority and the other minorities" (618-19). But
in The Sopranos, Tony's ability to deploy images of a lost white majority for his own benefit
demonstrates that his "wound" of ethnic difference also serves as a weapon against those more
clearly marked by racial difference in contemporary American culture. The shift of focus away from the
gangster's Italian-American ethnicity to his white racial identification is particularly significant in light
of the fact that, as Hill points out, it is the rise of ethnicity as a paradigm for identity that is
most often singled out as proof of the end of the white majority.
Through its treatment of Italian-American identity, The Sopranos suggests that the so-called
post-white ethnicity, far from problematizing black/white racial boundaries, actually works to perpetuate
That the celebration of ethnic difference can serve as a smokescreen for the maintenance of whiteness
is a central thesis of Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy
of Race. Jacobson describes the process of "becoming-Caucasian" as the main paradigm governing the
experience of immigration and assimilation for European peoples in the twentieth-century United States. According to Jacobson, the scientific category of a "Caucasian race"
emerges in the 1920s as a means of dissolving the racial distinctions among whites that had prevailed in the
American cultural imaginary up to that time. An earlier era of anxiety over mass immigration had resulted
in racial differentiation between Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Hebrews, Mediterraneans, and Slavs, among others;
increased contact of Northern and Western American whites with a migrating African-American population after
the turn of the century changed the racial dynamic of the country in a way that helped consolidate whiteness
as a cultural and racial grouping. The gradual reconsolidation of whiteness received a significant boost
during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which further polarized the organization of racial
difference in the United States. As a result, the earlier racial distinctions among white groups tended not
only to dissolve, but to be forgotten altogether with the advent of "ethnic" difference. As Jacobson writes,
ethnicity provided a paradigm for assimilation which erased race as a category of historical experience for
European and some Near Eastern immigrants. Not only did these groups now belong to a unified Caucasian race,
but race was deemed so irrelevant to who they were that it became something possessed only by "other"
The white "ethnic revival" which emerges following the civil rights movement is, for Jacobson, the clearest
symptom of the naturalization of whiteness as an unmarked racial category, whose invisibility and
universality depends on historical amnesia about the process of becoming-Caucasian.
The Sopranos treats white racial misrecognition most explicitly in S1E10, "A Hit is a
Hit." In this episode, Tony finds himself drawn to the country-club culture of his assimilated
Italian-American neighbor, Dr. Cusamano, while also helping his Jewish business partner, Heche, fend off the
potentially hostile advances of Massive Genius, an African-American hip-hop tycoon who charges that Heche's
record label in the 1950s took unfair advantage of African-American songwriters. Caught between the pull of
the white suburban "mayonnaisers" on one side, and the demands of the black gangsta rapper on the other, Tony
is forced to reflect on both family halves of his Italian-American identity. He is simultaneously the "last
white ethnic" in the eyes of Cusamano and friends, eager to hear the ritual mysteries of the Mafia, and--from
the perspective of Massive Genius--the "first White man, the one who defends turf and still has not lost his
body to embourgeoisement" (D'Acierno 619). The episode culminates in two structurally similar scenes, both
built around the interrogation of whiteness as a marker of racial and ethnic difference. The first is the
sit-down between Massive Genius, Heche, Tony, and their respective crews, in which Massive presents his
demand for $400,000 in royalties from F Note Records. Citing a study about the exploitation of
African-Americans in the film industry, Massive justifies his claims by arguing that "injustices to blacks in
the music business are far worse than even in Hollywood." But Heche has very different ideas about his
place, given his Jewish heritage, in the history of black exploitation. Backed by Tony, Heche tells Massive
Genius: "You're talking to the wrong white man, my friend. My people were the white man's nigger when yours
were still painting their faces and chasing zebras." Heche's response lays bare Tony's habitual and
strategic racial misrecognition. Heche in effect affirms and denies his status as a "white man" while
obviating the issue of his personal guilt. Indeed, he does not deny his exploitation of the black
songwriters (a fact he has already conceded to Tony four episodes earlier). Instead, Heche invokes the
history of Jewish persecution as a shield against responsibility for any claims made against the white
majority, a strategy that makes him the "wrong white man" in relation to Massive Genius's claims for racial
Heche's racial misrecognition is mirrored in a parallel scene later in the episode. This time the sit-down
is between Tony and Jennifer, and the point of contention is Tony's resistance to the comfortable lifestyle
of his Italian-American neighbors, the Cusamanos:
Tony: "My wife thinks I need to meet new people."
Tony's distinction between "Caucasian" and "white man" speaks directly to Jacobson's thesis regarding the
history of becoming-Caucasian in the United States. The fact that Tony mentions and then refuses to consider
his status as Caucasian ("I don't mean white like Caucasian") replays the cultural forgetting of
becoming-Caucasian that makes whiteness appear a natural racial category. Moreover, Tony's invocation of the
medigon reinforces Jacobson's notion that the discourse of ethnicity diverts attention from the
historical process of becoming-Caucasian. The appeal to ethnic rather than racial difference helps maintain
silence about just who it is who benefits from post-white cultural fantasies. In The Sopranos,
however, the economic victors are always clear: Massive Genius and his black songwriters never get their
money. Scorsese creates an ethnic cinema in which the breakdown of the Italian patriarchal order signals
the doom of its lost sons; The Sopranos, in contrast, predicates the success of the "wrong white
men" on manipulated fantasies of whiteness. We do not learn from The Sopranos the language of
ethnic sons deprived of their Italian godfathers, but the language of racial misrecognition spoken
by sons whose lost white fathers were never really their own.
