Ok, seriously, this is not a real Black History Month post and a real one will be forthcoming; yet, I could not let John Mayers comments about his relationship to both blackness and white supremacy for yet another popular magazine published in February slide and I thought we might want think about the context and not just the content.
The following quotes were first reported by Black Snob and come to me by way of Feminist Texican, and are excerpts from the February Playboy interview of John Mayer. In talking about how he sees himself and his struggle as a musician, Mayer actually mused that he was really just like an average “black dude”:
What is being black? It’s making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you, or you’ll die inside. Not to say that my struggle is like the collective struggle of black America. But maybe my struggle is similar to one black dude’s.
Not only does this quote minimize the experience of racism in N. America by making it akin to a personal struggle against adversity that anyone can and has endured, by Mayer seems to realize how off base he is about racism even as he drives the metaphor home. His equation of himself with the black struggle then is predicated on a growing desire of white people to take racism out of its historical, legal, systemic, violent, ongoing context and place it in a vacuum in which it is both a thing of the past and character building. With regard to the latter, this myth-making is specific to a liberal fantasy of blackness where in white liberals envy the imagined version of blackness that is a mix of minor and excusable oppressions that ultimately creates the equally mythic “Black Culture”of their fantasies. Real black people and the atrocities they have endured in the past and continue to endure in the present are erased to leave us with a watered down mix of Marley, Huggy Bear, Thompson, and occassionally, when they are called on their crap, Obama. Racism, in their view, is reduced to a series of inconveniences that anyone endures, as Mayer says “taking something that is seen as a struggle and making it work for you.” In other words, there is no real struggle, there is a perception of struggle. And better yet, when black people don’t get seated at a restaurant they can go all Laurence Fishbourne on someone, but when white guys don’t get a promotion they just have to suck it up. See how this fantasy plays into the idea of reverse discrimination and white victimhood?
In essence, this version of blackness is reduced to the white male desire to be Lenny Kravitz for the day and miraculously confront “inconveniences” with “the race card.” Embedded in this fantasy of course is definitions of masculinity dating all the way back to eugenicism. While white males were seen as the ideal civilized men in the grand narrative of eugenicism, black men were the animalistic antithesis of white masculinity often used to justify and mask the barbarism of white male colonials. The figure of the black man, and/or black masculinity, rather than actual black men, was created as a place where white males could project and ultimately otherize their own violence and violent desires, including sexual ones we will address later. Where actual ownership and dominance of black male bodies have fallen away, ritualistic fantasies have remained in the form of sports, video games, and film.
Race fantasies cross politic boundaries. Disgraced former Governor Blagojevich also werighed in this year about being black in Esquire Magazine:
“I am blacker than Obama … I shined shoes, I grew up in a five-room apartment, and my father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived.”
Where blackness is synonymous with “badass” in hipster hate, it is synonymous with poverty and menial labor amongst older, still supposedly liberal, white men. Despite the shift in perspective, the erasure of racism in favor of the “every man” fantasy remains. Thus Blagovich sees himself as the true victim of oppression vis-a-vis black people because while Obama got an ivy education he was off shining shoes. The white man as victim here relies on your understanding of unspoken racial messages, that include the incredulity that Blagojevich feels at losing his job in the government at the same time an “uppity negro” was being made president. Whiteness should make this impossible. And investment in whiteness subsequently makes it possible to be indignant about the “unfairness” of this situation despite the fact that Obama earned his position and Blagojevich was engaged in criminal activity that cost him his; because the narrative of reverse discrimination is predicated on the assumption of white innocence regardless of fact. In both versions then racism “is seen as struggle” but the real struggle is white male survival in an emasculating world where they seemingly have no access to the “race card”.
While many people critiquing Blagojevich’s quote rallied against the ways he reduced black men to the shoe shine guy of old Hollywood, they missed the critical shift in racial narratives in which Blagojevich engaging. Like Mayer, he calls up a particular recognizable image of blackness in the white psyche and then replaces it with a white male figure. In Mayer’s version this white man is “similar to one black dude”having a bad day (the liberal version), while in Blagojevich’s version he is the oppressed Other whose struggle began with a tenuous grasp to whiteness that has now been rested away by the ever looming black aggressor (the moderate bordering on conservative version). Where Mayer imagines himself as Avatar, Blagojevich sees himself as the misunderstood helpmate of black folks who then turn on him.
In this way, he is not dissimilar to former President Clinton during the elections last year. While Clinton did not self-proclaim that he was the first black president, he certainly rode on the coattails of that distinction most of his presidency and well into the campaign of Hillary Clinton. When he diminished the success of then-candidate Obama, he not only balked at criticism of his racism and/or racialized discourse but underneath that balking was a clearly unspoken “everyone knows I’m the first black president.” And like the other two men in this category, he also relied on the growing belief that white men are the real victims in this country. Thus Clinton publicly complained that the Obama campaign had “pulled the race card on me” in response to being called out on his racism and later commented that long-time friend Senator Clyburn had benefited from all that Clinton had “done for him” but then “turned on him” and was no longer a friend.
