An Ode To—And A Complaint About–“White Boy Realness”

By Andrea Plaid

Charlie Hunnam, Actor/Underwear Whisperer

Charlie Hunnam, Actor/Underwear Whisperer

Latest report from my Interracial Mating/Dating Outpost: I’m catching up on my Sons of Anarchy watching—I’m near the end of Season 5–which was interrupted by my Superstorm Sandy displacement. Holding the center of this biker Hamlet production is Charlie Hunnam’s Jax (left), swaggering through this pile-on of a drama in his more convoluted and murderous attempts to aright the legacy of his father, the late John Teller, who wanted to get the Sons of Anarchy bike club out of the darkness of their lucrative illegal trades and into the marvelous light of some utopian, perhaps off-the-grid community.

Yeah, Sons is what that the critics say—great drama and all that. But I’m still looking at Jax’s swagger and some of the responses to it from Black women on Twitter.

Some of these sistahs—some of whom I admire for their brilliant takes on race, gender, class, and pop culture—I would consider “race women”: they love Black folks hard and sturdy, even as they lovingly critique The Community. And they profess to love the brothas hard, as comrades in the struggle and as companions, whether for the night or a lifetime of them. But when Jax saunters across the screen, those same sistas giddily tweet that their panties fly off.

And it’s not just Jax that “does it to them.” He’s the latest—albeit fictional—manifestation of “White Boy Realness (WBR).”

We could argue that Elvis Presley started this lineage of pop-cultural masculinity, with his swiveling hips and pouting mouth and carrying notes like he just left that Black Pentacostal church service before he carved them into vinyl. (And, according to rock-n-roll history, that was an intentional move to have the sounds of “black music coming out of a white mouth.”) But Elvis took on that “King Of Rock-n-Roll,” with a barely a whisper about his influences—and white rock critics stayed removing that history—so he gets side-eye from some African American folks and a slowly recalibrated love from white ones as time passes and the conversations about the tangled racial roots of rock become more and more prevalent. If there were Black women who wanted to get with Elvis in their fantasies or in reality, they kept that desire rather quiet, especially since his ascendency happened during the (last) days of de jure segregation in the US, roughly around the time of Brown v. Board of Education and about a decade before Loving v. Virginia—a time in which quite a bit of sexual contact between Black women and White men was violently nonconsensual or commercial. (TRIGGER WARNING: Source)

A couple of decades later from Elvis exploding on the pop-culture scene, as US society uncomfortably settled into post-legal segregation lives, White men still worked at the “realness,” in terms of continuing to emulate the soulful vocals of R&B and gospel. One White dude who got it right was—and still does to this day is—blue-eyed soul singer and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald.

And another major White male soul singer staple on R&B stations was Gino Vanelli, most famous for his ballad “I Just Wanna Stop” and the more side-eyeing “Mama Coco.

Then the 80s came in, and as younger generations came into their hormonal awakening with the videos accompanying the British soul of The Blow Monkey’s “Digging Your Scene,” Boy George and Culture Club, and George Michael and WHAM! And this when Philly soulsters Hall & Oates stayed and stayed and stayed on the charts, even as their videos displayed, as SBF co-founder Tami Winfrey Harris recalled, “no swag to speak of” even for the “legitimate Philly soul cred.”

I think I can safely say that the fin de siècle brought out the full-on White Boy Realness. We’re going to skip over Vanilla Ice, who was discredited as a poser. We got Color Me Badd, from which emerged R&B singer Jon B, whose post-Color Me Badd career keeps him loved with 90s soul fans, especially the ladies. And there’s the boy band New Kids on the Block, along with the boy bands after them Backstreet Boys and N’Sync and the next of these WBR fellas, Memphis, TN-born and Southern-reared Justin Timberlake, he of the stay-questionable “Senorita” and contested status with some African Americans, partly due to his dodging responsibility regarding Janet Jackson and “Nipplegate.”

Most importantly, we got the working–class Dorchester, MA strut of Marky Mark, brother to Donnie Wahlberg from the above-mentioned New Kids On The Bock and whose Funky Bunch and pop rap “Good Vibrations” promised great dancing, better abs, a crew to shake our asses with, and some lip-licking chain-link fence sex for us sistahs–unlike Eminem, who grasped, as Tami astutely pointed out, the machismo of Black hip-hop masculinity without the sex appeal.

And it’s fascinating that Marky Mark is still a touchstone for the White Boy Realness persona, most lately with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, specifically at the 2:13 mark. And though Gordon-Levitt himself doesn’t work that image, even he earns some jaw-dropping awe from a member of the Roots when he lets loose a rippingly fun lip-sync of Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass,” perhaps due to the years of fusion of hip-hop and rap into folks’ consciousness and musical tastes (just skip to 8:25, and then check out the reaction at 8:49).