Tony: "Come on, you're Italian, you understand. Guys like me were brought up to think that
medigana are fucking bowlers. The truth is the average white man is no more boring than the
millionth conversation over who should've won, Marciano or Ali."
Jennifer: "So am I to understand that you don't consider yourself white?"
Tony: "I don't mean white like Caucasian. I mean a white man, like our friend Cusamano. How he's
Italian but he's a medigon. He's what my old man would've called a Wonder Bread wop. You know, he
eats his Sunday gravy out of a jar."
Whatever Happened to Gary Cooper?
- By subtly interrogating the relationship between Italian-American ethnicity and white racial
consciousness, The Sopranos agrees with the aims of recent academic studies such as Joseph P.
Cosco's Imagining Italians and Guglielmo and Salerno's Are Italians White?, which
build on the work of Roediger and Jacobson. These texts revisit the historical construction of
Italian-American identity through the lens of whiteness, examining the details of becoming-Caucasian for
Italians and the reasons for the later denial and forgetting of that process. Jennifer Guglielmo's
introduction to Are Italians White? begins with this point: "Italians were not always white, and
the loss of this memory is one of the tragedies of racism in America" (1). Thomas Guglielmo's chapter in the
same volume concludes that "Italian Americans' whiteness . . . was their single most powerful asset in the
'New World'; it gave them countless advantages over 'nonwhites' in housing, jobs, schools, politics, and
virtually every other meaningful area of life. Without appreciating this fact, one has no hope of fully
understanding Italian American history" (42-43). Cosco's text concludes with a chapter entitled "The Fight
for Whiteness," which likewise addresses the need to attend to the history of Italian-Americans as white
Americans. But while The Sopranos anticipates and lends weight to these cultural and historical
studies, the series also speaks, through its emphasis on Tony's psychotherapy, to the unconscious and
symbolic structure of white racial identification. The psychoanalytic framework through which we learn so
much about Tony encourages us to see his problems and anxieties as symptomatic not only of the complexities
that attend Italian-American whiteness, but of whiteness in general.
In this regard The Sopranos supports the Lacanian model of race developed by Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. According to
Seshadri-Crooks, race is a "structure of relations, a signifying chain that through a process of inclusions and exclusions constitutes a pattern for
organizing human difference" (4). Within the structure of this signifying chain, raced subjects come to inhabit symbolic positions such as "black,"
"Asian," or "white" based on their relationship to a master signifier, Whiteness. In its function as master signifier, Whiteness holds out the (always
unfulfilled) promise of wholeness to the split subject of racial difference. The symbolic logic of race is, on this reading, akin to (and based on)
that of sexual difference in the Lacanian framework. But there is a crucial difference between racial and sexual difference, according to
Seshadri-Crooks. Although racial difference depends upon sexual difference for its effects (20), race is not a fantasy fundamental to the subject.
Whiteness, unlike the "missing signifier" of sexual difference, is purely historical and cultural (21), designating no absence or lack in the Real.
Moreover, Whiteness as a master signifier is readily visible; indeed, our subjective investment in racial difference stems from its
visibility, and from the fact that this visibility appears to bespeak biological essence (21). It is because of its visibility that race,
much more so than class or ethnicity, withstands deconstructive and historicizing attempts to dismantle it. At the same time, it is also the
visibility of race that can lead to racial anxiety when the subject unconsciously recognizes the false nature of the promises held out by Whiteness.
Seshadri-Crooks describes racial anxiety as the foreclosure of desire in Lacanian terms:
Anxiety is an effect,
according to Lacan, that appears when there is no possibility of desire, when there is a "lack of a lack." . . . The objet a that race
produces is a lethal object, its own disavowed historicity, produced out of the lack of a lack--a phobic object that tries to make the barred Other,
the desire of the symbolic, exist. This phobic objet a I suggest is localized as the pre-discursive mark on the surface of the body. The
effect of "nature" that race produces emerges from its anxiety, its disavowal of its own historicity. This is the peculiarity of race which is neither
in the Real, like sex, nor wholly discursive, like class or ethnicity. (45-46)
Faced with the realization that Whiteness offers no possibility for desire, the raced subject experiences
anxiety as the recognition of the false nature of a fantasy in which he or she nonetheless continues to
Though Seshadri-Crooks takes pains to distinguish her Lacanian analysis from the historicizing
efforts of whiteness studies, her theory helps explain the "thoroughly agitated status" (Hill 8) of white
racial identification in an age where whiteness itself is constructed as a lost object of desire. Like Hill,
Seshadri-Crooks is critical of the liberal consensus that encourages celebration of racial and ethnic
difference; but where Hill casts suspicion on the forms of misrecognition that structure racial
self-awareness, Seshadri-Crooks criticizes the celebrators of difference for contributing to the illusion
that race can ever be a "neutral description of human difference" (8). She attacks, in particular, the
notion that promoting and recognizing difference can counteract racism. According to Seshadri-Crooks, the
current vogue for difference depends on the implicit distinction between a neutral "ontology" of race and a
discriminatory epistemology or logic of racism. To maintain this distinction is to participate in the social
reification of race as a fundamental, and inevitable, precondition for attaining subjectivity:
Modern civil society engages in such reification because ultimately its desire is to keep the dialectic
between races alive. It must thus prohibit what it terms "racism" in order to prevent the annihilation not
so much of the "inferior" races but of the system of race itself. (9)
- In this light, contemporary fantasies about the end of whiteness are particularly
symptomatic of the desire for Whiteness that is exhibited, according to Seshadri-Crooks, in racist and
anti-racist discourses alike. Hill, analyzing the relationship between post-white cultural fantasies and
contemporary fears about the demise of the traditional family, finds that the same desire to recognize and
repair white masculine identity drives the efforts of groups (like the Promise Keepers and the neofascist
National Alliance, respectively) that publicly embrace and revile America's new multiracial reality (80).
