Wednesday, January 7, 2009

white quotation of the week (Hua Hsu)

Excerpted from Hua Hsu's recent Atlantic Monthly article, "The End of White America?"

The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?

[If] white America is indeed “losing control,” and if the future will belong to people who can successfully navigate a post-racial, multicultural landscape—then it’s no surprise that many white Americans are eager to divest themselves of their whiteness entirely.

For some, this renunciation can take a radical form. In 1994, a young graffiti artist and activist named William “Upski” Wimsatt, the son of a university professor, published Bomb the Suburbs, the spiritual heir to Norman Mailer’s celebratory 1957 essay, “The White Negro.” Wimsatt was deeply committed to hip-hop’s transformative powers, going so far as to embrace the status of the lowly “wigger,” a pejorative term popularized in the early 1990s to describe white kids who steep themselves in black culture. Wimsatt viewed the wigger’s immersion in two cultures as an engine for change. “If channeled in the right way,” he wrote, “the wigger can go a long way toward repairing the sickness of race in America.”

Wimsatt’s painfully earnest attempts to put his own relationship with whiteness under the microscope coincided with the emergence of an academic discipline known as “whiteness studies.” In colleges and universities across the country, scholars began examining the history of “whiteness” and unpacking its contradictions. Why, for example, had the Irish and the Italians fallen beyond the pale at different moments in our history? Were Jewish Americans white? And, as the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson asked, “Why is it that in the United States, a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?”

Much like Wimsatt, the whiteness-studies academics—figures such as Jacobson, David Roediger, Eric Lott, and Noel Ignatiev—were attempting to come to terms with their own relationships with whiteness, in its past and present forms. In the early 1990s, Ignatiev, a former labor activist and the author of How the Irish Became White, set out to “abolish” the idea of the white race by starting the New Abolitionist Movement and founding a journal titled Race Traitor. “There is nothing positive about white identity,” he wrote in 1998. “As James Baldwin said, ‘As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.’”

Although most white Americans haven’t read Bomb the Suburbs or Race Traitor, this view of whiteness as something to be interrogated, if not shrugged off completely, has migrated to less academic spheres. The perspective of the whiteness-studies academics is commonplace now, even if the language used to express it is different.

“I get it: as a straight white male, I’m the worst thing on Earth,” Christian Lander says. Lander is a Canadian-born, Los Angeles–based satirist who in January 2008 started a blog called Stuff White People Like (, which pokes fun at the manners and mores of a specific species of young, hip, upwardly mobile whites. (He has written more than 100 entries about whites’ passion for things like bottled water, “the idea of soccer,” and “being the only white person around.”) At its best, Lander’s site—which formed the basis for a recently published book of the same name (reviewed in the October 2008 Atlantic)—is a cunningly precise distillation of the identity crisis plaguing well-meaning, well-off white kids in a post-white world.

“Like, I’m aware of all the horrible crimes that my demographic has done in the world,” Lander says. “And there’s a bunch of white people who are desperate—desperate—to say, ‘You know what? My skin’s white, but I’m not one of the white people who’s destroying the world.’”

For Lander, whiteness has become a vacuum. The “white identity” he limns on his blog is predicated on the quest for authenticity—usually other people’s authenticity. “As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab onto. You’re jealous! Pretty much every white person I grew up with wished they’d grown up in, you know, an ethnic home that gave them a second language. White culture is Family Ties and Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses—like, this is white culture. This is all we have.”

Lander’s “white people” are products of a very specific historical moment, raised by well-meaning Baby Boomers to reject the old ideal of white American gentility and to embrace diversity and fluidity instead. (“It’s strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They’ll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?”) But his lighthearted anthropology suggests that the multicultural harmony they were raised to worship has bred a kind of self-denial.

Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University who is a fan of Lander’s humor, has observed that many of his white students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: “They don’t care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, ‘I don’t have a culture.’ They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional.” Wray says that this feeling of being culturally bereft often prevents students from recognizing what it means to be a child of privilege—a strange irony that the first wave of whiteness-studies scholars, in the 1990s, failed to anticipate.

Of course, the obvious material advantages that come with being born white—lower infant-mortality rates and easier-to-acquire bank loans, for example—tend to undercut any sympathy that this sense of marginalization might generate. And in the right context, cultural-identity crises can turn well-meaning whites into instant punch lines. Consider ego trip’s The (White) Rapper Show, a brilliant and critically acclaimed reality show that VH1 debuted in 2007. It depicted 10 (mostly hapless) white rappers living together in a dilapidated house—dubbed “Tha White House”—in the South Bronx. Despite the contestants’ best intentions, each one seemed like a profoundly confused caricature, whether it was the solemn graduate student committed to fighting racism or the ghetto-obsessed suburbanite who had, seemingly by accident, named himself after the abolitionist John Brown.

