Performing Race

Adam Serwer has an astute post on a subject I’ve thought a lot about since high school, namely the way that black masculinity is performed in predominantly non-black environments.

So, one of those things you notice when you go from a mostly black public school to a mostly white northeastern college is that there are a lot of white people who think black people are cool. Automatically. Because they’re black. For some of these kids, it’s a real ego boost, because no one actually thought they were cool at home. The problem is that the unrestrained admiration directed at the newly anointed cool black kid is contingent on reminding his new white friends that he’s black, and therefore cool. For his new “friends,” this validates the pressing need to be able to say “I have black friends,” just in case they try to touch someone’s dreadlocks without asking or something. So the newly anointed cool black kid employs a lot of black cultural idiosyncrasies he wouldn’t actually use at home, just to make sure everyone still thinks he’s still “black enough” to be considered cool.

My high school had a highly unusual demographic mix for a public school in New York city. Whereas city schools are heavily black and Latin, our school was heavily Asian (and the Asian population was disproportionately Korean) and white (and the white population was disproportionately Jewish). We also had an unusually high number of students were half-Jewish and half-Korean, but that’s neither here nor there. Of the relatively small number of black students, a disproportionately high number were foreign-born or the children of immigrants from the Caribbean or West Africa, and a disproportionately high number were female. Young African American men were, I thought from a distance, in a funny and potentially uncomfortable spot, yet, as Serwer saw at his mostly white northeastern college, they were often very socially successful. Given that a lot of these students had been in predominantly non-black environments before, this shouldn’t be too surprising; they were practiced in negotiating some of these cross-cultural currents. But there was something else at work too, along the lines Adam describes, and it struck me as a pretty serious burden.

Because South Asians were a familiar part of the ethnic mix, I can’t say I had a similar experience. Much has been said about the complicated sexual politics surrounding Asian American masculinity, and I guess South Asians are at an angle to this, with perceptions shaped and complicated to some extent by association with other modes of Oriental menace or supineness, e.g., Muslim or Middle Eastern masculinity. Who the hell knows. My anecdotal sense is that South Asians had room to negotiate — you could be ethnic, you could be fratty, you could be Asian-identified or hip-hop-identified — and like most kids, I think I both tried on a lot of hats and basically let questions of identity be settled by default, via my peers, who demonstrated ethnic heterogeneity and style heterogeneity (this was the mid- to late-1990s, when backpacks were important signifiers: Jansport, L.L. Bean, and Manhattan Portage were all adequately represented), but also what you might call sensibility homogeneity — a fairly relaxed attitude regarding boundary-policing. One thing that is perhaps worthy of note: I think a lot of us prized ethnically ambiguous looks, a condition that has since become near-universal in American life.

This reminds me, tangentially, of how impressed we’ve all been by Barack Obama’s temperament, and of (I think) Darryl Pinckney’s observation in the NYRB re: how successful black professional men of a certain age tend to have a similarly cool demeanor, perhaps as a way of alleviating racialized anxieties that others bring to the table. As a mildly hotheaded and zany person, this saddens me, though I can’t say why, exactly.

Adam goes on to accuse Maureen Dowd and Michael Steele of being culturally clueless and obtuse. I think he’s basically right about Steele, though it’s the cluelessness of almost any middle-class dad. I think he’s wrong with regards to Maureen Dowd, who is very down with the kids, and who was almost certainly using the term with a dash of wit. Sometimes I think I might be Maureen Dowd’s only defender. I can’t help it: I think she’s rad, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I disagree with her about most things. I notice that self-consciously wonky liberals have a particular distaste for her, which is kind of wack. I’m guessing that “wack” enjoys roughly the same status as “bling bling,” but I’m comfortable with that.

On a totally unrelated note, I just want to say that her English is much better than my French, which is non-existent. Merry Christmas.