Why Is It Such a Spectacle When White Guys Dance Well?

Race Manners: Rhythm is great. But extra attention, over-the-top praise and the underlying stereotypes they reveal could make anyone uncomfortable. 

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Dear Race Manners:

Not a really serious topic, but perhaps you’ll weigh in. I’m a white guy in an interracial relationship. I happen to be a good dancer, not to toot my own horn. When we go to family gatherings, weddings, etc., of course I’m going to dance. Take my word for it that I’m not Michael Jackson or anything, but I do have rhythm—I guess more than people expect from a square-looking white dude.

So whenever I get on the floor, it causes something of a scene. People stop, stare, applaud, congratulate me and basically treat me like a toddler or a 100-year-old. Yes, I’ve even been called “cute.” I’m sure I’m on Vine somewhere. I feel this pattern is similar (no, not equivalent, because I absolutely understand that “reverse racism” is a flawed idea and this doesn’t compare to what black people experienced. Thank God I get that or I shouldn’t be married to a black woman, but I digress) to when black people are called “articulate” just for being their normal, intelligent selves. I’m not sure what I’m asking. I guess, do I just have to deal with it? —This White Man Can Dance

I noticed you didn’t ask why you were getting all this attention. That’s probably because it would be hard to be American and escape things like Eddie Murphy’s Raw analysis of white people dancing at discos, Dave Chappelle’s take on what music moves people of different backgrounds and BuzzFeed’s “17 Ways White People Dance” (complete with GIFs). Or maybe you’ve read blogger Ask a White Guy answering, “Why can’t white people dance?” (Answer: “We just have a different form”), or heard decades-old quips about the “white man’s overbite.” 

Where race and comedy meet, generalizations about the missing rhythm of people who look like you are practically guaranteed to be there.

I’m confident that this particular stereotype, like most of the ones related to what people are good at or bad at, has much more to do with culture, upbringing, and what we observe and practice from a young age than with racial identity or heritage. But that doesn’t stop people from getting a huge kick out of it when they see it turned on its head.

Reactions when this happens are nothing short of delighted. Check out HelloBeautiful promising readers, “You Will Get Your Entire Life From This White Man’s Grooving Two-Step” (your entire life, huh?). And this proclamation that “No one in the world would have expected that dance to come out of this guy!” (No one? Not one single person on Earth?)

Helena Andrews, writing at xoJane, reflected on what happened when a white man took a stab at dancing’s rhythmic relative, rapping. The crowd went wild and it made her squirm:

I was at a politico dinner in DC once and Karl Rove (yes that Karl Rove) started “rapping” as part of this weird comic relief between courses. Everyone thought it was hilarious when he put on a pair of shades, got into a robotic b-boy stance and shouted into the mic, “I’m MC Rove!” I thought it was icky. 

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something other than just hip-hop was being lampooned. It was the idea that white men, who are stereotypically reserved whether you’re in DC or not, could put on a performance and then occupy the space usually reserved for black people. Like a man in drag or a grandma in roller skates.

It doesn’t sound as if you’re lampooning anything. But you’re still left feeling like that grandma in roller skates when you’re just trying to enjoy your evening. There’s the surface-level “Stop staring at me and fussing over me!” reaction.

But also, you’re responding to what’s just below the surface of the stares: previously held racial stereotypes about you. And stereotypes rarely work out well for or acknowledge the full humanity of the people on whom they’re imposed. We know they can keep kids of color from performing academically and lead to police conduct that throws black and brown people behind bars (pdf). Research says they have long-term negative effects on their victims, and there’s reason to believe that even the positive ones can cause harm.