Hill devotes considerable attention to the Promise Keepers and their rallying cry for a multiracial awareness
that will fill what one prominent author of the movement calls the "father-shaped void inside a man" (98). According to Hill, the group promulgates its post-white sensibility as an
antidote for the failure to live up to traditional masculine ideals:
For PK, racialized self-consciousness prefigures the recovery of an anguished father whose shortcomings are
experienced as the absence of his own dad. . . . PK atones for the failures of masculinity not (or
not primarily) by getting the patriarchal contract right, but by dumping whiteness in the name of a
recuperated sense of manhood in a vacuous multicultural zone. The "wound of masculinity" is perceptible by a
self-conscious turn to whiteness as something, rather like the father, that was never really there. (98-99)
- Although Hill explicitly denies the applicability of Seshadri-Crooks's work to the forms of
post-white racial consciousness he examines, I propose that a psychoanalytic account of race as driven by the
longing for a master signifier of Whiteness is precisely what is needed to account for the fact that, in a
group like the Promise Keepers, "white masculine difference is achieved . . . when color is the father" (Hill
100). The Lacanian model developed by Seshadri-Crooks provides the tools for understanding race as a
symbolic system which "derives its power not from socially constructed ideologies, but from the dynamic
interplay between the family as a socially regulated institution, and biology as the site of essences and
inheritances" (17-18). So long as they reify or fail to interrogate that relationship, visions of a
multiracial world after whiteness will inevitably express the fantasies of subjects who are after Whiteness
in the sense of desiring the wholeness promised them by the system of race.
- In The
Sopranos Tony consistently longs for a lost master signifier of Whiteness. That white racial
Name-of-the-Father is Gary Cooper, whose absent presence hovers over Tony's therapeutic sessions with
Jennifer from the pilot episode onward. It is Gary Cooper's image as "the strong, silent type" that Tony
invokes repeatedly in order to express his sense of failed American and masculine ideals--ideals most
shamefully betrayed by Tony's own disabling panic attacks and the confessional therapy required to cure
them. For Tony, Gary Cooper is the ultimate model of
self-sufficiency, a man who "did what he had to do" without help or guidance. Tony's nostalgia for Cooper's
silence in particular establishes him as an image of wholeness and Being outside language, in
keeping with the fantasy structure of Whiteness described by Seshadri-Crooks. The foreclosure of Tony's
desire for this lost white father helps explain Tony's panic attacks as expressions of racial anxiety, in
which he comes unconsciously to recognize the disavowed historicity of his own whiteness.
- The most
instructive example of Tony's racial anxiety is found in S3E2, when Tony comes face to face with Meadow's
half-Jewish, half-African-American boyfriend, Noah Tanenbaum. This is the only episode to date that begins
with the after-effects of one of Tony's panic attacks. As the scene fades up on the Soprano kitchen, the
camera finds Tony unconscious on the floor, a plate of gabagool partially unwrapped beside him.
When Carmella comes in and attempts to revive him, his first words, "Uncle Ben," return us to an earlier
meeting with his daughter's boyfriend. That meeting focuses on Tony's interrogation of Noah's racial and
ethnic heritage, conducted while Meadow is out of earshot. After learning Noah's mixed racial identity, Tony
Tony: "But on your application to Columbia, you didn't check Jewish, did you?"
Before Meadow returns, Tony tells Noah to stop seeing his daughter, provoking a defiant "Fuck you!" from the
young man. After Noah and Meadow have gone, Tony goes to the kitchen for a snack, and it is while removing
items from the fridge and cupboard that he spots a box of Uncle Ben's converted rice and collapses. There is
much in this opening scene that recalls "A Hit is a Hit" and its portrayal of white racial misrecognition.
