"Am I not cool enough for you?"
On the White seeker and the Black friend
Other than the picture of Baldwin and Mailer below, all images this week are property of Bert Glinn/Magnum Photos. More context here.
A repeat announcement! Next Tuesday (12/13) at 7:00 PM EST, I get to talk to two of the smartest, coolest people I know (Courtney Martin and Kate Schatz) about a topic we all have some complicated thoughts about: White people writing about race! You should join us!
We have a lot of new readers! Which is great! Whether you’ve just gotten here or a long hauler, please consider a paid subscription (or buying a gift subscription for a pal). There aren’t many people/groups doing this work (both writing about Whiteness or training organizers in predominately White communities), and yeah, yeah, yeah, of course I believe that supporting all that is important, but my bias doesn’t make it any less true. So thanks!
You have probably heard that Kanye West is a Nazi now. It’s bad news if anybody is a Nazi. It’s worse news if somebody to whom the world pays quite a bit of attention is a Nazi. I have no plans to share any of Kanye West’s quotes about being a Nazi. They’re bad quotes. I’m also not going to try to parse where bigotry ends and where mental health begins. Whatever the answer, there’s already too much bigotry in the mix.
What I will say is that when Kanye talks about how he’s a Nazi who loves Hitler, he knows that White people are listening. He knows this because he has been a Black hip hop superstar for two decades now, a role that necessitates a constant awareness that White people are listening, that White people are wondering what you think of us, and that White people are parsing your lyrics and your actions for evidence that you— the famous Black subject of our attention— love us as much as we think we love you.
For as long as he’s been a public figure, Kanye West has been some White person’s imaginary Black best friend. It is newsworthy that the current set of White people who have been granted that parasocial friendship are Nazis. There’s a whole lot else here, however, that isn’t very new at all.
I don’t want to either overstate or downplay the fervency of my past Kanye fandom. There have been long stretches over the past two decades when I have had no time for him, as well as a few decently sized stretches where I enjoyed his music quite a bit. I do remember the first time another White guy passed me a mixtape with Kanye on it. “Through The Wire” was on there, right after a song by Stars, a baroque Montreal-based collective, popular during an era where every other band was a baroque Montreal-based collective. Both of us were White guys who wanted people to notice that our record collections weren’t solely populated by sad-sack White men with guitars. We were late to this game and fairly desperate to catch up; in my case, it had already been a couple of years since college, when some much-cooler-than-me White kid from Portland sold me all of his Quasi and Heatmiser CDs for cheap because he “was only listening to jazz now.”
We were somehow both behind our own times as well as those still to come. A decade later, Vice would be sending skinny, bespectacled White reporters to film cinéma vérité documentaries about baby-faced teenaged Chicago drill rappers. The rappers would show off their extremely large guns and talk about the dangers of South Side life and the White documentarians would nod and try to make it clear through their stoicism that they were not at all scared and that they knew that all of this was important.
If that’s what being hip and down is all about, then that’s a bar I never came close to clearing. All I knew was that my friend assured me that Kanye was “really smart” and “conscious” but still “cool,” which is exactly the Black best friend I secretly wanted. Kanye knew I was watching. He knew that’s why White boys like me bought his debut album. He bragged about being hip hop’s sole owner of “a Benz and a backpack.” I wanted my own personal hip hop star best friend to both flatter my intelligence and to invite me behind the velvet rope of social desirability. In that specific moment, Kanye was more than happy to deliver.
The years went by and Kanye would invite a larger and larger swath of White America to imagine him as their Black best friend. He took off the backpack but never left the Benz. Soon, his songs were on wedding playlists. A nation of White bridesmaids in matching pastel dresses flooded a thousand parquet dance floors as the opening seconds of “Gold Digger” rang throughout our country’s finest hotel ballrooms. As he rose, Kanye never forgot that we— the friendship-seeking, White we— were watching. Sometimes, he even let us know that he knew:
“And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go
I mean, I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love White people”
-New Day (Kanye West and Jay Z)
Kanye rapped those particular lines over a sample of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” a song about finding joy in emancipation and Black liberation. There was a message there. Kanye saw us. He knew how desperately we wanted his love and friendship. He would pander to us when it was in his interest to pander. We’d respond by buying his records and sneakers. The circle would remain unbroken.
