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.