This sense of victimization at the hands of black men was also tied to an investment in white privilege. According to the new tell all book Game Change, Bill Clinton is said to have called Teddy Kennedy to get an endorsement for Hillary Clinton. In the midst of that conversation, Clinton allegedly said:
A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.
Like Blagojevich, Clinton’s version of blackness depends on the fantasy of the “good white guy” who unlike his racist neighbors has always helped black folks as long as they “stay in their place.” Thus while Mayer access the fantasy of hyper-masculinity in the face of his own subdued hipster sense of inadequacy vis-a-vis the fantasy black man, Blagojevich and Clinton are more akin to the French in Algiers who saw themselves as kinder gentler colonials until black people dared to ask for equality and then they enacted unspeakable torture and massacred them.
If this were the end of the story, it would be bad enough. However, these colonial fantasies are not just predicated on white male fantasies about masculinity and emasculation. Instead, they also include the fetishization of black women and imagined black sexual desire. Clinton accessed these fantasies through an unspoken understanding that his cheating was part of his proximity to blackness in the same way that colonial rapists claimed they were “going native” or unduly influenced by “the overwhelming licentiousness of colonized women.” Mayer on the other hand, does a role reversal in which he moves from the most liberal of the three wannabe black men to the most conservative:
I don’t think I open myself to it [interracial relationships with black women]. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.
In other words, while Mayer fantasizes about being a black man, his fantasy relies on theunderlining anxieties of the Birth of a Nation narrative in which his “big black cock” is used to punish white women but never ever to cross the color line. This racialized misogyny depends on not only the myth of the black rapist but also the hyper-stud that Mayer accesses through his fantasy passing. The black male body then becomes an essential layer through which he claims his manhood back from both the black people who are supposedly destabilizing his own real struggles with their perceived ones but also the white women he imagines reject him for not being man enough, as opposed to seeing him as the unappealing person he clearly is. And it is this white male fantasy of blackness that ultimately masks sexist violation of black women by white men, both with regards to actual sanctioned sexual assault and daily denigration of black women’s femininity, bodily integrity, and humanity, and similar violent denigration of white women by them, in which fantasies about black women or the fear of those fantasies often predetermine white female expression of sexuality or aid in white men’s ability to coerce or demean said expressions.
Mayer’s quote also depends on similar beliefs about black people’s place in society to those of the other two men, as he never questions the desires of black women for him. In his racialized misogynist lens, black women are always and forever available to him as white male but it is he, who determines whose sexuality matters when and where. Thus if he dates “separately from his dick”, black women will come a runnin’ with little regard to his racist preferences. Moreover, by compartmentalizing along traditional first wave feminist criticism of men, he is able to distance himself from his racism even as he compares his desires to that of a well known leading member of the Klan, at the same time he access language he believes will exempt him from critique from women.
His cognitive dissonance surrounding his sense of inadequacy that has caused him to invest in the fantasy black man and racial passing to over come his fear of women (the thread about black women in the interview came directly after a discussion about how Mayer goes home and fantasizes about women rather than engages real ones) also allows him to openly insult actual black women he says he’d be “willing to sleep with”:
I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”
For me this, not the use of the “n word” earlier in the interview, is the most offensive part of Mayer’s “I’m just a black dude” diatribe. He is so at ease in his cis white male heterosexual privilege that he actually rates the beauty of black women after saying his “dick is David Duke.” Rating black women is offensive enough, rating them on a scale of how much they turn white guys on is a whole new level of racist misogyny I would not have imagined seeing in public media. Thus Hilary, the actress playing her completely erased, is attractive because “every white dude loved [her]” not because the black actress playing Hilary was attractive in any way.
Worse, Mayer quickly moves from rating black women’s beauty to reinserting his racialized colonial fantasies onto the black female body. Thus Kerry Washington as subject is transformed into sexual object in Mayer’s interview. She moves from articulate black female actress to white male fantasy [black] whore in which her sole expression is about whose “dick she has sucked.” And Mayer is quick to racialize his sexist reinterpretation of her by adding “What we [white men or himself] weren’t talking about that.” So that it is not his fantasy of her that is operating in this quote but rather her “overwhelming black licentiousness” that inserts inappropriate sexual banter into an otherwise “civilized” conversation. And this Mayer tells us is what turns him on about her, ie his ability to project readily available wanton sexual degradation on to her for his pleasure while ultimately distancing himself from the desire to be with her.
Like so many other supremacists before him, Mayer’s David Duke penis that points decidedly to the “purity” of white women, apparently finds itself walking into the backhouse like slave masters of old. Except what Mayer, and his fellow compatriots in this post, do not seem to understand is that fantasy time is over. While racism and sexism continue to make black women vulnerable to assault, neither Mayer nor Blagojevich will ever attract a willing black woman with their narratives of white victimhood and misogyny. The ease with which they claim to be disempowered while exerting power over black women speaks to the conflation of sexism and racism bound tightly by white privileged access to the black female body that in the case of Mayer’s fantasies are wholly impossible. And it is my opinion that he likens his penis to a violent white supremacist for this reason and this reason alone; he knows he can’t get any from a black woman so his response is to say on the one hand he doesn’t want any and on the other he is willing to access race based violence to mask his anger at being shut out. He imagines himself as a black man not only to minimize racism and posit himself as the new victim but also to justify his violent desires for black women, writing that violence on to the black male body as assuredly as Birth of a Nation.
