Illustration By Penelope Gazin
Some imperative sociocultural maneuvering was missed when Girls debuted; instead, a really embarrassing junior-kindergarten level of communal reinforcement led to the collective conclusion that Lena Dunham’s show is racist (and, yeah, that communally reinforced idea was right, because that show is racist to the point of making Brooklyn look like a sundown town). It is still being missed, which is cute because of how everyone I know—the “communal” in the “reinforcement”—is sure about race and especially about whiteness.
Following the retrospective social insight of five or ten years, Lena’s trial by ordeal will probably seem painfully, entirely, wholeheartedly retarded. There is, of course, everything right with calling something that is racist what it is, but often, something that is all milky white is criticized simply and specifically for its milky, cummy whiteness and not criticized specifically—and more crucially—for its values, assumptions, casting choices (the first season of Girls skewed very Magical Negro), and antiverisimilitude. (No affluent white girl in urban North America is without rich Asian and Indian friends. She’s just not.) So while the story within the criticism was all “La-la-la-la-la Lena!” whiteness and white culture snuck by unexamined.
Ignoring whiteness as its own thing to be considered is the easy way out, yeah, but it’s also a dangerous re-re-reestablishment of a bad precedent, in which whiteness generally is positioned and congratulated as being the dominant culture. And since whiteness holds fast to the most capital of every variety of culture except “cool” and remains very few generations (fucking one! one generation!) removed from institutionalized and mandated racism, it’s left as the cultural standard to which everything else responds. Which, as everybody knows, is racist.
Two important contextual items, here: America isn’t so white. If you didn’t know or live somewhere stupid, more black, Hispanic, and mixed-race babies were born last year than white ones—and since you and I have been conscious, the internet has (correctly) negated the social, economic, gendered, whatever boundaries of once-discrete subcultures. Sooo, that’s good. But because the collective consciousness moves as fast and elegantly as you do jogging in a hot tub following diazepam and margaritas, whiteness remains understood as this abstract, almost-imaginary but deeply embedded dominant paradigm.
If, though, whiteness and expressions of whiteness meant something more definitive—and, therefore, could no longer serve as a fake front for a behemothy paradigm that is in reality about gnarly socioeconomic systems and not lineage snaking back to Western Europe—and ceased to encapsulate everything that has some money and dances badly and is irritated by the World Cup, it would make for a realer, better way of contending with what things mean, and why. Like, maybe Lena Dunham’s sense of girls in New York would be specifically understood because of her specific privilege, and specific context, not because she’s just a white bitch, which doesn’t mean anything on its own. Because it doesn’t!
Which threads of whiteness should occupy narrower versions of itself? I dunno. My vote is for that Wes Anderson, Miranda July, hopey-feely, mannered-sentimental effete stuff, for which the descriptor twee never really worked, anyway; it’s the least self-righteous, the most imbued with the lonely anxieties of the Protestant work ethic. (There’s already WASP for the insiders-only blue-chip stuff.)
New Whiteness is whatever it is that finally jettisons passive-aggressive colloquial garbage like “white girl problems,” which is a gross way for privileged women to both understand and undermine their position and also to smugly, self-satisfactorily announce and better occupy it. As long as it doesn’t presume—as long as we don’t presume—that proximity to power maintains sociocultural cachet. And, look, a lot of what’s available is awesome: sailing, pathological entrepreneurialism. Whit Stillman’s newish movie, Damsels in Distress, (which has a more racially diverse cast than Girls, by the way) or preppie blogs that feature J. Press on under-21 black guys—they’re the New Whiteness.
Rendering whiteness a subculture among subcultures, a thing among things instead of the thing (a communism of subcultures, right?), makes it a Playskool version of its former self but also endlessly realer. It’s not to suggest—it never could, it never would—that the tenets of whiteness have been paradeless and overlooked. Like, ha. But making whiteness specific bucks its unchecked cultural dominance. I mean, maybe. It would at the very least make real and even make disgusting some remaining wild classisms and racisms; it would make apparent the common and destructive pretentions that hold up a straw daddy of whiteness, even while we say over and over that we’re through with it.
Li’l Thinks is Kate Carraway’s new monthly print column for VICE. You should also read her VICE.com column Girl News if you know what’s good for ya.