A Racialicious Roundtable
Whether you describe it as the dawning of a post-racial age or just the end of white America, we’re approaching a profound demographic tipping point. According to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, those groups currently categorized as racial minorities—blacks and Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians—will account for a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042. Among Americans under the age of 18, this shift is projected to take place in 2023, which means that every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.
“I think white people feel like they’re under siege right now—like it’s not okay to be white right now, especially if you’re a white male,” laughs Bill Imada, of the IW Group…“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of resentment,” Newman-Carrasco observes, describing the flak she caught after writing an article for a trade publication on the need for more-diverse hiring practices. “I got a response from a friend—he’s, like, a 60-something white male, and he’s been involved with multicultural recruiting,” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I really feel like the hunted. It’s a hard time to be a white man in America right now, because I feel like I’m being lumped in with all white males in America, and I’ve tried to do stuff, but it’s a tough time.’”
“I always tell the white men in the room, ‘We need you,’” Imada says. “We cannot talk about diversity and inclusion and engagement without you at the table. It’s okay to be white!”
“But people are stressed out about it. ‘We used to be in control! We’re losing control!’”
So this roundtable has been a long time coming. In mid-January the team started to take a look at Hua Hsu’s Atlantic Monthly article “The End of White America?” And we had a lot of pissed off things to say. And yes it did take us more than a few weeks to corral all our righteous indignation together. But we hope you’ll think it was worth the wait.
On the Cover
Andrea: This is the impression I got from the cover and the article: screamingly alarmist. The half-face of Obama juxtaposed with heavy-block sans serif capital letters that can be seen half a long Barnes & Noble check-out line away. As if to say this single man–a bi-racial man who self-identifies as Black–is single-handedly ruining white people, whiteness, and, most importantly, white privilege. It seems to play off the fear-mongering miscegenation fantasies of yore: the “receding” of the “white” phenotype, that “beiging” of America that Hsu refers to in the piece. Then, before anyone gets any ideas about the writer’s race, in smaller red letters, is the scribe’s name. Sorta like, “Ha! You can’t accuse The Atlantic of being racist ’cause the name can’t be ‘read’ as white.” Doesn’t matter, IMO. The zero-sum game that is US racism is visually in full effect.
Actually, The Atlantic cover reminds me of another cover from a magazine about twenty years ago, when “coloredness”–coded as “identity politics” and “political correctness” back then–was also “threatening to tear the country apart.” From Time magazine, April 9, 1990:
Just some visual perspective on these kinds of articles.
What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority?…Today, the arrival of what Buchanan derided as “Third World America” is all but inevitable. What will the new mainstream of America look like, and what ideas or values might it rally around? What will it mean to be white after “whiteness” no longer defines the mainstream? Will anyone mourn the end of white America? Will anyone try to preserve it?
Thea: Hsu argues that mainstream culture has turned against white people and the way he talks, it’s as if the colored hordes of P Diddy fans and ethnically ambiguous Latin@s who’re snapping up all the commercial parts have somehow sneakily gotten hold of “culture” and orchestrated this shift. First, we’ll make fun of you for not being able to dance! Then, WE’LL EAT YOUR CHILDREN!!!”
Andrea: This alarmist angle covers what really bugs me about the piece–it’s offers no analysis of structures and execution of racism itself in the US. What Hsu seems to ostensibly and sloppily attempts to get at is once whiteness–and those white people and PoCs who adhere to it–fall back, racism itself will disappear. Hsu says:
There will be dislocations and resentments along the way, but the demographic shifts of the next 40 years are likely to reduce the power of racial hierarchies over everyone’s lives, producing a culture that’s more likely than any before to treat its inhabitants as individuals, rather than members of a caste or identity group.
And there is Hsu’s “we gonna be post-racial, y’all–if we’re not already” statement–which can also be a another read on this article.
