White Boy Shuffle

Identity as Performance

Identity should be unique, something that we call our own. Not an exploitation for entertainment.

Identity displays who we are.

There is no doubt that one’s identity defines their unique persona.  Being white vs. being black both come with a unique set of characteristics.  However, identity is frequently used to exhibit performance.  Oftentimes being black or being white goes beyond simple identity; color is also used for performance.

There are numerous places where one can see racial identity being used as a means of performance.  The picture below is from a blog by Crystal Sykes in which she reflects on her own experience of being black in San Francisco.  This picture is interesting because it portrays a black girl among several white people; she is thinking to herself, “I’m not your black friend.”  In this particular blog post, Crystal writes about hipster racism.  In other words, being above racism but still making snarky remarks.  The people in her community saw her blackness as different, as something unique and “cool.”  This shows how blackness can be perceived as not just a person’s identity, but as something to be exhibited.  If Crystal had used her white friends’ intrigue about black culture to her advantage, this would be an example of blackness as performance.

Black in a sea of white

Black in a sea of white

Authors from both the Black Arts Movement and Post Soul portray racial identity as a means of performance as well.  The protagonist of the novels from this time period usually use his or her skin color to their advantage; performing and appealing to the desires of the particular crowd.

In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shufflethe protagonist Gunnar exemplifies blackness as performance.  Unlike Crystal, uncomfortable in a city filled with white people, Gunnar embraced his unique situation and used it to his advantage.  Gunnar says, “I was the funny, cool black guy. In Santa Monica, like most predominantly white sanctuaries from urban blight, “cool black guy” is a versatile identifier used to distinguish the harmless black male from the Caucasian juvenile while maintaining politically correct semiotics” (Beatty, 27).  Gunnar goes on to say, “I learned early that white kids will believe anything anybody a shade darker than chocolate milk says” (Beatty, 28).  Gunnar had the ability to appeal to his white class mates.  He embraced his racial identity and used it to his advantage.  Being black gave him a sense of empowerment, not defeat.

Whiteness as performance is also portrayed in the media of popular culture.  In the movie White Chicks, two black men must disguise themselves as white women in order to protect the multi-billion dollar fortune of two white girls.  This comedy portrays whiteness as performance using satire.  The satire lies in the fact that two successful black men must present themselves as two dumb, white blonde chicks.  As they present themselves as white girls, the audience for which they are performing is white as well, making the situation even more ironic: white people are being deceived by black people who are pretending to be white.

In Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, there are several instances of whiteness as performance.  Walter Marsh’s family is a good example of whiteness as performance.  Birdie’s mother Sandy referred to wealthy white people as wasps.  Walter Marsh, she said, was a real wasp.  Sandy said, “The proof was the layer of dust covering their house–and the way Walter sucked on a toothpick, picked his nose, hacked into his hand, and performed other blatantly rude personal habits in public, oblivious that they might be offensive to the people around him” (Senna, 155).  This portrays whiteness as performance because being a wasp means being white and wealthy but trying to keep it hidden.  The Marsh family doesn’t want to come off as rich and uptight so they let a layer of dust cover the tops of all of their fine things; this is a performing act to keep up appearances and portray themselves as being laid back and casual.

Birdie and her mother are both living as white.  However, Birdie is not actually white; she is able to pass as white by telling others that she is of Jewish descent.  Both Birdie and Sandy have to continually “mask” their true identities in order to appear as white and to appeal to their particular audience.

An example of whiteness as performance in Caucasia is when Birdie confronts Samantha about her blackness.  Birdie was uncomfortable with whiteness as performance but her mother’s words to trust no one were always ringing in her ears. One night at a party, she found Samantha, the only other black girl:

“What color do you think I am?

Nora said you were Jewish. I saw you wearing that start thing they all have to wear. Yeah, Jewish. Why do you ask?

I’m not really Jewish. It’s a lie.

What do you mean?

I mean, I’m not Jewish. My mom’s not Jewish. She has to be Jewish for me to be Jewish, really, and she’s not.

As I said it, I wondered, for the first time, if the same was true with blackness.  Did you have to have a black mother to be really black? There had been no black women involved in my conception. Maybe that made us frauds” (Senna, 285).  This is the first time when the protagonist becomes entangled by her own set of lies.  While blackness and whiteness as performance can be used positively to enhance the perceived persona of a character, this performance can also entangle and become a messy web of lies; using identity to perform can become damaging to a person’s real identity.