That Kanye, the one with a toe in Black liberation, has been gone for quite some time now. Hence the Nazis. The Kanye that knows how to tell specific groups of White people exactly what they want to hear, though? That Kanye never left.
In 1957, Norman Mailer published “The White Negro”— a 9000 word beat-adjacent statement of generational purpose. Its primary assertion was that at the end of the 1950s, there was an emerging generation of young White people who had been shocked out of their square middle-class complacency by the twin horrors of the atom bomb and the Holocaust and who, thusly destabilized, were now free to pursue “the rebellious imperative of the self.” These “hipsters,” as Mailer dubbed them, had nothing to learn from the polite White society that had birthed them. Their new guides would be Black people— the hipper and more jazz-adjacent, the better. Blacks, per Mailer, “had been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.” They understood destabilization and broken promises.
If Mailer had stopped there, "The White Negro” would have been a different and significantly more benign essay. There’s no harm in pointing out— to young, disaffected White radicals— that perhaps they are not the first people in human history with a bone-deep awareness of society’s cruelty.
Mailer didn’t stop there, though. His point wasn’t to empathize with Black people. Rather, it was all about what jazzy, sexy deliverance the Black counterculture could offer to the White seekers. “The White Negro” is a racist mess; it places disaffected White youths at the center of history and reduces Black people to the roles of either wise, impossibly cool “cultural mentors,” or instinctual, primitive sexual outlaws.
It’s honest, though. And not just in what it reveals about Mailer’s psyche. It’s culturally honest. It’s White-people honest. It presaged the decade to come, with its shaggy-haired British schoolboys getting rich off the blues and White radicals—desperate for approval from the Black Panthers— attempting to set off enough bombs to annihilate their own privilege.
James Baldwin understood all of this, both because he understood Norman Mailer and because he understood White people. Baldwin had plenty to say about “The White Negro”— about its tropes and its underwhelming On The Road-aping prose— but mostly he just read it, sighed, and saw through the collective us.
“…to become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along… The world had prepared no place for you, and if the world had its way, no place would ever exist. Now, this is true for everyone, but in the case of a Negro, this truth is absolutely naked: if he deludes himself about it, he will die. This is not the way this truth presents itself to white men, who believe the world is theirs and who, albeit unconsciously, expect the world to help them in their achievement of their identity. But the world does not do this- for anyone; the world is not interested in anyone’s identity.
-”The Black Boy Looks At The White Boy” (James Baldwin, Esquire,May 1st, 1961)
Usually, when we talk about the White drive to consume Black and Brown culture, to lap up its “wisdom” or “authenticity” for our own devices, we’re talking about cultural appropriation. We scoff at White boy dreadlocks and White girl cornrows. Our ears burn as some polo-shirted suburban youth pastor tries to drop a half-understood piece of five-year-old Black queer slang into his closing devotional. We write think-pieces about various celebrity transformations— Miley Cyrus one year, Kylie Jenner another. Too often, those critiques are merely about the aesthetics. We mock the worst offenders because they’re corny. We mock them because their effort is too obvious; the seams are showing. We’re less interested in the longing behind it, about what it means if millions of White people are nakedly craving the same thing and not admitting it. That would require staring into a mirror and seeing a million White faces staring back. There’s no glory in that, no release. It’s so much easier to laugh at some painfully-un-with-it liberal eulogizing a deceased Supreme Court justice with a “Ruthkanda Forever” salute.
My senior year of high school, the Orange County pop-punk band The Offspring released “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” Now, “Pretty Fly” is a thoroughly indefensible piece of music. It’s about how wanna-be White rappers are stupid and uncool. It is a song about cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity that somehow deploys multiple sonic and lyrical elements that can only be described as “racially insensitive and culturally appropriative.” I bring this song up solely because of an interview that Offspring frontman Dexter Holland gave with Spin Magazine shortly after its release. Like “The White Negro,” it isn’t a trenchant or fully self-aware piece of analysis, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply honest.
“The song mercilessly mocks those guys who, as Holland describes them, ‘are from, like, Omaha, Nebraska, regular white-bread guys, but who act like they’re from Compton. It’s so fake and obvious they’re trying to have an identity.’”
