Blog Post

Poor Little White Boy: White Exceptionalism and the Desire for Difference

Fetishism is alive and kickin’. Last year, the film Avatar recycled stereotypical images of the Native American as the “noble savage”, presumably hoping that nobody would notice that the film was simply an adult version of Pocahantas (just because you made the Native Americans blue doesn’t make it any less racist). But on a flight to a conference last week, I encountered what might be the strangest example of fetishism yet. It came in the form of a father, and he was worried about his son.

On a recent flight to San Antonio, I began talking to the middle-aged white businessman (let’s call him Jim) sitting next to me. After the exchange of the usual pleasantries, our conversation turned towards his son, who happened to be my age and a prospective graduate student. Jim mentioned that sometimes his son got “down on himself”. When I expressed concern about this, Jim began to explain to me how his son’s problems stemmed from the fact that affirmative action tells white boys that they are “second-class citizens”. He urged me to think about the psychological impact that this was going to have on a generation of white men unfairly “punished” for being “the only non-minority”. What ensued was a genuinely fascinating conversation about reverse discrimination and what I am going to call “white exceptionalism”—the idea that white men occupy a unique position, wholly set apart from other groups by their role as the sacrificial lambs necessary to atone for America’s racist past (completely disavowing its racist present, incidentally). Clearly, White exceptionalism is related to American exceptionalism. Just as American exceptionalism idealizes America as emerging wholly untainted by the original, “European” sins of imperialism, military conquest and class domination, White exceptionalism denies that white men have inherited measurable, concrete advantages from centuries of institutionalized white supremacy. What is most striking about White exceptionalism, however, is its construction of racism as a historical pattern rather than a contemporary structure. Last spring, a couple of reports came out on the racial and gender wealth gaps, as you can see from this great report from Democracy Now:

These studies are significant because they emphasize the enduring impact of racism and sexism. Although reverse discrimination discourses seek to construct affirmative action policies as putative measures against white men, the concrete economic reality is that white men benefit from the existing formations of power in our society.


So why does there seem to be so much anxiety around white masculinity? The answer, I would suggest, might very well lie in the perennial fetishism of people of color. In this instance, I wonder whether we might be able to understand the anxieties of some white men as an expression of a desire for the experience of marginalization and difference. I can’t think of a better cultural expression of this than Green Day’s “Minority.” Take a listen:


Here, white frontman Billy Joel Armstrong articulates a yearning for the type of, for lack of a better term, “special-ness” that he associates with minorities. One of the interesting things about this song is the way that Billy Joel aligns the moral authority to resist the dominant culture with a minority identity. It’s a troubling song, but I think it also highlights an interesting discourse that does merit further consideration. Perhaps I shall revisit Green Day in a later post…


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