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Whiteness Visible

Adam Mansbach's novel interrogates the idea of white privilege via the character of Macon, who considers himself the downest white boy ever.
 
 
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"Every time you hear an expansive white man drop into his version of black English, you are in the presence of blackface's unconscious return." -- Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

"This was hip hop's whitest generation yet, the growth factor exponential -- to the point where a white presence onstage of a white audience majority came as no surprise -- and yet they never seemed to wonder what their proper place was, whether they were at lounging at tables marked Reserved. Why should they? They were keeping it real. That was their only responsibility, not figuring out what real was ... or for whom they were keeping it." -- Adam Mansbach, Angry Black White Boy, or the Miscegenation of Macon Detornay

As Spike Lee's brilliant, underrated 2000 film Bamboozled showed, white fascination with black cultural production has not evolved much farther from the turn of the century's fetishized minstrelsy described by Eric Lott. Think of the Bamboozled scene where the lily-white executive Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport) argues that he's blacker than Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who can't even recognize Jackie Robinson on the wall. Dunwitty's slang, his black wife, his office full of African-American memorabilia, and his repeated use of the word "nigger"? All are signs pointing out that Dunwitty, regardless of his skin color, believes that he is blacker than Damon Wayans' frustrated Pierre, who fantasizes during the conversation about beating Dunwitty without mercy for his choice of terminology.

The concrete type of blackface minstrelsy that Eric Lott explored in his indispensable 1993 book Love and Theft is more or less completely out of vogue. But with the radical explosion of hip hop and all of its cultural and racial complexities, it has once again come under heavy scrutiny. Lott's thesis about minstrelsy stemmed from what he perceived as the dual energies of love and theft; that is, white performers were compelled by both envy and contempt for the black bodies they so readily lampooned and assumed -- and that contradictory imperative has, especially as the hip-hop lifestyle has evolved to dominate popular culture, done nothing else but explosively proliferate.

But Lee's point in Bamboozled is a deadly serious one: For every Elvis Presley, Beastie Boys or Vanilla Ice that burns up the charts by offering borrowed or sometimes outright stolen goods, there is a Chuck Berry, Parliament-Funkadelic or Madlib undeservedly lurking far below the cultural radar, simply because white America still seems, this late in the game, to enjoy what the Other has to offer, as long as it comes from a white, not black, face. In that, there is nothing new; ripping off the fruits of others' labor is as American as Manifest Destiny and the Trail of Tears. But as the world digs deeper into the crossover-rich soil of hip hop, which hybridizes a variety of international music and style traditions while adding a central nervous system of streetwise suspicion and historical oppression, it must increasingly look into the mirror and decide what color it sees -- or if it sees any at all.

The latest and most compelling installment in this ongoing national interrogation of race, class and culture comes from Adam Mansbach's hard-hitting satire, Angry Black White Boy, or the Miscegenation of Macon Detornay. Mansbach's protagonist, the aforementioned Macon (dumbly named by his parents after the Georgia city, as well as by the author to dredge up the racist ghost of Ty Cobb) comes up in an all-white Boston suburb an unequivocal fan of the golden age of hip hop, the late '80s and early '90s when the form most capably fused the militancy of its Black Panther and Watts Prophets forebears with the wide-open cultural experimentalism of De La Soul and others. It was a time decidedly different from the bling-and-ice dominance of today's hip hop, one that seemed far removed from what Mansbach in his book calls today's "psychotic materialism."

"I placed the book in 1998," Mansbach explains, "rather than 2005 because I wanted Macon to be able to grow up on early-to-late-'80s hip hop; that's what forms his sensibility. But another reason is that I wanted that rampant materialism to still be in its formative stage: The height of the Puffy age, where you can still buy into the culture with money, but not as egregiously as you can now. I wanted to set the book at a time where a 19-year-old could plausibly remember the golden age of hip hop, but also at a time where the characters are conversant enough with hip hop materialism to make money off of their exploits."

