What MTV’s Jersey Shore Means for White America

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I admit that, despite its train wreck-like qualities (which Racialicious Special Correspondent Arturo so dutifully detailed in his post “Jersey Shore’: Believe the Hype“), I really enjoy watching MTV’s newest reality show Jersey Shore. In its attempt to portray the summer activities of a group of guidos and guidettes, the male and female versions of a subculture that sprang from groups of Italian-American youth only to spread like wildfire to a variety of other ethnicities, primarily in the northeastern region of the United States, MTV has created reality tv gold for people like me. In a voyeuristic way, I have always liked peering inside the television versions, albeit edited, of others’ lives. Jersey Shore is no different on the surface, really, though this show is a bit of an exception in another way. Unlike its glossy counterparts, The Real World, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and The Hills, Jersey Shore takes on an explicit case of ethnicity as its main focus. Sure, there are typical displays of salacious summer behavior: hot tub hook-ups, drunkenness, and a lot of semi-nudity. Where Jersey Shore differs, however, is in its cultural significance.

When I say “cultural significance,” I am not implying that archives of Jersey Shore episodes will make it into the annals of American life to be uncovered centuries from now. But what I mean here is that the show and those who participate in the guido/guidette subculture who also identify as Italian-American are making the choice to articulate their take on their ethnic identity through behaviors, styles of dress, and other aesthetic expressions despite Italian-Americans having been long-accepted as whites. In an odd way, this privilege of whiteness that was gained by the Jersey Shore cast’s ancestors by way of legal battles and hardcore assimilation in the past is exactly what gives them the privilege to then assert fabricated markers of their ethnicity in the present.

As Gregory Rodriguez of the LA Times notes in his piece “The Dark Side of White,” which expounds on the upcoming census categories and the most recent struggle surrounding whiteness for Arab Americans, being considered “white” always takes a hard fight and comes with a cost:

Claiming whiteness has always been a Faustian bargain. Ditching the ancestry question on the decennial census makes the nature of the exchange all the more clear. In our culturally, geographically, economically mobile society, the embrace of ethnicity — real or imagined — has long served as a source of protection and rootedness. As the concept of ethnicity vanishes into whiteness, society’s alienation abounds.

Claiming ethnicity and claiming whiteness, though polar opposites, both pose a threat to one’s identity. For those white ethnics (hyphenated European-Americans, i.e. Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans) who arrived during the 1800s during the heyday of phrenology, eugenics, and some serious talks on race and its validity and significance, becoming white was the key to success. Without whiteness, access to resources and social acceptance were basically rendered null and void. Despite the color of one’s skin, the social state for white ethnics was more or less reduced to that of recently emancipated blacks. The comparison is not direct, of course, particularly in consideration of the very fact that some white ethnics could and did pass as Anglo-Saxon or Nordic whites, and those who did not were at least a tiny bit closer on the racial continuum than say blacks or Asians (who, at various times in history, were completely banned from entry into the U.S.) in the phenotypic sense. Yet the other side of assimilation, of course, is the ugly act of erasing ethnic identity. Language, food, styles of dress, and lifestyles of these white ethnic immigrant groups were often demonized, leaving many to conceal and/or destroy cultural ties with their country of origin altogether.

Now in a time when multiculturalism is an accepted concept, many groups have worked to reclaim the links that were lost, particularly because of their increasing cultural currency. In a strange way, the cast of the Jersey Shore is doing just that. They are using their white privilege to assert a hybrid identity that was created over time in the United States as means of connecting in some way to a lost past. Few white ethnics speak the language of the Old Country and, despite their hyphenated identities, often know little about the respective contemporary societies. Yet in the creation of this fictional culture, they are working to take ownership of what was lost over time. Unfortunately for groups who lack the white privilege that allows the movement between whiteness and chosen ethnicity, there is little room for such a decision.

I think of African-Americans and other members of previous diasporas (i.e. Indians who moved to work within the “coolie” system/indentured servitude in the Caribbean) in particular in this case. There is oftentimes a complete disconnect from not only culture, but literal geographic roots. I have no idea what specific nation(s) my ancestors are from, nor do I know the language they spoke, their names, the food they ate, or any of their other traditions as most records of them were destroyed. My roots are American, and I take that “ethnicity,” if you will, with me when I travel. Even within the United States, I can claim being from the South as a cultural tie as my speech patterns, expressions, foods, and even lifestyle differ from those of my peers who were raised in other parts of the country. The negative side is that this is about as far as I can go in terms of claiming an ethnic heritage. Yes, I am black, but in many ways, black cultural traditions that have sprung up in the United States are either ridiculed, deemed insignificant in terms of their value in society, or closely tied to, say, being Southern or simply being American.

The other interesting aspect of Jersey Shore in terms of its impact is that while it portrays white ethnics in what can seemingly be read as a negative way, much to the chagrin of many Italian-Americans and New Jersey residents, its lasting effect on the white population is minimal. If this show were about, say, Chinese-Americans, the results would most likely be different in terms of cementing stereotypes of Asian Americans as a whole. Many of the shows that feature non-white ethnic/racial groups often contribute to the solidification of stereotypes, whereas this show may be discounted as a throwaway take on a small niche group of Northeastern Italian-American kids and yield limited negative results. Whites can watch the show and “otherize” the people portrayed because they are “Guidos” and not like other whites. Non-whites can watch the show and “otherize” the cast members for the exact same reason. In the cast claiming its subculture and, in turn, imaginary ethnic identity (imaginary in the sense that they seem to lack any real understanding of both old and contemporary Italian elements of culture), they differentiate themselves from other whites despite their being able to shed the markers of fake tans, gel, and extensions in order to simply be perceived as “white” whenever they wish, no questions asked.

Yet with the continued struggle for resources, many of which are now being accessed by nonwhites with the aid of legislated benefit programs such as affirmative action, resentment runs as a heavy theme in conversations around race. I wonder if this show, though it’s still in its inception, is a sign of some greater trend to claim or event create an ethnicity for the sake of purposeful othering and thus re-entering the resource grab by way of being non-white. There have already been examples of genetic testing being used by people who have been perceived as and personally accepted that they are white for their entire lives in order to manipulate the school system, so there is a great possibility that in the coming decades, otherness by way of location, class, and particularly race and ethnicity may be viewed as a means of participating in a competition that has yet to abandon whites to begin with despite the growing popular belief that non-whites gain privilege by way of their respective ethnicities.