Recently, a friend invited me to contribute to one of those end-of-the-year, best-of lists—a curious endeavor for 2020 of all years. In this instance, the items on the list were pre-set and included such things as best book, best podcast, and best recipe. While flipping through my Moleskine notebook, searching for an empty page to jot down the categories I needed to ponder, I came across another best-of list that, at some point in the preceding month for reasons too roundabout to completely explain, I had quickly scribbled down. The list was of my “Favorite White Boys” and included three names. The first name would be obvious to almost anyone who has known me since my college years (at least)—I was Best Man in this white boy’s wedding. Yet the other two surprised me. Both were friends from my high school years growing up in a small, predominantly white town in the mountains of Western Massachusetts—suggesting that, in my inspired moment of creating such a list, I must have been reflecting back on those earlier times.
One was a senior basketball star, who during my sophomore year regularly took me around to play pickup games after school. Our nearby destination was the neighboring town of Greenfield, which years later a guy I was giving a ride home to declared was a “White man’s town,” as he railed against the Black and Latinx teenagers who had recently started hanging around downtown on weekends. Those teenagers, who had moved there from places like Holyoke and Springfield, were my friends. In Greenfield, our full-court pickup games typically included a bunch of younger kids, which helped my confidence as a player. There were seldom more than two Black kids on the court. I was often the only one. The other place my senior friend would drive us to was Springfield, where Dr. James Naismith invented basketball and which consistently ranks as one of Massachusetts’ poorest cities. There we would go to Blunt Park, where my friend was almost always the only white person on the court. Sometimes, on our fifty-mile drive from the hilltowns to Springfield, we would stop in suburbs like Holyoke or Chicopee to pick up his friends. Most of these guys were Black.
The third name on my “Favorite White Boy” list was not someone I recall spending much time with. I remember him being really into Black music. We first met as middle schoolers on an overnight campout where he brought along his boom box and introduced me to Newcleus’s “Jam On It.” A few years later, but still prior to the arrival of MTV in the hilltowns, he would give me VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps videos. In an era before moving images of rappers were widely available, these grainy, low-budget video tapes were priceless to this young hip-hop fan. All this is good and well, but considering how long we knew one another and the fact that he didn’t live far from me, we really weren’t close friends in any meaningful way. I can reel off dozens of other white-boy friends whom I would expect to be on my list before him. Nevertheless, the fact that his name was the third provides me with the occasion to reflect on some of the different meanings of “white boy” as I might construe it for the purposes of a favorites list. In these reflections, I believe, are insights into the productive and disruptive aspects of white involvement in what we might think of as “Black culture,” its spaces and its communities.
Whereas some degree of remarkability (i.e. beliefs, gestures and/or actions that distinguish an individual from white masculine norms) is essential to my conceptualization of “white boy,” I must also acknowledge that remarkable white males, particularly of the sort that have favorable dispositions towards Black music and culture, are quite common in the United States. At the risk of sounding trite, it seems like every (white) town has one. In addition to racial and gender identity, a “white boy” to me is someone immersed enough in Black culture who also spends enough time among mostly Black people that they are not infrequently referred to as “white,” and accordingly are compelled to grapple with the meanings and stakes of their whiteness. While we may casually think of white boys as unique individuals, I am more interested in thinking about how whiteboyness, as a social phenomenon, can figure into conversations about advocacy and allyship as well as into discussions of equity and inclusion at a more structural level.
To be clear, I have not spent any substantive time with my third favorite white boy in thirty years. I know little about how his remarkable enthrallment with Black music and culture influenced the person he grew up to be. We are FB friends. So I imagine I could explore his page and figure some of this out. Yet his particular story is inconsequential to this discussion. I find it more generative to not know these answers. It is enough to repeat that he was really into Black music, which, in an overwhelmingly white community in the mid-1980s, made him stand out. It is also worth pointing out that he liked more than just hip hop—one of our only road trips together was to a reggae concert. Extending beyond the cutting-edge of 1980s Black youth culture (i.e. hip hop), to reggae of all things, may not seem like much, but to me it signals a bit more of an investment in Black culture, outside of the coolest and most rebellious Black music of the time.
Years ago, when I worked at a large record store in San Francisco, one of the managers explained that job applicants who came in professing to know a lot about hip hop tended to only know about hip hop. For the white boy seeking distinction through identifying with Black popular culture, the flavor of the moment can be singularly consuming. The relationship between what we call “hip hop” and mainstream America has shifted considerably over the years. I doubt the store manager’s claim about people with hip-hop expertise is as accurate today as it was twenty years ago. Nevertheless, there are still branches of cutting-edge Black popular culture (I believe these musical forms might still be referred to as “hip hop”) that a selection of young white people go to what seem like extraordinary lengths to connect with. Potentially, this might say more about the cultural industries than about the nature of white youth.
Notably, these white boys, who at earlier moments have been referred to as “white negroes” and “wiggers,” are often alleged to be the front-line appropriators of Black culture. Such charges have certainly been leveled against musicians like Elvis, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Eminem. Upon further investigation, many of these artists have deep engagements with Black culture that are more nuanced and complicated than such criticisms initially assume—the same can sometimes be said for the remarkable white boy.
