Here’s a piece on pandering in the book industry, I guess. It’s ostensibly a complaint about cultural bubbles, though it’s written in an idiom — the impossibly self-satisfied lecturing tone of the 21st century — that’s shared by maybe a few thousand liberals with a college education and a Netflix account. But here’s an attitude that’s very common to this strata of essay writing: “White people like nothing more than to feel heroic. I mean, have you read our books and watched our films?”
Is that true? I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think it’s demonstrably untrue. I think progressive white people, the ones who have absorbed the lessons of appearing to be a race-conscious person, frequently consume and celebrate art that depicts white people as unheroic. Look at Twelve Years a Slave. Fantastic movie. Most certainly did not present white people in a heroic light. And yet it was wildly celebrated by white people in the culture industry. It won every award conceivable; it was on everybody’s year end best list. Central to its reputation was the notion that it was doing the hard work of forcing white people to see what they didn’t want to see. But if “white people” is a category that actually means what it seems to mean, how can it simultaneously be the case that white people didn’t want to deal with Twelve Years a Slave‘s subject matter and yet that white critics celebrated that same subject matter? Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me sold very well and was perhaps the most critically lauded book of 2015. And well deserved. I finally got a copy and I thought it was fantastic. But there, too, the dominant narrative in the cultural media has been that the book exposes white people to a reality they don’t want to confront. If that’s true, why did so many white people buy it, and why did so many sing its praises? This functions as a kind of preening self-regard by the white members of that cultural media who loudly extolled the books virtues: I am one of the good ones, willing to do myself the injury of learning about racism. Please fav and RT.
The obvious resolution to this tension is to say that when writers like Jessa Crispin talk about “white people,” they are not really talking about themselves, but rather those other, less evolved white people. Even when they explicitly include themselves and use “we” and “us,” the very act of writing these essays exonerates them from their own critiques. Self-indictment is inherently self-aggrandizement.
I always read about how white people don’t want to “confront the past” when it comes to Jim Crow, slavery, and all of the other racist monsters that America has played host to. Bullshit. White people, at least educated urban progressive white people, love to confront the past of America’s race problems. They do precisely because “confronting” things, like “facing up to” things, or “acknowledging” things, is a way to give yourself credit for doing something when you’re doing nothing at all. It flatters the contemporary conceit that you are your cultural consumption, when the old-fashioned truth remains the same: that your behavior is what matters. A Sarah Lawrence-educated nonprofit worker who tweets support for #BlackLivesMatter and won’t stop telling you how much they love Empire can be just as racist in their behavior as the media’s portrayal of a grinning Alabama yokel. The former person probably really does enjoy art that presents white people as unheroic. But that’s the trouble with self-indictment: no matter how harsh and specific it gets, you always end up feeling yourself in relief to the others you presume are not self-indicting.
Twelve Years a Slave is a great movie. Between the World and Me is a great book. Both of them should be consumed and enjoyed, and both can teach people a lot about this evil country. But these convoluted metatheatrics about audience and intent, of which that essay is just one unexceptional example, do nothing for anyone. They exclude people who don’t have an expensive liberal arts education and obscure the truth in an impossible maze of reversals and gotchas. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is dead simple: that America is at war on its black people, and that we all need to do the actual political work of building a political coalition that can put a stop to that war. You take part in that, and it doesn’t matter if you spend your time “facing up to the past.” Hell, maybe people will even forgive you for not buying the Hamilton soundtrack.