“You Got To Keep Them Alienated,” by Rob Brunner (Spin Magazine, Dec. 1988) [emphasis mine]
What did Omaha ever do to Offspring vocalist Dexter Holland? Nothing except exist, distant from the coasts, fly-overable and mockable. But that’s besides the point. The overall message is clear.
If you’re White, you don’t have an identity. If you’re White, you can’t process a world that doesn’t care about our shared humanity. If you’re White, you can’t process a world that doesn’t actually care about you.
And yes, of course. If we follow this line of thinking, that means that White women and gender-non-conforming people get to have an identity, but only at the point of the spear that is their gender. The same is true for Queer White people, poor White people, Jewish White people and disabled White people. At some point, though, we’re still left with an identity-shaped void around the outline of our Whiteness. And the message we’ve internalized is that there’s nothing of value there. Wherever our Whiteness begins, our identity ends. We are as blank and desolate as the Omaha of the coastal imagination.
You know who has inherent identity-based value? You know who has both an actual personality and a unique, magical insight into the contours of our world? Black and Brown people, or at least the flattened, two-dimensional version of Black and Brown people we’ve created out of our own insecurities. This is the element that cultural appropriation tropes often glide over: White people don’t want to be Black or Brown. We want to be touched, taught and affirmed by Blackness and Brownness, but otherwise we want to change as little about our lives as possible. We’re savvy enough to critique the “Magical Negro trope” when we see it pop up on film screens, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not searching for our own personal Morgan Freeman to fill in the hole where our wise, racialized soul was supposed to go.
I am treading into dangerous territory here. I’m not inferring that there can’t be genuine, non-emotionally-needy relationships between White people and Black and Brown people. If you’re reading this and wondering if I'm downplaying the meaningful relationships in your life, trust that the opposite is true. Nor am I arguing that emotionally complicated parasocial relationships between famous strangers and their fans only exist across racial lines. I hear your caveats: Not all friendships. Not all relationships. Not all fandoms. Absolutely.
We can admit that there are some trends, though, right? We can admit that there is something to the thousands of workplaces where White people assume that they’re “close friends” with their Black and Brown co-workers when really they’re just colleagues. There is something to the cottage industry of Black and Brown anti-racist social media influencers whose largely White women followers constantly send them overly-familiar messages or ask directly if they can be their Black friend (and who then trip over one another scolding their fellow fans when they step out of line). There is something to the way that we transform our various chosen Black or Brown heroes— be they Lizzo or J-Lo or Stacey Abrams or Lin Manuel Miranda or Octavia Butler or C.L.R. James— from human beings into un-critiquable objects of pure perfection.
Of course White people should learn from other perspectives. Of course we should delight in the gift of an interconnected, virtual world and the voices and ways-of-knowing-and-being to which we now have access. But we can also admit that, oftentimes, we’re not just earnestly learning. We’re longing. Sweatily. Desperately. And when that longing is in the driver's seat, our relationships (either with real people in our lives or celebrities that live in our imaginations) will never actually be symbiotic. We’ll eventually become desperate for proof that our lionized heroes see us and thank us for our effort.
In her Mailer-referencing book White Negroes: When Cornrows Were In Vogue… and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, the cultural and literary critic Lauren Michele Jackson recounts the moment when a White woman named Delaney was pulled onstage at a concert by the Pulitzer-and-Grammy-winning Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar. Delaney, you see, took her fandom seriously. In the parlance of White social justice self-effacement, she had been listening and learning. But she had also been longing. And the obviousness of that longing became clear as soon as she got on stage with her hero and started rapping along to his hit, “M.A.A.D. City.”
“Delaney… knew the words well enough and pronounced them clearly— all of them, including [the n word], which punctuates the end of each phrase. Kendrick put her on pause, but gave Delaney another chance. “You gotta bleep one single word, though,” he warned.
Delaney whined. “Am I not cool enough for you? What’s up, bro?”
I have been and still am both a corny over-appropriator (I will not be discussing my frequent over-use of the term “dope” except to say that it somehow used to be much worse). I have been that colleague who assumes he’s actually his Black co-worker’s best friend and I am definitely still a sycophantic fan boy to a number of Black and Brown artists, activists and intellectuals. I’ve even combined all of those poses at once (there are Black activists with fairly large platforms whom I currently follow admiringly from a distance but who are also former colleagues whose friendships I probably overstated and to whom I definitely once tried to show off my knowledge of Meek Mill lyrics— what a trifecta!).
