You can’t go a day on the internet without someone making a list about white people. These lists are mostly written by white girls, with titles like, “5 Cues We Should Take from Dumb White Girls” or “Top 20 Most Annoying White Behaviors”. The background of the writer doesn’t matter so long as he or she is making a list about white folks. These lists tackle all things “white”: yoga, Whole Foods, The Bachelor, being desirable, being privileged, being clueless and other such uniquely white quirks. The big lie is that these are uniquely white quirks or problems.
Most people who hate these kinds of lists, however, will hate them because they think they’re being stereotypical or even racist against whites. Actually it’s quite the opposite. In continuing to obsess and wax poetic over just how unique, hokey and quirky being white is, these lists continue to normalize whiteness even further, all the while pushing everyone else to the fringe. It’s an odd combination of self-deprecation and narcissism. The common denominator is of course “self.” The attention is all on you. This is precisely how white becomes the default in our imagination, other races coming in to fill the gaps and teach a real thing or two as needed.
I’m a big fan of Youtube prank channels. It’s a good way to procrastinate. It’s a bad way to write. The biggest prank channels make it a habit of going into the “hood” to get the “realest reactions,” hoping perhaps to get their own “Ain’t Nobody Got No Time For That” Moment. They’re pretty open about it too. Here’s a description found under a recent Youtube prank video I watched: “Black people are the realest and funniest people out there and they give the best reactions. That’s why pranksters always go to the hood.” The implication here is that white people are superficial and black people are real. At first glance it almost seems like a slight against white people and a compliment about blacks. But just like lists, things aren’t as they seem.
Consider the privilege of leisure time. Beginning around the end of the 19th century, thanks in part to a mostly official 8-hour workday and minimum wage, many Americans finally had time for other things besides work, as well. Not everyone did, of course. The poor didn’t necessarily. The disabled didn’t. Many people of color didn’t either. But many others did. Leisure time fits in well with Maslow’s concept of a hierarchy of needs. The need for money to subsist is satisfied so one ascends to another rung. On this new rung there is free time to think, imagine, create and most of all have quirks. The apparent virtue of being real is probably on a rung, too, but it’s not as prized. It’s certainly not even close to the ever-elusive self-actualization. These listicles, as inconsequential as they might seem, are the psychic equivalent of leisure time.
I was home over the holidays on the heels of going through a tough time post-grad school. Yes, I was going through my dreaded quarter-life crisis. My father’s approach is always indirect and so he sat me down under the pretense of teaching me how to use a gadget he got me for Christmas. Soon we were watching a streaming version of 60 Minutes, a segment about young people following their dreams. Granted, all of these dreams happened to be totally death-defying and extreme, but they nonetheless were fearlessly pursuing what they loved. I quickly saw through my father’s plan, trained my eyes towards the television and smiled.
The last segment was perhaps the most powerful. It was on “Free Diving,” where a young man literally inflated his lungs like a fish through some funky breathing exercises, and then dove underwater for nearly 10 minutes without any equipment. After he resurfaced my dad turned to me and said: “You’d never catch a black person doing that.” It was in the tradition of a Chris Rock joke, a half-joking, half-serious commentary about racial disparity with respect to privilege and leisure time. Still, it kinda irked me and I quickly croaked out something about Carl Brashear, the black navy diver we learned about a decade earlier while watching Men of Honor together.
Both of my parents grew up in shacks, my mother on a sharecropping farm in Mississippi and my father in an ancient town in Nigeria. Combined they have six degrees, own their own businesses and set the bar even higher for me. I grew up with nothing but the impression that I could do anything I wanted in life and my parents are proof of that. My dad’s words betrayed the time he had to dream and imagine and the time I was allowed – am still allowed — to dream, imagine and even have quirks.
This is exactly the result of extolling the virtues of being real in people of color, and the quirks of yoga and latte for white people. This is precisely why I don’t do lists about white people.