Thursday, July 20, 2006

White Shame, Uncool

Cool emerged several decades ago at the crossroads of black and white America, as an African value of performance met the European value of individualism. In the context of a violently oppressive racial climate, cool was the expression of rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

Cool projected mastery of circumstance, naming itself an insider in a sea of outsiders. In our current climate, cool projects mastery not just of circumstance, but also of consequence. Consequence, literally, means something that follows. But cool cannot be subjected to consequence, because cool does not concern itself with tomorrow—only with today.

Cool will not own any guilt, because guilt refers to tomorrow. As a performance art, cool only exists for the moment. There is, however, an alternate to guilt that deeply concerns cool: shame. Cool refuses shame, because shame is circumstance’s mastery over oneself.

Beyond refusing to be shamed, cool projects shame onto all non-cool outsiders. Words for non-cool are always shameful (like “square”; or the homosexual slander of heterosexuals: “breeders”).

Back to race. During the black power movement, and ever since in the hip hop world, several African Americans, artists in particular, and men in particular, claimed cool as an essentially black cultural expression. Cool was a moment-by-moment refusal to belong to white society.

That’s when white guilt began to evolve into white shame. At least as late as the movie White Men Can’t Jump, whiteness had become tightly wrapped up with uncool. Today it’s everywhere. Young white Americans are deeply ashamed of being white, even as they decline to reject the privileges of whiteness. We talk of “White People” in the third person; we clamor for Black approval etc.

It’s not racial healing we beg for, it’s cool. Specifically, it’s absolution of our white uncool.

The more I’ve lived in a multiracial community, the more I’ve become convinced that white guilt is an irrelevant topic for most whites. It’s white shame.


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