On "Benetton Hearts" And...You Know

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[A. Serwer]

Hey everyone, it's an honor to be back at Ta-Nehisi's place. I'm a writer at The American Prospect, and an alumnus of Jack and Jill Politics as dnA. I was also one of TNC's guestbloggers last June. I write mostly about human rights, civil liberties, and race, and if it stops blowing my mind at some point this week I'll have a post about Bioshock 2.

Last week, John Mayer went through the traditional social ritual of a white celebrity who has said something racist--there's the Mock Horror from the media audience, the General Pile-On from critics and observers, and finally, the rationalized Expression of Contrition from the celebrity themselves. There often isn't much thought given to the substance of what the person said--or what's really disturbing about it. In Mayer's case, I think he expressed a rather problematic assumption in really offensive terms that I suspect a lot of people actually share.

After bragging to the interviewer that he has a "nigger pass," Mayer gets asked whether he's actually dated any black women. And I suspect Mayer was immediately embarrassed that his dating experiences didn't match his professed racial views, particularly his vision of himself as a down-ass white boy so down the shrapnel from n-bombs can't faze him. So he tried to come up with a "raw" excuse that could reconcile those two things ("Benetton heart and a fuckin' David Duke cock"), and he played himself.

Mayer's cognitive dissonance aside, the basic substance of Mayer's statement,--that he flat-out doesn't find people of a certain ethnic background to be attractive--is one I've heard from people of all different races. Tracy Clark-Flory seemed to say as much in her response at Salon:

And what of Meyer calling his Johnson a racist? (Insert here: Tasteless joke about hooded Klansman.) Look, as a general idea, I don't object to people having racial preferences when it comes to sex partners; it's only human to imprint on certain physical traits and gravitate toward particular "types." (Although I think it's a great idea to challenge the limitations of your personal "love map," as psychologists like to call it.) That said, it is one thing to state an enduring preference for, say, Asian women and another to pronounce: My dick hates black women!

I'm not really sure it's that different on the substance. It's one thing to say that you haven't dated interracially: American life is still marred by social segregation, and most of us simply don't come in contact with that many people of different ethnic backgrounds, let alone in the kind of frequency it would take to meet a compatible romantic prospect. And dating interracially doesn't give you a get-out-of-bigotry-free card either. There's nothing about sleeping with someone of a different race that necessarily makes you able to see them as a human being--the slavery-era boom in mixed race births is evidence of that.

But making the blanket statement that you aren't attracted to an entire race of people strikes me as complete bullshit, because it reduces entire category of human beings to a set of assumptions drawn from a necessarily limited set of experiences. For the same reason, I don't see how expressing "an enduring preference from Asian women" is any less problematic. If I was on a date with someone who expressed "an enduring preference" for biracial black Jews, I'd tip my Kangol hat, pick up my Kiddush cup and bounce--and not just because that's mad specific.

Part of sexual maturity, I think, is learning the difference between what you're attracted to and what simply validates you. This is why the stereotypical adolescent crush falls on people of certain social standing-- the quarterback, the prom queen, etc. Blanket declarations of what races you are or aren't attracted to strike me as tied to the same question of what kind of person does or does not validate you, and are therefore a question of immaturity. I don't know any men or women--Asian, black, white, or otherwise--who want to be someone's "validation" rather than their partner.

But to someone who doesn't think there's anything wrong with expressing those kinds of "enduring preferences" I'm not sure why Mayer is all that controversial. Because he said some ugly words and it's a good opportunity to show the world how you're so much less racist than, uh, John "nigger pass" Mayer?

UPDATE: Cynic points out that I misread Mayer's use of "nigger pass":


So what Mayer actually said was that he doesn't have a n-word pass. He used the phrase, in fact, to cast doubt on the very idea of a 'hood pass,' on the grounds that the disparities of racial experience are too great to be so casually elided. He was pointing to the fact that someone like him could never use the n-word without causing (justifiable) offense, and I'd say that your reaction rather serves to confirm that point. And I'd add that the interviewer doesn't ask him whether he's "actually dated any black women." No, the question was: "Do black women throw themselves at you?" And that left Mayer open to say yes, and move on. He didn't say what he did because he was embarrassed. He said it because he thinks of himself as hyper-sophisticated, capable of airing and tackling even the intricate complexities of race in America. And he's not - he's just a shallow pop singer.

Cynic's post is really good and you should read the rest of it. For my part I'm actually not that interested in Mayer himself but more the public response to Mayer, and what people think is really unacceptable about what he said. My summary should have been more accurate.

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Adam Serwer is a staff writer for The American Prospect.

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