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Consider the Wigger

November 30, 2010

The wigger is the last honest white man in America.  I say this not because I am about to argue that inauthenticity is the only remaining form of authenticity.  Nor I do not want to romanticize false consciousness.  There is enough of that to buckle all the structural beams of America.  I need simply to inspect the deep roots of the affection I have felt for every genuine wigger I’ve ever met.

The word is a portmanteau of white and nigger.  A wigger is thus a young white man who adopts the stereotyped style, tastes, and mannerisms of hip-hop culture, which is to say, a culture that belongs to poor black youth.  Most young white people do this occasionally by listening to rap or dropping some lingo for humorous effect.  The wigger does it all the time and with utter, youthful seriousness.

As a first move, separate wiggers from the various impersonators and appropriators of black culture, many of them all too prominent.  Al Jolson was a paradigmatic impersonator, the Rolling Stones are appropriators.  Wiggers, though, are not doing it to entertain anyone, least of all themselves.  Impersonation and appropriation both imply a degree of creative mixing.  Wiggers are not creative.  They are not artists.  They aim for a straightforward reduplication, from which they have nothing to gain economically, and probably much to lose.  Impersonators and appropriators, if they last, win fans.  Wiggers are clowns derided and/or laughed at by serious-minded people both black and white.  Or rather, they would be clowns, if only they were in the joke.

That wiggers are a joke says a great deal.  There are few cultural types who are so inherently comical.  A small part of the humor is simply that anything exaggerated enough becomes funny and white people, in order to come off as culturally black, necessarily resort to exaggeration, often without much skill.  But I believe the bulk of it comes from the fact that the wigger is trying, impossibly, to occupy a nonexistent piece of cultural territory, to stand on thin air.  There are in modern day America cultural roles that simply do not make sense for white people to play.  They do not tally, except as comedy or taboo.

Race in America has gone from a political and economic to a cultural matter.  We talk about race by talking about culture.  By  some measures the country is highly integrated.  At the level of consumption, white audiences are eager to buy the products of black artists.  But this is cultural integration only in a superficial sense, no matter how much those white audiences come to appreciate the works of their black countrymen.  Cultural appreciation can be done at home in one’s spare time.  There is no risk here.  None at all. Culture is about more than art and artifacts, it is about the spirit that expresses itself through them.  Facing that spirit is a more an order more demanding by far than simply buying records or offering well-placed sympathy and applause.  Is there really no deeper form of spiritual miscegenation that we might attempt?  The wigger is the last white soldier for this cause.

That this function has fallen to someone like the typical wigger speaks of much a wider failure.  When the issue of race is culturalized, it is no more possible to participate deeply in the culture of others than it is to change one’s race.  Education makes us respect cultural differences, but it also makes us over-cautious.  We are willing to sample others’ culture but only behind layer of playful unease, which is to say, not very seriously and at a certain distance.

I also want to attempt an argument that the gap, of which the wigger is symptomatic, between spiritual white America and spiritual black America is partly due to the damaged condition of hip-hop culture, which is continuous with the damaged condition of America as a whole.  I do not mean for second to deny the humanity or subtlety or creativity of black artists.  What I have in mind is the complex relation that rappers have to the system that saddles them with poverty and hardship.  The near-universal narrative in rap is struggle against horrific conditions to achieve to material wealth.  Poverty is both the obstacle and the means to success; it hardens and equips them, usually painfully.  The ethos imparted is the awesome power of the almighty dollar.  If it does not make sense for a white man to inhabit black culture, this may be because there is less and less of an unsuppressed spirit there to be inhabited.

For a long time now the standard magazine-article line about rappers has been that they are actually beholden to the white middle class.  Their paychecks are signed by white teenagers in search of something exotic.  But a culture that is all about the money cannot be appropriated.  It is immune to the artistic depletion of popular success because the stated aim all along is to accumulate wealth.  In this sense, the kinship between rappers and prostitutes runs deep.  The image of the modern rapper is that of someone who, however conflicted, is fully plugged in to and on some level in love with the unjust capitalism that once oppressed him and now co-opts the art that he produces.  Success, for all that it is celebrated, becomes its own kind of tragedy.

From top to bottom, the conditions that inform rap are inherently humiliating, all the more so when juxtaposed with prosperity, yet the rapper achieves mastery over these conditions by surviving to tell about them.  Authenticity and street credibility are so important because, without them, you simply have other people’s humiliation.  Your history does not earn you the right to celebrate poverty and lust after wealth in the way of people who have been, in essence, forced into it.  And in our segregated country, you do not acquire that history without being black.

I think we are living in a cultural moment where it is increasingly hard for young people of all classes to fully identify with capitalist culture except in a roundabout way.  The youth of the nation are taught the defects of capitalism and yet have little hope and less opportunity of making any but marginal improvements.  The position of rappers—having fully paid for their greed morally and spiritually —is therefore an attractive one.  It explains in some measure why facile, conventional youth slip in and out of hip-hop idioms, and also why some more adventurous souls become wiggers.  But I find in wiggers, foolish though they may be, also a mad, full-speed attempt to upset some of the hardened racial divisions in this country.


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