Tuesday, November 07, 2017

"Acting White" for White People...,


NationalReview | Ice-T never received an Academy Award, which makes sense inasmuch as his movies have been for the most part crap. But as an actor, you have to give the man credit: Along with other gangster rappers such as Ice Cube, he turned in such a convincing performance — amplifying negative stereotypes about black men and selling white people their own Reagan-era racial panic back to them in a highly stylized form — that people still, to this day, believe he was the guy he played on stage. One social-media critic accused him of hypocrisy for having recorded the infamous song “Cop Killer” before going on to a very lucrative career playing a police officer on television. Ice-T gave the man an honest answer: “It’s both acting, homie.” Acting, indeed. Pretty good acting, too, across the board in the rap world. 

Consider the strange evolution of Tupac Shakur, who went from the quiet, effeminate young man seen in this interview — a former acting and ballet student at the Baltimore School for the Arts apparently pointed like a rocket at a career in musical theater — to the “Thug Life” antihero persona that made him famous in a remarkably short period of time. He played tough-guy Roland Bishop in Juice and basically stayed in character for the rest of his public life. As with Ice-T, many of his fans assumed the stage persona was the real man. There’s a whole weird little racial dynamic in there waiting for some doctoral student to sort it out. Nobody expects Anthony Hopkins to eat a census worker. 

A theater critic can’t really begrudge a performer for making a living, and Ice-T put on a great show. I do wonder how much damage those performers did by reinforcing and glamorizing criminal stereotypes of black men. And I do mean that I wonder — I do not know. Maybe the act is more obvious if you are the sort of person who is being dramatized or caricatured. (I experience something like that when I hear modern country songs on the radio, all that cheerful alcoholism and casual adultery and ridiculous good-ol’-boy posturing.) It would be weird to describe black men as “acting black,” but whatever they were up to was the opposite of “acting white.”

There’s a certain kind of conservative who loves to talk about “acting white,” i.e., about the legendary social sanction purportedly applied to African Americans who try too hard in school or who speak in an English that is too standard or who have interests and aspirations other than the ones that black people are stereotypically supposed to have. (“Acting white” isn’t a complaint exclusive to African Americans. My friend Jay Nordlinger relates a wonderful story about the American Indian educator Ben Chavis, who once was accused by a sister of “acting white.” His reply: “‘Acting white’ is not enough. I’m acting Jewish. Or maybe Chinese.”) Oh, how we love to knowingly tut-tut about “acting white,” with the obvious implication that black Americans corporately would be a good deal better off if they would do a little more acting white. That sort of thing is not entirely unique to conservatives, of course: Nine-tenths of all social criticism involving the problems of the American underclass consists of nice college graduates and policy professionals of many races and religions wondering aloud why they can’t be more like us, which is why so much social policy is oriented toward trying to get more poor people to go to college, irrespective of whether they want to do so or believe they would benefit from it. 
Conservatives have a weakness for that “acting white” business because we are intellectually invested in emphasizing the self-inflicted problems of black America, for rhetorical and political reasons that are too obvious to require much elaboration. It’s a phenomenon that may or may not be exaggerated. John McWhorter argues that it is a real problem, and makes a pretty good case. So did President Barack Obama, who called on the nation to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” I am not sure that a white man from Lubbock, Texas, has a great deal to add to President Obama’s argument there. But I do have something to say about the subject of white people acting white.