Kimberly Chabot Davis is an associate professor of English at Bridgewater State University. She answered some questions about her book Beyond the White Negro: Empathy and Anti-Racist Reading.
Q: Where did the term “White Negro” originate?
Kimberly Chabot Davis: Since the late 19th century, the term “White Negro” has been associated with bohemian whites who violate codes of white respectability. In the 1920s through the 1960s, the term referred to white Americans who claimed an affiliation with African American culture, particularly jazz. Most famously, Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” described Beat-generation hipsters who idealized black masculinity as virile, wild, and anti-establishment, the opposite of “square.” More recently, hip-hop culture has attracted legions of white fans and imitators, so-called “wiggers” who are often likened to Mailer’s jazz hipsters. Many white negroes have been rightly accused of harboring romanticized stereotypes about blackness. While I address the problems of mimicry and romanticization, my book also examines the ways that present-day white engagement with African American culture may lead to the development of anti-racist and empathetic attitudes. The “beyond” of my title signifies the temporal space of the 21st century and also the evolution of whiteness in our contemporary moment.
Q: How prevalent is the idea that white consumption of black culture is a form of theft? Do you agree with this assumption?
Davis: Scholarly and popular narratives about the politics of racial crossover have largely treated white consumption of black culture as an appropriation, a kind of theft or violation. Black feminist bell hooks calls it “eating the other.” Greg Tate’s book, Everything but the Burden: What White People Take from Black Culture, examines white theft of blackness but discounts the possibility that whites may be moved to take up “the burden” of fighting against racism. Eric Lott theorizes that blackface minstrelsy was a practice that involved both theft and love of African American culture. Yet he is largely interested in love as a variant of theft, a prurient desire for all that blackness represents. In common parlance, however, “love” is often understood as connoting respect, understanding, admiration, and investment in another’s well-being. My book sheds light on the relatively unexamined complexities of “identificatory love” across racial boundaries. Although whites continue to appropriate black culture for their own needs and desires, I argue against a too-hasty dismissal of white consumption of black cultural texts as a potential conduit for social change. Countering the “theft” assumption, I devote a chapter to Danny Hoch and Adam Mansbach, two white writers and artists whose creative engagement with hip-hop has led them to become radical voices for social justice.
Q: How do you define empathy? How do the reactions of those who empathetically engage with African American culture differ from those who do not?
Davis: I define empathy as a sharing of perspective, identifying with the emotions and experiences of others, and walking in another person’s shoes or seeing through another’s eyes. Some critics view empathy or sympathy as colonizing emotions that result in complacent self-satisfaction, but I am most interested in radical forms of cross-racial empathy in which whites confront their own participation in systems of privilege that disadvantage African Americans. In my study of white readers, film viewers, and hip-hop fans, I encountered varying degrees of empathy as well as its failure. The blatant failures of empathy involved stereotyping, blaming the victim, minimizing or ignoring the existence of institutional racism, and failing to recognize the humanity and individuality of African American people. Some white consumers voiced sympathy for African Americans, but lacked the experience of discomfort or self-alienation that empathy ought to produce. They expressed pity for black suffering but never considered their own complicity in systems of inequality. They identified with black stories on the basis of shared humanity but ignored the particularity of black experience. Engaging with black culture thus did not move or challenge them in any significant way. In contrast to these failed or weak examples of empathy, the most empathetic white audiences experienced a perspective shift by being exposed to African American ways of seeing and interpreting the world, including racist structures of power. And rather than experiencing pity for black others, they developed a profound respect for African American resiliency, wisdom, creativity, and strength.
Q: You find ethnographic data in unexpected places, namely book clubs and college classrooms. What did your study of book clubs reveal about how whites engage with African American literary culture?
Davis: A lot of critical attention has been given to white fans of African American music, but surprisingly little to how whites engage with black literature or film. My study of book clubs— Oprah Winfrey’s televised Book Club as well as 21 private book clubs in the Boston metro area—reveals a wide range of ethnographic data regarding cross-racial empathy and the relationship between reading and politicization. I uncovered a spectrum of responses, including failures of empathy, sympathetic identification that erases differences, and more self-reflexive kinds of empathy that involve perspectival shifts and “taking up the burden” of anti-racist work. Although reading is often viewed as a private-sphere activity with little purchase on the political sphere, I argue that book club discussions enabled awareness and understanding of public debates about racial issues, both nationally and locally. For many of these book clubs, reading African American literature worked both to catalyze and sustain their progressive identities and political commitment to anti-racism.
Q: As a teacher of African American and ethnic studies, do you propose any ways to improve cross-racial empathy among white students?
Davis: In the final chapter of the book, I turn to the ethnographic site of my own classrooms, examining student responses to Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. Lee’s film scrutinizes the causes of race riots by exposing the economic disenfranchisement of the black urban poor. Yet the majority of the white students in my introductory-level film courses refused empathy for its African American characters and evaluated the events by employing neoliberal and racist discourses that blame the victim. I examine how white students’ responses to Do the Right Thing became increasingly empathetic when Lee’s film was viewed in ethnic studies courses, where students were exposed to numerous African American texts and gained a multi-voiced, interdisciplinary context for understanding black history, culture, and lived realities. Empathy for black characters was also improved when students were introduced to critical whiteness studies. With the tools to recognize white privilege, students were able to think critically about their own responses and biases, thus allowing them to see themselves through black eyes. As the recent backlash about the Ferguson, Missouri protests against police brutality has revealed, blindness to power and to institutional racism often prevents white people from engaging empathetically with African American and other nonwhite people and cultures. Yet such roadblocks are not insurmountable. These classroom case studies reveal that white people’s non-empathetic responses were open to change once they were repeatedly exposed to African American insights and an oppositional lens that allowed them to view white power and their own values critically.