Race with Hua Hsu

I strongly recommend Hua Hsu’s piece, “The End of White America?,” in the current Atlantic. It’s mainly a great survey of cultural points on which the changing status of whiteness is visible. One of its great strengths is the way in which it recognizes the role that that a sort of existential power plays in the politics of racial identification – that is, the way the erotic appeal of a cultural identity lines up with its perceived cultural power. The idea of blackness, in its combination of cultural virtuosity with (implicitly justified) political opposition and subalterity, has long had an illicit pull for adventurous whites. But now that it is both oppositional and, in certain realms, hegemonic…that is a potent mix that leaves whiteness as a cultural identification in a weird state of drift, in which you see a process of further diffusion in some places and greater retrenchment in others. Hsu is really judicious in distinguishing these things.

But there’s one crucial thing Hsu skates over but fails to note explicitly, something that opens a whole new universe of questioning about the role of race in contemporary America. 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. The hermeneut-of-suspicion becomes a literal and reverent chronicler of the merry havoc effected by this new ascendant blackness.

I don’t mean to say that the havoc is not in parts merry and interesting. 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.

But why should they be? I would argue that, over the last twenty years especially, blackness (and also nonwhiteness, of course, both more generally and in its other specific forms) as an identity, an idea, a cultural marker, has been an object of furious constructive labor not just by self-conscious hip hop jesters and personality-artists, but by advertisers and other corporate sales experts, record execs and producers and promoters, lawyers and politicians, policy entrepreneurs and impresarios in the world of therapy and cultural counseling, educators and human resource professionals. The narrative of liberated multicultural blackness is, I would argue, as much a construct as the old definition of blackness as the hobbled other of whiteness. It has been so furiously taken up for purposes of commerce and politics – people have made so much money off of it – you’d think all those suspicious hermeneuts would approach our new celebratory multiculturalism with the same suspicious wince that they bring to the old tables of racial order