Making money, of course, has always been the name of hip hop's game, mostly because it had to survive on the condemned streets of late '70s Brooklyn long enough to settle into the national consciousness. But financial security has not always been hip hop's primary aim; that distinction has been reserved for the ethic most capably summed up in the maxim "each one, teach one." Out of all the aphorisms and slogans that hip hop brilliantly coopted or created, "each one teach one" sums up the golden age's conscientious and stated desire to school those who are ignorant of black history and culture, no matter their color or creed, in the crucial texts, events and figures of the good fight against racism and prejudice. As a white kid deeply touched by that era's hip-hop production -- from KRS-One's By Any Means Necessary to Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted and onward -- Macon Detornay, like Mansbach himself, grows up in Boston as a white outcast ready to explode against the racial injustices of his time. And that process is anything but simple.

"People have asked me often about what it was like to grow up white but steeped in hip hop and other aspects of black culture," Mansbach confides, "and I always tell them that the majority of the consternation and aggression about it has come from white people. When they see a white kid moving to the margins and away from the center of privilege, it causes a problem as to the vitality of that privilege in the first place. Which then brings up the notion of the traditional center of cultural capital, which used to be one of white privilege but is quickly becoming more and more black. Which then leads to a questioning of the traditional, hierarchical power structures of whiteness, which are still strong due to the monumental efforts of white people to maintain them."

It is this machine that Macon rails against, although his chosen activism is ill-suited for the monumental task at hand. Macon's culturally received notions of race, class and identity have left such a bad taste in his mouth that, as an incoming student at Columbia University, he spends more time robbing white execs in his cab -- while lecturing them on their racial ignorance at the muzzle of a pistol -- rather than forming any concrete alliances and allegiances that could more productively forward what starts out as a worthy cause. But the fact is that after a brief flirtation with nationwide fame as a public lightning rod behind the crimes -- as well as the Next Big Thing behind his newly formed Race Traitor Project, which aims to bridge the racial divide with a national Day of Apology to African Americans for white America's sins -- Macon's story ends in tears and chaos. Which is far more compelling and realistic than the rosy closures behind offensive fare like Driving Miss Daisy , The Green Mile and pretty much every other racially inquisitive movie ever made.

As Detornay's doppelganger of sorts, Mansbach understands that there are no easy answers or happy endings when it comes to race in America. "I'm resistant to any kind of resolution," he argues," and I definitely didn't want to let Macon off the hook. But the book is also not as nihilistic as it might appear. It's a lesson in what not to do, how not to try to address race. Macon is obviously very earnest and devoted to what it is he's trying to do, but he and his friends make a lot of mistakes."

Most notably, Macon and his crew -- two prep-school blacks named Andre and Nique, as well as a white girl-punk named Logan, whose predilection for slam poetry at the fabled Nuyorican Poets' Cafe exorcizes the daily drudgery of her white-collar day job -- ignore and sometimes denigrate the activist efforts of those who came before them. On top of that, their chosen course of action involves not much more than seeking the publicity and fame far before they've even theorized their dissent from the status quo.

"They're not even able to be critical of the notion that the only way to make a difference is become famous or visible," Mansbach says. "No one ever criticizes the idea that Macon can become most influential if he exploits his fame and tries to double it. And no one ever suggests that perhaps Macon's courage and passion could be more effectively put to use by quietly starting an organization and going the grassroots route. And I think that is indicative of the culture that we live in and the one that they're inheriting, which decides that the ultimate goal for well-meaning individuals is to be well-meaning on the biggest stage possible, as public as possible. It becomes an end in its own right."

That fatal flaw sends Macon into a downward spiral after his Day of Apology escalates into a full-fledged riot. What starts out as an innocent attempt to get white people to openly apologize for the sins of their fathers turns into a flashpoint for racial tension, mostly because the blacks of New York City are indifferent to their apologists' supplication. More than anyone, they understand, after centuries of similar attempts, that one-note gestures like the Day of Apology have more to do with easing the guilt of their apologists than they do with an earnest desire to become involved with communities other than their own.