And for those who are confused about how we move from racism to racialized sexism to sexism, Mayer is happy to help you out. Not only does he try to cover his offensive sexist demeaning of Washington by insulting white women with his “white-girl crazy” comment, as if insulting one group of women will mask having already insulted women but he masks another dig at women’s sexuality as praise only moments later. Thus just moments after insulting black women, he goes on to say that women have more power than men:
I feel like women are getting their comeuppance against men now. I hear about man-whores more than I hear about whores. When women are whorish, they’re owning their sexuality. When men are whorish, they’re disgusting beasts. I think they’re paying us back for a double standard that’s lasted for a hundred years.
Once again mixing misogyny with pseudo-third wave feminism, Mayer thinks his relegation of black women to “whores” is somehow compatable with his claims that women’s sexuality is centered and empowered vis-a-vis men’s in our society. It seems like many pseudo-feminist men, Mayer thinks that the few gains women have made erase the continued discipline and punishment of women for expressing their sexuality, from his own distancing in his discussion of Kerry Washington to the actual rape, beating, and murder of women every day in this country for working in the sex industry, daring to go to frat parties, or even daring to serve in the military, to name just a few obvious places. Moreover while his sexism is indiscriminate, he, like many others, mixes it with racial expectations that color (pun intended) they way he mobilizes his misogyny. Understanding this is the first step to building a feminist movement that address violence and misogyny against ALL women by recognizing that we are all targets and we experience that targeting differently. In Mayer’s world that means black women fantasy about getting him off while white women break his heart b/c they are “crazy.” The only constant here is Mayer and his obvious hatred of women in the face of his sense of sexual inadequacy.
Mayer’s ability to separate out his racism from his sexism has also led to him issuing an apology for the use of the “n-word” in his interview but not for his flagrant sexism, racialized or otherwise, throughout this interview nor how his own feelings of male inadequacy played out in his racial fantasies of both black men and women. And I for one believe the ease with which he makes these distinctions and gave these answers speaks to a larger problem amongst white men that is partially exposed by the other examples in this post and yet remains unaddressed by most of us.
The sad fact is that in post-racial, aka still racist, N. America the only thing that seems to have changed is the ease with which white men discuss their racial fantasies in public spaces. They seem to believe that having a “played the race card” all the way into the White House, black people have no more cards left to play and the realities of racial antagonism can thus shine bright in the light of day. If anything positive can be found here, it is that with each passing comment white men on the Left are exposing the ways in which white cis male masculinity is intimately tied to race and racism, sexuality, sexism and racialized sexism. The exposure of these connections should renew a discussion amongst feminists about how white male power and white male heterosexual fantasty play into specific types of oppression of different women and ultimately predetermine certain expressions of both masculinity and sexuality that disempower all of us.
(Note: I say white male heterosexual power here because I am talking specifically about heterosexuality in this post, and I have not qualified that with the precursor “cis” even though all of the men quoted are because I know white trans men who are guilty of these same fantasies about masculinity and desire; but I wanted to point out that white gay men are not exempt from engaging in black face, fantasies of blackness, or the intersections of misogyny and blackness as evidenced by the popularity of MS. Shirley Q Liquor, a white male performer who makes his living portraying the made-up character who is an addicted, uneducated, single mother of 19 children none of whom have the same father. The investment in whiteness embedded in this character is no less excepted than the fantasies listed above and considered no less damning for public figures seen with him, as you can see from the pic below where the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast openly hangs out and laughs with him at a club:
Similar black face can be found amongst white women or through the capitulation of white women; from the fantasies of being Foxy Brown common amongst so-called white feminists to the girls who dance along in the Clemson photo above as either “hood rats” or “white female victims of black male brutality”. In both of the latter cases their gender helps anchor the linking of heteropatriarchy with white supremacy through gendered enactment. While this is related to Mayer’s fantasies, this post is not about them today. And as far as I know, there has not been a recent onslaught of white women openly discussing their “blackness” and their fantasies regarding it. If I’m wrong on that please let me know and leave a cite in the comments section.)
- “70s pimp outfit” costume
- Costume sold at Halloween Adventures under the title “Freak black wig”
- Ted Danson in blackface at Whoopi Goldberg roast, source on photo; Danson thought he’d get away with it b/c he was dating Whoopie at the time and she reportedly signed off on it
- “Living the Dream Party” held at Clemson University the day before Martin Luther King’s Birthday 2007
- “Three White Men and a Black Woman (The Rape of The Negress)” by Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1924)
- candid photo of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast with Charles Knipp in black face comes from Black Super Woman; in the same post she points out that criticism of his performance by a black lesbian led to death threats against her