Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making fun of dorky white people is actually kind of racist (and not against white people)

There are a lot of pretty funny collections of white folks' photos all over the internet, including this one,  “The 29 Whitest Family Photos of All Time.”  As is often the case, “white” means dorky, uncool, and awkward (my biggest complaint is that the category automatically rules out my many dorky black, Latino, and Asian friends, whose dorky-ass pictures are friggin' HILARIOUS, including one who shall remain nameless but will be obvious to all who remember his denim shorts well into his early twenties. But more on non-white dorks later.)  In a somewhat different sense than these funny-photos-of-weirdoes, the blog, Stuff White People Like codes being white as rich, trendy, and smug, with all the right political commitments and cultural signifiers.  These signifiers—according to the blog—are sometimes related to race, especially the degree to which white people want to show their sympathy for the plight of the black underclass, as well as their deep appreciation for black urban culture, which basically means liking hip hop and really, really liking The Wire.

I read or heard an interview with the guy behind Stuff White People Like some years ago (I just looked at the blog and it hasn’t been updated since 2010, which is also when the second book came out), and he admitted that what he was describing was actually more about socio-economic status than race.  As he said, and as should be obvious, lots of non-white people also like the things he’s describing, and lots of other white people don’t. Yet it’s telling that the blog isn’t titled, Stuff Upwardly-Mobile Urban Professional Like (which would probably be more accurate).  The use of the word white is important, and not only because it’s pithier.  By writing about what white people like, whites are able to make clear what non-white people don’t like.  I know, I know: that’s not the intention, you say, and of course we know some black people like this stuff too, or Asians or Latinos, or what have you.  But that’s not the title (which still hasn’t changed).

The variegated stuff that while people are said to like all mark high status.  You might say that misses the point, because, well, that stuff is just funny: the various items show smug stupidity, or silly obsessions, or simple obliviousness.   Well and good.  But that kind of self-mockery comes from a position of strength, and it’s actually a reinforcement of social dominance (just as the King, during Carnival, could show his power by agreeing to be mocked).  Perhaps more importantly, the flaws that the blog presents actually help their white (note: not upper-class—it’s in the title) purveyors to succeed in the economy and elite cultural milieus.  It might be silly that we white folks love, say, microbrews and sweaters, but these habits are also really useful ways to connect to other members of the elite, as anyone who’s read Bourdieu—or been to a fancy party—can tell you.

Which brings us back to the “whitest” photos of this or that ridiculousness.  The message in these pictures is a bit different from the SWPL blog: it tends to show pictures of white working class and lower middle-class folks alongside their wealthier cousins, and the lesson is less that whites are silly snobs and more that they’re awkward dorks.  Yet there winds up being a similar moral to the story, because distinguishing white people as awkward weirdoes (and to say that acting this way is white implies that not being white means not acting this way) also winds up reinforcing white people’s power in modern America.  As my friend Bob Wardlaw pointed out to me, being an awkward dork is often correlated with intelligence.  In this country at this time, being smart means not only economic success but also a moral justification for that success.  It makes sense that guy’s rich, because he’s smart.  And who’s smart?  Well dorks.  And who are dorks? Well, white people.

The underlying racism here should be obvious, but the obverse is just as dangerous.  It’s silly to even have to point out that we’re not encouraging inner-city minority kids—especially African Americans—to take education seriously.  There are obviously lots of great inner-city parents doing exactly that, but as a society, our inexcusable ignoring of in inner-city education (yes it’s getting better, but it still has a long way to go) does a lot to demonstrate that being smart (dorky?) is not a big deal, and not necessarily even a way to succeed.  Add to that our knee-jerk equation of black (and especially black male) with athlete, and we have the the equal and opposite sort of stereotype for black kids.  Haha, it’s funny that all whites are dorks.  And isn’t it awesome that all blacks are athletic? 

But where do those stereotypes get you, besides just being wrong? For a very few talented athletes, sure: you might get a job (though even athletic success is correlated with economic privilege).  But for the majority of those young jocks, they spent countless incredibly valuable hours and days and years of young adulthood cultivating skills that are just about useless.  (Yes, I think that sports are awesome both for the individual and for the society; but in moderation, like practicing piano, or anything else. And by the way this problem of jock culture is not unique to young black men: it's a big problem for a lot of working-class white sub-communities as well, though at least those kids aren't running up against the idea that their very DNA equals athleticism-above-all-else).  And then there’s the basic empirical fact that plenty of black kids are actually really bad at sports (as are, by they way, plenty of white kids).  Black folks are also often very dorky and awkward, as are Asians, and Latinos, and Native Americans, and yes, white folks.  It is precisely the insistence that being a minority (especially black) is somehow cooler than being white that epitomizes the problem, and for many reasons.  First, being cool is a survival strategy, a means of not caring so as to suffer through whatever the world throws at you.  Being dorky means that you can take the world as it is, because it will basically provide for you and leave you alone.  Insisting on cool means insisting on the need for protection, and allowing for dorkiness means that protection won’t be required.   Even more importantly, messages about a race's inherent coolness (or lack of coolness) tells young socially awkward non-white kids (of which there are many, probably—shockingly enough—as many as there are socially awkward white kids) that they are somehow extra-weird.  Photos that talk about how dorky white people are subtly force non-white people to avoid being dorks.  Yet being a dork (and I speak as an expert on the subject) is actually incredibly awesome, and leads to all sorts of experiences of creativity, sensitivity, and intellectual growth that you can't really find when you're busy being cool.  White folks have taken too much already.  We can't take being dorky too. 

Yet to acknowledge this, to admit that pictures of dorky people are no more “white” than they are any other race, is to realize that using a racial category—even as a means of self-mockery—brings with it a whole lot of difficult racial baggage. That’s not to say we should avoid racial categories.  It drives me nuts when people –often well-meaning conservatives—say we should just get rid of the word “black” or “African-American” because we’re all just people.  Racial categories still exist—ask anyone who’s experienced racism—and we still have to be able to talk about them.  Perhaps more importantly, race has been inextricably mixed with culture in this country, and so to ask some people to stop taking about race would be to ask them to stop talking about pretty important elements of their lives.  So I’m not saying we should get rid of words like white or black or anything else.  I’m saying we should be careful when we use them, and that we should acknowledge our privilege and power, even when we’re just making fun of ourselves.