The Uncle Ben's reference recalls Christopher Moltisanti's first words, at the start of that episode, to a
black member of Massive's crew, while Noah's Jewish and African-American identity redraws the lines of racial
and ethnic difference set down in the confrontation between Heche and the hip-hop star. Yet where Tony and Heche, in that earlier episode, were able to deploy racial
misrecognition to their own advantage, Tony's decision to spotlight Noah's status as racial other leads him
to defend the black/white racial boundary he had elsewhere sought to obscure. Following Seshadri-Crooks, the
impetus for this defence is Noah's visibility as a representation of the post-white, multiracial
world Tony exploits to conduct so much of his business. Invoking racial difference in order to police family
boundaries, Tony discovers the foreclosure of his own desire for the master signifier, Whiteness, through the
unconscious recognition that he has become the "lost" white father. This moment of becoming repeats what
Seshadri-Crooks calls the "disavowed historicity" of one's symbolic construction as a raced subject. In
Jacobson's terms, Tony experiences the full weight of his historical becoming-Caucasian as racial anxiety
which manifests itself a few moments later, in the form of the panic attack he suffers on seeing the Uncle
Noah: "No, they can't ask about religious affiliation."
Tony: "What'd you check?"
Tony: "So we do understand each other here..."
Noah: "What's your problem?"
Tony: "I think you know what my problem is. ... See I've got business associates who are black, and they
don't want my son with their daughters and I don't want their sons with mine."
Yet if Tony's panic attacks are amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation of this kind, Tony's own
psychoanalyst consistently fails to see the racial motivations for his anxiety. Two episodes later, Jennifer
explains Tony's collapse by focusing on the gabagool that he removes from the refrigerator just
before the attack. Although Tony tells Jennifer about his "frank conversation with Buckwheat," and although
he identifies, when prompted, the last thing he saw before the attack ("I saw a box of Uncle Ben's
rice--boom!"), Jennifer establishes a connection between food, sex, and violence that derives from much
earlier experiences in Tony's childhood. According to Jennifer, sliced meat and sexual violence became
psychically intertwined for Tony the moment he saw his father chop off the pinky-finger of the neighborhood
butcher for failing to pay a debt.
This is by no means the only time when Jennifer ignores the racial context of Tony's attacks. Jennifer's
reading of the gabagool reinforces, through its reductionism, the explanation for Tony's attacks she
proffers as early as S1E7. In this episode, the audience sees Tony's discovery of his father's business
through a series of flashbacks. Jennifer is only interested in those points in the flashbacks that establish
the relationship between Tony and his mother. Livia's threat that she will stick a fork in Tony's eye if he
keeps pestering her about Christmas presents represents, for Jennifer, the symbolic origin of Tony's
castration-anxiety. This anxiety is heightened later when Tony overhears Livia threatening his father that
she will smother their children if he tries to leave the Mafia. In Jennifer's reading, the therapeutic
breakthrough is the connection established by these memories between Tony's fear of castration and his fear
of losing his family: "When you first started therapy, you said that you had this dream--about those ducks.
They flew away with your penis; it was a bad omen that something was going to happen in your family. Is this
the terrible thing?" (S1E7). Equating "loss of the penis" with "loss of the family," Jennifer reads Tony's
panic attacks as the result of exaggerated castration anxiety.
Yet what any attentive viewing of Tony's flashbacks cannot fail to register is the fact that every domestic
scene is framed by racial conflict or by the threat of such conflict. Long before the childhood scene in
which Livia threatens to stick a fork in Tony's eye, her first threat--in fact the first words she speaks to
Tony during the flashback--is a warning that if he fails to catch the bus he will have to walk to school
through the "colored neighborhood" (S1E7). Later, the "castration" scene itself unfolds while the television
in the living room shows the Newark race riots just then taking place. And later still, when Tony steals out
from his hiding place in the trunk of his father's car to investigate his activities at the amusement park,
he is accosted and threatened by three African-American boys for throwing a candy wrapper on the sidewalk.
He is only saved from being beaten by the sudden arrival of the police, who scare the boys away when they
raid the amusement park in search of Tony's father and his crew. As Tony watches his father and crew
forcibly removed from the amusement park, one of the gang members asks sarcastically why the police aren't
arresting the "moulinyans," since "they're the ones burning down Newark." If Jennifer's penetration into
Tony's childhood reveals fear of castration and a Medea mother to have caused his panic attacks, the
flashbacks into Tony's past suggest that racial anxiety is equally influential.
Given that Tony is going to therapy because of his panic attacks, it is particularly significant that
Jennifer fails consistently to recognize their racial motivations. Her
reductive interpretations throw into bold relief the complexity of the series' treatment of racial
misrecognition and post-white cultural fantasies. On one level, her failure calls attention to the way
whiteness consistently flies under a sophisticated analytical radar. At the same time, The Sopranos does
not, I think, simply condemn
Jennifer's Oedipal approach, nor does it lead one to support Hill's view that a Lacanian model of race is
incapable of addressing post-white cultural fantasies. Hill contends that the racial anxiety described by
Seshadri-Crooks defies historical variation and therefore cannot account for an era in which "white men are
willing to give way to others" (243n19). But Hill's objection, which
depends on his assumption that "Whiteness as a 'master signifier' needs nominally 'white' people to operate"
(243n9), ignores (as his earlier analysis did not) what happens when white people "give way" to a
post-white future. For while it may be true that Whiteness depends upon the continued visibility of white
people, there is nothing in Seshadri-Crooks's model to suggest that white visibility does not change over
time. On the contrary, it would seem obvious that the master-signifier of Whiteness, which is "of purely
cultural and historical origin" (Seshadri-Crooks 4), must itself evolve in order to account for the changing
definitions of what it means to be "white," "Caucasian," "black," etc., as detailed by Jacobson and others.