This article makes me go back to Tim Wise and Vijay Prashad, who I think would have made better touchstones/springboards for Hsu’s piece because they both have more nuanced understandings of the mechanics of racism in the US. Tim Wise said about whiteness, from his book, White Like Me:
…from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s a series of laws were promulgated in Virginia and elsewhere, which elevated all persons of European descent, no matter how lowly in economic terms, above all persons of African descent. The purpose of such measures was to provide poor Europeans (increasing called whites) with a stake in the system, even though they were hardly benefiting in material terms from it. In other words, whiteness was a trick, and it worked marvelously, dampening down the push for rebellion by poor whites on the basis of class interest, and encouraging them to cast their lot with the elite, if only in aspirational terms. White skin became, for them, an alternative form of property to which they could cleave, in the absence of more tangible possessions.
And from Vijay Prashad, from his book, Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Racial Purity (which gets to Thea’s point about whites as immigrants and the internecine racial conflicts among some PoCs):
Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed, particularly when the transit to the United States promises the dream of gold and glory? The immigrant seeks a form of veritcal assimilation, to climb from the lowest darkest echelon on the stepladder of tyranny into the bright whiteness. In U.S. history the Irish, Italians, Jews, and –in small steps with some hesitation ont he part of white America–Aisans and Latinos have all tried to barter their varied cultural worlds for the privileges of whiteness….
Yet all people who enter the United States do not strive to be accepted by the terms set by white supremacy. Some actively disregard them, finding them impossible to meet. Instead, they seek recognition, solidarity, and safety by embracing others also oppressed by white supremacy in something of a horizontal assimilation…
When people actively or tacitly refuse the terms of vertical integration they are derisively dismissed as either unassimilable or exclusionary. We hear, ‘Why do the black kids sit together in the cafeteria’ instead of ‘Why do our institutions routinely uphold the privilieges of whiteness?’ There is little space in popular discourse for an examination of what goes on outside the realm of white America among people of color.
Hsu certainly didn’t expand this space. He’s just screaming, “Fire!” in a crowded theater of racial anxiety.
Fatemeh: Hsu’s “The End of White America?” (cue scary music) essentially aims to hash out the following: “Hey, white people are freaked out that people of color are becoming the majority in the U.S. Why’s that? Don’t worry, guys. It’s cool.” But instead of just sticking to this outline, it feels like Hsu tries to condense several books on hip-hop culture, racial history of the U.S., market trends, and race theory into one article. Because all of these subjects need extensive background, he fails in his attempt to mash them together.
Hsu hints at a “white panic” caused by the racial demographic shift, but doesn’t explore it, question it, or even attempt to assuage it (except for a few paragraphs in the last section). He quotes Bill Imada, who states that whites are worried about “losing control,” which is the reason for all this “white panic” over shifting ethnic demography. But instead of analyzing this point (“What do they mean by ‘losing control’? What do they think this means for them?”), it serves as a transition at the end of a section, and is quickly glossed over in a comparison of different “types” of whites (the seemingly conservative and liberal camps) that still doesn’t tell us what white people are afraid of.
Fear can’t be assuaged or overcome without an assessment of what it is you’re afraid of, which Hsu hints at in the next section but never actually plainly states: “The coming white minority does not mean that the racial hierarchy of American culture will suddenly become inverted…” As if people of color will suddenly disenfranchise whites, confiscate their assets, and force them into slavery.
Arturo: It’s hard to read this article without laughing at first, and then getting angry. Hsu’s piece, much like Diddy’s White parties he talks about, is high in concept but crass in execution.
Ask me about “the end” of whiteness when I don’t have to read “reassurances”in the New York Post that minorities are advancing on television because there are more black supporting characters. Ask me about it when Bruce Springsteen isn’t playing the Super Bowl halftime show because white people are scared of Prince’s guitar and Janet Jackson’s cleavage.
On Hsu’s Use of Language
Obviously, steadily ascending rates of interracial marriage complicate this picture, pointing toward what Michael Lind has described as the “beiging” of America. And it’s possible that “beige Americans” will self-identify as “white” in sufficient numbers to push the tipping point further into the future than the Census Bureau projects. But even if they do, whiteness will be a label adopted out of convenience and even indifference, rather than aspiration and necessity.
Fatemeh: Hsu presents terms that he doesn’t define, like “whiteness,” “racial transcendence,” and “beiging.” He also makes several terms synonymous that aren’t so:
…the dawning of a post-racial age or just the end of white America…
…we can call this the triumph of multiculturalism, or post-racialism.
