Rednexpolitation & Multi-Racial White Supremacy
In 1993, Coco Fusco & Gabriel Gomez-Penia performed “Couple In A Cage”–they dressed up in stereotypically “native” attire and displayed their performance of exotic primitiveness for scopophilic consumption. The work interrogates the role of non-whites in liberal multiculturalism: whites prove their “good liberal” cred, their “openness” & “tolerance” of the worst, Holiday-In-Cambodia type, by instrumentalizing people of color, as representatives and repositories of fetishized “otherness” and “primitiveness.” People of color have to stay “backwards” so that whites can prove how avant-garde they are.
Because of changes in white supremacy, white “rednecks” are new “primitives”.
Changes in White Supremacy
Multi-Racial White Supremacist Patriarchy (MRWaSP) cuts the “color line” differently than old-school white supremacy. “Success” whitens. It’s a two-layered process: at the macro level, things that contribute to the optimization of MRWaSP, that maximize its success, are rewarded with “white privilege”; at the micro level, individuals are incentivized to do those things that optimize MRWaSP–so, already-whites get more privilege, and those on the “border” of whiteness gain a more secure foothold. Positive implicit biases about whites/whiteness helps you seem/appear successful (e.g., avant-garde rather than pathological), but phenotypical whiteness itself is no longer enough to guarantee the privileges accorded to whiteness (like positive rather than negative implicit biases). It is in the interest of the neoliberal state to conditionally include some (i.e., the most ‘successful’) people of color in structural/institutional whiteness. As Falguni Sheth argues, white supremacy is now multi-racial:
So, not only do non-whites get conditionally included within structural whiteness, but some phenotypical whites–that is, the insufficiently ‘successful’ ones–get excommunicated. Though they are phenotypically and culturally white, their inclusion in structural/institutional whiteness is incomplete and conditional.
For example, poor rural whites in Appalachia and the Deep South/Southeast, especially those with very distinctive subcultures like moonshining or hand fishing, are the new objects of quasi-orientialist exoticization, scopophilia, & hipster cultural appropriation. We direct a Lomax-style ethnographic gaze to “primitive” white people. I think this is what is going on in both “rednexpolitation” TV, and the WWE Tea Party parody.
Recently, the LA Times published an article on rednexpolitation TV; my colleague Karen Cox was quoted in the story. “Rednexploitation,” at least as I use the term, means the hipster- or orientialist-style romanticization of poor rural white subcultures. Why do mainstream, basic cable audiences find poor rural white subcultures so fascinating? Why rednexpolitation, and why now?
Well, the Times article suggests that “redneck” people and cultural practices are treated as representations of “uncomplicated authenticity” and a “quieter, simple alternative to the overblown, materialistic antics” of mainstream life. But, paradoxically, they are also thought to possess “mashed-up family values” and display “drunken laziness” and “reckless behavior.”# Because they are thought to be more “primitive,” they are seen as both more “pure” AND more unruly. This paradoxical characterization–both uncomplicated and quiet, and improper and reckless–is a telltale sign of subaltern/minority status. This paradox is applied to women, for example, in the virgin/whore dichotomy. Both primitive and simple, on the one hand, and unruly and dangerous on the other, these “rednecks” are admired for the same stereotypical qualities that were attributed to Delta Bluesmen like Robert Johnson–he was both “authentic” (simple, primitive, self-taught, natural genius) and dangerous (e.g., the myth that he sold his soul to the devil)–or Sara Baartman, whose perceived sexual unruliness was tied to her supposed primitiveness.
Another representation of the dangerous backwardness of poor rural whites is the WWE Tea Party Parody. Two characters, Jack Swagger & Zebadiah Coulter, have adopted Tea Party personae in order to distinguish themselves as the heels (i.e., bad guys) opposed to Mexican-American face (i.e., good guy) Alberto Del Rio. Connor Simpson has a great account of their ongoing performance here. My point is this: as “heels,” their Tea-Party-whiteness is a sign of backwards-thinking & obsolescence. Their racist nationalism, especially their anti-Latino racist nationalism, is supposed to be a sign of their bad-guy status, in the same way that, say, The Shiek’s cultural difference was a sign of his bad-guy status. “Good” white audiences are supposed to identify with the Mexican-American character.
Both rednexploitation TV and the WWE Tea Party Parody show that multi-racial white supremacy both includes some already-privileged non-whites within white supremacist privilege, and excludes some groups of otherwise-underprivileged whites from automatic inclusion within white supremacist privilege. Poor rural white subcultures function like Delta Blues, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or Ravi Shankar, or, well, you get the idea–they function as representations of consumable “authenticity” and exotic “otherness.” Which sort of makes sense in the post-globalized world: most middle-class people consume media, food, and other cultural products from all over the globe. It’s easier for me to eat Indo-Chinese takeout or buy durian popsicles than it is for me to get moonshine from the dudes on “Moonshiners,” and I live the next county over from them (I’m in Mecklenburg County, NC). We’ve appropriated and co-opted so many non-Western cultures and cultural objects, the only place for our loving-the-alien gaze is back to our own internal frontiers, like Appalachia.