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“Transracial” Pop Culture

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Michiko Kakutani reviews Leon E. Wynter’s American Skin:

    Anyone who’s been watching television the last couple of years will be familiar with what Leon E. Wynter calls “the browning of mainstream commercial culture” in America. It’s not just the high profile of black superstars like Michael Jordan and Oprah, and mixed-race celebrities like Tiger Woods (and the “American Idol” runner-up Justin Guarini). It’s ads like the 2000 Budweiser “Whassup?!” commercials, featuring four little-known black men talking black street talk, and the 1999 Pepsi ad starring a little white girl who can channel Aretha Franklin. It’s Brandy playing Cinderella (with Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother) in Disney’s 1997 television remake, and Eddie Murphy succeeding Rex Harrison in the role of Doctor Dolittle. It’s black women going blond, and white women wearing dreadlocks, and suburban kids grooving to hip-hop.

    ….”There’s been a radical shift in the place of race and ethnicity in American commercial culture since the late 1970’s,” he writes. “Near revolutionary developments in advertising, media, marketing, technology and global trade have in the last two decades of the 20th century nearly obliterated walls that have stood for generations between nonwhites and the image of the American dream. The mainstream, heretofore synonymous with what is considered average for whites, is now equally defined by the preferences, presence and perspectives of people of color.

    “The much maligned melting pot, into which generations of European American identities are said to have dissolved,” he continues, “is bubbling again, but on a higher flame; this time whiteness itself is finally being dissolved into a larger identity that includes blacks, Hispanics and Asians.”

    ….But with Michael Jackson’s mega-hit 1983 album, “Thriller,” Mr. Wynter argues, the equation irrevocably changed, and by the end of the 80’s “color was weaving through music, sports, television, news media and literature in a bold band that had never been seen before.” The color line in the Miss America contest was broken four times in one decade. The nonwhite all-American sports icon became a marketing focal point for the National Basketball Association and the Olympics, and advertisers began to realize that “transracial sells.”

    Products that aspire to be seen as “all-American” — from Coke to Chevrolet — are now “compelled to depict a racially diverse image,” says Mr. Wynter, while a growing number of large companies (like Cisco, which has purveyed insistently multicultural imagery in its television commercials) “are browning their corporate images in order to sell themselves to the broad public, to potential investors, employees and voters.” “The transracial vision,” Mr. Wynter writes, “has acquired an aspirational value in the broad market not because it’s politically correct but because it’s how America wants to see itself: as a unified multiracial society.”

    ….”I have never claimed that transracial pop culture represents a trend toward political racial equality,” he writes at the end of the book. “But it has undeniably leveled the playing field in terms of cultural value judgments. Simply put, nonwhite cultural tropes in the mainstream and their nonwhite practitioners cannot easily be put down or marginalized on the basis of race, because their appeal is too broad. Moreover, I think, at a certain level it’s hard to deny that as the trend in pop culture is self-sustaining, it must eventually be replicated in society itself.”

I have no particular disagreement with this assessment, but I am concerned that white and black America seem to often glom on to the worst and not the best of each other’s culture: some of the black underclass has borrowed a radical materialism without the underlying work ethic that has made it go; and white America has often adopted the most cliched surface signatures of black culture without comprehending the soul nor the struggle that supports them.

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