"The Protestor" Is No "Basic Bitch": The Politics and Aesthetics of Stereotypical Blackness in 2011

“The Protestor” Is No “Basic Bitch”: The Politics and Aesthetics of Stereotypical Blackness in 2011

I want to take a minute to reflect on the representations of race, specifically, the representations of African-American blackness, in US pop culture in 2011. In several blog posts, and a few of my published works, I’ve argued that stereotypical ghetto-black masculinity (e.g., the “thug” or “gangsta” identity that is most commonly trafficked in mainstream US hip hop) has become so thoroughly co-opted that it no longer functions as a symbol of resistance, oppositionality, radical politics or aesthetics, etc—representationally, affectively, aesthetically, “thug life” is no longer something that immediately strikes fear into the hearts of 21st-C bourgeois parents, politicians, or culture warriors. To be absolutely clear: I’m not saying that things have gotten better for actual African Americans, or that anti-black racism has in any way been ameliorated (in fact, I think these shifts make anti-black racism more insidious, more difficult to identify, and more firmly entrenched). Representationsof a certain kind of blackness have been co-opted in ways that don’t actually benefit African-Americans as a whole, or anti-racist projects in general. The “cultural value” or symbolism of a certain “controlling image” of black masculinity has shifted; we’ve left the classic “Love & Theft” logic of 20thc white hipness for a new, postmillennial economy of racial cultural value/semiotics.
There’s some pretty solid evidence for this argument about the shifting racial-representational economies in the mainstream media in 2011. In this post, I want to briefly survey a few different indices of this shift to what I call elsewhere “postmillennial black hipness.”
Radical Third-World Woman of Color is the “New Black”
The appeal of “black” culture for (bourgeois) white (male) audiences was its apparent oppositionality; now that this very stereotypically “oppositional’ black masculinity has been thoroughly co-opted by the culture industry, white hipsters need to find new symbols with which to demonstrate their radical chic—I mean, “cred.” I discuss this extensively in my article on Kanye West and Shepard Fairey. What’s notable about the cultural/political milieu of 2011 is the way this same logic of postmillennial hipness got seriously mainstreamed in/by mainstream media comparisons between OWS and the Arab Spring. OWS protestors, who are overwhelmingly white (and majority male), were compared, and sometimes compared themselves, not to African-American civil rights movements, but to various recent Middle-Eastern (who I’m assuming are not uniformly “Arab” in ethnicity…) and North African anti-government movements. This is epitomized in Time magazine’s cover illustration of its’ Person of the Year, “The Protestor”—an image rendered, notably, by Fairey, in the style of his other postmillennial portraits of radicalized non-Western women of color (which I discuss in the article above).
The image conflates white, overwhelmingly male American OWS protestors with purportedly “Arab” protestors and revolutionaries (let’s not forget how bloody things got in, for example, Libya and Syria), via an image that calls on the “controlling image” of the radicalized “Third-World” woman of color. Though the cover is based on a photo of an American OWS protestor (which is not to say that she’s necessarily white, or necessarily native-born), the image turns on the slippage between the OWS protestor’s anti-teargas protection (the bandana and hat covering almost her entire face) and Western images of “the Muslim veil.” It is also interesting that, given the overwhelmingmajority of protestors, both in the US and worldwide, have been men, Fairey and Time chose to portray “the protestor” as a woman. This choice again, I think, rides on the easy homology between the anti-teargas armor this specific woman wore, and “the Muslim veil.” The easiest way to signify “Third-World difference” (to use Cherie Moraga’s term) is via the bodies/images of women.
Above all, though, the takeaway from this image is the fact that there exists a general commonsense notion that the epitome of radical, oppositional, counter-hegemonic, anti-establishment politics/practices/identities is not a black man, but a non-Western (preferably Muslim) woman. It’s as if the very image, the very idea of a “Third-World” woman self-evidently stands opposed to everything conventionally “American,” hegemonic, etc. It is as if being a purportedly Muslim woman is itself a form of “protest.” What this view overlooks is the fact that the very idea of ‘Third-World difference,’ the very notion of the ‘radical’ or ‘oppositional’ non-Western woman is itself a thoroughly Western, hegemonic, patriarchal idea. This image of the radicalized non-Western woman of color is not opposed to Western hegemony—it is Western het-patriarchy’s own fantasy. This cover is the equivalent of Brendan Frasier and friends destroying business machines to the tune of “Fuck Tha Police”: it is white d00ds appropriation of their own stereotypes about non-whites in order to demonstrate their elite status among white d00ds. As an LATimes blogger noted in a critique of this cover, “Questioning authority never looked more corporate or conventional”.
