By Guest Contributor OnTay Johnson
According to the powers that be, I just may not be “with it” when it comes to American pop culture. In my 30-plus years of life, I’ve noticed from time to time I’m made to be a fool because I haven’t seen some movie, didn’t recognize the face or name of some celebrity (dead or alive) and the list goes on. I use to attribute this to growing up in a small city but as I got older and more socially conscious, I recognized that there was a pattern to this projection of person, places or things that I “should just know”. That pattern adhered to the social construction of the status quo—whiteness.
Don’t get me wrong, as an African American in America, I’m hip to most things considered “popular” in our society. Our education system alone makes sure you get peppered with the whiteness of American culture. It’s the media that really hammers it home though. How can one not be aware of whiteness when this country’s information systems constantly feed it to you as a diet day after day? When a majority of magazines have a person that’s white on the cover and when a majority of television is white and our history books cover the “heroic” deeds of white men from the beginnings of this “unsettled” country until now, then it’s inevitable to not be aware of the whiteness screaming at you. So yeah, I’m familiar with most things but it’s the fact that I’m a minority that I don’t always swallow everything fed to me.
I had a conversation with a couple people a few weeks ago about recognizing the face of Audrey Hepburn. I basically took up for someone who couldn’t put Hepburn’s face with a name. I had seen her face a thousand times but honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you her name either. In this conversation none of us were white but there was that same expectation to know who she was. I thought about this later and started remembering other times in which I wasn’t familiar with something that was considered popular and was condescended or at least annoyed someone because of it, and that person wasn’t always white either.
I remember talking to someone and I admitted that I hadn’t seen “Sound of Music” or “Gone With the Wind” (I can’t remember which, but haven’t seen either) and the person was so dramatic about how I didn’t see it, how it’s an “American “ classic, and how I was really sheltered to have not seen it. I remember thinking, “I’m black and for the most part a lot of us really didn’t have those films passed down to us as classics.” But I knew all about The Wiz and Shaka Zulu and I bet they hadn’t seen either of those.
Another time, someone ridiculed me because I wasn’t familiar with a tennis pro. In hindsight, the tennis pro wasn’t super famous anyway, as you had to like and follow tennis to know who he was, he was no Andre Agassi — or someone that you seen on commercials and therefore know without being a tennis fan. The funny thing is, after that annoying conversation, I went back and researched this athlete and yea, I noticed that I had seen his face and heard his name several times while watching ESPN’s Sport Center but I never retained it for some reason. This made me start to think about how those of us not apart of the status quo retained media and how some of us despite not being a part of the status quo we digest it and expect others to do the same.
There’s no doubt that the agenda setting of the media affects everybody. However, it does not do so in the same way, as our experiences and culture shape how we digest what we see. Seeing that my race is not represented in the media much, other than the usual negative stereotypes, I tend to pay attention and focus more on media (or parts of it) that resonates with me when I’m digesting it. This is a reason that I only remember Tootie from the “Facts of Life” and know that Kim Fields played her. Don’t remember anyone else’s name from that show. The status quo does the same thing, however attached with this is the expectation that everyone else should follow suit and if you don’t you’re an idiot living on another planet.
How did this happen? Well look at what is considered iconic, popular or classic in American culture. Is it not dominated by whiteness? In fact something that emanates from someone that isn’t white doesn’t get any “real” recognition until the status quo recognizes it. For example, a black musician isn’t considered “pop” until whites start buying their music, despite how successful and popular they are in the black community. Keith Sweat, an R&B artist, was a staple in the 80’s and 90’s within the black community but not very many people outside of the black community knew him or knows of him today even though he had several hit records for several years. Looking back at Michael Jackson, he was a star from the days of The Jackson Five but what took him to the top globally? His music video appeared on MTV (his label had to threaten to go public with the racism that MTV showed before relenting). After that, his music changed and catered to whiteness just as much as it did to his roots. This anecdote has been repeated over and over in various realms.
In America, nothing is truly validated until it’s accepted by the status quo. One may rebut with the fact that there’s just more white people in America so the numbers determine what’s popular. That’s a fair point but it doesn’t explain the expectation projected that certain people, places or things are classics, icons and etc., just because a bunch of white people say so and anything outside of that is just the musings of “others”.
Look at television. How many popular shows are full of all white or majority white casts? Friends, Cheers, Frasier, Dawson’s Creek, just to name a few hit shows over my lifetime that contribute to this mindset. The creators of these shows decided to place little to no people of color in these shows. Why? Better yet, what would happen if they had? Would it change the nature of the show? Maybe. Why is that though? Because anything other than white is playing in the fields of the others and it no longer is the typical “American” show. It’s considered normal if it’s a majority of white people but once you get others involved the show is no longer a reflection of American society. Otherness is rarely respected unless it has a heavy dose of something very emotional and tragic and/or its created by someone white and even then the content usually just reiterates stereotypes. If something non-white does blow up, it’s sometimes a fetish more than anything (I think hip hop falls under this category). Look at what we see in movies; look at our sitcoms and television shows or look at the magazine covers. If something is a majority white, it’s laissez faire. But if something is a majority African-American, Asian or Latino and has a heavy dose of their way of life in it, then white America sees it as just another black, brown or yellow form of media and not meant for them and thus the show rarely does well.
Watching the Grammys last year, Kelly Clarkson got on stage and said how she didn’t know who Miguel was but she thought his song was sexy. No knock on Clarkson (she just might not listen to much R&B) but it was very metaphorical of white media consumption. It took the Grammys for Miguel to get any recognition (from a label mate might I add), despite him being on BET and being played on hip hop and R&B stations for a few years. The gatekeepers are white and you have to cater to their methods and standards to get any “real” recognition.
The standards of American media consumption are mainly black and white. I’m not marginalizing other group’s media but these are the two historically battling cultures when we talk about media in America. Reminds me of a conclusion that an 11-person committee commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson came up with after researching the reasons for so many riots occurring across the nation in the 60’s, “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.”
In black households, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway are icons of musical history. In white America, it’s Elvis and Johnny Cash. Truth be told, I can’t tell you more than a couple songs from the latter two. And I’m sure someone subscribing to whiteness can say the same in regards to Gaye and Hathaway. The only difference being that I’m more likely to be seen as living under a rock and neither of my icons are usually considered as much a part of American music history as opposed to just being a part of black music history.
Whiteness decides what movies are good and which one’s suck. Some of the movies considered B Movies in the black realm might just get the kind of cult attention that some of these silly movies whites put out. Some of the kinds of comedies that you see Seth Rogen and Michael Cera in have been put out for years by black directors with black actors. We all laugh and watch them but they get relegated to dusty shelves because they aren’t respected enough, even though some of them are just as funny.
I think if America applied Martin Luther King’s, “…judged by the content of their character” to the way we decide what is or isn’t worthy of attention via media instead of using race as the primary indicator, we’d be a lot more informed about each other and just maybe more tolerant while still enjoying ourselves.
OnTay is a freelance writer and photographer in Los Angeles. He is currently working on directing his first film, a documentary about the history of the word, “ghetto.” Follow him on twitter @OnTayJohnson.