Similarly, Smirnoff struck marketing gold in 2006 with a viral music video titled “Tea Partay,” featuring a trio of strikingly bad, V-neck-sweater-clad white rappers called the Prep Unit. “Haters like to clown our Ivy League educations / But they’re just jealous ’cause our families run the nation,” the trio brayed, as a pair of bottle-blond women in spiffy tennis whites shimmied behind them. There was no nonironic way to enjoy the video; its entire appeal was in its self-aware lampooning of WASP culture: verdant country clubs, “old money,” croquet, popped collars, and the like.

“The best defense is to be constantly pulling the rug out from underneath yourself,” Wray remarks, describing the way self-aware whites contend with their complicated identity. “Beat people to the punch. You’re forced as a white person into a sense of ironic detachment. Irony is what fuels a lot of white subcultures. You also see things like Burning Man, when a lot of white people are going into the desert and trying to invent something that is entirely new and not a form of racial mimicry. That’s its own kind of flight from whiteness. We’re going through a period where whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?”

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College.


  1. Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation and Incomprehension of Professor Hua Hsu of Vassar College

    I have found those things in other Websites.

    His article "The End of White America ?" has been strongly criticized in the Internet. Some comments on the Web are angry and consider him as an anti-White Hitler. ( Is that possible ? )

    But I want to clarify and light a candle in the darkness.

    First of all Professor Hua Hsu is an artist. That is why he teaches literature at Vassar and writes in "The Atlantic". He has artistic talent, very necessary to write in such a High Quality Magazine. The Professor is not a Demographer, Statistician, Politician, Riot Policeman, Judge, Prosecutor or Distric Attorney.

    He is in the flight of Poetry, Fantasy and Art.

    I was extremely entertained by the article of the Professor.

    "The End of White America?" -- Excellent, Great Literary Quality, Best Grades

    We read these intellectual magazines for entertainment and illustration.

    I knew that this was not an article of Statistics or Demographics, this was not about Politics or Racial Conflict. This was to entertain us, that is a "divertimento" to make us laugh, just amusement, More like a Mozart Divertimento than Beethoven's Appasionata.

    The professor uses metaphors, "The End of White America" or "End of Whiteness" is a metaphor that means that perhaps, perhaps, many things are going to change in subtle ways.

    The Shape of Things to Come : slightly changed or lightly different advertising, commerce, trade, schooling, perceptions of others, friendships, marriages, racial ethics, police or criminal investigation, and yes literature and poetry too !

    This does not mean that all White People are going to be gassed in a Gas Chamber a la Hitler.

    I am also interested in Demography and Politics. And I know that these changes are slow, but people get scared believing that the end of the World is coming or that things are going to change overnight for the worse.

    Better or Worse are subjective categories and a matter of Cultured and Civilized Discussion. Better in an Intellectual Magazine than in a street riot, with racial slurs, violence, police, etc ...

    Vicente Duque

  2. I am still trying to understand the lament of young White Americans lack of supposed culture. Their culture is inexplicably tied to Western Civilization, i.e. White European culture. World history, Art Appreciation classes are filled with images, ideas that were supposedly created by White people. A White American can trace their ancestry to Cork County or Norway, Palermo, Venezuela, etc and he can be immediately connected to his ancestry while still maintaining an unassailable white privilege. Thus I am at a loss as to understand why they feel they lack culture.

  3. I don't understand why this article would generate controversy, other than that the initial premise that whiteness will eventually or even soon no longer be norm of or definition of Americanness scare some people. Everything Hua Hsu says in this article is consistent with my experiences, interactions with white people and understanding of the world. I think white people's perception of having no culture is the reason they appropriate from other cultures. And hipster culture provides pretty convincing evidence of white subcultures' basis in irony.

    In response to Dark Moon, I generally agree with you. To me culture refers to ways of being, and because white ways of being make up the dominant culture in the USA, whites don't have to think of it and don't see it AS culture at all, it's just "how things are done." This allows them to define culture as something brown people (people of color) have and they are bereft of, which is, of course, ironic. They rob themselves of their own culture by failing to acknowledge it.

  4. Macon, there was a link a few days ago on jezebel about a white male DC blogger who made a blog post about a list of things that identified 'a slut'. One of those things was being a black female (yes you read that right). Here is the link:

    If you do one of your informative white links/reading posts, could you post this, so as to get the word out on this racist piece of trash? Thanks.

