Article Thumbnail

The Unbearable Blackness of Liking White-People Shit

This month, the co-host of Desus & Mero, Desus Nice, came out…

…as a huge Sex and the City fan.

I joke, but when I saw the piece, I was like, “That’s so brave of him.” For real. The homie is a legit icon of woke male blackness. Yet, he was super-honest about how hard he stans for some serious “white-people shit.” And not just that — some serious “white-women shit.” That makes his confession doubly brave. For a woke black man like Desus to confess he’s down with white-women shit is, in a word, risky. He could’ve easily caught hell from Black Twitter. But he’s Desus. The brand is brolic. So instead of getting dragged online, Desus made that shit cool.

For most of my life, I’ve been loathe to admit I was down for some white shit, too. For instance, I love Waylon Jennings. I love Billy Joel. I will stan hard for Friends. It’s still hard to admit that. Why? As a person of color, there’s often an inexorable self-doubt that comes from liking white shit. And we all know that Friends is some of the whitest shit to ever hit TV. Yet, there’s one episode called “The One With the Prom Video” that I can’t watch without getting misty-eyed. My sister always laughs at me for that. Because she knows, in that moment, I’m Ross.

To make sense of the unbearable blackness of liking white-people shit; to investigate what it means to be a stan for white culture; and to advance the conversation about representation in a multicultural country like America, I spoke with Kovie, a black woman who’s the entertainment editor at BuzzFeed News, and Michael, a black designer in the Bay Area. Together, the three of us confessed our embarrassing loves and problematic faves. We wrestled with the long shadow of whiteness that too often darkens the potential for America to be the nation it likes to think it already is, and has been.

Just to be clear, this isn’t like when Touré used Donald Glover’s Atlanta to work out some shit about how other kids called him an Oreo when he was growing up. None of us felt like other black people ever made us feel like we needed to question our black identities just because we liked the Beatles, Friends or any other white-people shit. Nah. This is about how we deal with any love we may feel for our colonizer’s culture. That history is what makes it so unbearable to like white-people shit.

And yet, we still do.

Why we do is the most important part of this discussion.

Did you see that piece in The Cut where Desus admitted he’s a huge Sex and the City fan?
I did. I thought it was interesting. Desus seems to have an understanding of why he likes it, and the difference between when he watched it then, and his analysis now. I also think it’s amusing that his sister was the one who got him into it. Because of the landscape of television at that time — you find there were a lot of black women who were watching that show. He had an interesting perspective — especially, how the show shaped some of his ideas on relationships and masculinity.

Michael: I watched Sex and the City from bootlegs on Limewire back when I was in college in 2004. It was no small secret then that — as clichéd and stereotypical as it was — it was sort of a shortcut to female pop psychology at the turn of the century.

When Desus watched SATC, he didn’t seem to code it as white-people shit. Which also seems important, would you agree?
I don’t know if I had the vocabulary for that critique at that time. But I definitely knew it was a white TV show. I probably had the same cognitive dissonance that I had with Seinfeld. Because my mother is a black New Yorker. I’ve been to New York. So when people are like, “It’s New York,” and there are no black people, I’m like, this is not New York. This must be the Upper West Side. (laughs)

Kovie: The concepts of white-people culture and television, even though it’s always existed, hasn’t really come into popular vernacular until recently. Before that, it was just considered television. It was considered culture. Now we finally have an understanding that black people contribute greatly to popular culture, so we’re able to divorce it, and say, “This is white shit. This is white culture.”

Desus is an indispensible icon of woke male blackness. When he came out and said he likes this white shit — and specifically, some white women shit — did you find that brave?
I’ve followed Desus from OkayPlayer, back in the early pre-Black Twitter days of black people being funny on the internet. So I wasn’t surprised because it’s very on-brand for Desus. It’s nicely calculated to make waves. That show is something that people remember with an element of nostalgia. But also, in the last 12 years, it’s come to be coded as gentrifier. Also, it’s white-coded. For woke Desus to be like, “I fucks with this,” it’s definitely a good hot button to press.

As a proud black man like Desus, would you be willing to go on Twitter and say you stan for some white-women shit?
(thinks) No. Because I’m mixed and in a relationship with a white woman. And I’m not trying to get dragged on Twitter for all that shit. (laughs) To quote Desus: Twitter comes for everyone eventually. (laughs) I see and recognize the vitriol that mixed people and interracial relationships are subjected to by some super-woke sections of Black Twitter. So no, I’m not trying to associate my Twitter account with anything like that because I know the fallout would be swift.

What’s the importance of calling something out as white-people shit?
The importance is how it removes the invisibility of whiteness. That’s one of whiteness’ greatest strengths: being invisible. It’s considered the norm. Everything else is an outlier. It falls outside of that. Distinguishing it actually creates an environment in which we’re able to say, specifically, that these are the elements of whiteness. And that not all of them are harmful to people of color. So even though SATC may not be a completely harmless thing, for its time it was groundbreaking because of the representation of women and the representation of women talking about sex, very openly and explicitly.