These conflations are even more problematic because of Hsu’s undefined terms; it’s up to the reader to guess what he means by terms such as “post-white” or “post-racial”. Undefined terms like this are unclear and often alarmist; I can just imagine a reader trying to figure out what “post-white” means: “Does that mean there won’t be any more white people?!”
Hsu not only presents the “white panic” without a full explanation of what it is, but often feeds it with alarmist rhetorical questions like, “Will anyone mourn the end of white America?” and sympathetic constructions of white people who can’t get jobs in advertisements because all the advertisers want “beige” people.
Andrea: Yeah, the word “beiging” is wrong on at least 30 different levels. Here are 4: Inaccurate, creepy, twee-rude (nasty with pinkie in the air), and asinine.
Thea: Let me just say that as a mixed race person of colour I OBJECT to the word “beiging.” Pullease. I am not beige! More of an off-yellow, really.
This is a long-ass article, but Hsu never finds space to define some key, and rather obvious terms. Like “white.” Or “post-white.” Or “multicultural.”
Hsu talks about how white people feel “culturally bereft” and want to distance themselves from “whiteness.” And that seems an accurate representation to me – the word “white” has become a bad word. In some circles if you point out that Gary is white, everyone will act like you called Gary’s mom a ho.
But what drives me mad about that is that it was the white colonisers who came up with the term “white” in the first place, to distinguish themselves from everyone else as more pure and biologically superior. Says Dr Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin in his article “Who Invented White People?”:
It was white people who invented the idea of race in the first place, and it is white people who have become obsessed and consumed by it…[Whiteness] emerged as what we now call a “pan-ethnic” cateogry; as a way of merging a variety of European ethnic populations into a single “race,” especially so as to distinguish them from people with whom they had very particular legal and political relations–Africans, Asians, American Indians–that were not equal to their relations with one another as whites.”
So it’s hard to have sympathy for “white folks on the run” or white folks who get their backs up when you point out that they are white, when it was the forebears of said white folks who set up racial categories in the first place.
Perhaps one of the most infuriating things about this article is Hsu’s expectation that we will have pity for these white folks who no longer know how to define themselves in a demographically shifting America. Because in order to have pity we’d
1) have to agree that this demographic shift was equivalent to a power shift, which as far as I can tell it is not, first African American president notwithstanding,
2) have to feel bad that white folks are feeling the pinch of a segregation that they have benefitted from for 100s of years – the segregation they started, and the segregation that many white folks only begin to notice and fuss about when it is perceived to threaten their power and identity.
Not to be all puerile and get into who started it, but uh, they started it. And to loop back to 1), I don’t really care if you’re being segregated. When you do a) become a minority race b) become politically marginalised as a minority race, then I’ll come and talk to you.
And anyways. What really has changed? Sure, I know lots of angry young people of colour who do see the word “white” as a bad word and use it that way. But I don’t think they’re the ones who are greenlighting films, owning the companies that can make or break a recording artist (like Sony or Virgin), or making the final decision on H&M’s Spring Collection.
On Hip Hop
Andrea: I think Hsu uses hip-hop as a played-out shorthand for (and two of its proprietors, Russell Simmons and P. Diddy, examples of) “authentic Negritude,” which is the image of Black folks struggling in the hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken, school-system-and-city-government-failed, inner-city streets. I’m not saying that this isn’t *a* reality for some Black folks (and other PoCs as well as some white people here and abroad) but it also became the mythic standard of what being an African American in the late 20th century and into the 21st century – and a commodified mythic standard at that. Hsu, then, uses hip-hop to insinuate, “See, *those* uncouth, can’t-quite-assimilate-to-”our”-middle-class-mores Negroes are taking over! Hide your (white) women and innocent (white) children!” ::horror-film scream::
But What Is This Article Really About?
Thea: The fact of the matter is that this is an article that is not simply afraid that white people will be a demographic minority, but that they’ll lose control. To me, that’s kind of a repugnant fear. Would a little more balanced distribution of power across race lines really be that bad?
