Singing from Whiteness

*Warning, this post is about race … including white people.

The other day I was driving through Tyler listening to some country music on a local station tryna get in touch with my white roots. As I listened, Eric Church’s incredibly catchy song, “Homeboy,”  came on. If you haven’t heard it, the first verse of the song reads,

“You were too bad for a little square town
with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground
Heard you cussed out momma, pushed daddy around
You tore off in his car
Here you are runnin’ these dirty old streets
Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth
Got the hood here snow, but you cant fool me, we both know who you are”

“Hip-hop hat?” “Pants on the ground”? “Fake gold on your teeth?” As I tapped my thumbs on my steering wheel, I wondered to myself, “What is he even talking about?” And the the name of the song is “Homeboy”? Anyone who’s seen Antoine Dodson’s intruder speech (and the requisite autotuned followup) doesn’t have to check Urban Dictionary to know that “homeboy” isn’t really the most white thing you could call someone. So I started thinking about race and how people of different races refer to the other. In other words, how do white people say “stuff Black people do” without really having to say it for fear of sounding racist.

Since I usually write about actual spaces, in honor of Church’s song, I want to get a little more academic and talk about rhetorical spaces. The song constructs two spaces in particular: White (rural) spaces and Black (urban) spaces.

First, I want to talk about the rhetorical space of whiteness as the location from which Church is singing.  Basically, Whiteness is the space from which white people often (albeit unknowingly) speak and operate. Whiteness is often compared to a black hole in the sense that you can feel the power of its influence on society, but cannot often determine its characteristics. The blog, “Stuff White People Like” is important regardless of it’s limitations because of its noteworthy purpose: To essentialize Whiteness. When I first saw the blog four years ago it was the first of its kind. Honestly, I don’t think I had even heard the phrase, “White people _____,” in any context. Lots of white people object to the blog (i.e. “I’m not like that” or “That’s just hipsters, not white people!”), but I think that’s partially the point: There are no essential characteristics to a race. It’s also just plain funny.

The objections from white people are interesting because it seems the majority is uncomfortable being “pinned down.” Of course, this is minor in comparison to the experience of African Americans as essentialized minorities. In this world, there are a multitude of examples of Blackness: Stereotypes associated with the black race. These represent the rhetorical space of Blackness. In his song, Church is pretty blunt about his references to Blackness. The song is just full of references such as the ones listed above. As far as I can tell, the song is written about a white guy performing Blackness … basically some guy’s younger brother gets too good for the comfortable, white country lifestyle. Then he starts to cuss, become more physically violent, rebel, become more likely to be thrown in jail, feel entitled, and waste money.

But isn’t that a strange leap? What is it about a tattoo and gold on someone’s teeth that makes them more violent? The reason is this: Blackness, in contrast to Whiteness, is a very defined rhetorical construct.

As a the minority population, black people have often been associated with each other by members of the majority.  In other words, for centuries members of the Black Diaspora have been saying, “Hey, I’m not really like that” or “I’ve never seen a black person that actually actually acts like that.” But many white people don’t usually get the chance to feel “called out” for their Whiteness in the same way. If you are white and you’ve been called out for, say, drinking so much milk, you may feel angry thinking about the experience. I usually just laugh. Unlike Blackness, Whiteness is relatively undefined and uninterrogated AND it isn’t historically associated with political oppression. Blackness, in stark contrast, has been constructed over the years with clear political and economic motivations.

The best description I ever heard basically said that Whiteness is an elusive center. It’s relatively undefined and often subtly powerful. In operating from the elusive position of Whiteness, Eric Church seems to be making two statements at the same time. The explicit statement is that there is value in the country life and honoring your family. It’s true: We shouldn’t mock our families or disobey our parents. The implicit statement, however, is that city life is morally inferior and that urban culture or Blackness will lead you down a self-destructive path. There’s a few problems. The first is that rural life is not a white experience. The second is that the WSJ recently reported that city life is in many ways healthier.

As a fan of flat-brim hats, Mike Jordans and doing “The Jerk,” I happen to disagree with the notion that urban culture instills rage or disrespect. In fact, I’ve seen people do some pretty dumb things in Topsiders. Maybe I’ll write an autobiographical counter to Church’s song titled, “Frat boy.” That way, I could engage the ethos of the song which is “Family first” without falling into the pitfalls of race. At this point, I think it’s always important to ask yourself, “What are we trying to say?” As a member of the majority, I think a new kind of thoughtfulness (not merely political correctness) would be appreciated.

Works (loosely) cited:
McKerrow, Raymie E. “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis.”
Nakayama, Thomas K. and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.”
Also, if you’re interested, here is a link the lyrics to the song I referenced

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