White People Really Want You to Know That They’re White


c/o dnainfo.com

It’s always dangerous to click on a tweeted link that hints ominously at the death of the tweeter, but I did it anyway. Why? Because I live on the edge, that’s why. But also because I like a good hate read every once in a while. We all do. But so, I knew this New York Times editorial—“My Afro, Myself”—would be perfectly detestable just from the first sentence, “Like many Americans, I’m a white person.” But believe it or not, things only got worse.

Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair writer and former Afro-haver, waxes nostalgic about the hairstyle of his youth, remembering that it was “a genuine, all-natural, Angela Davis-worthy ’fro” that “bounced when he walked.” Handy claims to be taking this trip down memory lane due to genuine feelings of “kinship and concern for Dante de Blasio,” son of mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, and posessor of an Afro to which even President Obama has paid his respects. Handy fears that, much like Donald Trump, Dante de Blasio risks having his hairstyle wear him, instead of the other way around. As another warning to young de Blasio, Handy writes that, while he liked his Afro for a while, he eventually realized that he “looked like a moron” and soon enough wised up and cut his hair. Handy thinks that this will probably end up being the right move for de Blasio because, after all, we already live “in an urban landscape more awash than need be with handlebar mustaches, Rutherford B. Hayes beards and tattoos the size and colorful intensity of large-screen TVs,” and so de Blasio would do well to ditch his Afro and look, what? Normal, I guess? I guess. Which, well, that is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve maybe ever read in a Times editorial, and that’s really saying something because, Tom Friedman.

It’s not news that the media—white journalists in particular—are obsessed with Dante de Blasio’s hair. But this piece is different because, rather than just do what many people in media have done and write trend piece after trend piece on the topic of African-American hairstyles, Handy makes it about his experience with an Afro as a white man. It’s not enough that Handy concern-trolls de Blasio about wearing naturally styled hair, but Handy also dismisses the experience of having an Afro entirely, shamefully comparing it to Donald Trump’s combover, because Handy feels the look is moronic. I mean, I hate to break it to Handy (and I’m sincere about that, I really wish that his editors had done this instead) but the way that a biracial man wears his hair is not about him and his experience as a white man with curly hair in the 70s. And I would actually go so far as to say that Handy has no business at all “advising” de Blasio on what to do, specifically because Handy is white. Because a teenager with an Afro does not need to be schooled on hairstyles and fitting in by some random middle-aged white guy.

Terrible as this editorial is, it also feels like part of a larger trend of articles and lists that serve to confirm that white people and their experiences as something special, and only occasionally universal. Handy’s piece starts out “Like many Americans, I’m a white person,” because, immediately, he wants you to understand a couple of things about him. First, that American pretty much equals white, which implicitly equals normal. The fact that Handy then goes on to talk about Afros and how strange it was that he had one (I mean, he isn’t even Jewish! crazy!) and then how good it was that he got rid of it, thus returning to normal white personhood is more than just troubling, it’s disgusting. If you google “things white people like” or “things white girls like” you’ll come up with thousands and thousands of lists (and that’s just on BuzzFeed alone) about things ranging from yoga to pumpkin spice lattes to, I don’t know, dogs—all things which, last I checked, are not really racially specific and are, in fact, just popular things. However as soon as those things are identified with being white—just like how having big, natural hair is associated with being black—they become normalized in a way that leaves no room for anything different. Thus, smooth and straight hair (and short if you’re a man) is both a white thing and a normal thing—there’s no room for anything else unless you want to look, Handy says, “like a moron.” The main message that all these pieces send is that the only way to be accepted into society at large is to adapt to all the things that white people have self-identified as being white and therefore normal.

I understand that a lot of these “white people” trend pieces (including Handy’s) are supposed to have a humorous slant, but the problem is that they are not always presented (including Handy’s) as being purely humorous. Which is fine really, because rarely are they funny at all anyway (including Handy’s!). And while that kind of humor will probably never be my kind of thing (I also despise lists telling me what it’s like to be in my 20s vs 30s, so maybe I just don’t get what’s funny anymore), I guess there’s a place for it because some people also still like Jay Leno and Andy Borowitz. But why does something like this have to be in the New York Times? It’s just that I feel like, at this point, we’re ready as a society to read an editorial in the Times by a black man or woman about what it’s like to wear natural hair in a society that still harshly judges people for looking different. But instead we just get another piece about a white guy being white and how he embraced his whiteness and lived happily ever after. This is boring and insulting. The Times can do better. I mean, Handy’s piece wasn’t even worthy of the Styles section. So that’s bad. Really, really bad.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. I read the op-ed piece, prepared to dislike it, but I get a completely different vibe from the article itself than from your reaction to it. I think the “like many Americans” is odd, but I think that his sharing his experiences as a white guy who grew an afro was actually clever and amusing. And in a post-racial society, what he said wouldn’t be controversial. And if is all about the haircut, and comparing himself to this young man, I think that’s actually pretty cool. I get from the article that he’s saying he hopes the guy doesn’t get known for his hair (and I doubt he would have said it at a time when afros were commonplace). I do get that white people are obsessed with black people’s hair (and I read the other article about that, too). My best friend is black and I love pressing down on his hair and watching it spring back. I can do that because he’s my friend. I’m disappointed every time he cuts it. I won’t go up to other black people and ask to play with their hair. But the hair is something that’s beyond our experiences as white people. Differences are fascinating. And if we were in a post-racial society, we could discuss, embrace, celebrate those differences.

    All of that said, I also get the point of “normal.” Normal is white, particularly a white guy, In pretty much everything. It’s changing, but it will take a lot for it to change so substantially that it isn’t noticeable. And it is really noticeable, especially when white people are uncomfortable with some of the cultural differences, such as music, dance, hair, volume, speech, etc.

    And I think the op-ed actually *shows* that it’s changing. A white guy is comparing himself to a black guy, through his memories of having a big afro. He’s looking back on his youth through this guy. Would that have happened 40 years ago?

    I don’t think his comparisons were clueless borderline racist like so many other ways white people try to integrate with black people. I took my friend who I mentioned above to a lefse cook-off in northern Minnesota (lefse is a Scandinavian soft flatbread that is buttered and rolled up, sometimes with sugar added). A lefse cook came up to him and said, “I’m going to give you something I bet you’ve never had before,” and handed him a piece of lefse. He was disappointed when my friend said he’s had lefse before (he lives in Montreal, so only has had lefse through visits with me). Then the guy came back later, and this was weirder. He just said, “I knew a guy from Mississippi. His name was Leroy.” We paused, until we realized he was telling us that Leroy was black. “My boys really liked him,” he added.

    What do you say to that?! It’s not so much offensive, as he meant well, and was a very nice man, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to stand there with your mouth open.

    The op-ed writer seems more comfortable with the differences and the interaction.

    And while the white guy may be “normal,” that doesn’t mean that white guys think that’s how it should be.

    I could be wrong about this guy. I haven’t read anything else by him. But this is my impression.

  2. Handy was clearly aware of the politically problematic visual that comes with an old white guy lecturing a young colored kid, but unfortunately his self-awareness took the form of clunky racial disclaimers and a bizarre attempt to establish common ground. Really, he should have realized how inane his commentary was and just trashed the piece. It felt like an awkward high school principal awkwardly trying to relate to an “urban youth” (and using words like that).

    “I don’t want you to be defined by your hair, so I’m going to write an op-ed that fixates on your hair.” Lame.