Thursday, February 12, 2009

Musings from a black woman: Oh, really?

The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of "whiteness" as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?

The End of White America?, by Hua Hsu, The Atlantic. Super long post ahead. Pace yourselves, readers.

I first heard about this article on Tuesday's episode of The Colbert Report. So much to break down, so little time. To simplify my point, I will say this: white Americans make up 75% of the United States, the majority of the US Senate and the House of Representatives, the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs, and almost all of the main characters (and supporting characters) in US movies and television. One black family in the White House is not going to displace over 225 million people from their centuries-old dominance in this country.

As Bill Imada, head of the IW Group, a prominent Asian American communications and marketing company, puts it: "I think in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, [for] anyone who immigrated, the aspiration was to blend in and be as American as possible so that white America wouldn’t be intimidated by them. They wanted to imitate white America as much as possible: learn English, go to church, go to the same schools."

Today, the picture is far more complex. To take the most obvious example, whiteness is no longer a precondition for entry into the highest levels of public office. The son of Indian immigrants doesn’t have to become "white" in order to be elected governor of Louisiana. A half-Kenyan, half-Kansan politician can self-identify as black and be elected president of the United States.

However, there seems to be a one-black person limit for the US Senate, as well as for the Supreme Court.

Peter Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed "nerdy Jewish kid" and radio personality on New York’s Hot 97 FM—and a living example of how hip-hop has created new identities for its listeners that don’t fall neatly along lines of black and white—shares another example: "I interviewed [the St. Louis rapper] Nelly this morning, and he said it’s now very cool and in to have multicultural friends. Like you’re not really considered hip or 'you’ve made it' if you’re rolling with all the same people."

"Hey, Guillermo."

"What's up, Jamal?"

"Peter Rosenberg says that Nelly says it's very 'cool' and 'in' to have multicultural friends. And if you do have them, then you've made it."

"Made what?"

"I don't know, Guillermo. I still can't get a job with my degree in Sociology."

"It wasn't acceptable before to have multicultural friends?"

"Apparently not."

"But Jamal, we've been friends with Pierre and Hans and Padma and Xochitl for 15 years now, based on our similar interests and personalities, not because it's a trend. I wonder if Peter Goldberg has any multicultural friends."

"I doubt it."

Pop culture today rallies around an ethic of multicultural inclusion that seems to value every identity—except whiteness. "It’s become harder for the blond-haired, blue-eyed commercial actor," remarks Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, of the Hispanic marketing firm Enlace. "You read casting notices, and they like to cast people with brown hair because they could be Hispanic. The language of casting notices is pretty shocking because it's so specific: 'Brown hair, brown eyes, could look Hispanic.' Or, as one notice put it: 'Ethnically ambiguous.'"

Ethnically ambiguous usually translates to "light enough not to scare white people. But not white people like me. I'm one of the good ones! I'm not a racist. I just cater to the alleged racism of other people. Please don't hurt me!" For examples, please see Vanessa in Gossip Girl and Jennifer Beals's character in Flashdance (and Vin Diesel in general), both of whom had conveniently absent parents and no visible siblings, so that ethnic classification was impossible.

Furthermore, I do not understand how in an article about Barack Obama Mr. Hsu can seriously worry about laughable notion that there are fewer opportunities for white actors. Does he not know that every Saturday night, the almost entirely white male cast of SNL has their show open with Fred Armisen, made up in Angelina Jolie's brownface paint, playing a self-identified black man?

"I think white people feel like they’re under siege right now—like it's not okay to be white right now, especially if you’re a white male," laughs Bill Imada, of the IW Group. Imada and Newman-Carrasco are part of a movement within advertising, marketing, and communications firms to reimagine the profile of the typical American consumer. (Tellingly, every person I spoke with from these industries knew the Census Bureau’s projections by heart.)

"There’s a lot of fear and a lot of resentment," Newman-Carrasco observes, describing the flak she caught after writing an article for a trade publication on the need for more-diverse hiring practices. "I got a response from a friend—he's, like, a 60-something white male, and he’s been involved with multicultural recruiting,” she recalls. "And he said, 'I really feel like the hunted. It's a hard time to be a white man in America right now, because I feel like I’m being lumped in with all white males in America, and I've tried to do stuff, but it's a tough time.'"

"I always tell the white men in the room, 'We need you,'" Imada says. "We cannot talk about diversity and inclusion and engagement without you at the table. It's okay to be white!

"But people are stressed out about it. 'We used to be in control! We're losing control!'"

