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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Blacks cooler than whites

One of the most common themes in American culture is how blacks are cooler than whites, and how blacks who act white are losers.

Educators bemoan the fact that in the inner city, kids who want to study are mocked for "acting white," and are thus discouraged. The idea of the "Oreo -- black on the outside but white on the inside" -- has long been held in contempt in the black community. And blacks whose political attitudes don't fall into line with tribal priorities have long been derided within the community as "Uncle Toms." (The most courageous black public figures today are probably Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, and Clarence Thomas; Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and our current President merely toe the party line.)

But this attitude isn't just found in the inner cities; it is reflected in the wider culture as well. Even on television,  blacks who act too white are mocked and ostracized. Urkel, the character played by Jaleel White on Family Matters, is the perfect example. He wore a cardigan and blue jeans pulled high, or a bow tie and suit. He was the manager of the basketball team rather than a player. And his voice was a squeaky parody of white voice. Much of that show focused on emphasizing on what a turkey he was.

The long-running show Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which starred Will Smith, had a similar theme. The designated turkey of the show was the character Carlton Banks, played by Alfonso Ribeiro. Banks spoke and dressed like a white person. He was laughed at by the other characters for being a fan of the Celtics (at the time the only majority white basketball team in the NBA). His favorite song was also "It's not Unusual" by Tom Jones. And at the end of each show he was always shown up by his street smart cousin from West Philadelphia, the "Fresh Prince" played by Will Smith.

The messages of these shows were very clear: if you act white, you're a loser.

(It's hard to imagine a TV show which regularly featured as the designated turkey a white guy who spoke, dressed, and acted like a black person, and who was constantly shown up as a fool by a character with more middle class white values.)

In the Eddy Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop, where Murphy played a streetwise Detroit detective, he made fun of a black cop on the Beverly Hills force for having a voice which sounded too white. It was a funny scene; the Beverly Hills cop did sound white, and his voice did seem to emanate from his upper chest rather than his stomach. But the message was unmistakable.

The theme of a cool black guy paired with a nerdy white guy is even more common. We see it in movies, in television, and even in commercials, with the most recent example being the Michael Jordan commercials for Hanes, where he has to put up with an overenthusiastic white basketball fan.

There may be some truth to this. Black people are higher on average in testosterone, which gives them a certain natural dominance. It has long been my impression that they're generally less inhibited -- so they tend to do better in situations where a certain flair is called for. And they tend to come from rougher backgrounds, on average, so they're less apt to be intimidated by situations those of us from more sheltered backgrounds are frightened by. Plus, unlike white people, they don't have to tippy toe around worrying about being accused of racism.

So, at a certain level, maybe black people are cooler. 

But given the self-destructive culture so endemic in the inner cities, the national media ought not to consistently mock blacks who are more willing to adopt white culture.

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