Michael: I think the pop psychological insight into the common woman’s mind that SATC, or Girlfriends, represented for the male viewer in 2005 has been almost completely overtaken by Jamilah Lemieux, Molly Crabapple and pick a Twitter celeb you love that has that sort of reach and resonance in the culture. The standard of pop psychology has deepened so much in the last 10 years due to Twitter.

Did you see Key and Peele’s film Keanu?
I did not.

Michael: No. It’s about a dog, right?

It’s about a stolen cat named Keanu. There’s one scene that focuses on that moment when other black people catch you liking some white shit.

The underlying, unspoken cultural wisdom is: Black folks shouldn’t let any of that white shit into our hearts. Don’t let it mess with your emotions. It’s not for us. It’s to be avoided like poison. This happens when one group of people enslaves your people — you tend not to enjoy what your former slave masters love.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to defend your affinity for, or your love of, some white-people shit?
Absolutely. Group identity is so flexible, fungible and fluid as a youth. For black youth in particular. Anytime there are more than five black boys in a room that hierarchy assembles like Voltron. As a kid, I “talked white, dressed white,” so I was already at a disadvantage. There were times I just had to take it on the chin, and there were sometimes when I’d stick up for shit. Those are big memories.

Kovie: I think we all have. I mean everything from The Spice Girls, to I embarrassingly like The Chainsmokers. (laughs) But another good example are the rom-coms that I like. I love How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. I think it’s vapid. I think it’s absolute brain candy. But for me, it serves a purpose. I use a lot of white pop culture as brain candy. (laughs)

Think we all do that. (laughs)
Obviously there are more serious aspects to it. But for the everyday stuff like The Chainsmokers, or a vapid rom-com, it allows me to stop thinking about race for a bit. Even though we can never really stop thinking about race. And I guess it shows how, in some ways, we participate in that invisibility of whiteness just by enjoying that. But as a black person you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes. (laughs)

Michael: I was always the kid with the weird music. Or, like, into some strange, what-the-fuck-white-people shit is this? (laughs) Sometimes people would be like, “No, get the fuck outta here with that white shit.” And other times they’d be like, “Aiiight, this aiiight.” So, you know, I probably batted about .450, maybe .500. (laughs)

Kovie: It’s like the movie Lady Bird. Look, Greta Gerwig did a fantastic job. It wasn’t a particularly compelling storyline, but it was a great movie. In a sea of really deep movies, it was like, “Oh, this is a movie about a basic story about a mother and a daughter.” Again, whiteness’ greatest strength is its invisibility. But divorced from having to think about those things, you can see yourself in some of the basic storylines of a movie like Lady Bird — if that makes sense. Unlike when you’re watching a movie featuring black people, in which you’re all of a sudden so hammered with identity. In a lot of white culture, you can relate to it without being heavily invested in it.

You can enjoy it without falling into the Sunken Place?

Where is the Sunken Place in this discussion? Desus liking SATC doesn’t put him in the Sunken Place. But there are pop-culture products that would signify that. How would you identify that dynamic?
I think when you stop calling white people white people, you’re in the Sunken Place. Because whiteness is about that flattening. When you accept whiteness as normal, as standard, as default, as opposed to pointing it out, you’re gone. You’ve been flattened. Whiteness is a power that doesn’t want to be named. There’s this Emperor’s New Clothes vibe when you call something white shit. By identifying what it is, you strip it of its power to establish normalcy. If you can point it out — and name it — it ceases to support the normalization of white supremacy. But when you accept it as normal, then you’ve lost. You’re Kanye. (laughs)

What makes something white-people shit — like, what makes something white-people TV?
If it’s all white people. Like, if you’re on Netflix and you hover over the show and you see only white people… (laughs) If in 2018, you’re still telling stories about America that are all-white, you’re obviously on some white people shit.

Kovie: I don’t know if Game of Thrones is considered white-people shit, but I love that show. That’s one of my favorite shows on television. Almost everybody in it is white. But I don’t think about Game of Thrones as white people shit. Although it’s heavily white. And they deal with race very poorly. Yet, I stan that show completely. That show is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched in my lifetime. There’s also the show’s problematic representation of women — how they demonstrate rape on the show. But again, I still think it’s a good show. My take has always been, look, I can like anything — a show, a song — as long as it doesn’t represent something else in an incomplete or negative manner. You can criticize anything. No piece of art is perfect. It depends on the perspective you take when you’re engaging it.

What’s some white-people shit that you’d be super embarrassed to admit you like?
Hmmm… I stan for fucking mayonnaise. That’s, literally, white shit. (laughs) But I like it! I feel like mayonnaise has a place in this world. I prefer Japanese mayo and Mexican mayo. But as far as liking white people shit, if someone pulled my card, I’ll defend my white people shit choices. (laughs) Actually, hold on, let me dive into something. This is a hair-split that other people aren’t required to do, but I draw a line between white-by-color and white-by-culture.

