Troubling America: Race, Representation, & the White Gaze

By Rick Quinn

The idea of America is the most contested idea. At any moment in our 24/7, social-media-fueled news cycle, one can assume that efforts are underway to contest, promote, interrogate, or defend the idea in one of the myriad forms it takes. America exists not as only as a mythic, quasi-religious idea, it is also a cultural product. We do so love to sell ourselves to others. From art to kitsch, America has been peddling her wares for a couple of centuries now, saturating the market.

From blue jeans to action movies to professional sports, parts of American popular culture have marketed an image to the wider world of our constructed self—rugged individuals with a can-do attitude, untethered from any obligation to any wisdoms that do not emanate from the 48 contiguous states. The dominant manifestations of the idea were formed over time and marketed to us as our story, and we perform them in ritual celebrations in our houses of worship, be they churches or stadiums. While minor chord changes appear in various performances, the primary melody remains constant. Chosenness, righteous power, and a belief in an original innocence—periodically marred but never contradicted—are wed to the liberal optimism of  faith in progress, or some notion of steady, constant improvement. 

In its culturally dominant form, these visions of America are also made from and for the benefit of white comfort. They serve to support our centrality and ease our consciences. They paint a sanitized picture of ourselves and the picture is promoted through forms of pop culture. I may not be able to remember the lessons from my grammar school history textbooks, but I can still quote the preamble to the Constitution, thanks to dominance of Schoolhouse Rock within the Saturday morning cartoon block of my youth. The popular and catchy films taught valuable concepts but mirrored many of the blind spots of the cultural idea of America. Westward expansion was a natural outgrowth of increasing population. Hey, there was a lot of land and (white) folks needs some “Elbow Room.”

It’s a happy tale of expansion, braving the wilderness, and crafty land deals when the Trail of Tears, genocide, chattel slavery, and exploitation of Chinese labor are removed from the story. 

Narrow views of pop culture have fueled the fierceness of the nostalgic idea of making America “great again,” where great is a cipher for a narrative untroubled by counter-narratives that implicate white comfort. Our comfort now exists at the expense of the continued exploitation of people of color. We often talk about returning to the values of the mythical town of Mayberry, NC where the values of loyalty, care for the other, and a health sense of humor preserved the good life in idyllic, untroubled America. We are seldom troubled by the complete absence of black men and women in a southern American town in the early 1960’s. The kindly and morally upright Sheriff Taylor’s homespun wisdom and good humor present mythical norms of white gentility, obscuring the actual presence and power of numerous contemporaneous Bull Connors in Alabama and elsewhere.

American popular culture has also constructed images of people of color for consumption and to support the common narrative. The indigenous inhabitants of North America have been simultaneously the noble savage (friendly and faithful companions to honorable white settlers like Daniel Boone) or existential threats to white existence. African Americans have alternately been presented as always gregarious, joyful sidekicks or violent threats to “civility” and “order” in white America’s collective imagination. Euphemisms like “run-down neighborhoods” and “good vs. poor” schools, these sprout in soil made fertile by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, constructed as lone guardians for holding the chaos of violent (and culturally diverse) urban landscapes at bay, along with the relentless sensationalism of the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to news. Fear captures our attention and keep us from changing the channel. It also keeps us isolated and immune from having our prejudices interrogated.

Here then is our paradox of popular culture and its role in maintaining or possibly troubling dominant narratives. As long as popular culture is a commodity that can be monetized, there is a strong conservative pull for it to support and reinforce narratives favorable to dominant influences. On the other hand, popular culture’s connection to creative self-expression ultimately subverts such a conservatism, as the desire for novelty leaves a crack in the door through which counter-narratives emerge.

Because of the increasing social isolation along racial, religious, economic, and political lines, popular culture could also serve to expand our boundaries and trouble our narratives of comfort.  As a young white child of the South, where legally enforced Jim Crow had given way to other forms of de facto segregation, with suburban white flight and the rapid emergence of private Christian schools coinciding with court enforced busing, television in the ‘70s offered a colorful palette to contrast with my mostly monochrome experience.

Sesame Street and Fred Rogers’ neighborhood offered visions of intercultural friendships and common respect. More adult oriented expressions like Norman Lear’s Good Times provided a window into black family life with joys and struggles in ways that my daily life did not. The lack of white characters also subtly decentered white dominance. FM radio and the expansion of the airwaves opened up a market for a diversity of music. If the chart success of a “Sir Duke” led one to purchase Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, necessary contestations of narratives of erasure emerged in songs like “Black Man” or “Pastime Paradise”. 

For sure, such incursions aren’t the cure all. Songs can be skipped. One can be cluelessly unaware, as I was for years, of the behind the scenes tension on Good Times between the cast and creator of the growing popularity and subsequent emphasis on Jimmie Walker’s antics as JJ, and the question was whether his minstrel-like exaggeration undermined the more positive ground-breaking messages of the show. Popular culture can be subversive but should always be approached with a critical lens and never mistaken as authentic encounter with the other. Instead, it is an invitation.

Pop culture is an invitation to see beyond one’s blinders and will inevitably entail the discomfort of exposure to the ways in which selective erasure has had material effects on others. We don’t want to, but we need to, face the ways in which some narratives of comfort are built on a foundation of other’s pain and exploitation for fairer and more just visions to emerge. Forms of popular culture can function prophetically as when Kendrick Lamar’s XXX opens with the subversive anthem (“America, God bless you if it’s good to you…), troubling the faith in how many of us justify our material condition as blessing rather than what Ta-Nehisi Coates would say are the spoils of plunder. Lamar pushes white America to grapple with the commodification of black bodies through Fox News to sell fear and undergird repressive violence (“America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does”).

Such prophetic words are not easily consumed and expose the tensive intersection of pop culture as prophetic and pop culture as product. “Why can’t your prophets be more like MLK?” belie our honorific gestures. We willfully ignore the ways in which King has been co-opted as a pop culture creation to sell cars--and thus neutered. And at the same time, then, King quotations are weaponized to remind those who disrupt the status quo of the “proper way to protest.”

The double-bind of dominant pop culture’s commodification and marketing of black life and expression, this is on full display in the stark imagery of Childish Gambino’s video“This is America.” The jarring juxtaposition of black music, dance, and expressions of joy with apocalyptic scenes of violent dehumanization, these confront us with the ways in which both black suffering and joy have been commodified as products for clicks and can numb us to the reality of both of these things. “This is America” provides neither comfort, nor answers, nor hope. It splits open our comfort and pushes us to critical engagement with our narratives and our actions.

Pop culture is not merely entertainment. It is an interaction with a world(s)—at times whitewashing and obscuring, and at times transgressing and challenging. It is an occasion to challenge and to be challenged, to lift a mirror to ourselves.  The danger of commodification is ever present.  One of the more pernicious forms of this commodification is when we allow the consumption of a disruptive narrative of America from the underside of the dominant story to substitute for authentic engagement with other people. Proclaiming myself “woke” because Coates is on my bookshelf and DAMN is on my Spotify playlist could just be colonization by another form. What if we saw them like the biblical parables, narratives that disrupt for the purpose of calling us to a deeper embodied engagement with our neighbor in vulnerability and humble openness? It will inevitably mean letting go and being challenged in one’s comfort.

If U2 frontman Bono is right that America is a grand idea, but one that brings some baggage, then it must be troubled and challenged and wrestled with. It’s not a nostalgic loss to be recovered but an event to come. In the meantime, may we have eyes to see and ears to hear and vulnerable courage to turn from, to repent from exploitation and toward authentic and humble engagement. Selah.