On Race, Markedness, and Stuff White People Like
Many of you will be familiar with the blog Stuff White People Like. For a long time I have had a problem with it, but it is only recently that I have been able to pin down what about the site bothers me so much. I had thought before that it might be its mean-spiritedness; hiding self-righteous moralizing behind a veneer of sarcasm doesn’t make it any nicer. I also knew the race factor played into it somehow. Clearly the author, Christian Lander (who, it is often noted, is white), does not actually mean all Caucasians when he says “white.” He doesn’t even mean Caucasian Americans. For example, although John McCain is ahead by 8 points among non-Hispanic whites, Barack Obama is listed as a Thing White People Like. So if nothing else, there is the problem of inaccuracy, which pervades the site (“this blog is not filled with hateful or negative stereotypes and it’s not meant to incite anger or demean white people.“)
But in reality it’s a far greater problem than that. I figured out the other day that my aversion to Stuff White People Like can be explained through the sociolinguistic concept of markedness. Wikipedia calls markedness “a very fuzzy notion”; that may be, but it’s also easy to grasp and extremely useful. It is easiest to explain through examples. Linguistically speaking, the unmarked form is the least specific. An example from English is the words “lion,” “lioness,” and “cub.” The first is unmarked: it could refer to a male or a female of any age. The latter two are marked for gender and maturity, respectively.
Socially speaking, societies tend to have an unmarked identity for a range of characteristics. For example, in modern, continental America, it is unmarked to be white, to be a native English speaker, to be unaccented (which is really just saying to be unmarked with respect to accent), and to be straight, among other things. All of this is highly contingent and historically specific, of course. Some relatively obvious examples: in Ancient Greece, which we culturally trace our descent from, it would be marked for a man to be “straight,” in the modern sense. 200, 100, or even 50 years ago it would have been unmarked to be Protestant; now, I would argue, it would be more accurate to say it is unmarked to be Christian. It is important not to confuse the unmarked identity with the majority (or plurality) identity, although understandably they often coincide. In colonial Algiers, for example, it might have been unmarked to be white and a native French speaker.
Here, though, the end of my knowledge on the topic is in sight. Must the unmarked identity coincide with the socially dominant identity? I imagine not, but I couldn’t provide any examples, except maybe China during the very early Qing dynasty. In communities within a society that share markedness with respect to some characteristic, does that marked characteristic become unmarked, and the externally unmarked marked, within those communities? Not necessarily. My linguistics professor last spring, who was from largely unaccented Maryland, was married to a Southerner. When they went to visit her family in Texas, he claimed they intensified their accents around him—not the action of a group who considered themselves unmarked with respect to accent, and not the action of a Maryland family confronted with a Texan.
As I mentioned before, white people are unmarked for race in present-day continental America (I think it may be different in Hawaii). But what does this mean? And what does “white” mean? It hasn’t always meant the same thing, that’s for sure. Americans of Irish, German, Mediterranean, and especially Jewish descent would not have been considered “white” 150 years ago. Today all are considered white, although under some circumstances they can still be “ethnic”—which is, incidentally, a very revealing term used to mean “marked for ethnicity.” George W. Bush is not “ethnic,” Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably not “ethnic,” and Borat Sagdiyev is definitely “ethnic,” but they are all white. Looking ahead into the future, it has been observed that Asians, once excluded, are gradually being absorbed into the unmarked “white” identity. (For skeptics, that link has some great documentation of this claim. And as further proof, not only are Asian girls listed as item #11 on Stuff White People Like, white guys are item #38 on Stuff Asian People Like.) Imagine someone “acting Asian” (Asian-American, not Asian tourist); now imagine a black person “acting white.” See much of a difference? I doubt it.
This last point is revealing. When a black person “acts white,” all that really means is that he or she is failing to “act black.” Historically, “white” and “black” in America have been the two poles of American racial identity. Like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marxian dialectic, over time they absorb other groups into themselves. If I were to say that I went to a meeting the other day and I was the only white person there, more likely than not your mental picture would be of an entirely African-American crowd. Likewise if I said I went to a meeting the other day and I was the only black person there, you would assume that the crowd was mostly, if not entirely, white. (This also relates to the linguistic concept of implicature.) As mentioned before, American history is full of formerly marked racial identities being absorbed into the unmarked white identity. It is a bit harder to find examples of racial identities being subsumed into blackness, but I think this may be happening to some extent today with Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans. At the Green Party convention this past summer, as at many other liberal events, there were many mentions of “browns and blacks.” It might be interesting to speculate on why it is so rare for racial identities to be subsumed into blackness, and why it is happening now with Latinos, but that is a little far off track.
Last month, the U.S. Census released a set of provocative projections that attracted a lot of media attention. According to these projections, non-Hispanic whites will cease to make up the majority of the population in 2042. By 2050, only 46% of the country will be white, compared to the 2008 figure of 66%—news that predictably sounded alarm bells in some of the more right-wing sectors of the Internet. Looking ahead 42 years into the future, what will America’s racial identities be like in 2050? Two possibilities are that races will no longer be strongly marked, and that all races including whites will become marked.
Let’s examine those possibilities one by one. Is there any reason to believe that something as elemental and contentious as race in our society could ever lose its power to mark? Yes, there is evidence. For centuries religion divided Europe and America—even in colonial Maryland, relatively tolerant for America at the time, multiple small wars were fought between Catholics and Protestants. Today Joe Biden’s Catholicism is just another factoid, like his birthplace of hellish Scranton, Pennsylvania, that might appeal to a small slice of backwards swing voters. If it can happen with religion, there is at least a chance it could happen with race. Perhaps someday, while engaged in a civil war against those with a different haircut or those who prefer chunky to creamy peanut butter, we will look back and laugh that something as minor as skin color once had the power to divide us.
So it seems there could be a society without much marking for race. Could there be a society without an unmarked identity for race? Here I am on shakier ground, but I think, according to orthodox sociolinguistic theory, it is possible to have all alleles for a given identity marked. Assuming such a society is possible, what would the marked white identity look like? Probably a lot like the subject of Stuff White People Like.
And at long last we return to my point: Stuff White People Like is bad because it pushes us towards that latter possibility and encourages racialism. The white identity that emerges from the website is more or less an educated, emasculated, liberal yuppie. The fact that this does not describe most white people is not a problem, as a commenter on the website demonstrates. After all, black stereotypes may not describe most black people, but a young black man is still expected to “act black.” Of course, Stuff White People Like alone does not have the power to propel us anywhere (despite its unfortunate popularity), and I doubt the stereotype that emerges of white people came as a surprise even to readers unfamiliar with the website, a sign that it is already taking hold somewhat in our collective consciousness. But there is no doubt that Stuff White People Like is not helping.
In conclusion, in the battle for our national soul between colorblindness and racialism, Stuff White People Like is a little devil perched on our left shoulder jabbing us in the neck with a pitchfork. We may have no chance of achieving a truly raceless society by 2050, and many Americans may not want to, but in the interest of preventing the next generation’s social ills, spend your time on something more worthwhile than Stuff White People Like.
Questions for commenters: Why might a colorblind society not be a good thing? Do you think Hispanics are being subsumed into blackness? Do you see a trend in the proliferation of subnationalisms in recent decades, from cultural shows to devolution?