Forgiving John Mayer

In the "post-racial" era, if you're hip enough, your trangressions will get a pass.

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As John Mayer’s racially charged comments in a Playboy magazine interview ricocheted around the racketball court that is the Internet this week, I found myself exhausted by the sad reality that the national dialogue on race remains driven by the engine of celebrity gaffes and gotcha moments. Our voracious, ADHD-afflicted news cycle castigates, forgives and forgets at a rate that precludes sustained discussion, so expect Mayer to spend a week with his head on the chopping block and then jog away, rubbing his neck, to join Chris Matthews, Harry Reid, Michael Richards, Geraldine Ferraro, Don Imus, John Rocker, Mel Gibson, Miley Cyrus, Rush Limbaugh and Trent Lott on the list of figures whose shocking transgressions have faded to dim memories in a handful of years.

An analysis of such incidents and their scant long-term fallout suggests that it is now more acceptable to publicly spout racism than to publicly accuse someone of spouting racism. Look for Mayer to continue making vague apologies to a fanbase and a punditry eager to excuse racist action because they can find no racist feeling behind it. Look for Mayer to swear he’s never uttered the N-word before and never will again, and look for the context in which he said it and the clumsy if well-intentioned point he was trying to make about white privilege to be obscured. Look for him to continue not to address several far more problematic statements from the same interview, in particular the one about his male organ being a “white supremacist--a flippant attempt to explain his dating preferences that takes up the language of dehumanization and reveals a blithe willingness to reinforce any number of stereotypes about sex, race and desirability. Look for the mainstream media to ignore that comment, too. Look for the “hood pass” Mayer stumbled so badly in trying to discuss to be serially snatched away and restored in a blogopshere-wide game of capture-the-flag.

Far more importantly and indicatively, look for the very notion of a “hood pass” to go largely unexplored. The “hood pass” is symbolic of white acceptance, personal or artistic, by the black community. Although both the notion of a monolithic black community and the conflation of blackness with the “hood” are problematic, the “hood pass” has been widely accepted. Part of the reason may be that it appears to place agency in the hands of black people, as arbiters of who and what constitutes tolerable incursion. Given the profound legacy of white co-option and exploitation of black life and culture, this might seem like a step in the right direction. The problem with the “hood pass,” though, is that it turns racial progressivism from an activity to a state of being. It places engagement with this country’s system of structural racism, and the privileges white people accrue from it, in the past tense--as if everybody in possession of a “hood pass” has already fought and won what is actually an ongoing struggle with one’s self and one’s country.

This complacency underwrites the widespread belief of young white Americans that they can be as “down” as necessary by consuming black cultural artifacts pushed by media conglomerates whose profits depend on expert marketing of the ghetto to the exurbs, black to white, and visceral “realness” to a generation of voyeurs. Full of empathy and short on identity, with few relationships to actual black people and less understanding of the machinations of institutional racism, they conclude that they, too, have “hood passes.” Through the magic of circular logic, they then conclude that every stereotype they embrace is as legitimate as they are. Much as Mayer seems to have.

It was a conversation--a virtual one at that--with an old friend, the filmmaker Kesime Bernard, that shook me from my lethargy and reminded me what we stand to gain by talking about the latest display of ignorance by an avatar of a culture that rewards it. “Our generation has built a cottage industry around uncomfortably edgy racial humor," she wrote, "but the reaction is as important as the delivery. We carve out boundaries in real time. These little celebrity scandals do ‘teach’ us little by little where we stand.” I want to believe she’s right--that we can make this not about Mayer’s hood pass, but the hood pass, not one rock star’s cavalier bigotry, but the millions nodding to it. That Americans can learn from where we stand, and that we stand for something. Because if we don’t, as the old saying goes, we’ll fall for anything.

Adam Mansbach is the author of The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy.

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