Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

09 June 2009

Family Values

This post is not about family values.

I have been reading Richard Dyer's fantastic book White. (Although, I have to admit I am not really sure why I decided to revisit this book this summer.) At any rate, the book is about white people and how they are constructed as white: the ways that photography, news reportage, etc. construct whiteness as "normal" and invisible. The book is also about how white people are associated with light. Dyer's analysis is also sensitive to the ways in which heterosexuality is constantly invoked in the service of racial purity (i.e. white racial purity).


And so on my way home when I saw the "Family Values" license plate above, I immediately thought of the book I am reading. Now, obviously, the Family Values plate is intended to combat an invisible enemy. The very notion of "family values" is invoked against the group of people who are anti-family values, that is queers. The father and mother as well as the son and daughter in the central image all look away from the viewer. The family values toward which they point are in the mother herself (on the left side of the image) and at the image's vanishing point (on the right side of the image). That is to say, family values are not in the viewer, but away from the viewer, in her future, or in the image of the white woman inside the image.

Since I have been reading Dyer, though, what struck me the most about this image was not its obvious homophobia—the phrase itself is constantly used by anti-gay groups and so the homophobia in the phrase has become explicit and ubiquitous—but the pervasive whiteness of the central image. This is interesting not only because (obviously) queer people have both families and family values, but that indeed people of color also have both families and family values. What is made explicit in the central graphic of this Florida license plate is that both queers and people of color are excluded in the vision of heterosexual family values espoused by this car's driver.

It seems obvious to me that everyone in the future toward which the father in the image is pointing is white. The future toward which he points is both free of queers and free of people of color. (We should note also that the white people in the central image are actually standing inside the sun. As Dyer points out, white people are constantly associated with light (that is, with both knowledge/enlightenment/brightness and fairness/paleness) which is, in turn, constantly associated with the divine: a construction which serves to bolster whiteness and associate it with goodness/godliness and intelligence/wisdom.)

One of the particular anxieties about homosexuality is that "well, if we were all homosexual, who would populate the planet? We would all die out?" (This is discussed intelligently and thoroughly by Lee Edelman in No Future.) The notion of everyone becoming homosexual seems rather ridiculous, of course, but what this fear really points to is an anxiety not about human beings as a species dying out, but about white people becoming extinct or (and this is actually a much likelier prospect) becoming a racial minority in the West.

What this license plate so clearly states is that this ubiquitous coded phrase "family values" not only represents and advocates heterosexual family values but white family values. The racial constitution of the family in the license plate's central image is just as important as the genders of that family. And make no mistake, the families with which the driver of this car wants to populate the future are not gay and they are not lesbian, but neither are they Latino; they are not black; they are not Asian; they are not Native American; and even more importantly, they are not interracial.

It seems to me that while the future envisioned by this license plate may be one filled with light and one shined-0n by the sun, it is a future that is grim indeed.