So, what is it with these particular real and fictional White guys, who do and don’t cross-reference with such lists as “10 White Men Black Women Go Crazy Over” and the needs to be weeded-out-for-repeats list “White Men That Can Get It” and even various Famous White Men Who Love/Are Partnered with Black Women lists, including the Baller Alert list that Tami critiqued on SBF? Is it that, though the (cis) man-loving Black women wouldn’t think of “bringing a White man home” in real life, in their fantasies Jax and nem could pass the Family Reunion Test, that these men carry themselves like they could hang with Nana and The Aunties and The Cousins, wouldn’t embarrass themselves and their fantasy Black companions while dancing, not ask “what’s that drippy dark green leafy stuff in that pot?,” and if they’re naughty enough, sneak off from the event to get in a good sheet-shaking, which White men are stereotyped to not do better than Black men?

That’s it exactly, Tami said. “Black masculinity is still deified in our community, and Black women are encouraged to rep for strong black love. But Black women who claim to not be attracted to white men love these guys.”  And what’s equally interesting that the quite a few of the dudes who have all of this swagger aren’t partnered with Black women, either on or off-screen. If anything, they married or partnered within their race.

But more critically, is there an “everything but the burden” quality about this White Boy Realness?

“It seems as if,” Tami said, ”adapting some markers of blackness enhance a white man’s masculinity, perhaps owing to the idea that black men are ‘extra male’ (aggressive, hypersexual, “animal,” etc.). Whiteness tempers those things and makes them acceptable.” Which adds a context to what actor Ryan Phillippe tweeted out back in May about White guys needing to get “some flavor.”

And though some may argue that, even with that “everything but the burden” cast to White Boy Realness—that “realness” as perceived as the voice of surviving the soul-wearying hardships of racism-induced poverty and/or the stance and saunter of staying cool or projecting a hardened image of under the kill-or-be-killed ethos of “the streets” that is associated with working-class and poor Black men and spread to all Black men–there’s also the cliché of “imitation is the best form of flattery” in a culture in which White straight men are too often framed—and, frankly, frame themselves—as, if not being down with other groups of folks who form the US polity, then actively seeking to destroy the earned rights of marginalized groups living here. (See: the GOP.) But that very same “emulateable cool” flavoring is mimicking a stereotype that damages too many Black men because it narrows how they move through their socially formative and personal lives, like in suburban junior high and high schools, even as they gain a certain cache precisely of that stereotype in those settings.

“There is flavor, but then there is the idea that ‘real’ black men possess this swaggering masculinity,” Tami remarked. “And that idea is at the root of so many problems in our community, including that it marginalizes lots of gay men and guys who are more Carlton Banks than Will Smith.

“It’s tricky,” Tami continued. “How do we celebrate things like President Obama’s unique walk that many of us recognize as having ‘black flavor’? It tickles me every time I see him ‘pimpin’’ to Air Force One. But how do we also make so that we don’t reinforce the message that that performance of black masculinity is all that black masculinity is about? And that white men can’t steal the walk as a way to take on the perceived positive qualities of black masculinity? And that every black boy or man is not naturally endowed with that walk?”

And that stereotyping cool isn’t completely conferred to Black femininity, grounded (and grinding) in the Jezebel and Sapphire tropes and their offspring, The Strong Black Woman. Black femininity is caricatured as the apex of anti-femininity, as “loud,” “aggressive,” and debasing when a White woman attempts to emulate it for a certain “hip quotient” in larger popular culture (see: Miley Cyrus). However, some gay White men, among other marginalized folks, ascribe to the very same caricatures–getting in touch with their “inner sassy Black woman”–as a way to move through the world. In the already mentioned Baller Alert post, a White male billionaire is quoted as allegedly saying Black women are for “grown men,” which also spins on the same mischaracterizing axes.

But I also think that whereas Cyrus is indeed demonized by both Black folks and the larger society for her trying to costume herself in some exaggerated notions of what Black women are about, I think she—along with Vanilla Ice—are demonized for doing Blackness wrong, according to some of us African Americans. They carry themselves, whether intentionally or when it’s found out eventually, as something that they crafted for cred, not as a lived mode of casting their lot with Black folks. In other words, Cyrus and Vanilla Ice fail at the Family Reunion Test, whereas Jax, Jon B, the late Teen Marie, and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt and would be welcomed to get a plate of greens and potato salad, chat with Nana, and dance with The Cousins—if only in some of our fantasies.

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