Some years ago, I was trying to count the number of African-American students in my son’s class. “Let me see…” I said. “There’s you and A and B and C…” C’s not black, he said. I was surprised. I knew C, her parents and her grandparents; by most societal measures, they would be thought of as black. “Why do you say that?” She hangs out with the white kids. “And you don’t? What about your three best friends, X, Y and Z?” They’re black. “All three of them are quite blond! What makes them black?” They hang out with me. “So why aren’t you white for hanging out with them, like C?” Because white kids go to Starbucks and order light Frappuccinos. “I go to Starbucks!” And you’re white. That’s why I don’t hang out with you. “But you go to Starbucks!” Only twice, and then I ordered a dark chocolate mocha latte.
My son was joshing, but it made me think. I was organizing his classmates by some combination of phenotype, family history and culture. My interest in keeping such a tally was motivated by a wish that my son not be tokenized. Being “the only one” sparks my own anxieties about having grown up as the lone “colored” kid throughout elementary school. In high school there were a few more dark dots in the mix, which was better because those in the majority couldn’t generalize about you quite so easily. And if they did generalize, at least you had someone to roll your eyes with at the absurdity of being lumped together. We fought for inclusiveness in a world that too often hoards life’s rewards by racial assignation.
My son’s tongue-in-cheek use of Starbucks-as-race is obviously a more malleable marker than skin color. It is a stereotype, but it was playful precisely because of its dependence on easy shape-shifting. Of course, even that kind of stereotyping is not without its risks: If his standard had been Nikes or talking like a rapper, it might have been a lot less funny–i.e., if his underlying references were really to fixed or negative assumptions about phenotype and class.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this because of the new season of Survivor. In an ostensible effort to increase nonwhite viewership, CBS has divided contestants for the million-dollar prize into “tribes” of “blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos.” Since it hasn’t aired as of this writing, let me limit my concern to the blathering of Jeff Probst, Survivor‘s host, who gushes about having “the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV.” Probst’s explanation for why one would then chop up the rainbow into color-coded combat units is–“ethnic pride.” Not that he’d know: Probst identifies as “a white guy from Wichita” and “white people are mutts…we don’t have any ethnicity we hold on to.” (My condolences, ye tribes of wincing Wichitans.) Indeed, Probst was surprised to learn that “Asian” includes Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. “When you start talking to a person from Asia, you realize–Wow! They have all different backgrounds!”
If CBS has to pander this disgracefully for ratings, at least it ought to serve up the kind of stereotypes whose banishment to Rarotonga all Americans, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, could come together and celebrate. For instance, I’d send a tribe of The Deservedly Lovelorn, led by rapper Flavor Flav (recruited away from his own reality show in which women compete for his affections). You may have seen him in People magazine dressed in pinstriped suit, spats, cane and top hat, large gold braces on his teeth, sitting upon a red velvet throne. He says he’s looking for a woman who has brains, won’t dominate him and if you made a batch of cookie dough and rolled her face in it, it would make some really nice face cookies. Since, if there is a God, his is a show doomed for rapid cancellation, Mr. Flav might soon be available for attempted Survival on an uninhabited island off the coast of New Zealand. And I have just the woman for him. She’s a student I had long ago–a white woman from South Africa who’d recently become a US citizen. According to her, that made her an African-American. Not only did she call herself an African-American, she decided she wanted to join the African-American student association, where she held forth on topics having little to do with the advancement of civil rights or public accommodation. It was cynical, but hey. She made fine face cookies.
I’d also send a tribe of The Together Makes It Hot Bloods, composed of those who meet Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s definition of the same: “I mean Cuban, Puerto Rican, they are all very hot. They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it.” Since the Governor’s handlers were quick to spin “the blood” as the metaphor, the trope, the bad translation, we are obliged to include in this group Paris Hilton, hot mestiza vixen–if in the purely literary sense. I’d tribalize her with Senator George Allen, who welcomed a dark-skinned American in his audience to the “real world of Virginia” by calling him macaca. Now the Senator might appear to be a stolid GOP chip-off-the-old-football-hero-dad, but Allen’s mother is… French. L’étranger, in case I have to spell it out. Allen speaks French fluently, and no one who speaks French has any doubt that macaca–literally, “monkey-boy”–is racist. But whether or not you believe Allen’s story that he didn’t know what it meant, let’s all just stop and think about the bigger picture here: Senator George Allen has hot French blood! Alas, Governor Schwarzenegger himself is not among the hot-blooded, however many steroids his tongue is on. Besides, we’ll need him over with the tribe of The Linguistically Challenged, including Americans Who Don’t Speak English (George W. Bush as tribal elder), Latinos Who Don’t Speak Hispanic and billions of sad Asians Who Don’t Speak Chinese.
Where does that leave the rest of us? For lack of a better option, you’ll find me on the curb outside an unplaceably generic Starbucks, hashing out the meaning of pumpkin spice latte with my commercially inflected, coolly cosmopolitan offspring. We’ll be laughing, but warily, negotiating the freedoms and pitfalls of a world so contingently ordered, with the ease of a grande house blend.