You know what I would tell them? Get over it. I would say it to their faces, too. Boo-hoo. You feel like you're "lumped in with all the white males in America"? Yeah, that's "tough". It's tough to be overrepresented in every boardroom, country club, television screen, movie screen, medical study, advertisement, book and magazine produced in the country you were born in. It's tough having one out of 44 leaders of your country, who has been in control for less than 100 days, not look exactly like you. What do you want, a cookie? Stop being so ignorant, and have some historical and cultural perspective.

“I get it: as a straight white male, I’m the worst thing on Earth,” Christian Lander says. Lander is a Canadian-born, Los Angeles–based satirist who in January 2008 started a blog called Stuff White People Like (, which pokes fun at the manners and mores of a specific species of young, hip, upwardly mobile whites. (He has written more than 100 entries about whites’ passion for things like bottled water, “the idea of soccer,” and “being the only white person around.”) At its best, Lander’s site—which formed the basis for a recently published book of the same name (reviewed in the October 2008 Atlantic)—is a cunningly precise distillation of the identity crisis plaguing well-meaning, well-off white kids in a post-white world.

“Like, I’m aware of all the horrible crimes that my demographic has done in the world,” Lander says. “And there’s a bunch of white people who are desperate—desperate—to say, ‘You know what? My skin’s white, but I’m not one of the white people who’s destroying the world.’”

For Lander, whiteness has become a vacuum. The “white identity” he limns on his blog is predicated on the quest for authenticity—usually other people’s authenticity. “As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab onto. You’re jealous! Pretty much every white person I grew up with wished they’d grown up in, you know, an ethnic home that gave them a second language. White culture is Family Ties and Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses—like, this is white culture. This is all we have.”

Lander’s "white people” are products of a very specific historical moment, raised by well-meaning Baby Boomers to reject the old ideal of white American gentility and to embrace diversity and fluidity instead. (“It’s strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They’ll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?”) But his lighthearted anthropology suggests that the multicultural harmony they were raised to worship has bred a kind of self-denial.

1. Christian Lander is Canadian; I thought we were talking about the United States.

2. "All" Christian Lander has is a multiple book deal, along with multiple mentions in popular, respected magazines like The Atlantic, or lesser known publications like The Boston Globe or The Los Angeles Times or The New York Times or CNN.

So, what's your damage, Heather?

Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University who is a fan of Lander's humor, has observed that many of his white students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: "They don’t care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, 'I don't have a culture.' They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional." Wray says that this feeling of being culturally bereft often prevents students from recognizing what it means to be a child of privilege—a strange irony that the first wave of whiteness-studies scholars, in the 1990s, failed to anticipate.

"Culture" doesn't pay the rent or put food on my family. Additionally, not all white people are culturally broke, privileged or loaded socioeconomically. Matt Wray should speak with Rochelle Newman-Carrasco's white male friend, because as that friend told us, white people are not all the same.

. . . we aspire to be post-racial, but we still live within the structures of privilege, injustice, and racial categorization that we inherited from an older order. We can talk about defining ourselves by lifestyle rather than skin color, but our lifestyle choices are still racially coded. We know, more or less, that race is a fiction that often does more harm than good, and yet it is something we cling to without fully understanding why—as a social and legal fact, a vague sense of belonging and place that we make solid through culture and speech.

But maybe this is merely how it used to be—maybe this is already an outdated way of looking at things. "You have a lot of young adults going into a more diverse world," [Karl Carter, of Atlanta’s youth-oriented GTM Inc. (Guerrilla Tactics Media)] remarks. For the young Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, culture is something to be taken apart and remade in their own image. "We came along in a generation that didn't have to follow that path of race," he goes on. "We saw something different." This moment was not the end of white America; it was not the end of anything. It was a bridge, and we crossed it.

It would be nice if that bridge was available to the many colorful students who are stuck in failing schools that were made worse by No Child Left Behind, or if it were available to those kids who can't escape the institutional poverty and/or racism that plagues them every day.

I leave you with a group of individuals on their own bridge, from Gs to Gents.



Peter said...

Ironically, the casting call for RAMBO had described Reese as an "African-American, tough as nails, a veteran of three tours in Iraq, who is nicknamed "The Iceman." He was played by Jake La Botz.

Anonymous said...

"I think white people feel like they’re under siege right now—like it's not okay to be white right now, especially if you’re a white male,"

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. How..? What..? Uh. My forehead is hurting from all the expressions my face went through reading this.

Is Barack being president all these people needed to be able to say white people are being persecuted??? They are living in a freaking fantasy world and... I have to stop now, cuz my eyebrows are about to pop off of my head.

Breathe and stop. For real.

Bianca Reagan said...

For real, ms.

FashionablyEvil said...

Thanks for posting this. I started reading this article and was wondering when they were going to get to get to the massive imbalances in government and corporate power and income and health disparities or anything else demonstrating the institutionalized racism and inequality in this country. And they never did...