  5. The idea that culture is something that belongs to "others" needs to be interrogated. White culture is everywhere you look because they are dominant people. The very invisibility speaks to the unequal distribution of power. This sounds like manic striken people who fear the loss of any form of their unearned privielge. I was particularly bothered by the so-called desire to become the "other". That is a falsehood on such a large scale. They don't want the marginalization and the exploitation they want to be considered exotic. What is this but a different version of eating the other?

  6. "I think white people's perception of having no culture is the reason they appropriate from other cultures"
    I'm pretty sure being human is the reason for that, since humans have been stealing bits of other cultures for thousands of years at least...

  7. thanks for posting this. it's a great read.

  8. @Dark Moon

    I'm hearing you. Those who live in America, Canada, Europe, Australia or New Zealand are thoroughly steeped in "white culture". In school I learned about white history, white art, white literature, and white scientific achievements.

    If I go to a movie theater, more likely than not I will see a movie by a white director starring white actors.

    If I go to a bookstore, the majority of the books will be by white authors.

    If I turn on the TV, I will see mostly advertisements and shows depicting white people.

    If I go to an art gallery, I will look at art predominantly made by white people.

    How can white people say they have no culture with a straight face?

    Renee said "They don't want the marginalization and the exploitation they want to be considered exotic."

    Hell no they don't want the downsides. Hell, they don't even see the downsides. What is it about whiteness that creates this huge appetite to gobble up the cultural inventions of POC?

  9. Great article, thanks for posting!

    I was one of the suburban white kids this piece is talking about, and it captured some difficult feelings nicely.

    Darkmoon suggested that we American whites reach back to our European roots for culture, but most whites are a mix of other nationalities, none of which relate to our lives in America in the 21st century. I am as alien to Norwegian culture as I am to anyone else's.

    Personally, I think the reason people like me look outside of white culture is because at some point our 'culture' became absolutely nothing but a venue to sell us products.
    All our holidays and traditions have been shaped by a century of concerted advertising and social manipulation. So we look, perhaps misguidedly, to cultures that appear to thrive outside this commercial void and grab onto whatever we can.
    To Renee, I would say that we are as confused as anyone about race in America, and by trying to look outside our own culture for meaning and richness in life, we are NOT all 'manic stricken people' grasping at our unearned privelege. We may be clumsy, sometimes thoughtless or arrogant about it, but this is reaching OUT, not IN.

  10. @Scott:


    Scott said... "Darkmoon suggested that we American whites reach back to our European roots for culture, but most whites are a mix of other nationalities, none of which relate to our lives in America in the 21st century."

    I think this is a misreading of what zie is saying. Darkmoon, I think- correct me if I'm wrong, is saying that America is literally saturated in white culture. We are surrounded by it, and aspects of whites' European roots are everywhere. I didn't see a call to white people to revert to only cultural aspects of their individual heritages.

  11. Walter Ridgeley Wellesley, MAJanuary 13, 2009 at 2:20 PM

    Dark Moon's absence of understanding of why YWAs feel a lack of culture is explained by the fact that the Poor Little Darlings are the result of decades of brainwashing by their parents, their "educators", and the entertainment industry, led by Hollywood and the mainstream media.

    It is unequivocably the case that YWAs have a demonstrably rich cultural heritage upon which to draw – even if doing so is challenging in the nation's college towns and in certain zip codes sprinkled up and down the coasts.

    Were the PLDs to grow a set and think for themselves they might not feel so culturally bereft. Scott, for instance, could come to understand that his culture is just slightly more than "a venue to sell us products.", an assertion that is not just banal in the extreme but is also a wonderful illustration of my main point; thank you, Scott!

  12. Angry Black White girl—Essentially that is the somewhat where I am coming from. American/European Culture is white culture therefore, because it is so prevalent and familiar they may not have to think about it, they do have a dominant culture and can readily draw sustenance from that.Therefore I disagree with Scott’s assertion that this over familiarity lacks the exoticism that supposedly People of color have. He may not know his Norwegian ancestry with any degree of intimacy, but he can still trace it back to the home country, along with all the other different parts of his European roots and he can readily draw from the history, customs, traditions, and ideas that make White Europeans unique. Most Black Americans don’t even know which tribe from West Africa we hail from and the Western perception of Africa is an uncivilized miasma of corruption, blood and disease.

    I have read enough European History, Philosophy, Art and Classical music to see that it is a self serving lie to believe that White culture is an empty soulless cash register and that somehow White Americans are bereft without a cultural anchor. The lynchpin with White superiority and their belief that Blacks are inferior are the cultural additions that they have created and which other races have sought to emulate in one form or another. White Jews know that they can be proud of Jewish scholars such as Avicenna, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, and Mahler. England there is of course Shakespeare, Dylan, James Joyce, in France Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo, and Germany, Mann, Hegel, Beethoven, Mozart and the list goes on. In Scandinavia there is Sigrid Undset, Munch, Kierkegaard, and then there is Picasso, El Greco, Valezquez, etc. White standards of beauty are what every race on the planet seeks to emulate. Although Asian and Hispanic women are catching up, a beautiful White woman is still seen as the gold standard for all races of men.