How so?
The white-people shit that I fuck with just happens to be made by white people. Hall & Oates are a perfect example of that. Those niggas just happened to be white. (laughs) But I don’t fuck with white-by-culture shit. Like, I’m not down with ICE or Blue Lives Matter. I’m no Sheriff Clarke. That’s the line, for me: Is this some white-by-color or white-by-culture shit?

Kovie: When it comes to stanning for white-people shit, it depends. I’ll stan for Michelle Wolf. Because I think Michelle Wolf is a hilarious comedian. She’s not afraid to get into it. I appreciate her being forthcoming. So Michelle Wolf is somebody I think of, as we say, “In the proverbial Race War… I think we should defend Michelle Wolf.” (laughs) Now, would I defend my love of The Chainsmokers? Not really. You guys can come for me for that. But for whatever reasons, my brain is still gonna go that’s a bop. I’m not saying anything I like about white culture is defensible. It’s not. I’m just saying… I like it.

What about when someone like Idris Elba stans for Meryl Streep? That seems okay because we recognize that Meryl Streep is everybody’s shit. Would you agree?
First of all, we have to acknowledge that Meryl Streep is a powerhouse. She’s a fantastic actor. I have zero problems with any black person stanning for Meryl Streep… for her work. Meryl Streep is also a very good example of the invisibility of whiteness. We can all love her because we don’t have to think about Meryl Streep’s race. We can just focus on her work. That’s not the same for any black actor. When we think of Angela Bassett or Viola Davis, we think of these powerhouses, and we always talk about them in the context of not only their work and their art, but their blackness, their black womanhood. But the invisibility of Meryl Streep’s whiteness allows her to be great in this way where her race never comes up.

Michael: Idris and Meryl, and Desus and SATC, are a nice way of looking at this. As famous white women go, Meryl Streep is probably maybe a hair below Martha Stewart in the “low problematic ranking.” Eve Ewing likes Meryl Streep. So she’s good. With Idris, he’s unimpeachably black. So he’s good. The same for Desus. So he’s good. But if I saddled up on some Ted Nugent shit, muthafuckas be asking questions. (laughs) That said, I do think there’s an ancillary benefit to saying, “You know some of this white-people shit is cool, so like, maybe y’all don’t have to wear so many Native American headdresses.” (laughs)

Kovie: The point of trying to diversify representation on television, in movies and in entertainment and pop culture isn’t to negate white culture. Nor is it to take away stories or representation of white people. It’s just to make sure that other people — from Natives to immigrants to black people — are also seen. There’s also an important need for people to understand that multicultural representation is a net gain.

Kovie, as an African in America you can express your cultural opinions without having someone call you out for it because you’re Nigerian. You’re also unimpeachably black. It means something different when that exact same confession comes from a mixed person like me or Michael. We sometimes might need to defend our tastes, a little more. Would you agree?
In the United States — regardless if you’re a full black person, like me, or biracial, or a quarter black — I think ultimately there’s a policing of blackness. It’s worse when you’re not a full black person. Or you don’t present as a full black person. You’re more policed by other black people, even though you’re accepted inside of black culture; people will scrutinize you more to see if you participate in black culture in the way that a majority of black people deem acceptable. It’s like a joke we make with some of our biracial friends, right? We might say, “That’s your white side talking.” In that joke, we’re actually saying a lot about how we police blackness. And how we police whiteness, when we say, “That’s a white thing.”

It’s easier for me because I present as a black woman, and I’m from Nigeria, a very black country in Africa. I mean, nobody is going to not to see me as black. It’s easier for me. So it really does depend on how black people view your blackness. How society views your blackness. To an extent, it’s easier for me to like some white shit because I don’t have the privilege of proximity to whiteness as opposed to somebody who’s biracial and has more proximity to whiteness.

When you’re assigning stories, Kovie, do you code things as white culture or black culture, so you can decide which writer you plan to assign based on the racial aspects of the story?
Working for BuzzFeed News at the entertainment desk, one of my reporters focuses specifically on black entertainment, which we want a writer to specifically focus on. She’s a black writer: Sylvia Obell. And she loves Girls. I mean she looooves Girls. She wrote about it. And she also wrote critically about it. Last year she had a piece about the number of people of color who spoke throughout the series run of Girls. Now, I specifically didn’t watch Girls. I thought, It’s about four women in Brooklyn, and four of them are white. For me, that does not make sense. (laughs) I was just like, “I question this show.” (laughs) But I know a lot of black people who liked Girls, despite all of the problems with representation it had. None of us likes perfect things.

It’s like as black people we’re free to have and develop our own tastes regardless of cultural groupings.

A quick postscript: White people, be like Anthony Bourdain. He was a perfect example of good white-people shit. Here was a white guy, cruising through the world, trying other people’s cultures. And he did it with love, respect and a genuine openness. He was thoughtful. He moved through communities without causing any harm to those he interacted with. Bourdain ought to be the patron saint of what we think of as good white-people shit.