Friday, December 3, 2004

What's White Now

That is not the name of this article, but rather the name of the one I’ve been researching for the year-end double issue of Paper magazine. Contemporary whiteness is often hard to define, especially as Lenny Kravitz records and Hong Kong action movies seem to be such a stable foundation for it. However, my editors do not want excuses, but results, so I have to go to a lot of cocktail parties uptown. I feel I can talk about these issues here rather than in the magazine, because I have decided not to write the article. Mostly because I don’t like to do work.

For research purposes, my editor called in some favors and got me invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some successful professionals on the Upper East Side. It was to be a gold mine of whiteness, and I had my notebook ready. The host was the youngest partner at his bank, and the hostess was a supermodel who had just barely retired. They were wealthy, but not as wealthy as their guests, except me. Although I am ethnically white, I was there to represent the non-white perspective, by comparison.

I phoned up Kerry because I know she admires rich white people. I asked if she would be my date. I needed cover.

“Thanksgiving, Jack? You think I don’t have anything better to do on Thanksgiving than be your paid-for trophy at some job?”

“Kerry, you misunderstand: I’m doing this for you. The finest foods, the most sought-after liquors. If there aren’t drugs there, I will buy you some afterwards. Also, the people there are probably looking for a bright young thing to whom they could entrust their commodities trades. If you wear that stretchy black dress, you will get commissions. This is going to be the only time when I ask you to go on a date where you will meet better men than me. Wear the black dress. This is my gift to you.”

Eventually she was persuaded by the picture I painted. She knew she couldn’t let this opportunity slip by, even if it meant being on her family’s holiday shit list. If nothing else worked out, I wanted to see her in that dress. I picked her up in a yellow cab, even though it was out of my way, and we headed uptown to the scene of the trouble. I tried to kiss her in the back seat but she didn’t let me. The combination of white girl, black dress, and the knowledge that she was only the least of the whiteness that our evening would hold — it was almost too much for me. I had brought her along for someone to share my observations with. Now I felt I also needed someone else to tell about how great I thought Kerry was. I tried telling the cab driver, but he didn’t like white people. We soon arrived at the destination brownstone.

When I say “white”, I guess what I really mean is “square”, but in that special way that white people can do it. Someone from Malaysia can be square, but still won’t have the genetic predisposition to admire Phil Collins. (Not to single out Mr. Collins for denigration; although I was never a fan of his solo work, I do like his new band, Coldplay.) But, of course, the average white gesturings at hipness can be just as absurd. So I guess what I mean is “I hate white people”.

Kerry and I floated up, up, in the doorman building to the penthouse palace where hors d’oeuvres were already circulating. I installed Kerry on an armchair, where I could refer to her as needed, and where she could be admired but no one could sit next to her, and went off to introduce myself around. Like a gentleman, I began with the hostess, a gorgeous blonde who would have been young by any definition except that of the industry she worked in. She had the charming quality of being the only beautiful, intelligent woman at the party who was nervous and self-conscious. It turned out this was because her husband beat her. I also said hello to him. I tried to assure her it was a wonderful party, which she denied out of hand. She took me around to meet the other guests. As we chatted, I noted that all the men there had recently sold their businesses for several million dollars each, and all the women there were married to the men. I drifted over to a sofa where a young woman with a serious expression was talking at two men with hardly any expressions at all.

“I just realized I couldn’t stand by and let this go on,” she was saying. The men kept watching her noncommittally. Sensing my arrival, she turned to me and said, “We’re talking about the state of education in New York.”

“Oh?” I said, fully expressing my position.

“Do you realize,” she said, fixing me with a purposeful gaze, the way I imagine Gene Debs would have addressed an audience if he was a spoiled rich girl without two synapses to rub together, “that the majority of children in the city go to public schools?”

She turned back to her crowd of two, but instantly the half of them that was sitting on the sofa nudged me and asked, “You’re from downtown, right?”

“Yes, just near—”

“You got any drugs?”

“Sorry, I didn’t happen to—”

“It’s all right. Can you call someone?”

“Well, I don’t usually—”

By this time he was staring off into space again, in the general direction of the young activist, who was continuing her eye-opening lecture to the other guy. “I can’t believe the shit this idiot is talking,” my sofa companion said, gazing at her with real admiration. “I mean, I’ve slept with her, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again tonight. But…I mean, an idiot.” He turned to me and drew in breath. “So what do you do?”

I was contemplating how to answer that (my card, after all, read “Jack Task, downtown celebrity”) when a small silver bell was sounded to call us all in to put on the feed bag. In a complex algorithm understood by hosts alone, people were spread around the table to heighten the possibility of fascinating interaction. Seating (or “nurture”) was trumped by deeper concerns (or “nature”), as most of the men still craned their necks to keep Kerry’s antics in view. She was down the other end of the table, where I didn’t catch much of her fascinating interaction, but she seemed well-lubricated, and more sparklingly relaxed than she’d ever been when I tried to get her drunk on a regular date. I tried to keep up my end of the bargain with the Stepford Whites down on my side, but it’s hard to compete for women whose husbands just got checks for fifty million dollars. My millions are all tied up in vintage copies of National Geographic back in my mother’s house. If you want to get laid in this town, you need liquidity. I decided to push conversations onto topics where I would shine, such as alcohol abuse. But, like any great filmmaker, I knew that the best way to communicate a story was to “show”, not “tell”. I kept a heavy pour of the house red going around the house of whites.


by Jack, December 3, 2004 5:28 PM | More from Drinking & Women | More from Kerry

Within the Chronology

« Last thoughts on John Kerry | Home | Snowbound on Park Avenue »


Fred said:

Dear Jack,

I know I already told you this, but thought I'd put it up for public musing (though, given the quality of the comments in your ugly reader section, I'm trying to keep my hopes accordingly low): my brother John grew up with three white people, including me, and still possesses every iota of the cool a well-muscled Black teenager gets as a birthright.

Also: how do your ugly section and your white section relate? I tend to find more ugly people that are white than not but perhaps that's just an example of American self-hatred.

Jack Author Profile Page said:

I think your brother's situation is entirely consistent with my findings. The idea is that no one really wants to be white if they can help it, except for white people who don't know any better. So it makes sense for a black guy to resist your influences. What we need is to meet a white guy who grew up around black people, for example, such as Gene Wilder.

Leave a comment