Moreover, the relationship between the master signifier of Whiteness and the visibility of "nominally white
people" must be complicated, particularly given the links Hill establishes between the cultivation of
post-white sensibilities and the desires of disenfranchised white men (like the Promise Keepers) for a
"masculine familial outcome" (100). Hill assumes that all white men understand "family" in the same way, but
that is not the case, as the history of Italian-American identity and its mythic narration in popular culture
and cinema show. In this framework, I suggest that the picture of Freudian analysis painted by
The Sopranos is illuminating not because it shows how resistant
"ethnic sons" like Tony are to psychotherapy, but because it foregrounds Jennifer's misidentification of
Tony's symbolic father. Tony's panic attacks, like the desire for Whiteness itself, will persist without a
concerted effort to "trouble the relation of the subject to the master signifier" (Seshadri-Crooks 35). In
the context of the series, that means trying to answer Tony's most persistent question: "Whatever happened to
Jennifer never takes up this question. She comes closest when she presses Tony for an ethical
accounting of his criminal activities in S2E9. Tony responds with a textbook recitation of the two family
myth of Italian-American identity, in which the criminal activities of the bad family are justified by the
need to resist assimilation:
Tony: "When America opened the floodgates and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing
it for? ... The Carnegies and the Rockefellers, they needed worker bees and there we were. But some
of us didn't want to swarm around their hive and lose who we were. We wanted to stay Italian and
preserve the things that meant something to us: honor, and family, and loyalty. ... Now we
weren't educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted. And those other
fucks, the J.P. Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was the business, right? The
Chris Messenger criticizes Jennifer's "majoritarian question" for inappropriately affirming a "universalized
American doxa" (267). According to Messenger, "Melfi's native response could be used to block
African American grievances at their historical and racial root in a favor of a universal 'Americanness' or
to counter views on affirmative action" (268). But Jennifer's response could be used in this way only if
valid distinctions between the history of African-American and Italian-American discrimination in the United
States were ignored--distinctions that The Sopranos takes pains to foreground repeatedly. The import of Jennifer's question is not that it severs Tony's ties to
his ethnic past, but that it challenges him to see the relationship he strategically denies between himself
and those white fathers--the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans--with whom he shares more than a criminal
interpretation of the "American way." Implying a specifically racial continuity between Tony and
these lost white fathers, Jennifer challenges Tony to discover that his economic success as a "made man" in
American culture is inseparable from his status as a made white man. But Jennifer does not push for
an answer here, and Tony is allowed to be silent about his white racial identification. The result is that
Tony's relationship to the master signifier of Whiteness goes unchallenged.
Jennifer: "That might all be true. But what do poor Italian immigrants have to do with you and what
happens every morning when you step out of bed?"
The effects of this relationship are nowhere more evident than in "Christopher" (S4E3), an episode devoted to
the ironies of America's post-white fantasies of itself. In this episode Tony is repeatedly harried by his
consigliere, Sylvio, to help discredit Native American protestors who want to stop the Newark
Columbus Day parade on historical and racial grounds. Fed up with the righteous posturing of his crew
members, Tony finally takes a stand on racial and ethnic difference in the name of Gary Cooper:
Tony: "Gary Cooper, there was an American. The strong, silent type. He did what he had to do. ... And
did he complain? Did he say, 'Oh, I come from this poor Texas Irish illiterate background or whatever
the fuck, so leave me the fuck out of it, because my people got fucked over?' ...
Shifting attention away from historical injustice and ethnicity to the comforts of Sylvio's life, Tony's
response is indebted to Jennifer's earlier question, "What do poor Italian immigrants have to do with you?"
But Tony calls up the spectre of white racial identification only to pass over it immediately in his
celebration of an unraced, universal subjectivity. It is this fantasy of wholeness which, according to
Seshadri-Crooks, is the enduring special effect of Whiteness. It is also this illusion that structures
Tony's strategies of racial misrecognition and his disabling bouts of racial anxiety. The ease with which
Tony believes in a coherent, continuous identity despite his recurring panic attacks and losses of
consciousness shows how hard it is to shake loose of subjective investment in prominent cultural signifiers
of whiteness. Indeed, by virtue of his ability to employ fantasies of lost whiteness for his own ends while
remaining painfully subject to the overmastering fantasy of racial differentiation through familial
narratives, Tony Soprano himself stands as one of the most culturally visible signifiers of white masculinity
in the "post-white" era.
Sylvio: "Gary Cooper, the real Gary Cooper, or anybody named Cooper never suffered like the Italians.
Medigon like him, they fucked everybody else--the Italians, the Polacks, the blacks."
Tony: "If he was a medigon around nowadays he'd be a member of some victims group--the fundamentalist Christians, the
abused cowboys, the gays, whatever the fuck. ... Let me ask you something. All the good things you got in your life,
did they come to you because you're Calabrese? I'll tell you the answer. The answer is no. ... You got it 'cause
you're you, 'cause you're smart, cause you're whatever the fuck. Where the fuck is our self-esteem? That shit
doesn't come from Columbus or The Godfather or Chef-fuckin'-Boy-Ardee."
