Our “white people problems” problem: Why it’s time to stop using “white” as a pejorative
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About a month ago, when Mad Men returned from its long hiatus and the Internet exploded with reviews, interviews, and think-pieces, a colleague I follow on Twitter passed along something one of his friends said, suggesting that Mad Men is just “Roots for white people.” That’s actually a reasonably astute observation, since a large part of the appeal of watching Mad Men comes from vicariously touring the not-so-remote past, to try and better understand what shaped our culture and the generations before us. And given that the world Mad Men depicts is almost exclusively one of white privilege, then yes, the “way we were” aspect of the show probably does appeal more (though not exclusively) to the children and grandchildren of the kinds of people on the screen. Still, when I first read that comment, I didn’t think, “That’s clever,” or, “That’s funny.” My first reaction was knee-jerk irritation, because that’s probably the hundredth time this year alone that I’ve read the words “for white people” or “that looks very white” or “white people problems” tossed around smugly and reductively, as a way of summarizing the essence of a situation or a piece of art.
Granted, it’s not like sneering at Caucasians is a wholly new phenomenon—or even wholly unwelcome. The website Stuff White People Like was a huge success a few years back, and in the ’80s, comedian Martin Mull and writer Allen Rucker did well with the book and HBO special The History Of White People In America. Post-Richard Pryor, both black and white comedians—not to mention Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern—have made blunt jokes about the differences between the races. The “white people are square and bland” gag is an old one, and for the most part, it’s both harmless and healthy.
But increasingly, people aren’t sniping about “whiteness” to be funny, or even defiant—at least not entirely. They’re using the term as a form of criticism, meant to be dismissive. “That movie looks very white,” or, “That sounds like music for white people,” is another way of saying, “That can’t be any good.” And I do have a problem with that.
To some extent, this is mainly a personal beef. I get annoyed whenever anyone slaps a label on something and then presumes that the label itself says all that needs to be said. Whenever a critic or a potential audience member sniffs about “dad rock” or “chick lit” or “one for the fanboys,” it raises my hackles. If you’d rather not engage with what a piece of art actually is—as in, what it expresses and how well it expresses it—then fine. But don’t presume some kind of superiority because of that choice. One of the biggest fallacies in the way we talk about art is this idea that somehow personal taste equates to quality: That each of us miraculously only enjoys movies and music that are the best of their respective medium, and ergo, any movies and music we don’t enjoy must be terrible. It’s a standard we generally only apply to art (well, and politics). If we dislike salmon, we don’t presume salmon itself to be bad; we just understand we don’t have a taste for it, and we’re generally willing to acknowledge that if prepared properly, we might even be capable of enjoying the occasional piece of salmon. It’s not that degrees of “good” and “bad” don’t exist, but ultimately our taste in art isn’t so different from our taste in food, in that it’s personal, and—if we’re being honest with ourselves—fairly malleable.
What’s even more aggravating, though, is that the use of “white” as a tag of shame has the inadvertent but real effect of reducing “non-white” elements to mere ornamentation. I wrote a little about this a few years ago, in a Popless column about the insidious habit of critics judging other critics based on the diversity of their year-end lists:
Unless you’re speaking as an enthusiast, wanting to share something you love with fellow music fans, then you can easily come off as an ideological bully, and thereby inadvertently imply that rappers and R&B artists don’t have any intrinsic value beyond the credibility they bestow. Before long, it all turns into an insidious game of fine distinctions, where critics pick through each other’s Top 10 lists and bicker over whether the black artists on them are black enough.
In that same piece, I wrote that noting an under-representation of minorities in the public sphere is necessary, because otherwise complacency sets in and institutions continue to conduct business without considering the benefits of real diversity. But just totting up persons of color doesn’t tell the entire story. The real question is whether a perspective is represented: Not the perspective of an entire group of people, but the perspective of a person, with his or her own experiences to convey. What’s most troubling to me about the use of “white people problems” as a jokey rejoinder is that it seems to imply that non-white people don’t use computers, or go to restaurants, or get cable TV, or exist in a world where our common, petty annoyances with such things apply.
The HBO series Girls has been a good jumping-off point for this whole discussion. There’s been some contentious debate online over the past two weeks about whether the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, dropped the ball by setting her show in a vibrantly multicultural New York and then having all of her main characters be white. As I noted in my Very Special Episode column about Better Off Ted, this is a common issue with New York-set sitcoms, such as Friends and Seinfeld. But it’s unfortunate that the executives at a channel that once aired The Wire and the underrated How To Make It In America didn’t politely suggest to Dunham that she might be missing a key component to the world of her show. It’s not that it’s unrealistic that a group of friends—even in New York—would all be of the same skin color, but the lack of diversity even in the larger milieu of Girls speaks to how otherwise well-meaning artists can default to a position where everyone in their work is at least superficially similar.
On the other hand, a big part of me agrees with critic Glenn Kenny here, who wrote on Twitter that, “If you have urge to write on gender/race/class issues of an HBO series, please listen to Phil Ochs’ ‘Love Me I'm A Liberal’ 500 times first.” There’s an element of “comfortable white folks picking on other comfortable white folks” to a lot of the Girls criticism (though not all, I hasten to add). As other critics have pointed out, the hue and cry over the whiteness of Girls may be covertly about something else, especially given that shows like Bored To Death and How I Met Your Mother haven’t been so intensely scrutinized. Some of the Girls nitpickers seem to be funneling their issues with other aspects of the show—the depiction of privilege, the emphasis on women, the youth of its creator—into the race question, where their objections will seem less reactionary and more righteous.
I repeat: This is not the case with every column (or tweet, or blog post) criticizing Girls for being too monochrome. For the most part, this line of attack is completely legitimate. But that’s the big problem with the eruption of “too white” as a putdown: It turns real complaints that deserve a fair hearing into part of the nagging buzz of self-satisfied snark that pervades our culture today. There are too many people who disingenuously gripe about how “white” something is when they’re really trying to say that it’s not brassy or badass enough for their taste—that it’s salmon, not a buffalo wing.
So here’s the challenge to all you people who toss around “white” as a synonym for “lame” on the Internet: Suggest alternatives. Name a movie, a TV show, a book, a piece of music, or anything that meets your standards for non-“whiteness.” I’m not baiting you here; I’m asking sincerely. If you’re really interested in encouraging diversity, do so in a positive way, by calling attention to some valuable work that’s flying below the radar. Tell us to listen to Charles Bradley, or seek out the films of Ramin Bahrani, or read the comics of Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, or appreciate the nuanced depiction of the black middle-class on the much-missed TNT drama Men Of A Certain Age. Light the way instead of huffily trying to snuff others’ enthusiasm.
Unless of course you’re only race-baiting to score points and make yourself look cool. But you wouldn’t do that, would you? I mean, only a terrible human being would exploit centuries of struggle against oppression and marginalization just to get out of seeing a Wes Anderson movie.
ADDENDUM: After this piece was written, Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress posted a well-researched list of some of the women of color working on the creative side of television. And since I mentioned some of the well-reasoned criticisms of Girls' lack of diversity, I should link to one of the better ones: this piece by Jenna Wortham of The Hairpin.