"For instance," Mansbach explains, "Macon fails to create coalitions with willing or sympathetic individuals. He has nothing to say to activists from the '60s, which is a big mistake. Because cultural crossover into blackness does not make a revolution. White kids trying to absolve their guilt over their whiteness by getting into hip hop is an interesting thing, and a moment fraught with possibility: They're getting involved in black culture, in some respects, precisely because they understand the problematic nature of whiteness. But there are pitfalls too, including the self-indulgent one where you think you're the downest white boy ever and no one can tell you shit. There's the paralysis pitfall, where you're paralyzed by your new awareness of your privilege, and you're afraid to make a move at all for fear of doing something wrong. Those things are problematic, but I think the main thing that Macon does that I want to be critical of is this idea that blackness is the opposite of white privilege. Because the true opposite of white privilege is the dismantling of white privilege."

Indeed, it is when Mansbach interrogates the concept of whiteness, a term with which he is decidedly uncomfortable, using Macon as his test subject, that the book reaches its apotheosis. Not since Lee's aforementioned Bamboozled has America seen as trenchant and unapologetic a satire as Angry Black White Boy , albeit one that critiques the questionable structure of whiteness from the inside. Mansbach seems determined to define the nebulous nature of whiteness in contrast to white privilege as Macon is determined to define his own whiteness in opposition to what he calls "paper race tigers" -- artists like Elvis Presley or Quentin Tarantino who openly grift black culture for their own benefit.

"They're the kind of white people that Macon or kids like him can attack to further delineate their own race consciousness and militance. People that you can tear apart to show how down you are. Macon's critique, of course, of Tarantino centers on the director's obsession with the word 'nigger.' In Pulp Fiction , he gets to live out the white fantasy of saying 'nigger' as much as he wants to Samuel L. Jackson, a dude who would probably beat his ass were he not in the movie. His films are the product of a filmmaker who loves being around black people, but can't conceptualize a community full of them. In Four Rooms , there's an entire discussion about a car that has to be 'nigger red.' What the fuck does that even mean? Does it even mean anything at all or is it just an excuse for him to get the word in there just to give his films some edge? It's a complex thing, but it is unavoidably self-aggrandizing at the same time."

It would seem that, after all these decades, minstrelsy still exists even without the burnt cork. Artists like Tarantino and others have made careers on the backs of those who have labored long and hard to escape the term "nigger," only to have to say it over and over again -- or be subjected to it -- at length in his films. In fact, Mansbach's publisher, Crown Publishing Group, was itself interested in trafficking in similarly outdated, potentially offensive territory, until the author put a stop to it.

"They wanted me to call the book American Wigger ," Mansbach says. "It probably would have sold, but I told them, 'I'm not going to be the guy who wrote American Wigger . I don't want to walk out of the house and have people throw shit at me.' Ultimately, 'wigger' is a dumb word with no currency whatsoever. I'm not down with it. I don't use it, I don't approve of it. It denigrates white and black people. I wanted nothing to do with it."

But in the end he might have to face the accusation himself, as Norman Mailer did when he published his still-controversial "White Negro" almost 50 years ago. Whites interrogating whiteness -- which is often defined in opposition to blackness, a term much easier to wrap one's head around -- are usually foraging for meaning in a minefield. But they are asking crucial questions about a complex problem that still needs fixing: The continuing, near-total dominance of American white privilege, and whether or not it is an inextricable aspect of whiteness in general.

"Whiteness largely exists in the absence of any kind of definition," Mansbach asserts. "We only understand whiteness by what it is not. It's normative, so you'll probably never catch a white person describing another person as white, as I say in the book. I feel like whiteness exists without articulation and analysis, and in the absence of that it's been allowed to become the horrific thing that it is, where the only people willing to put forth any concrete definition of it are psychotic supremacists in love with the idea of racial purity."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.