Friday, July 10, 2015

I'm White, Oh So White by Patty Larkin (1990) Offers Humor to Address the Representation of Whiteness

With good reason, we talk (and joke) a lot about what it means to be Black, or Native American, or Hispanic or Asian, or a member of any given historically disadvantaged racial or ethnic group in the United States. But how often do we explore what it means to be white, in humor or in social studies?
Folk singer Patty Larkin laments being "a bit uptight... on account of I'm white."

One punch line answer to that question is, “All the time,” of course, since history and popular culture in America are dominated by white privilege. However, it’s rare to call out being white as an identity with its own stereotypes, group commonalities and limiting expectations—and rarer to do it in a funny and self-deprecating way, as (white) folk singer Patty Larkin does in this 1990 live track. An analysis of this song could make an interesting opening activity for a unit on racial and ethnic identity in a high school or college media class for mostly white groups of learners as well as for mixed groups or groups with mostly one other ethnicity (perhaps a welcome change to see a white person aware, and mildly critical, of her whiteness).

Click on highlighted lyrics above for discussion ideas, or sign in to Genius to add your own comments to the annotation.

[AFTER THE JUMP, some backstory on how this song came up recently, and a brief reflection on the importance of studying media representations of white identity]

So where’d I come up with this one? Well, my sister-in-law (a white woman, from northeastern U.S. of Italian and Irish/British descent, married to a tall Nordic looking white American guy of British heritage) was putting sunscreen on her very pale, red-headed eight year old daughter’s face. My niece rubbed in the sunscreen and asked, “Am I white?” At which point, my wife and sister-in-law both broke out into song, specifically into a verbatim performance of the song lyrics below. The daughter kept asking, since she actually wanted to know if the white sunscreen had rubbed in, and her mom and aunt just kept responding in song, which got funnier and funnier (to all of us, thankfully). Anyhow, the lyrics and arrangement cracked me up and reminded me how seldom I hear humor by white comics calling attention to white identity or stereotypes. I tend to favor discussing comics who turn their jokes on their own identities rather than criticize others because it models a sort of self-reflection and usually critiques limiting characterizations of groups rather than reinforcing them.

I think another important response to the recent horrific violence done in the name of white supremacy is to try to understand the diversity within the white experience. The term white itself is reductive and indicative of privilege that has eluded many deemed white, historically and today. Perhaps by exploring media representations of white identity as just that, and by poking some fun at them, we can begin to untangle the persistent mess that may lead some to extreme forms of supposed racial pride, or at the very least we can bring it into conversation.

1 comment:

  1. Only thing better than being born white is being born a white dude. Another satirical take on white privilege: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rnFlQAvk8U

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