My particular uncool, sweaty stories may be my own, but they are hardly unique.
Norman Mailer loved jazz musicians. He loved them personally— as actual friends— and he lionized what he believed to be their ability to lead him and his band of lost boys and girls to a liberated Neverland. And just as I’m sure that there have been more than a few “Garrett means well, but…” conversations about me behind my back, so too did those beloved jazz men sometimes express their feelings about Mailer to other Black artists, including Baldwin. And no, the great reveal here isn’t that they all hated him. Many liked him, actually… as a friend. They all agreed, though— when it came to the validation he craved most… well, they just didn’t love him like that. The jazz-mens’ verdict was unanimous: Mailer wasn’t hip, not by any stretch of the imagination. He was, simply… “a really sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.”
None of us are cool, in our greatest moments of longing. Of course we aren’t. Because our longing for deliverance from our assumed “identity-less” “consciousness-less” Whiteness isn’t cool. It’s the collective pose of a group of people whose common bond, as Toni Morrison often pointed out when she talked about Whiteness, is that we don’t love ourselves. And so of course we long for the validation of Black and Brown friends, either temporal or virtual. And of course— as we’re realizing this week— that’s even true for the most hateful and scornful among us.
What’s notable isn’t merely that Kanye— a Black celebrity who has always made a choice about which group of White people he will flatter at any given time— loves Nazis now. It’s that even the Nazis desperately need love and validation from somebody who isn’t White. Even outward White supremacists (like Nick Fuentes and the hate groups responsible for recent ‘Ye-praising freeway protest in L.A.) bask in the glow of having a Black friend validate their worldview. And Morrison knew why. She understood that there has always been a set of questions that the most outwardly hateful White people—like all of us— avoid answering at all cases. In the Nazis’ case, they dodge the question by ramping up the hateful projection. For the rest of us, we turn to guilt or shame or defensiveness or performance. For all of us, the more we dodge, the more White supremacy wins.
“What are you without racism?”
.Are you any good?”
Are you still strong?”
Are you still smart?”
Do you still like yourself?”
There is a value in learning from others. There is a gift in friendships that open us to a world beyond our perspective. But we are living in a world where White supremacy is on the march, where the wolves are at all of our doors. If our only move is psychological retreat, we’re all going to lose. If we pretend that we can run away from White supremacy and leave all the other White people in the dust, we’ll all just keep tripping over one another at the starting line.
Our Black friends, real or imagined, can’t save us. Not if we hate ourselves. Not if we hate each other. Not if we’re solely focused on our own deliverance from Whiteness, and not the mess we’re in together.
Song of the week:
I’ll admit that I picked “Hold Up” by Beyoncé this week for a number of reasons (the sample, and who else has used it; the producers, and what cultural signifiers they carry with them; the video, and the joy on those kids’ faces when she smashes the fire hydrants, etc.), but sometimes the subtext is superfluous and the text is enough. In this case, the text in question is Beyonce (she of the most fervent non K-Pop fandom of our time) leading off with the line “Hold Up, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You.” And yes, that line is about her husband’s infidelities but still. The words work, is what I’m saying.
White Pages Subscribers Discussion Of The Week.
The people have been asking for a book recommendation thread for a while now and I have not provided one (for reasons that are unclear, even to me). Here’s tomorrow’s question though (I’ve caved! Sort of!): “If you were to send ONE book to a smart, thoughtful person who you know nothing else about, what would it be?”
By the way, if that that sounds like a set-up for a White Pages End-Of-Year Book Exchange, it is. There will be an opportunity to opt into that. I think it will be fun.
Last week we gave ourselves year-end awards. It was so fun. Meanwhile, over on the Flyover Politics Discord, there’s a new advice thread which has been so beautiful (we’ve talked tricky family political dynamics, how to tell to your pre-school that they’re way too into gender binaries and how to stop worrying about what your kids eat).
If you want to be part of the subscribers-only fun but can’t afford a subscription, just email me and I’ll comp you. I’m at email@example.com.