    Naturally, when I talk about my culture, it is met with disdain as something less sophisticated and primitive compared to White culture. All a White person has tp do, as el Czech has noted, is go to a Museum, open up a reputable art history book, look at most literary cannons, or really look at how whites are portrayed in the media and then come back and tell me that White culture is merely the absence of a viable culture and it means nothing.

    The belief that Young White people are cultureless is one of the most hideous, self serving and loathsome lies. It absolves them from having to confront White privilege while simultaneously trying to show that somehow Whites are as a group besieged and oppressed by the insistence of non-white groups that their various cultures be respected and acknowledged.

  13. Lurking beneath Hsu's article is the idea that "whiteness" is the power to determine or define the cultural agenda. He would probably claim that the power to define the political agenda is included in this notion as well. On both counts, I didn't find his article convincing. The culture that Hsu mistakenly identifies as "white" is really a manifestation of Protestantism and, to a lesser degree, old world Catholicism. Christianity in all its forms has been on the retreat for some time. People can debate whether this is due to television, the 60s, drugs, movies, etc, etc; regardless of the causes, values and attitudes more in keeping with paganism have taken over the culture. Various cultural critics over the last 20 years or so, writing on Rock and Roll, tatoos, and the new Primitivism in art and cultural aesthetics, have argued as much. If one goes back to Norman Mailer's article, "The White Negro," this line of criticism reaches back even further. In each instance, existential authenticity is identified with the anti-bourgeois, with finding space "in between" societal institutions and its total management grid created to serve the interests of capital. In this respect, the question Hsu should have asked is why there is a crisis of authenticity in the modernity. If one looks at fin-de-siecle Europe through the time of Weimar, the trend towards African or black culture is evident, too. An interesting book in this regard is Eksteins' book World War I, "The Rites of Spring." In this regard, Hsu's article was a disappointment, having covered ground already explored.

  14. I think I have unintentionally alienated some of you; please allow me to respond to some of what followed my first comment.

    Walter: Insults aren't especially helpful, though I will hold on to the epithet of PLD.

    Dark Moon, the Czech:

    I guess I wasn't clear last time.
    I too have taken my share of art history, and I am very aware of the over-emphasis of white achievements in our culture, and I'm familiar with the continued global dominance of the idealization of whiteness
    I am also aware that white culture is the default culture in the US, that we are in fact
    "soaking in it."
    I didn't mean to suggest that there is NO white culture, but the culture that PLDs or YWAs (white suburbanites to me) grow up in is not saturated with Mahler, Ibsen, Picasso, or Einstein; contemporary US white culture is about reality TV and celebrity gossip. This is what the people I work with and grew up with talk about and how they live, and it's what I ran away from long ago. When YWAs talk about not having a culture, it's the active day-to-day that they're referring to.
    I'm afraid I might have been interpreted to be defending something I'm not. I'm not interested in 'divesting myself' from my whiteness, and it's not something I think even makes sense.
    From my (perhaps Naive, perhaps brainwashed if u want to be a jerk about it) perspective the way White America myopically focuses on itself only is part of the problem.
    Per Dark Moon: "Naturally, when I talk about my culture, it is met with disdain as something less sophisticated and primitive compared to White culture."
    I would like to not be a part of this problem, and I do not share that perspective, whatever your culture is.
    At what point does reaching out become usurping and 'grasping at white privelege?'

    I get that a white kid wearing a Keffiyeh is 9 times out of 10 an arrogant idiot with no business wearing it, and probably doesn't even know what it is. But where is the line between that and a healthy interest in and respect for other cultures?

  15. Scott, the Angry Black Woman has started a series of posts that I think you'll find helpful: "What Is Cultural Appropriation?"

  16. Thank you Macon, that looks to be a lot of good reading. It's clear to me that my approach to this subject is far too simplistic. This blog has sparked a lot of new perceptions for me the last few months; keep up the good work!

  17. it is a good article, but the writing style borders on satire. In my opinion (for what that is worth coming from a white, German descended small town Iowan...) I feel that Hau Hsu has a lot of truth behind his words. It would appear that he wrote this article to force people to think and open their eyes to the world going on around them - regardless if you like or disagree with the article.

  18. "Whiteness" will last as long as "blackness." They are Siamese twins joined at the heart. Both have to be legally dismantled You can't keep one and feed the other. That is impossible.


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