By now you’ve probably heard about the white woman who was “passing” for black in Seattle, well enough to have to become the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and are aware of the chuckles it provoked in the conservative media and the indignant outrage that has resulted over in the liberal press. Count us among the amused rather than outraged, as we’re the live-and-let-live types who indulge people in all sorts of amusing foolishness, but we must admit we’re finding all the new rules hard to keep up with.
Why does that once-august civil rights organization retain the now-offensive term “Colored People” in its name, just to begin with, and why is that term offensive while the eerily similar “people of color” is considered impeccably polite? We’re also confused about why a white person can’t head the local chapter of a national association devoted to the advancement of people of certain colors, because a whole a lot of well-intentioned white people were involved in its founding, and a whole lot of other well-intentioned white people have devoted themselves to the same admirable cause in a variety of other and even more heroic ways, and the advancement of just about everyone in this fissiparously diverse country depends on everyone getting along with one another. Of course there’s also the frequently asked question of why a man who insists on being regarded as a woman must be indulged in his fantasy, but a white woman who insists on being regarded as a black woman is subject to the usual chuckles from the right and the full indignant outrage of the left. We’re further confused about why, given all the hectoring we endure about our supposedly privileged position as heterosexual white Christian males, nobody seems to be trying to pass as something like us.
Way back in our childhood we’d stay up well past our bedtime to catch such old-time late-night movies as “Imitation of Life,” “Pinky,” and “Showboat,” all of which involved light-skinned black women trying to “pass” as white in order to escape the undeniable racial injustice of that black-and-white era, which lasted well into the technicolor days of the “Imitation of Life” and “Showboat” re-makes, and even into our own childhood, but these days all the race-crossing traffic seems to go the other way. That white woman from Seattle is only the most recent to make the news for colorizing her heritage, following the news of some Indian-American sit-com actress’ brother shaving his head and adopting a black-sounding name to get admitted to a medical school with a surfeit of Asian-American applicants and a dire shortage of black ones, and that visibly white Massachusetts Senator whose career at Harvard benefited from her claims to be a high cheek-boned Native American and is currently the fantasy presidential nominee of all the same people who are tsk-tsking about that white woman in Seattle, and even old hippy-dippy folk-singing and obviously white Joni Mitchell’s claims to authentic blackness. The phenomenon of white folks acting and wanting to actually be black is at least as old as Norman Mailer’s famous ’50s essay on the “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” was quite apparent at our junior high school in the early ’70s when almost all of the white kids eagerly adopted the slang and fashions and defiant attitude of the black kids who were too often fearful of being accused of “acting white” to keep up with the lessons, and by 1978 the great heroin-addicted Lou Reed was singing a hilariously vulgar song about how “I Wanna Be Black” rather than an, ahem, neurotic middle class college student any mo’. Since then it’s become all the cooler to be black and all the dorkier to be white, whatever “privilege” whiteness might confer on bills-paying and sexually-frustrated honky schlubs such as ourselves, and we can hardly blame that white woman from Seattle for wanting to get in on it.
Still, it hasn’t been adequately explained why her racial preference should be any more controversial than her sexual preference. Had she insisted that her prosthetic status as a male be met with unquestioning social acceptance we doubt that the such respectable liberal publications as Salon.com would be giving her grieve about it, and we notice that most of the surgical crossing of sexual barriers are also away from our side, despite whatever “privilege” our seemingly irrelevant sex might confer. There’s the usual blather about how “gender” is merely a social construct, and “race” a biological fact, but from way back in our childhood we can remember all the blather about how “race” was a social construct and “gender” a biological fact that proved the superiority of women, and the evolution of polite opinion has never been explained. A few years ago those foul-mouthed wags at “South Park” had a vulgar but worth-watching episode about the transgendered teacher and the addled dad who thought he was a dolphin, and how we’re supposed to recognize certain implausible claims but not others, so the subsequent confusion makes it all the more confusing.
There’s something in the arguments we read about “cultural appropriation” and its insidiously racist effects, but we’re only further confused. We have some belly-dancing white women friends who have been accused of degrading the Oriental cultures they’re intending to perpetuate, and we’ve read countless column inches from college-educated black columnists about how Elvis Presley stole the sounds that he couldn’t help hearing through the open windows of his subsidized housing right next to Beale Street and the heart of the blues, and we’ve yet to read a single word about Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman or Wynton Marsalis or any of the other truly great black musicians who have done similarly well with the undeniably European repertoire of classical music, and we dare anyone to say anything bad about Johnny Otis, who was the undeniably white son of Greek immigrants who grew up in a black neighborhood and went on to be one of the notable and best-selling in the black neighborhoods rhythm and blues artists of the “race record” days, and all of this racial purity cultural stuff, even from the most well-intentioned of the liberal press, has a slightly odious Nazi whiff about it.
Straight and Christian suddenly seems unfashionable, too, and we wonder about how few people are now pretending to be either of them. Way back in our childhood we’d stay up late enough to come across such old movies as “Tea and Sympathy” and “The Trial of Oscar Wilde” which oh-so-subtly conveyed the hard time homosexuals had in the world we were growing up in, and even by the time “La Cage aux Folles” was the fabulously gay hit of ’78 it was about how a homosexual couple had to hide their identities from society. Now the same guy who made the original French “La Cage aux Folles” has a Francophile hit about a man who pretends to be homosexual in order to enjoy social and legal protection from being fired for his incompetence, and the American popular culture acknowledges the same preference. The obscure professional athlete who was about outspoken about his homosexuality got a congratulatory call from the president of the united, the male athlete who was once prominent about was outspoken about his self-proclaimed identity as a woman got the cover of Vanity Fair, and the more recently prominent football play who was outspoken about his Christianity was widely rebuked to keep his crazy beliefs to himself. None of this has been adequately explained, either, but that seems to be where we are.
That white woman in Seattle should be able to survive all the chuckling and indignant outrage according the theories of white prevail, once she re-straightens her hair and stays away from the tanning salons long enough to regain her freckles, and that recently prominent football player should be able to take of himself, judging by his undeniably male physique, but all this talk about racial and sexual and religious identity won’t come to any happy conclusions. Let that white woman pursue all that is appealing about the undeniably cool black people of America, let that prominent football player proclaim his love for Christ, and hope that it has some similarly salutary effect on others, and stop hectoring those bill-playing white male schlubs, and let the likes of Elvis grind out rhythm and blues and those great black divas sing their arias, and perhaps most importantly let those poor black kids out there start learning their lessons in reading and writing and arithmetic without fear of “acting white.” Act however you want, and however will make for your happiest life, and so long as it contributes to everyone with getting along with one another it should further advancement of just about everyone, even such unfashionably straight and white and male and Christian bill-paying schlubs such as ourselves.
— Bud Norman