Hilton Als' White Girls is not about white girls. Sure, they feature in the American writer's 2013 book – a collection of 13 essays covering fiction, cultural commentary and memoir – but they aren't the focus. Instead, Als uses the "white girl" as a handy device to discuss race, gender and sexuality.
For instance, in one essay, Als talks of black gay men who jokingly identify as white girls – the exact opposite of who they are – because it gives them a sense of freedom. In others, he turns the lens onto performers whose careers have been tied to race in some way: in "White Noise", Eminem earns the title of "white girl" because of his relationship with his mother; in "Michael", Michael Jackson is given the moniker because of his inability to be at one with his true identity.
It's an enlightening, thoughtful rumination on modern society, and a book you should read now it's had its UK release, via Penguin.
Ahead of that release, I scheduled an interview with Als – who, it turns out, has one of those reassuring voices which convinces you he's an authority on just about everything. So while we discussed writing about famous people, race and self-definition, naturally I needed his opinion on one of the most polarising white women of today: Kylie Jenner.
VICE: What, to you, is a "white girl"?
Hilton Als: It wasn’t defined by gender. A lot of the book really has to do with queerness in one way or another. Like, Truman Capote identifies as a white girl, or wanted to be a girl [which is discussed in the essay "The Women"], and then someone like Eminem – whose mother over-identifies with him – would be considered such by his mother because she has that Münchausen syndrome, where you think someone is ill but you're actually the ill person. I wanted to do a blanket title to describe the many different ways in which race and gender play out with each other under the rubric of "white girl".
Reading the book on the bus got me a few weird looks, and a lot of people online have spoken about the hostility they faced when reading Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race on the Tube. Why is "white" so loaded?
If it's a black person reading this book on the subway or wherever, it’s that you’re reversing the power and taking the power back from them. You’re reversing expectations in some way. You’re saying, as a black person, that you’re allowed. Not only allowed, but you're reading a book called White Girls. It’s a form of power and it’s a form of subversion. If they were able for centuries to have paintings or pubs called "The Black Boy", or whatever, then why can't we have White Girls?
Was it intentionally provocative?
When I used to write and work in fashion, they often referred to the black women backstage as the "black girls", and I never understood why they didn't say "white girls". I was interested in taking these words that were pretty loaded, or not thought about really at all, as monikers for other people.
In my family, if I met Margaret Thatcher she would be a white girl to them: "This white girl, X, came to see us." I wanted to sort of take words that the powerless would use to describe power, and really take the power away from those words – from both sides, black and white.
So you spoke about the idea of the white girl representing the ability to be themselves. Then you’ve got white women, like Kylie Jenner, who are accused of cultural appropriation, of not being themselves – so what’s going on there?
Good question. Because there’s been a history of cultural appropriation, and it involves violence and it involves product, so when blackness is ripped off and then commodified and then made a lot of money on, there is some resentment about that.
Why do they do it?
[Laughs] I guess because they can afford it, right? They can buy it. It goes back to the issue of commodification, and I think it's very annoying for people to see it. It's a kind of minstrelsy. They're taking blackness and making a show of it, as opposed to really understanding anything about the history of anything. If they did understand the history of it, they wouldn’t do it and wouldn’t try to take it away and make it their own thing. You would respect it, observe it, absorb it intellectually and emotionally. If I paid attention to [Kylie Jenner], I would be annoyed too.
Some of the subjects in the book are living – were you worried what they would think? Say, if Eminem got hold of the book and was like, 'What?'
I wasn't. That’s the way you're free, isn't it? You’re writing and that’s where your freedom is. Did you see the Dave Chappelle [Netflix] special? It's really great. He says, pointing to the stage, "Everything up here is about freedom. And everything is funny until it happens to you," which I thought was brilliant. So I feel that one is socialised to be careful in so many ways, but what about living in your work and really feeling free? That’s where it’s supposed to happen.
Let's talk about your "Michael" essay. Do you think there are there any current performers who are blurring race and gender in the same way Michael Jackson did?
I think, if there are, they're doing it way more consciously. Michael was very complex because he’s not saying who he is – he tried to visually represent a different self to the self that we knew. I think there are performers nowadays who are very healthy in terms of telling us or giving us some idea of who they are.
Someone like Rihanna is really interesting in terms of fluidity of representation and songwriting. I think Frank Ocean is sort of giving us more information about himself. Even with Lemonade, Beyoncé was trying to make or remake this idea of a pop star as not one thing. There’s something really amazing about this kind of self-definition.
The subjects in the book are all performers in one way or another – writers and musicians – so they have an outlet to express themselves. What about your average queer person?
Well, I think one of the things that's happening that's so profound is this new era of naming yourself. It's been a very interesting, eye-opening experience to meet students I teach at Columbia who want to be identified as "they" – who don’t want gender-specific names – and I think it’s a new era, really, of self-definition as opposed to empirical definition. So I think the book in some way helps contribute to that argument. They can name themselves – they're not really dependent on me, for instance, to tell the world who they are.
In black culture, sexuality isn't very openly discussed. Did using the guise of the white girl help you write about it more freely?
No. I don't think I was hiding behind that. It’s funny, because I was watching Rosie Perez talk about [black sexuality]. She said: "If you're still fly and your hair looks good and you don’t get fat for those roles, you’re not going to get the part." It’s sad to me that there’s still that weird fetishisation of the mammy in some way. In order to be sexual you have to be benign and overwhelming in some way.
Talking of the "mammy", you start the essay "Gone with the Wind" by talking about black people who exist in majority white spaces "performing the role of a black person". Tell me more about that.
I was talking about that vis a vis other black writers, that I don’t really like it as a performance. People I’d known early on in my career, I had watched them perform blackness and it was very disturbing to me. And I think, also, something that I avoided. I for sure wanted to be not part of that commodification, and you can avoid it by following your own path – you have to. But it’s blackness as fashion, by black people, that I find disturbing.
In "Tristes Tropiques", you talk about your friendship with "SL". How important do you think black friendships, especially black male friendships, are?
The guy that I wrote about was an immensely important person in my life. It's been profound in my life – it's something that I really think fortified me, and I never felt like I was in the minority because of it. I always felt that I was in conversation with someone about myself, so the trauma of being the only black person in a place – there are just certain things you would have had to protect yourself from, right? For me, it was just really natural – I just felt like I was in the majority because of how I grew up and then the people I gravitated towards later.
Five years on from its initial release, how do you think White Girls can influence people today?
It's less of an answer than a hope. I hope the book increases the conversation about these things. And not only increases the conversation but makes it more vital to people personally. I feel there has to be more conversations about this stuff without people feeling ripped off, judged or criticised. I’m happy to criticise the Jenners or whoever they are, because it's almost sort of a weird monster of commodification. So I’m happy to criticise that, but for other people, like the woman – my friend I wrote about in the first story, you know? Who was a better friend to black people than a lot of black people are to each other – when I say in the book that she was a white girl and then I refute it… I say, "No, she was this; no, she was that" – I think it's the labelling that is very difficult for people. They feel the judgment of "white girls", but it's not. It's just another name.
White Girls is available to buy now.