This damaging effect is particularly seen in John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion.  Yoruba is an African American girl whose mother insists that she attend etiquette training classes and be in a cotillion.  While this particular cotillion consists of all black women, cotillions are originally a tradition of white southern females and are used as a way to introduce young females to society.  So from the beginning of this novel, blackness as performance is seen everywhere.

This has a damaging effect on Yoruba, however.  While her boyfriend Ben Ali Lumumba is telling her to embrace her blackness, Yoruba’s mother is telling her to try to not be as black as possible but rather to simply acknowledge her blackness and to leave it alone.  This creates tension within Yoruba.  She wants to please her mother and win the scholarship offered by the cotillion but she also loves and respects Ben Ali and simply wants to live as a black girl, free of all the stress and drama that the cotillion entails.

One way that blackness as performance is portrayed in this novel is within the mayhem of the politics of appearance.  John Oliver Killens focuses part of a chapter on hair.  In a discussion between Yoruba and her mother he writes:

Come. Come, dearie, I’m going to buy you a lovely wig. Come. I forgive you. Come.

A wig? Forgive me? 

She shook her head. What could she say to her mother? What could she do?…No wig for this Black and beautiful child, not even for her mother’s sake. She had made her debut into truly Black society. And there was no turning back” (Killens, 213).

Natural, black, beautiful

Natural, black, beautiful

This is an interesting turning point in the novel because Yoruba turns from whiteness as performance to blackness as performance.  She was once black in a white world filled with white traditions but is now truly living as black, despite what society is expecting of her.  When Yoruba refuses to wear a wig, or better yet, when she cuts off her permed hair, she is not just being rebellious, she is making a statement against performance.  It is always an attempt to be white when black women straighten their hair.  If a black woman really wants to be seen and respected as black, then she must get the perm out of her hair and wear it naturally.  This politics of appearance is a breaking point for Yoruba.

It is not just black girls straightening their trying to be black, however.  There is also a great deal of whiteness as performance in The Cotillion. There are scattered scenes of white girls who try to portray themselves as black.  Killens writes of whiteness as performance very humorously, “Earlier, three white girls had arrived at the ball, as invited guests, wearing Afro wigs and darkly tinted contact lenses, and had been refused admission, roughed up, third-degreed, searched for weapons, threatened with arrest, called trouble-making yaller niggers, and so on, until finally they compromised their firm convictions, removed their wigs and declared their whiteness, at which point they were immediately admitted with abject apologies and Southern hospitality” (Killens, 222-223).

This part of the novel puts whiteness as performance into a different light than blackness as performance.  Blackness as performance is a way of getting by; it is Yorubas way to come out into society and to be accepted by her white counterparts; it is Lumumbas way of being accepted by Yorubas family.  Blackness as performance is not always something that is preferred or desired by individuals, but rather, it is expected.  Whiteness as performance, however, is something that is optional.  For instance, in this scene, the white girls didn’t have to dress up in wigs in order to impress the black persons at the cotillion.  In fact, their performance caused them to be beaten.  By being white, they are already naturally accepted by society.

What is also interesting, is that in a novel like The Cotillion, it is not just the women who are subject to performance; the men are equally subjected to this politics of appearance and performing act.  When Lumumba comes to the door to greet Yoruba one night, he is decked out in the finest clothes.  Killens writes:

She opened the door to greet her lover (she was all grinning smiles again, unknowingly) but her beloved was not there. In his stead there stood a colored dude all decked out in a mucho sharp American suit. Brown, herringbone and truly worsted. White on white shirt, green polka-dot tie, brand-new, gleaming, wing-tipped shoes. So sharp he was almost bleeding. Crew-cut like the Ivy League” (Killens, 146).

What is interesting about this scene is that just a few pages prior, Yoruba’s mother discussed how she felt towards Lumumba.  “Lady Daphne was finally convinced that there was something to this Black boy, when they did a portrait in the white folks’ most prestigious paper. The New York Times had covered a reading he had done at the Truth and Consequences Cafe uptown. Yoruba showed The Times piece to her mother, who glanced at the news article and stared long at Lumumba, beard and woolly head and all. Her sole comment was ‘Humph!’ (Killens, 145).

This scene is interesting because the mother is 100% for blackness as performance but from a white perspective.  For example, she doesn’t accept Yoruba with natural hair, only with “white” hair.  In this scene, we see that she doesn’t approve of Lumumba for Yoruba because he is “woolly-headed.” But once Lumumba has received the stamp of approval from the white community, she begins to like him a little bit more.