Fatemeh: Hsu doesn’t ever address why there is such “white panic” by Buchanan et al. It feels like this panic is really a fear that white people will have to be treated the way they treated people of color for years. Is this what Hsu means by racial transcendence? Why doesn’t anyone just say this? I feel like that’s what is meant a lot of times, but wrapped up in the secret language and given the code “power.”
Are some white folks afraid they’ll be forced into the white slave trade? Maybe. But I think most people are afraid of “losing control”, which really means losing advantages over others because of skin color, losing skin privilege when it comes to housing or loans or job openings. People will have to actively work and participate in a community rather than assuming one exists based on race.
Andrea: Even if white folks became a numerical minority, I don’t think that’ll cause racism, especially white-centered racism, itself to cease. Unless my memory is getting rusty, a group doesn’t necessarily need sheer numbers to have a system that works favorably for them–just the silver tongue and the ammo. (Apartheid in South Africa, anyone?) So, “white America” supposedly fading away in numbers and in “culture/cultural relevance” (both demeaningly ridiculous assumptions) will not make us “post-racial” any more than PoCs shutting up about Teh Racizim that “we” seem to be “foisting” on the “innocent” white people, esp. in the Obama Age, as Thea rightly states.
Jessica: I mean, what’s with the “What does it mean to be American?” question every time White people feel like they are losing power in these perceived “race wars”. It was even in the title paragraph of this damn piece! Isn’t it really, “What does it mean to be colonized, over and over and over again?” I think that’s how one might fit in a little more with the truth of it all.
Like many people, I hate the quintessential pictorial of what a perfect, hegemonized America would look like if we all just forgot our histories and pretended like we’re getting along in perfect racial symbiosis. Diversity/equity work 101 myth dispelled for ya: Hiring people from racialized communities DOES NOT always lead to the appropriate programs and policies for people of colour. So take a chill pill about Barack, okay? (but keep on hoping for that change!)
Back to what people were actually saying for this article:
White people feel like they’re under siege now.
As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab onto.
You’re forced as a white person into a sense of ironic detachment…..We’re going through a period where whites are really trying to figure out: Who are we?
I suppose I appreciate the frankness of the opinions shared, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t in my unpolite non-Western norm discourse state that besides having had it with the same old, same old defensiveness that happens when racialized communities start reclaiming and re-asserting themselves, I’m at a loss for seeing how these various forms of wanted cultural appropriation, guilt-tripping, and blame-shifting the issues are in any way beneficial for improving race relations here.
Hsu also seems to suggest that with our increasing numbers, “armies” are going to form and White people had better watch out. Umm, yeah it’s kind of exciting that we’re populating the country as people of colour, even in Canada Aboriginal people are the fastest growing population with 50% of us under the age of 25. But are we planning to mass organize and take over the country the same way you fucked us over?
No. Because culturally speaking, we wouldn’t be Aboriginal anymore. Thanks.
And is it Still the End of White America if a (yet to be seen) White Minority Still Hold the Institutional Power?
Thea: The article is peppered with quotes and anecdotes that echo this vision of white men on the run, of white men (well, really white people, but Hsu focuses on the men) being ostracised for being “culturally bereft” and lacking in colour. But strangely enough, in a 9-page article on power and race in America, Hsu never once talks about the real marker of power in America: money. Who are the poorest people in America? According to Wikipedia:
The US Census declared that in 2007 – 12.5% of all people, including
- 10.5% white people 
- 24.5% black people 
- 21.5% all Hispanic people of any race,  lived in poverty.
Stats on Asians and Native Americans are missing, but at a glance it is clear that while the US now has a person of colour as a president, socio-economic conditions didn’t miraculous change overnight for communities of colour the moment Obama won the election. Obviously!
[Christian] 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…But his lighthearted anthropology suggests that the multicultural harmony they were raised to worship has bred a kind of self-denial.