To its credit, The Sopranos encourages analysis of whiteness while offering no simple
resolution to the contradictions it entails. Jennifer pronounces Tony cured of his panic attacks late in
Season Four; but in "Unidentified Black Males" (S5E9) the attacks have returned and Jennifer is as blind as
ever to their racial motivation. In its refusal to make good on the promise of a solution to Tony's problem,
the series reflects the false nature of whiteness as a fantasy of wholeness. At the same time, The
Sopranos testifies to the enduring desire for whiteness that characterizes contemporary multiracial
America. In an age in which whiteness has come to signify, for many, either a void or absence or a
disadvantage relative to other ethnic and racial groups, the popularity of the series and its chief
protagonist suggests its own answer to the question, "Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?" The answer is that
he is alive and well, though not quite as strong or silent as he used to be.
Department of English
Georgia State University
COPYRIGHT (c) 2005 Christopher Kocela. READERS MAY USE
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Thanks to Randy Malamud for his encouraging words about this piece when I was considering abandoning it.
Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers of PMC for their helpful suggestions.
Please note my shorthand method for referring to specific episodes in the series: S3E5 means Season
Three, Episode Five.
Meadow shares the general Soprano attitude toward affirmative action, despite the good fight she puts up
against Tony over her boyfriend, Noah, in Season Three (a point to which I will return later). In "The
Happy Wanderer" (S2E6), Meadow and a friend muse over the injustice of a fellow student's early acceptance
to Wesleyan University. When her friend attributes the acceptance to the girl's racial heritage, Meadow
complains, "Please, I'm blacker than her mother." Her friend replies, "Yeah, well, you should've
mentioned that on your application."
Paglia's complaints about the series as a "buffoonish caricature" of Italian-Americans can be found in the
online articles cited hereafter. For a much more detailed treatment of stereotyping in The
Sopranos, see Orban.
Whiteness studies is too broad and diverse a field to be adequately summarized here. My brief discussion
is indebted to the editors of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, who introduce their
volume by listing various tropes that have guided contemporary studies of whiteness. The first and most
prevalent of these tropes is presented under the heading, "Whiteness is Invisible and Unmarked" (10).
Another way of introducing whiteness studies is to call attention to its various politically and
methodologically differentiated "schools." Among these, the New Abolitionists claim the most radical
anti-racist program, encouraging the study of whiteness so as to destroy it. Two self-identified members
of this group, Vron Ware and Les Back, criticize the sometimes "banal" academic effort merely to describe
whiteness without challenging it: "For us it is impossible to separate the act of writing about whiteness
from a political project that involves not simply the fight against racism, but also an attack on the very
notion of race and obstinate resilience of racial identities" (2). In her summary of the history of
whiteness studies, Mason Stokes contrasts the New Abolitionist position (represented most powerfully by
David Roediger's Toward the Abolition of Whiteness) with the "progressive" school of thought
developed by Kincheloe and Steinberg, which aims at the "reconceptualization of white identity" (24) rather than at its abolition. For Stokes, both schools are guilty of "naïve utopianism" (184),
and would best be supplanted with a critical approach to whiteness that seeks to unsettle and disturb
rather than to repair or destroy whiteness (191).
To take the most immediate example, consider the subplot of "Another Toothpick" (S3E5), the episode in
which Tony is ticketed by the black cop. After receiving the ticket, Tony is so incensed that he asks one
of his highly placed friends, Assemblyman Zellman, to have the cop demoted. Zellman obliges; but when
Tony later finds the officer working at a landscaping store, his guilt leads him to reverse his earlier
request. Zellman puts the wheels in motion to restore the officer's former position and calls Tony to
report on his progress. In the meantime, however, Tony has learned that Meadow's bicycle was stolen by a
"black guy" from the neighborhood around Columbia University, and his attitude toward the cop changes
again. He tells Zellman, "Fuck him. Cocksucker got what he deserved." Even then Tony's guilt is not
quieted, however, and the end of the episode finds him back at the landscaping store, offering the man an
exorbitant gratuity he does not accept. The final shot of the episode shows Tony standing alone with a
handful of money in a crowd of white stone fountains.
Joanne Lacey's speculative study of The Sopranos' appeal to male audiences suggests that the
domestic angle, while certainly part of the series' draw, is by no means the chief reason for its
popularity, at least outside the U.S. Though Lacey interviews only British men for her study, her
findings indicate that it is the series' "stylistic signifiers" of Americanness (suits, cars, mob speak,
geographical locations) that lure men to the show (99). Similarly, Dawn Johnston's analysis of the
Canadian reaction to The Sopranos--aired uncensored in Canada on CTV, a mainstream television
network--suggests that it is the lack of familiarity or "un-Canadian-ness" of the show that accounts for
its "ferocious and tenacious" following there (41).