This scene portrays an interesting twist between whiteness as performance and blackness as performance.  This novel does a play off of both types of performance as we have seen.  Even though all of the major characters are black, there is a confusion of performances because the mother is forcing a white identity onto her black daughter.  I found this novel to be particularly useful when tying together the two types of racial identity performances because it does indeed incorporate a mixture of the two.

However, what we see from both perspectives across media and these three novels is that color goes beyond identity, it involves performance as well; performance that can enunciate identity or manipulate identity.

Multimedia Cited:

First Image: No author. n.d. [Identity]Retrieved from www2.fi.edu

Second Image: Sykes, Crystal. 2013. [I’m Not Your Black Friend]. Retrieved from www.thebolditalic.com

Third Image: No author. 2006. [Black Rio] Retrieved from http://www.juliushonnor.com/catalyst/Default.aspx.LocID-0hgnew0ik.RefLocID-0hg01b001006009.Lang-EN.htm

Video: White Chicks Movie Trailer [Video]. (2006) Retrieved May 13, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rr_SY-1Z5vg

Works Cited:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Print.

Killens, John O. The Cotillion: Or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. Canada: Trident Press, 1971. Print.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.

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Should we all really be who we really are?

Image

Individual identity is something that is often emphasized within the United States, however more and more individuals are changing themselves in order to match a certain expectation or stereotype. Even within Paul Beatty’sWhite Boy Shuffle there is a struggle between individuals assimilating and their later struggle with identity.

The first thing that I notice when I see this image is that there are four different individuals that seem to be hiding themselves behind the United States flag. They all look very similar, and the top portion of their faces is covered as if the flag is a mask; a method of concealment. I also noticed that they all are holding flags, presumably from their different countries of origin. These flags are extremely small in comparison with the United States’ flag, and represent 3 different countries. These four individuals all appear to be white or European males. Also, the United States flag is also in the middle of the picture and it seems to be the focus of the picture. The flag is also very bold in comparison to the other flags that are seen within the image. The U.S. flag is visible, the others mistakable.

This image is very relevant to assimilation because of the images of the men all hiding their faces. Also, the four different men also seem to be the same, under the American flag. This makes me believe that this translates to the United States as a place of assimilation, not a melting pot. This melting pot belief is that all cultures come together to make the United States what it is. Though this is partially true, this depiction makes me feel as though there are some individuals that have to give up who they are, whether it’s their cultural beliefs or their national identity. This image is very interesting to me because many individuals come to the United States because we are the “land of the free” and have the many different freedoms of speech, religion, petition, assembly, and press. However, conformation is emphasized.

Assimilation and the idea of identity and conforming can be very related to Paul Beatty’s main character, Gunnar. Gunnar’s start in Santa Monica, California was in a predominately white neighborhood. He and his sisters all felt as though they did not fit in or identify with being with the white people they were surrounded by. Their mother decided to move their family to predominately black neighborhood in West Los Angeles, which made them identify with the black community. Gunnar faced some hesitation regarding who he was as an African-American and his community of identification. A specific example, Gunnar’s coach separated the team by lip color, but Gunnar’s top lip was brown and lower was pink so he was allowed to play both sides. Because of his identification with two communities, he was not able to identify with neither team because he played both sides.

The use of assimilation within the United States is very interesting seeing as how we are the “land of the free,” however identity is a very important part of an individual’s overall being and assimilation complicates the life of an individual.

Sources

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. 2nd. Picador, 2001. Print

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_GaQ4pxaggc0/TPVrxI28d5I/AAAAAAAAAC8/qcTwc3l34nU/s1600/Assimilation_i.jpg.” Blogger. N.p., 30 Nov 2010. Web. 29 Apr 2013.

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“Color blindness”: A Crutch to Avoid Contreversy?

“Why Are You White?” Still frame from Mark Waters’ 2004 film “Mean Girls,” with character Karen Smith’s line, subtitled.

Multiculturalism in America’s schools is controversial, and ironic. In an effort to bring equal opportunity to the classroom through “color blindness,” educators make race taboo, failing to honor the diversity of their students. These classroom standards dismiss personal identity and perpetuate the divide between peers of different ethnicity.

The still frame image above is from the movie Mean Girls. The image displays a girl who looks like she is in her teens. The girl is white, blonde, and blue-eyed. As she is asking the question, subtitled below “So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?,” she has a perplexed look on her face. Behind her we can see the outline of other figures in what we know from the movie clip below is the cafeteria. Her facial expression does not look sarcastic or joking, but rather her curiosity seems sincere.