It is almost ridiculous to me that Hsu buys into the idea that Americans (and North Americans as far as I can tell) embrace multiculturalism and diversity in a real way when so much of the basic stats that measure well-being and race – the real measures of power – show that he is wrong. Here’s some more stats: rates of incarceration by race in the U.S.; and a Canadian article that states that
Although [Aboriginal people] comprised only 2% of the general adult population, they accounted for 17% of the prison population. They were younger on average than non-Aboriginal inmates, had less education and were more likely to have been unemployed.
Hsu never defines “multicultural harmony.” And because some of his examples that pronounce the dominance of non-white cultures include white kids growing dreadlocks and suburban white kids wanting to be black (i.e. wiggers), by the end of the article I started to think that maybe Hsu believes that things like the use of models of colour in American Apparel ads and last year’s popularity of the fashion keffiyeh are examples of diversity’s strength in American mainstream culture. For crying out loud. That’s not power sharing. That’s cultural appropriation. To go back to the first thing I said, I don’t think it’s people of colour who’ve directed the cultural shift that that’s got us suddenly slobbering over everything “non-white.” I think it’s white folks who are into cultural appropriation (i.e. not anti-racism or equity) have made this so.
The fact is that the popularity of Eastern Religions, sushi, Sufism, faux-Chinese tattoos, Kanye West, backpacking across Vietnam and Bob Marley has not coincided with the fair distribution of socio-economic power across the globe, or across ethnic groups in America. So call me a cynic but to me the popularity of those things – which more often than not rise to prominence as sanitised and white-washed versions of their original selves – is more of an insult than a sign of multicultural harmony.
And also, That Whole White People Are Cultural Bereft Thing is a Racist Fallacy
Arturo: Life at the Atlantic has to be tough – how does one write this stuff with their pinky so high in the air?
Hsu’s sources and examples are undermined just as easily as his argument. Really, we’re supposed to be surprised that the guy behind Stuff White People Like would attest to a sense of white self-loathing? Did Professor Wray not refer his culturally envious students to Temple’s genealogy department? Did he not teach them the meaning of the word genealogy? I’ve got news for these guys – some of the White People I know cared enough to learn about how their families emigrated to this country from Scotland, or from Ireland, or from Germany, or from Russia.
Let me repeat: they cared enough to learn. Only a narcissist (or worse, an avaricious hipster preying on the insecurities of people in skinny jeans) would dismiss culture as nothing more than a pigment; a shared history, the traditions, the customs and courtesies and the stories we learn from our loved ones help forge our respective cultures, not because they’re “cool and oppositional,” but because they come from inside us.
Hsu’s “Flight To Whiteness” section, which could have examined the paths and reasons behind the remaining vestiges of generational racism, instead seems to buy into the self-stylings of the Cable Guys and Sarah Palins of the world as a would-be Rebellion against the Evil Multicultural Empire. Instead of focusing on Smokey and the Bandit and Falling Down, he might have been better served asking how and why Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal could rise up the ranks of the Republican party to which so many of these “besieged” white people pledge fealty.
Arturo: Instead of asking the questions he should’ve, Hsu blithely dismisses race as “a fiction that often does more harm than good” and hides behind advertising reps eager to re-code and re-demo the young people they’re probably eager to pitch cigarettes and nose jobs to before closing his note with hopeful visions of the upcoming social shifts — the same ones he and his editors had been so alarmed about. The “end of white America”? I’ll just be glad to see the end of articles like these.
Fatemeh: This article was too tangential and incredibly disappointing. Hsu didn’t need to dance around the definition of whiteness. He didn’t need to use “whiteness studies” to dissect whites into different cultural groups (this should have been an entirely different and separately interesting article). He didn’t need to compare P. Diddy to The Great Gatsby. All he needed to do was examine the white panic, deconstruct it, and let the anxiety around it float away after a clear, rational repudiation. Instead, he tried to come at it from too many angles, which just ups white America’s anxiety level and feeds the fires of fear.
Thea: This article is a bizarre and sprawling mess that suggests that just because Russell Simmons is massively successful, America has not only achieved racial harmony, but is now threatening to submerge white folks into a sea of “beigeness.” But it never answers a very basic question: what do any of the things that Hsu mentions – like Smirnoff ads, 50 Cent, Dora the Explorer or Stuff White People Like – have to do with actual rates of racial equity?