The obsessiveness with which The Sopranos engages the cinematic past embodied in the work of
Coppola and Scorsese, in particular, has been one of the most talked-about aspects of the series. For
Auster, "The Sopranos underscores the continued validity and contemporary relevance of the
gangster genre" (15). In David Pattie's reading of the series as a "postmodern Mafia tale," Scorsese's
work forms the repressed unconscious of Tony Soprano and his crew, who attempt to deny the lesson of
Mean Streets and Casino that allegiance to the Mafia and its antiquated codes
cannot give meaning to their lives (144). And Nochimson reads The Sopranos as "the unmasking
of the heretofore thickly disguised emotional subtext of gangster stories" (3) that characterizes not only
the work of Coppola and Scorsese, but much earlier films like Little Caesar (1930) and
Public Enemy (1931). The self-reflexivity and postmodernism of the series has been explained
through other, non-cinematic frameworks as well. Lance Strate reads Sopranoland's spatial rearrangement
of New Jersey landmarks as an example of the "postmodern scene" variously described by Jameson,
Baudrillard, and McLuhan (193). Steven Hayward and Andrew Biro argue that the appeal of Tony Soprano,
"our postmodern, farcical Godfather," resides in his tireless engagement with the contradictions of
late capitalism (212). And Rogers, Epstein, and Reeves rely on David Harvey's discussion of postmodernity as a
period of "flexible accumulation" to argue that HBO's marketing of The Sopranos signifies a
third era in the relationship between TV and the American economy, in which "the digital revolution in
distribution is again transforming what it means to watch television" (43).
Citing census statistics found in Valladao, Hill writes: "While it may be politically advantageous (and
empirically accurate) to reject the racially binaristic thinking of the 1960s civil rights era, it is
nevertheless the case that blacks remain the poorest racial minority in the United States per capita, with
annual incomes 20 percent below that of Latinos, and 45 percent below that of whites" (34).
It is important to distinguish this absent presence from the "invisibility" thesis regarding the earliest
stages of work on whiteness. As Hill points out, the object is no longer to reveal the existence of
whiteness once thought to be invisible, but rather now to interrogate the form of conscious--but
contradictory--white racial identification that attends the current fascination with the "loss" of a white
Zellman later confesses to Maurice: "Sometimes I feel like I should be punished." This wish comes true
for Zellman at the end of the episode, when Tony beats him ruthlessly for dating his former girlfriend,
Irina. Tony, on the other hand, evinces no regret about what he has done. Quite the contrary, he takes
his son, Anthony Jr., on a tour of his new property holdings that brings them into confrontation with some
African-American drug-dealers. Schooling his son in race relations, Tony playfully throws out racial and
sexual slurs until he and Anthony are forced to leave at gunpoint. Anthony's amused comment as they drive
away ("So that's a crack ho!") shows what he has learned from the encounter.
Other references to the Civil Rights movement establish its importance, for the Soprano family, as a
"lost" signifier of a more orderly past. Late in Season One, Tony, disturbed by Meadow's frank discussion
of sex at the breakfast table, halts her dialogue by shouting: "Out there it's the 1990s, but in here
it's 1954!" (S1E11). That Tony points to the year of Brown vs. Board of Education as a defense against
having to face his daughter's sexuality becomes particularly important in Season Three, when Meadow brings
home her African-American boyfriend, Noah Tanenbaum. In a more recent episode, Tony's sister Janice
strategically employs nostalgia for the Civil Rights movement to win the good graces of an
African-American woman in her anger management class. Janice succeeds only in revealing her current
I come from a biased family, but I was different. I put all my faith and my hopes into the Civil Rights
movement. I left home and I marched. And for what? So they can ride around in their SUVs blasting that
rap shit? And you can't say anything 'cause they might have guns? (S5E10)
David Roediger examines this historical development in his foundational text, The Wages of
Whiteness. See also Frankenburg, White Women 37-38), Bernardi (xxi-xxii), and
Jacobson, Cosco, and Guglielmo and Salerno, whose contributions are discussed below.
13. Hill's analysis, based on Davis's
focuses primarily on Hispanic ethnicity that "functions as a kind of interdivisional racial buffer between
black and white" (32).
14. Jacobson's book is regarded as the most comprehensive account of the development of whiteness as a racial
and epistemological category in the United States. In it, Jacobson describes the history of whiteness in
America in terms of three "great epochs." The first of these is inaugurated by the American
naturalization law of 1790, which limited naturalized citizenship to "free white persons," or those
capable of "self-government." The second begins some fifty years later, when the original,
"over-inclusive" law was revised to stem the tide of less-than-desirable (yet still "white") immigrants.
This period is defined by its creation of a series of distinct and scientifically-determined white races
with an attendant hierarchy that ranked Anglo-Saxon and Irish whiteness on opposite ends of the scale of
social desirability. Finally, the third epoch, defined by the process of "becoming-Caucasian," takes
shape in the 1920s in response to new, more restrictive legislation governing immigration, and to the mass
migration of African-Americans to the American North and West. This era is marked by the gradual
dissolution and "forgetting" of the earlier hierarchy of white races. In place of that scientific model,
the new concept of "ethnicity" emerges as the preferred method of distinguishing cultural differences
among whites, while race becomes the province solely of black or "nonwhite" groups (7-14).