Drake and Black “Skeptical Melancholy”
            Philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams has argued that the other side of the “black people are more strongly and immediately connected to their bodies” stereotype is the allocation of “skeptical melancholy”—i.e., doubtable connection to one’s body, or the inability to get out of one’s “mind” and have contact with one’s body—solely to whites (or rather, solely to white men). He defines “skeptical melancholy” as, for example, “loss of intimacy with existence” (50), or as “ the privately felt melancholy of a skeptic, doubtful of his existence and dissociated from his body” (54). So, for example, Descartes says “I think therefore I am”: he is certain that he exists as a thinking thing, but try as he might, he can’t be certain that he has a body. He has to remain skeptical about his embodied existence. Such skepticism is melancholic in the Freudian sense because the body is perceived as a “lost” object. For Freud, “melancholia” is the inability to “get over” loss. In the second Meditation, Descartes first thinks he is most certain of his corporeal existence, only to then realize that he cannot be certain of his corporeal existence. Corporeality is literally “lost” in Descartes’ own argument. White corporeal skepticism is melancholic because, as Gooding-Williams argues, whites wish for and long after immediate bodily pleasure and sensation…and that’s why they attempt to appropriate stereotypical blackness, to re-connect them, like blacks, to corporeality, pleasure, etc. A consequence of this distribution of corporeal immediacy to blacks and skeptical melancholy to whites is that, as Gooding-Williams argues, blacks never get to make what are perceived to be legitimate claims to intellectual skepticism. As Gooding-Williams explains, “the skeptic cannot be black, for then he would not want for the blackness that supplies intimacy” (54). There is no room, in the logic of traditional white hipness, for black skeptical melancholy; it is, to use Gooding-Williams’s terms, “a Jim Crow version of the human capacity for skepticism” (54).  Certainly black people continually exhibit intellectual skepticism, and, believe it or not, some black people are quite disconnected from and awkward in their bodies. But the popular imagination erases those two quite salient facts so that whites can keep on remedying their own issues by appropriating their mistaken stereotypes of black embodiment.
            There is no room in the popular imagination for black skeptical melancholy, that is, until Drake. This is key: Whether or not Drake actually expresses or discusses skeptical melancholy (in the above-defined sense), it is a common view among white critics and fans that he does. Again: I’m not talking about Drake’s actual work, his own ideas or experiences. I’m talking about the way Drizzy’s work is received and interpreted by mainstream white audiences…which may or may not be accurate, nuanced interpretations of his work. (I would like to spend some time slogging through the songs and the videos to see if they give us any ground for this interpretation, but that’s for another post.) A really solid and telling example of this interpretation is this article from Jon Pareles in The New York Times. Calling on all the standard characterizations of “skeptical melancholy” that we see in the Gooding-Williams chapter (lack of trust, suspicion, floating voice, “impersonal” lack of connection, digital instruments implying lack of immediacy/authenticity, isolation, etc.), Pareles says:
The rapper Drake doesn’t trust himself. He’s proud of his success, ambitious about his music, thoroughly messed up about women and suspicious of all his newfound prerogatives. His voice floats amid anxious, impersonal keyboards and computerized drums; he sounds as isolated as he feels “with fame on my mind and my girl on my nerves.”
So here we have a white rock critic arguing that what’s great about Drake is that he’s disconnected from embodied connection (to music, to himself, to the women he courts), and traditionally “skeptical” in several ways (lack of trust, suspicion, isolation). According to Pareles’s interpretation, Drizzy is famous, he sold out, he’s not “authentically” connected to himself, to women, to his music, etc. In fact, “with fame on my mind and my girl on my nerves,” he’s more affectively wrapped up in his own thoughts/worries than he is affectively connected to his sex drive. Here we have a white person locating, in Drizzy’s work, a form of black skeptical melancholy. Importantly, while white hipness frames blackness as the “cure” to white skeptical melancholy that then allows “rehabilitated” white d00ds pop culture success, Pareles’s interpretation of Drake couches black skeptical melancholy as the result of excessive pop success. This is a near total inversion of the logic of traditional white hipness. What this inversion shows us is that, in the popular/mainstream/white imagination, blackness = pop culture success = alienation—i.e., stereotypical “blackness” no longer represents the ‘cure’ to skeptical melancholy.[1]The content and function of stereotypical black masculinity in pop music has fundamentally shifted. …Which is why “resistance” and “oppositionality” get expressed in terms of “Third-World feminine difference,” as we saw above. This change in the content and function of stereotypical blackness in pop music also has implications for the reception and interpretation of work by white female rappers.
