We’ve spent the past few weeks talking about Whiteness, but maybe it’s time just to ask the question directly.
When I say something’s White, what image pops into your head?
Is it something like this?
Or something like this?
Or maybe one of these?
There is a certain image attached to White people, or the very least, generalized to White “culture.” That of the dork. The effete nerd. The bland, out-of-touch suburbanite, fearfully barricading themselves in their comfortable gated community.
And that’s a little ****ed up.
My day isn’t ruined when I hear a comedian lampoon White folks. I don’t fly into an indignant rage when someone cracks a joke about mayonnaise being too spicy. I certainly don’t think being called “Cracker” carries the same nasty implications as someone getting called “Nigger.”
But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy me just a tiny bit.
“White people can’t dance.”
Again, this isn’t exactly life or death here, but it’s a little bit annoying – as is some of the reasoning behind it. To hear some folks talk, it’s a matter of spreading out the injustice equally. Everyone needs to have unfair image. Black people get characterized as thugs, Asian people get characterized as robots, so it would be unfair not to attach a stereotype.
I don’t really buy that.
And I don’t really buy the arguments presented by comedian Aamer Rahman, who argues that historic White oppression, colonization, and continued domination of the world makes “reverse racism” impossible. Given how fluid “Whiteness” is (something we’ve talked about before and will again in a minute), I don’t think that’s a solid explanation either.
Of course in saying this, I’ve probably managed to get any White supremacist and MRA readers (go **** yourselves, by the way) practically salivating.
“See!?” They sob, “See?! There’s totally a global conspiracy against the White male! Why is it that White guys always get portrayed as inept, ignorant, Homer Simpson-esque morons!?”
Because they ****ing aren’t.
So are we done with all that?
This isn’t about justice, it’s not even about privilege (everything Evan said to Tal Fortgang still stands), but about an accurate representation – if such a thing presently exists.
Because it is a stereotype. In spite of the variety of subcultures and backgrounds that comprise the White population of the US, this image of blandness has survived and even thrived. Type “White People” into Google Images and you’ll be hit with photo after photo of near-identical Aryans in pastel oxfords and polos in upper-middle-class settings. You’ll even come across this sarcastic photo from a College Humor listicle on “8 Reasons To Feel Bad For White People” – a list which confirms many of the statements we’ve already made:
Is there any truth to it then?
In a certain sense (and only a certain sense), yes there is.
In the words of Kansas University professor David Roediger (a leading figure in White studies),
“Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.”
In other words, Whiteness has been defined, in the US at least, in contrast to everything else. To be White is to be non-Black, non-Asian, non-Latino (depending on the point in history), etc. And when you treat “White” as the standard, as “normal”, then everything around it suddenly becomes threatening, enticing, exotic, unusual – you name it.
Of course, I’m not saying that’s what Whiteness is, only that it’s how Whiteness is treated. For plenty of folks out there, that’s what it means to be White. White equals “Normal”, “Normal” equals boring. Plain. But it’s not just blandness we’re dealing with here, it’s the implication that Whiteness equals privilege. Wealth. Power. Injustice. Oppression.
We’ve talked about this before – White guilt and white pride are two ugly sides of the same racist coin. But it’s not something we can just dismiss offhand. White guilt is an undeniable part of our culture. It’s not the pervasive epidemic of “self-hatred” White supremacists portray it as, but there’s definitely something to be said for White folks not being comfortable with where they are:
With all that in mind, I think I can empathize with some of the stuff other folks might be tempted to be contemptuous of. I’m talking St. Patrick’s Day here:
Yours truly spent March 17th in a bar in Northwestern Las Vegas. I drank beer, did shots, consumed copious amounts of corned beef and whisky, and generally everything else one might associate with a lazy stereotype of the Emerald Isle. Packed all around me were other patrons, decked out in “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirts. Sporting green ties. Green lipstick. Shamrock tattoos.
And far be it from me to cast doubt upon the good patrons of Big Dog’s Draft House, but I suspect that not all of them were actually Irish!