From the movie clip of the same scene, we can infer more about the meaning of the still frame. Karen Smith is sitting at the lunch table with Cady Heron, the new girl from Africa, Regina George, the blonde queen bee in the middle, and Gretchen Wieners, the brunette on the far right. After Karen asks the question, Gretchen looks at her with muted horror and concern. She scolds her, “Oh my God Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.” This is the key line, in which the film offers a satirical look at multiculturalism in schools. Gretchen’s response to Karen highlights the taboo nature of any kind of race discussion among students. Gretchen’s reprimand, in which she conveys her shock at Karen’s lack of lunch table tact, uncovers a kind of conditioning and adherence to what she believes are obvious social skills/rules.

“You just don’t ask people why they’re white.” You just don’t talk about race. You don’t even see color. You’re colorblind.

Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle also satirizes on the irony of the simultaneous pride and silencing of multiculturalism in schools. He talks about his third grade teacher at the “Mestizo Mulatto Mongrel Elemantary” in Santa Monica, who wears the shirt, which reads the crossed-out-words, “Black White Red Yellow and Brown” and then leaves the word “Human” clearly written at the bottom, without a line through it. This is his teacher who claims to be colorblind and who provided Beatty’s first “type of multiculturalism: classroom multiculturalism, which reduced race, sexual orientation, and gender to inconsequence” (Beatty 28).

The “inconsequence” which Beatty identifies at “Mestizo Mulatto Mongrel” is the same inconsequence that occurs at North Shore High School in Mean Girls. It is a combination of conditioning, convenience, and fear, which eliminates the possibility for valuable discussion on diversity, and isolates peers.

In a way, color blindness is to multiculturalism as invisibility is to black identity. The commonality lies in the fact that both color blindness and invisibility serve the majority as blinders that erase the validity of both multiculturalism and black identity.

Both color blindness and invisibility exist as a crutch for which the majority to lean on as they sidestep the issues of racism and inequality in schools and beyond.

Citation: Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. Paramount Pictures. 2004. Film.

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The “Cool Kid”

Jay Z Captures “Cool”

This picture of Jay Z depicts “black cool,” according to Ebony.  In every group of people, there is always the one cool black guy; Jay Z portrays what it means to be cool and black, to have power as well as poise.

This picture depicts an African American man who appears to be successful.  He is dressed well with a velvet jacket, a white button down shirt, a tie, sunglasses, and a pocket kerchief; he is also clean shaven and well-groomed.  His picture is also on the front of a magazine, an African American magazine cover, to be precise.  His posture denotes confidence, power, and success. His face is serious, his stare is direct, and his fingers are about to snap.  He looks like he is in charge and people will listen to him.  Beside his picture are the words, “Swagger, confidence, effortless style: The 25 coolest brothers of all time.”  These words indicate that this man must be the epitome of “black cool.”  This magazine was also published in 2008; it is a modern depiction of black cool.

In every group of kids, there is always the one cool black kid, the guy that every boy wants to be and that every girl wants to date.  But what makes him cooler than the rest?  Why do his thoughts hold so much meaning and why are his words so powerful?  According to the cover of Ebony, black cool means having swagger, confidence, and effortless style.  Black cool is about appearing poised and put together without any effort at all.

Blackness is fluid; it is always evolving and it can represent many different things: color, identity, race, culture, or ethnicity.  However, within each category of blackness, black loses its fluidity.  Blackness is fluid until it is categorized, one category being “black cool.”  There is only one way to define black coolness; only one way to be the cool black kid.  While black can refer to a number of different things, black and cool together are limited.  Paul Beatty in The White Boy Shuffle writes, “I was the funny, cool black guy…I learned early that white kids will believe anything anybody a shade darker than chocolate milk says” (Beatty, 27-28).  Being cool and black holds meaning; this status involves power and control of people.

Jay Z’s picture is powerful, it holds meaning; it’s on the front of a magazine so it is persuasive.  Men and women will see these captions and want to learn how to become like Jay Z, how to live out black cool.  Blackness is not just race or identity, it is power and performance.  It is also appearance; if Jay Z had on a ratty T-shirt with an uncombed afro and a 5 o’clock shadow, black cool would be seen as a joke.  His performing pose, his sleek appearance, and his powerful stare are what give this picture meaning, persuasiveness and the ability to be taken seriously.

The one cool black kid in every group of kids knows he is cool.  He may not be cool simply because he is black, but he is cool because he is confident, he has swagger, and he appears to do things effortlessly.  The combination of these three things holds power: the power to be labeled “cool.”

Source

D, Nigel. “Ebony Lists The Top 25 Cool Black Men Of All Time.” RealTalk NY RSS. N.p., 4 July 2008. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

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