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.
So, raving compliments for defying stereotypes can be complicated. It’s like when we hear black people being congratulated for being “positive” or, as you said, “articulate.” The recipient is left to say to himself, “OK, so you’re being nice only because you looked at me and had zero expectations and now your mind is blown. Thanks?”
The good news is that you have perspective and get that this isn’t causing real damage. Dancing ability is, of course, a relatively inconsequential topic in the grand scheme of areas in which judgments about race affect our lives (which is exactly why it makes such rich material for those endless jokes referenced above).
The even better news is that I think you’re not going to deal with this forever. I guarantee the novelty will wear off and you’ll transform in the eyes of your new extended family from “the white husband who can really dance!” into your complete, multidimensional self.
To speed up that process, maybe your wife could mention something to a few key cousins (“He doesn’t really love being the center of attention. I know you mean well when you fuss over his dancing, but could you turn it down a notch and let him blend in?”).
I imagine that she has some similar moments around your family. Not that it’s the job of either of you to do so, but thinking of your exposure to each other’s relatives as a project that gradually chips away at their stereotypes could make surviving the inevitable awkward moments interracial couples experience feel more noble and less annoying. Consider that, over time, these relatives might be taking more than you know away from the show you’re putting on (that is, of course, after they get their entire life).
Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to email@example.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.
Previously in Race Manners: “Is Hotel Shampoo Kind of Racist?”