But that’s not really the point, now is it?
It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, when everyone’s Irish. When people will dance a flippin’ jig to explain to you how their great-grandfather’s-cousin’s-friend came over from Cork or Kildare.
Because it’s more than a little stupid, isn’t it? Take the folks who boast “I’m Irish” and drop ‘em off over in Ireland, and what you’ll see isn’t some kind of glorious homecoming as a cringefest of untold proportions. And there’s absolutely is abuse of it – pure and simple. I recall working in an Italian restaurant (for first-generation immigrants) and having an upset customer approach the owner. She proceeded to complain to him for a solid ten minutes before finally declaring “Look, I’m Italian, I get it.”
For the record, she was not Italian, she was a ****bag. Being a ****bag is not part of anyone’s culture. Being “Irish” (i.e., someone’s whose great-grandparents may or may not have been Irish) isn’t an excuse for drunken, loutish behavior. There is nothing inherent in Ashkenazi DNA that makes you inherently self-deprecating or prone to complaints. Being Southern doesn’t make you hospitable, being hospitable makes you hospitable.
That said, I kinda get it. The spurious claims of Old World heritage. The shamrocks. The candles on St. Lucia’s Day. The litany of non-English curses and oaths.
People want something more than what they have. I don’t blame them for that. “Consumer” is not an identity, no matter how much our Capitalist taskmasters would insist otherwise. Simply stated:
That’s what iconic African-American thinker James Baldwin wrote in On Being White and Other Lies. His argument was that the myriad groups seeking a better life on these shores – Norwegians, Jews, Germans, Italians – who were not White but became White with the permission of the ruling elite. In essence, “Whiteness” is not an identity – only an honorific term given to those at the top of the social order. Provided, of course, they cannibalize their cultures for anything marketable and throw the rest out the window. “Family” doesn’t sell quite as well as “garlic breadsticks”, after all. And there’s no shortage of other examples:
Obviously the cruel machinations of Capitalism are hardly exclusive to White people, but in terms of building the identity of the “consumer” White folks have certainly been a preferred target.
Slate’s Tanner Colby writes:
“As the [advertising] industry began to mature in the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturers of brand-name goods mostly ignored black consumers; the pages of black newspapers were dominated by advertisements for beauty care products specific to the black market, cigarettes, and liquor. This was in part because nobody thought black consumers had much money, but mostly because nobody thought much about them at all. Even those companies that did recognize the considerable purchasing power that blacks had didn’t advertise to them for one simple reason: They were scared for their brands to be associated with blacks.”
Naturally this isn’t to say that whitewashing, exclusion, and marginalization are somehow not so bad (we spend a decent chunk of this blog arguing otherwise). Rather, it’s to say these things are toxic not only to non-Whites but to Whites as well. Not in the same way or on the same level, but we here at CWR aren’t believers in lesser-evilism.
Again, this is all just speculation, but still one I think that merits consideration. Regardless of the cause, the result seems to be a ubiquitous of image of “White” people.
Golf, Frisbee, shorts, boats, stocks, houses, Starbucks, yoga, opera, Trader Joe’s, dinner parties bikes – everything you can find Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, in spite of the fact that they don’t represent me or anyone I know.
So is that the solution then? Should folks hop on Ancestry.com and try to reconnect with their Old World heritage?
I don’t know if such a thing is possible, let alone desirable. How exactly does one express his or her identity through being 1/48th Oglala Sioux with a dash of Swiss and Andorran Ashkenazi? It’s a bit ridiculous, but that said, I don’t think the folks who claim “just be ‘American’” or “just be ‘White’” have much to go on either. Being White in upper class Vermont is a world apart from being White in lower class West Texas.
So again, what’s to be done? There’s clearly a deep hunger for something more fulfilling, more substantive than the consumerist “you-are-what-you-buy” identity…
…But what might that be? Class consciousness?
Some new identity forged by the unique challenges and struggles of the early 21st Century?
I wonder if they have these issues in Canada…