Are There Stereotypes of White People?

Photographer Myra Greene has a new book of photos called My White Friends that sets out to photograph  white people in as stereotypical a fashion as possible, and Splice Today’s Noah Berlatsky is on it.

In some photos, this comes across clearly. A picture of a guy on his driveway with his gut and his grill fits neatly into images of angry-white-man stereotypes. Similarly, the photo of a woman posing with her golf club and Pink Panther golf bag in front of a golf course fits into stereotypes about white people, poor taste, and golf. The woman’s hip-cocked pose and flirtatious crossed-legs also suggests ways in which white women’s sexuality is sometimes presented as clueless or a self-parody. White people, at least according to some stereotypes, aren’t sexy.

Both the grill guy and the golf woman manage to suggest stereotypes in part through references to lower-middle class leisure time banality. Photos that don’t pick up on such class markers, though, are harder to see as stereotypical.  An image of a woman sitting on a sofa surrounded by clutter just looks like a woman sitting on a sofa surrounded by clutter, not as some sort of commentary on the messiness of white people in general.  Similarly, the photo of a woman sitting in a chair with some sort of children’s toy off to the side doesn’t seem like a stereotype. It just seems like she’s a woman who probably has kids. So what?

Noah feels after looking at the book that the book accidentally confirms the very thing it sets out to complicate. The “neutrality” of whiteness is so reinforced by our society, that, when looking at the pictures, viewers must work to understand them as really stereotypes. “What’s most marked in the photos,” he says, “is the way that even thought the project demands that you mark the sitters, they still, for the most part, don’t end up being marked.” The fact that whiteness is the default setting is what’s most important about it.

Noah is absolutely right that, for many, the whiteness-as-default makes it harder to see our stereotypes of white people. This may very well have made My White Friends a failure. But that doesn’t mean stereotypes of white people don’t exist. 

Think, for a moment, about Eddie Murphy’s famous routines when he’d talk in a “white voice” or the somewhat problematic internet humor project Stuff White People Like. If you’ve ever spent time around musicians, whiteness is pretty heavily associated with an inability to dance and poor rhythmic skills.  The Netflix show Orange is the New Black attempted (with somewhat complicated results) to view its characters through the lens of stereotypes, regardless of whether they were hispanic, black, white or jewish.  There’s a reason why we have a word for black yuppies that’s different from yuppies, in other words. And a reason why if you replace the “n” in the n-word with “w” you get a word for a white person who acts stereotypically “black.”

We have all sorts of stereotypical associations with whiteness, in other words, and for much of the population, those associations are overwhelmingly positive. This is another way that making white the default can be so harmful. If whiteness is both the default and widely associated with all sorts of positive things, what does that mean for everyone who falls outside of it?

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