15. The frequency with which The Sopranos refers to the civil rights era is doubly appropriate.
For while visions of a post-white America look to the civil rights movement as the final flowering of the
black/white racial binary, Jacobson identifies the same era as that in which the whiteness of groups like
Italian-Americans, previously thought to inhabit a "middle ground in the racial order", is most
firmly established (62). According to Jacobson, "non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants and their children were perhaps
the first beneficiaries of the modern civil rights movement, in that the movement helped confer upon them
a newly consolidated status as Caucasians in a political setting where that meant--and continues to
mean--a great deal" (272). Jacobson's analysis has spawned several recent studies of the relationship
between whiteness and Italian-American identity, most notably Cosco's Imagining Italians and
Guglielmo and Salerno's edited volume, Are Italians White? Both texts support Jacobson's
thesis that the shaping of Italian-American ethnicity took place alongside, but also helped to mask, the
acquisition of white power and privilege by Italian immigrants in the United States. Guglielmo locates the
historical enfranchisement of Italian-American whiteness as early as the turn of the twentieth century, at
which point, "for all of the racial prejudice and discrimination that Italians faced in these early years,
they were still generally accepted as white and reaped the many rewards that came with this status" (36).
16. This suggestive phrase, appropriated and developed by Hill, is originally found in Means 54.
Santo offers the best discussion of Tony's relationship to masculine ideals. Particularly interesting is
Santo's discussion of the way in which Tony's body image, both powerful and overweight, contradicts
American middle-class standards (78-80).
In S1E10, Christopher and his girlfriend Adriana first meet Massive Genius while standing in line at a
burger joint. When approached by one of Massive's crew members, Christopher quips, "Why'd they send you
over? I asked for a burger, not converted rice."
The point is underscored again later in the same episode, when Meadow helps Anthony Jr. with his essay on
Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." When Meadow tells Anthony that the snow of the
poem "symbolizes cold, endless white, endless nothing, death," AJ responds: "I thought black was death."
"White too," says Meadow.
Jennifer's analytical strategy here is in keeping with the methods she uses frequently to keep her therapy
sessions with Tony "focused." One of her earliest prohibitions is that, for legal reasons, Tony must
refrain from discussing the criminal details of his "Family" life--a rule that, as Gabbard points out, is
in strict violation of the psychoanalytic rule of free association (6). The net effect, throughout the
course of Tony's treatment, is that Tony's anxieties, and Jennifer's explanation of them, repeatedly boil
down any extraneous "social" material to the problems of Tony's domestic life.
Other flashbacks to Tony's past also reveal the significance of racial difference--particularly the
black/white boundary--to Tony's sense of guilt. S3E10 is devoted to Tony's guilt over the killing of
Pussy Bompinsiero at the end of Season 2. In this episode Tony mulls over numerous points at which he
suspected Pussy may have been wearing the FBI wire that necessitated his murder. The episode opens with a
flashback to 1995, during which Tony and friends watch the end of the OJ Simpson trial. A recent
episode, S5E9, focuses on the return of Tony's panic attacks after a long period (a dozen or more
episodes) during which he appeared to be cured of his anxiety. Significantly titled "Unidentified Black
Males," this episode is structured around the way in which Tony and several of his cronies use racist
images of black men as scapegoats for their criminal successes and failures. When Tony confesses to
Jennifer that he once lied about having been attacked by black men in order to conceal one of his panic
attacks, Jennifer again overlooks the racial context and explains Tony's attacks solely in terms of guilt
over the imprisonment of his cousin (played by Steve Buscemi).
Deleuzians may point out that Jennifer's therapy exemplifies the way in which psychoanalysis always
reduces social desiring-production to the domestic triangle of Daddy-Mommy-Me. Jennifer's Oedipalization
of Tony's ducks, her projection of castration onto the psychic terrain, and her authoritative announcement
of his mother's malady ("I say...") enact the various interpretive and procedural crimes of which Deleuze
and Guattari accuse psychoanalysis in Anti-Oedipus. In A Thousand Plateaus,
Deleuze and Guattari describe a process of "becoming-minoritarian" in which the deterritorializing flow of
a subject's desire leads him or her away from a "major identity," defined as that of "white man" or "adult
male" (291). They specifically name the "mob groups of the United States" as one of those aggregates in
society that, by virtue of their "nondenumerable" relation to the State, are particularly ripe for
This is the second objection Hill raises against Seshadri-Crooks. The first (even
less convincing to my
mind) is that her model "provides no basis on which to describe the interactions . . . between differently
colored or multiracial groups" (243n19). But the signifying chain of racial subject positions described
by Seshadri-Crooks seems designed to account for just such interactions.
S4E3 crystallizes the difference emphasized elsewhere in the series between Italian-American and
African-American history. Carmella turns on the television in time to catch an episode of the daytime
talk show, Montel, evidently dedicated to racial and ethnic pluralism in the U.S. Montel,
the show's African-American host, observes that "each community" has had to suffer economically for the
"experiment that is the United States." Phil, a spokesperson for Italian-American community, agrees:
Phil: Take my grandparents, two simple people from Sicily, who braved the perilous middle
Montel: Whoa--middle passage? That's a term for the slave trade.
Spokesperson: Montel, the Italian people in this country also suffered discrimination--
Montel: Earth to Phil! We're talking three hundred years of slavery here!
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