The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

The jokes came fast and furious from all quarters, but leave it to the Onion to have the last word.

“Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan To Awkwardly Hug, High Five For Next Three Months,” read the headline on the satirical news website, above a photograph of the Republican candidates for president and vice president more or less doing exactly that.

This came but a mere week after another Onion zinger at Mitt Romney’s expense:  An article titled, “Romney Stuck In Endless Loop of Uncomfortable Chuckling,” also with an accompanying image so pertinent and amusing you almost can’t believe it’s real.

You can’t say satire does not imitate life:  It took only until Monday for an actual piece of reporting in the New York Times to include the sentence, “[Romney and Ryan] rarely left each other’s sight, exchanging hugs, backslaps and knowing smiles, as if they knew their time together might be short-lived.”  Is that not the most precious thing you ever did read?

Amidst the arguments that have begun in earnest about issues of great national consequence—nearly all of them concerning our highly tenuous economy—the newly-chiseled fact of a Romney-Ryan GOP ticket additionally sears back into the collective American unconscious the Republican Party’s most enduring image:  Gawky, middle-aged, male white dorks.

For quite a while now, there has existed a state of affairs in the Caucasian community (if I may employ such a term) whereby nearly all of its members have tacitly agreed that black people as a group are in every way hipper than white people as a group.  In a bit from the 1990s, comic George Carlin put it simply:  “White guys, let me tell you something.  You’re never going to be as cool as black guys.  You’re white, and you’re lame.”

I have often wondered whether a favorable characterization of a racial or ethnic group (e.g. “black people are cool”) is still, technically, a form of racism.  A noteworthy distinction between the two major political parties is that Democrats tend to go out of their way to single out minority groups for praise, while Republicans—in line with their stance against affirmative action—try to act as if racial and ethnic categories do not exist, or at least should not determine how individuals are judged.

As we, as a culture, continue to sort this out, we can probably agree on the slightly less controversial proposition, widely practiced, that members of a group are allowed to make negative characterizations about themselves (e.g. “white people are lame”), especially if that group wields a hefty majority in the population.

To my knowledge, no one has ever accused Mitt Romney of being cool.  You might recall the moment during the 2008 campaign when Romney, standing for a photo-op with a group of black teens, spontaneously burst into a non-melodic rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”  Priceless example of white dorkitude that it was, it illustrated how to be merely a nerd is not half as nauseating (yet adorable) as to be a nerd who lacks basic self-awareness.

Romney’s new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is a tougher case to crack, making me wonder whether there is a certain calculation behind the GOP team’s uber-vanilla image.

Accepting his appointment, Ryan took the stage last Saturday proclaiming, “I am deeply honored and excited,” in that disarming, matter-of-fact way that only a man who has spent a lifetime running for class president can.  To see him discuss economic policy with the likes of Charlie Rose or Chris Matthews is to witness an acrobat at work:  He did his homework and, gosh darn it, he is going to let you know it.  He is truly a policy wonk, as both friends and adversaries will attest, but then you read the latest column by Maureen Dowd and reflect that his frequent calls for non-ideological bipartisanship are just the slightest bit disingenuous.

Ryan, not unlike President Obama, depends for much of his appeal on his own personal charm—from appearing to care more about policy than politics, but arguably being more adept at the latter.

That is to say that, when it comes to himself, Ryan is expert at image-making, and that is why I pause to entertain that his and Romney’s friendly-neighborhood-white-guys motif is not quite as organic as it might appear.  That their quasi-unthreatening demeanors are a performance.

After all, they are running against the black guy this November.  Gambling that the stereotypes are true, they have perhaps determined that since out-hipping Obama is not a feasible option, their surest bet is instead to present America with a choice:  Elect us, and you can be certain the executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be white as snow, both within and without.

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