Friday, December 06, 2002

I really hate to disagree with Aaron McGruder about anything. His voice is so important, and he's usually so right on that I wonder if I'm not the one having the brain freeze on those rare occasions when I think he's on the wrong tack.

A couple of weeks ago he ran a series that started off with harshing on Winona Ryder, suggesting that the reason she got off with a slap on the wrist was because she was white. I wish I could find a copy of it online, but anyway, I'm down with that one. The whole week was funny. But in one of the later strips in the series McGruder suggested--I'm paraphrasing--that Eminem was more popular than other rappers because he was white, and I found myself thinking, " Eminem is popular *despite* the fact that he's white."

To begin with, I think any white rapper is damned from the outset thanks to Vanilla Ice. I wonder how many times Eminem heard, "Ah, he's just another Ice, Ice Baby." White rappers aren't cool, they're dorky. White people don't want to hear other white people rap.

What I really think, however, is that when you say Eminem is palatable because he's white, you really leave out a lot of the story. Over the past couple months I've been doing a lot of thinking about white privilege because it's not actually all that visible in the lives of my students. I know if one of my students was up against a student of color for a job here in southern Indiana, and they had equal education and qualifications, the white kid would get the job. That seems clear. But the thing is, I don't think these kids will ever be in the position to experience the privileges of their race. They're never even going to be offered an interview, much less a job. Watching them, I have to wonder which plays a larger role in their lives: race or class?

I am teaching a large group of young men, essentially disenfranchised, essentially powerless. They all live with their parents, they have jobs stocking grocery shelves, they all have payments they can't afford to make for their pickup trucks. One of my students missed class the other day because he was home watching his sister's baby--he still lives at home, his sister lives at home. I'm sure none of my students have ever voted or will ever vote. I'm not even certain they registered for the selective service, although surely someone chased them down and made them do it.

I guess the point is, I often wonder if they will ever have the chance to be "rewarded" for their race, if they will ever pull themselves out of their present circumstances far enough to even have the possibility for profiting from their white male-ness. I have a student who can't read. Or, if he can read, it's at a very low level. Unless some miracle happens, he is going to live out the rest of his days out in the county, sitting in front of the television, feeling angry and ripped off and not even know why. He probably doesn't even know he's supposed to be privileged, he just know life sucks and he can't get a job.

Okay, back to the point about Eminem--all of my young, male students like him, they were completely psyched to go see Eight-Mile when it opened, and they're always trying to watch his videos and stuff online. And I've been listening to them talk about the movie and the music, and it just strikes me that they identify with the image that Eminem projects--an angry, disillusioned, white boy who grew up in a single-wide trailer in the wrong part of town, whose family sucked and always will suck, and who only managed to save himself from repeating his family history because he rapped his way out of Detroit.

It's all an act, I think, but Eminem has a fantastic talent for expressing anger. In his "Cleaning out My Closet" single, there are a couple of lines addressed to his mother, ("Wasn't it the reason you made that CD for me, Ma? So you could try to justify the way you treated me, Ma?"), and it is absolutely stunning how much bitterness he manages to squeeze into the one-syllable word, "Ma." And I'm watching my students watch him, and I compare the way I listen to an Eminem song and the way they listen to the same song, and I suddenly wish our school had metal detectors at the front gate.

West coast/East coast rappers say nothing to a poor boy from out in the county who is being promised everything via DirectTV but can't seem to actually get his hands on it in real life. Eminem, on the other hand, knows all about it. So, I guess I think that, yes, Eminem's success is because he's white, but not in the way that Aaron McGruder was suggesting.

Okay, it sounds like I want my student to all grow up and realize that they can live the good life because they're one step ahead because they're white and they should take advantage of it. But I'm not. I'm just a little confused as to how great a role class plays in the formulation of a power hierarchy. When does race overtake class and offer power? When does class erode race and disintegrate power?

What I really think, though, is just that I want my students to start doing their homework so I can quit worrying about them being unable to get a job so they can feed their kids and put a decent roof over their heads.

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