Whither Whiteness? Nonwhiteness?

I’ve been meaning to link to Hua Hsu’s compelling essay, “The End of Whiteness,” for a few days now. In it, he suggests that we live in an America that is culturally “post-white,” and that there are pockets of touchstones (Larry the Cable Guy, NASCAR, etc.) that like hip-hop, have come to serve as oppositional bastions of authenticity.

As with the unexpected success of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels, or the Jeff Foxworthy–organized Blue Collar Comedy Tour, the rise of country music and auto racing took place well off the American elite’s radar screen. (None of Christian Lander’s white people would be caught dead at a NASCAR race.) These phenomena reflected a growing sense of cultural solidarity among lower-middle-class whites—a solidarity defined by a yearning for American “authenticity,” a folksy realness that rejects the global, the urban, and the effete in favor of nostalgia for “the way things used to be.”

Like other forms of identity politics, white solidarity comes complete with its own folk heroes, conspiracy theories (Barack Obama is a secret Muslim! The U.S. is going to merge with Canada and Mexico!), and laundry lists of injustices. The targets and scapegoats vary—from multiculturalism and affirmative action to a loss of moral values, from immigration to an economy that no longer guarantees the American worker a fair chance—and so do the political programs they inspire. (Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan both tapped into this white identity politics in the 1990s; today, its tribunes run the ideological gamut, from Jim Webb to Ron Paul to Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin.) But the core grievance, in each case, has to do with cultural and socioeconomic dislocation—the sense that the system that used to guarantee the white working class some stability has gone off-kilter.

This is a self-conscious, deliberate “whiteness,” Hsu suggests, which is markedly different from the way “whiteness” was perceived/thought of before hip-hop and multiculturalism; that is, whiteness as a vacuum. Matt Feeney agrees, but wonders why Hsu stops there.

Among contemporary scholars of race, whiteness is typically treated as this alchemic creation, a mix of legal and cultural creations rooted in the political and demographic struggles and scientific fictions of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These evolve and adjust through the 20th Century, but their fundamental status as epiphenomenal, constructed, rhetorical remains the same. But alongside this fiction of whiteness, blackness gets a different epistemology. When blackness appears as the counterpart of whiteness (as the thing that gives whiteness its defining contours as an ideal, as the negative Other of whiteness), it, too, is treated as a product of these alchemical forces. Blackness, like whiteness, is a construct, a fiction. But when blackness appears on the scene as a cultural force of its own, breaking the fetters of whiteness and staking out its own claims in the open space of popular culture, and transforming that culture, the racial academic takes it on its own terms. …

I do mean to point out the sudden lapse in suspicion of the scholars marking it, the sudden failure to treat this new ascendant blackness as itself a construct. And, to the extent that a certain inauthenticity is admitted to operate within black culture – and here I’m talking mainly about hip hop – it is usually those parodic and self-mythologizing moments that are conscious elements of a racial performance. That is, the constructed aspects of blackness are constantly enfolded back into a narrative of authentic redemption and/or opposition, into a coherent identity-package that is not taken to be pathological and unself-knowing in the manner of whiteness. Even in Hsu’s treatment, the reflex of retrenchment among the whitest whites – expressed in things like NASCAR, etc. – is taken as buried under layers of subconscious evasion about its real racial character, while the nonwhite cultural forces that generate this response are taken as things in themselves, the straight-up being of nonwhiteness.


8 thoughts on “Whither Whiteness? Nonwhiteness?

  1. quadmoniker January 14, 2009 at 6:42 pm Reply

    As I told G.D., I haven’t read the piece but I completely disagree that this is a new construct. As someone from the Nascar-loving segment of America, I can tell you that people in this subculture never considered themselves part of mainstream Whiteness (which, let’s be honest, is really defined in part by its middle-classness.) The people who live in the vast and sparsely populated middle of the country were the Scottish, Irish, and German settlers who couldn’t make it all the way to California. They built the railroads and they stopped when they could find a piece of land. Even early Irish settlers weren’t considered “white” in Anglo-Saxon America when they first came over in droves. These groups always saw themselves as ostracized, and they were always establishing their own culture in an ever expanding new frontier. Remember, the Nascar-loving part of the America is, by and large, the part of America that tried to secede just a little more than a hundred years ago. Those families never looked like the Leave it to Beaver suburban family above, and they never felt like their reality was reflected back at them on television, even before hip hop. It was that feeling, the feeling that this part of the country was lorded over by the cultural and intellectual hegemony of the northeast, that the Republicans so successfully tapped into. I just don’t buy that this is a new phenomenon at all.