White Girls, Rapping, and the (Black Masculine) “Soul” of Hip Hop
            In contemporary American pop music, stereotypical black masculinity isn’t what it once was. Or rather: the stereotype of the “thug” is still more or less the same, but the relative value of this stereotype to whites has changed. Mainstream whites still eat it up; hipsters, however, in order to demonstrate their elite status among whites, need to repudiate mainstream white’s taste for “thug life.” This opens the door for white women to be given credence as oppositional, rebellious subjects. I think there are two layers here: (1) Twee white women, like Zoe Deschanel and Ellie Goulding, who effect a very traditional white femininity; and (2) White female rappers, who appropriate stereotypical blackness, both in the form of black masculinity and black femininity. [This is also a good place to ask about the absence of queerness…] So, regarding (1): If traditional white hipness is no longer “hip,” but mainstreamed, then this means that stereotypical “thug” black masculinity is the very mainstream against which white hipsters are distinguishing themselves. What’s the traditional opposite of hard black masculinity? Twee white femininity. Regarding (2), which I think is more complicated and more interesting: While mainstream white audiences might not tolerate the dissociation of “hip hop” and “black masculine cool,” hipsters are looking to do precisely this. The distinction between white mainstream and white hipster audiences is what is missing from Toure’s recent article,[2]again in the Times, about white female rappers. Considering whether pop music audiences are ready to give white women credence as rappers, Toure argues that
There is nothing about the skills required to be an M.C. that makes it impossible for white women to rhyme. It’s not that their mouths can’t do it. The true barrier to entry is that there is an essence at the center of hip-hop that white women have an extraordinarily hard time exuding or even copying. For many Americans, black male rappers are entrancing because they give off a sense of black masculine power — that sense of strength, ego and menace that derives from being part of the street — or because of the seductive display of black male cool.
He’s correct that the matter is not aesthetic, but political: white women have a hard time believably performing stereotypical “thug” black masculinity, and one might argue, black masculinity generally. However, “black male cool” is no longer seductive to hipsters and other culturally ‘elite’ whites. So, white women’s perceived inability to embody/perform “black male cool” might make them particularlyappealing to white hipster audiences. Hence the recent trendiness of Kreayshawn. Toure notes as much in his analysis of her track “Gucci, Gucci”
The song basically attacks a central tenet of hip-hop: Many rappers embrace labelism as part of their celebration of upward mobility as well as a postmodern sentiment that you are the brands you wear. Her rejection of that reeks of white-girl privilege. But similarly privileged people may find her message refreshing.
The last line here is key: similarly privileged people do find her message ‘refreshing.’ Well, “refreshing” isn’t exactly the best word here. Rather, white hipsters use the fact that they appreciate the work of white female MCs as evidence of their “enlightened” approach to both music and race/gender politics. Such a “similarly privileged person” might say to him or herself: “Look, I’m so progressive, both aestheticially w/respect to hip hop, and politically with respect to gender and race, that I can find the work of white female MCs totally legit. Look how transgressive I am.” This move, this attempt to prove one’s elite status above other hip-hop-loving whites, is part of the recent buzz over Kreayshawn. It is also further evidence that the race/gender politics of hip hop are really complicated, not uniform, and not monological. “Black masculine cool” is the mainstream (even though black men continue to be politically, socially, and economically disadvantaged); it is no longer scion of resistance, oppositionality, counter-hegemony, etc. Because “black masculine cool” has been co-opted by the mainstream, white hipsters turn to different symbols of “difference”—such as Third-World women of color, white female rappers, or skeptically melancholy (i.e., not cool) black men (who are subtly foreign, too).
So, just as racial-political landscapes change and blacks are now positioned as “border populations” against newly racialized “brown” peoples from Latin America and South Asia, racial-aesthetic paradigms are shifting. Stereotypical blackness is no longer the quintessential symbol of oppositionality because, at least in pop music if nowhere else, stereotypical blackness has been thoroughly co-opted into the mainstream. Recognizing this helps us make more sense of a lot of 2011 cultural politics and cultural criticism.

[1] I wonder if rock’s continued reliance on precisely this “traditional” stereotype of blackness is part of what keeps it relatively marginal in the pop charts (Jon Caramancia, the NYT’s other rock critic named Jon, laments this here). Which is to say: rock offers a certain brand or flavor of “rebelliousness” or “oppositionality”—one that is framed in very mid-20th century ways, i.e., through the traditional logic of white hipness. So perhaps rock’s lack of general relevance is not so much aesthetic as it is racial-political: it trades in passé or obsolete “controlling images” of blackness that don’t satisfy contemporary white audiences’ appetite for “eating the other.”
[2] Two other problems with TOure’s article: (1) it’s sorta horribly gender-normative. He compares white female rappers to butches/FTM Xdressers, as though such things are patently absurd. (2) He says that the “soul” of hip hop lies in black masculinity. “Hip-hop…remains unbreakably connected to the spirit of black masculinity ,” he claims. Sure, there are strong cultural associations btw hip hop and a certain flavor of black masculinity, but (a) this is not the universal, homogeneous “spirit” of black masculinity, and (b) ladies have been there from the first (Roxanne, what?), so hip hop is not “unbreakably” connected to black masculinity.