More on Anticipating the End of White America

by zunguzungu

“As a purely demographic matter, ‘white America’ may cease to exist in 2040, 2050, or 2060, or later still. But where the culture is concerned, it’s already all but finished.”

— Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America”

That “the” before the word culture and the “already” that modifies it is where I get off the bus. I’m occasionally optimistic about the power of symbolic politics, but I found in this article, quite frankly, reasons to be less so. It isn’t just that “the end of white America” seems to be happening painlessly and without struggle, though that’s certainly part of it. The notion that a four century long history of racial conflict will resolve itself as the country fills up with immigrants is attractive, but it is attractive the same way “clean coal” is attractive, and just as nonsensically: declaring that the problem is its own solution is a nice fantasy, but it’s hardly a viable program of action. And any notion that increased immigration coincides with decreased racial tension needs, to say the least, to at least acknowledge all the data that would suggest the opposite to be true (not simply presume that demographic change will result in cultural change).
Hua Hsu doesn’t say this, exactly (and maybe I’m unfairly pigeonholing him), but that quote above is printed in large type with a whole page all to itself, and the implication not only that a thing called “culture” is going to magically regulate our society’s injustices, but that it already has is a powerful leitmotif of the piece. Hua Hsu is nowhere near silly enough to say this in a truly comprehensive sense; examples like the murder of Oscar Grant illustrate the ways that violence against people of color is still a basic constitutive part of the fabric of our society, and I have no reason to think that he would disagree about that. But “Oscar Grant,” as I’m — perhaps somewhat callously — employing him as metaphor, does not exist in this article, and cannot. Instead, the article takes it for granted that “whiteness has no inherent meaning–it is a vessel we fill with our hopes and anxieties,” a fixation on a particular mobilization of the conception that, by its exclusive focus, forgets other meanings that the term has. Yet is this negative definition of whiteness (as an empty space) really a thing to be celebrated?

DuBois wrote that the definition of blackness was having to ride Jim Crow in Georgia, and his point was simple and powerful: race is as lived. And by that standard, to say that “whiteness has no inherent meaning” comes uncomfortably close to the idea that it has no meaning at all, which is less true than symptomatic of the meaning it does have. As DuBois might say, whiteness is not having to “ride Jim Crow in Georgia” (or whatever the present day analogy would be). It has a lived meaning — a negative one — and the idea that “white” no longer being a literal demographic majority will naturally transform that practical culture is a profoundly begged question, one that needs to be asked seriously, but never assumed.

Firstly, the word “privilege” needs to enter the conversation. Yet if whiteness implies privilege — and I dare anyone to say that it doesn’t — and “race” implies dis-privilege, then the problem is that one can experience “disprivilege” but one cannot feel the experience of not being “disprivileged.” It is a negative experience, real, but not tangible. Which is simply one of the privileges of whiteness: its status as negative, the particular kind of ignorance about itself that gives white people the ability to ignore race, precisely because it isn’t something that white people experience. This asymmetry needs to be addressed, the fact that “White” and “Black” are not only not opposed terms, but don’t even function in the same way. And the slippery way that this article’s use of “black” and “white” melts into “majority” and “minority” (and vice versa) deserves some scrutiny, not least because of something the ethnicity of the article’s author implicitly reminds us of: race is not simply a question of black and white, nor would the non-majority status of being white necessarily imply that black people would be any less saddled with whatever it might be that “minority” status entails.

To be blunt, I’m not at all convinced that the triumph of hip-hop is the great triumph that he seems to think it is. I’d like to be convinced of it, but I’m not. For example, in describing Sean Combs as “both a product and a hero of the new cultural mainstream, which prizes diversity above all else,” a great deal of stress gets laid on the idea that hip-hop now defines “normality,” that to be a part of mainstream culture is now to take on the trappings of a genre with its roots in the black experience. There’s something to that. It surely is significant that what were previously markers of minority status have now become the characteristics of something quite powerfully majoritarian; it is no exaggeration to say that hip-hop is now mainstream, and that’s something we have to figure out, and use. It is amazing that the President Elect of the United States could walk into Ben’s Chili Bowl, pay with a twenty and refuse change saying (without a hint of irony or affectation) “No, we straight.”

But Hua Hsu’s story is too easily triumphant: “Just as Tiger Woods forever changed the country-club culture of golf, and Will Smith confounded stereotypes about the ideal Hollywood leading man, hip-hop’s rise is helping redefine the American mainstream, which no longer aspires toward a single iconic image of style or class…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.'”

My heart aches for the poor Aryan commercial actor. But the thing is this: white people have always postured as ethnically ambiguous. For every crank shouting “Defend the Anglo-Saxon Race!” to a crowd of no one important, you have thousands and thousands of white people who believe (who feel) that black and latino and so forth are ethnicities, but that white is normal, precisely not an ethnicity but the absence of ethnic markers. And you have a gigantic cultural apparatus that daily reminds them of this fact. This kind of whiteness isn’t experienced in positive terms, but as a negative, an absence of the terrible oppression of being “not normal.” And in this narrative, I might observe, the arrival of the “post-racial” event is something more akin to the emancipation proclamation than the civil rights movement, more an excuse to overlook the racism that exists (and pretend that freedom has come) than a concrete movement to eradicate it.

Further on down, this quote from Christian Lander (the guy behind stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) gets at the heart of what I find troubling about all this:

“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.'”

As a variety of people have pointed out, the stuffwhitepeoplelike phenomenon is not so much about “whiteness” full stop, but about a very particular bourgeois subset of it, an identity “predicated on the quest for authenticity-usually other people’s authenticity.” But this is whiteness, or at least the kind of whiteness I’m most conscious of. To be white is to be “normal,” and part of that normality is the ability to take on attributes of other people who are less “normal,” who are somehow “different,” and whose difference then becomes a commodity that “white people” (and only them) can use and profit from. To make “race” a possession, it can’t be a thing attached to you; it has to be a thing, like a wig, that you can put on and take off. But what Lander so nicely anatomizes is the way the sense of guilt from demography, the feeling of having inherited a legacy of injustice suffered by other people, can be exorcised precisely not by solidarity, activism, or organizing, but the pursuit of moral purity through consumer products. Instead, it is enough to say “I’m not one of them” and prove it by consuming a racially coded product. But you never deal with the problem of privilege by turning away from it; that’s called having your cake and eating it too.