  2. ladyfresshh January 14, 2009 at 11:38 pm Reply

    quad – I have to say i’m bemused.

    This is the second time today that ‘whiteness’ was broken down to me as not ‘simply white’ the centuries of cultural assimilation is now working against the current popularity of ethnic exoticism that has been rising for a few decades now. My coworker, i’d mark her from the ‘mainstream white’ you referred to, though she has pointed out her more humble roots to also avoid that label because it’s slowly hitting me how politically incorrect it seems to be to be white.

    I think this is the difference the new spin on this culture myth. The fight seems to be almost schizophrenic between the declarations of ‘more than just white’, the appearing low man on the totem pole but the reality that popular culture still slants heavily towards the white bias/standard. I’ll point out the still labeled ‘nude’ panty hose as my still favorite example, though it is a tangent and point out this adbusters piece as a fantastic example of what i mean

    This is not new though the perspective from white eyes actualy maybe though i still think it’s a false alarm.

  3. quadmoniker January 15, 2009 at 10:08 am Reply

    If I can discern your meaning properly, which is hard, I have to say I think you missed my point. This subculture’s belief that it operates in opposition to mainstream culture is not new. And of course pointing out one’s humble origins is common. It’s, again, just not new. It’s an American foundation myth.

    I have to say though, I am confused as to how my assertion that the perception of whiteness is shaded and changes over time is taken to mean that I don’t think white people have a leg up in this world, or that “whiteness” is the starting assumption in popular culture. That’s not what I said at all.

  4. G.D. January 15, 2009 at 10:32 am Reply

    wooo. ‘if I can discern your meaning properly, which is hard…’

    ‘thought it was me!’ (c) Bell Biv Devoe

  5. ladyfresshh January 15, 2009 at 11:49 am Reply

    Let’s take it from the These groups always saw themselves as ostracized. As ostracized as they may feel or may have felt the fact of the matter is inclusion is and was as simple as a change of dialect or clothes as opposed to a change in skin color or facial features which leaves them closer to the myth/standard or created construct than others. I think the newness of the current position is valid in relation to the current social construct. Instead of their (self viewed) individual ostracization they really are being lumped in with other whites and (probably) feel it more because of the (supposed)widening of the rest of the cultural strata. The ‘shades of whiteness’ seems almost irrelevant to the overall perception he is referring to taking it from a coherent identity-package to what hiphop has become and the road the nascar segment is appearing to take … parodic and self-mythologizing moments that are conscious elements of a racial performance.

  6. quadmoniker January 15, 2009 at 1:20 pm Reply

    I didn’t start a contest to see who has it worse in America, and I don’t see why you’re trying to do that. I never said that people in this group don’t achieve success, or that they have hard and fast barriers to doing so (but, frankly, don’t think changing one’s culture or dialect is “simple”). I said they have always viewed their culture as separate. Hip hop is just a relatively new thing to view it against.

    I don’t care to take any more time to explain my point. If you have more problems, feel free to express them. If other people want to join in the fray, that’s their prerogative.

  7. ladyfresshh January 15, 2009 at 5:00 pm Reply

    i’m finding your defensiveness a bit puzzling, sorry if ive offended

    i was simply(or not so simply as i keep being reminded i’m obtuse i’m bad at multitasking apologies folks) pointing out that the details you offered didn’t discount the point that was being made.

    i read this as a point in cultures, and the subcultures that belong to them, that had been and are being built come to be viewed through new eyes and take on additional meaning in relation to the current cultural social prism

  8. robynj January 16, 2009 at 10:52 am Reply

    LF: QM’s point was: this is not new. That’s it. You seem to have gone somewhere…else.

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