But at the mundane, everyday level, when too many white people start doing the new Black dance (following the lead of Miley Cyrus for instance) or wearing their hair in a customarily Black style, accusations of cultural theft soon follow. As Florence Tate (mother of writer Greg Tate ) explained, they’re taking “everything but the burden.” Despite my own thoughts on production and diffusion in the popular culture marketplace, unfailingly, when I teach Black Aesthetics to classrooms of mostly Black students, appropriation is the theme that garners the most attention, enthusiasm, and concern. This alone makes it important.
Through their remarkable forays across the popular culture color line, white boys (and white girls) are implicated in the process of syphoning off the meanings and resonances associated with Black cultural practices, rendering them “ineffective as expressions and affirmations of the unique cultural experiences from which they arise” (Hall 1997, p. 32). At the very least, such whiteboyness is problematic. More critical considerations regarding not only the exploitation of Black creative ingenuity but also the perpetuation of White hegemony through the machinations of billion-dollar entertainment industries, might settle on the position that these white boys (and girls) are simultaneously a symptom of and a catalyst for the problem.
Major innovations in American music have consistently sprung from what Perry Hall (1997, p. 33) calls “the least assimilated sectors” of Black America: New Orleans’s Congo Square, the Mississippi Delta, Black bottom districts of Midwestern cities, the post-Industrial South Bronx, and even the largely overlooked influence of Black Appalachian communities on the development of country music—not to mention the Black Church. When such musics transform from communally nurtured and mediated traditions into individually attributed and corporately owned commodities—to be sold in the marketplace—those of us interested in connecting Black popular culture with the maintenance and/or dismantling of ongoing systems of oppression should pay particular attention. Nothing about a deep appreciation for Black music, in and of itself, suggests a commitment to racial justice. Upon further reflection, knowing what I know about him, I have no idea why that third white boy even qualified as being on my Favorite White Boy list.
I have neither kept up with my second favorite white boy. I did however spend an evening with him at a crowded holiday party a few years ago. We mostly drank bourbon and toasted each other. I continuously thanked him for taking me under his wing and for exposing me to pick-up basketball—and, by extension, meaningful dimensions of Black youth culture—beyond my mostly white hometown. I recall we used to stop at music stores on the rides home from these trip, where I purchased some of my earliest and most treasured rap cassettes. I don’t believe he was into Black music in any remarkable way, but his passengers were.
Likewise, I cannot say much about how my friend’s love of pickup basketball, and his desire to go to urban Black spaces where it was played at the highest level, impacted his adult life. But his white-boy remarkability influenced the friends he made (Black teenagers who also loved basketball) and the places he went. On those Blunt Park courts, he was often referred to as the “white boy,” in much the same way that I imagine I was thought of as the “black guy” at the Davis Street courts in Greenfield. Some white boys, hailing from white communities and fascinated with elements of Black culture, rarely venture into majority Black spaces and usually become awkward and uncomfortable when they find themselves there. Such predicaments perplex me. I tend to attribute them to the type of fascination that amounts to fetishizing Blackness as an object, or even an adornment for one’s identity, with no genuine interest in Black people or their experiences. We might also think about how the experiences of different Black subjectivities—Black people with different identities, interests, and dispositions—in majority white spaces parallel and/or depart from this. In other words, how might a Black person’s awkwardness or uncomfortability be similar and/or different?
That night at the holiday party, I toasted my second favorite white boy in recognition of the work he did—the driving, the basketball mentorship, and the friendship—to help foster my budding racial consciousness and sense of racial pride. He responded with warm smiles. But frankly, he didn’t seem that interested in any of it. He just kept talking about how much he loved my basketball game. For him, I believe, it was less about being the remarkable white boy and more about playing in the best possible pickup games. Being the “white boy”—among friends and not always friendly competitors—was simply part-and-parcel to living the kind of life that as a high school senior he sought to live.
My favorite white boy, for whom I was Best Man, would most likely be at the top of any white boy list I make, no matter how long or comprehensively I contemplate it. For as long as I have known him, he has loved Black music (more genres than just hip hop) and has had little to no issues entering majority Black social spaces. Though we’ve been good friends since high school, it was during my college years, as I became more immersed in the Black community at the University of Massachusetts, that he was always there. Initially as my friend from “back home” but, soon enough, with or without me. I’m sure he’s been called “white boy” (in both friendship and hostility) and had to consciously reckon with his whiteness more times than I care to think about. He is in what sociologists would classify as an “interracial marriage,” with two beautiful children. He’s a staunch supporter of Black Lives Matter and many adjacent causes. Whereas, since outgrowing his teens, he has not been particularly performative in his orientations towards Blackness—no Fubu jackets or backwards upside-down visors—he is very visible in his support of racially just causes and aligned politics on social media. I don’t mean to over-romanticize him as some sort of white savior—we all have our limitations and, over the years, I am sure he’s made many racial missteps. Yet, his life’s path, including commitments to longstanding friendships and against anti-Black racism, illustrate how an early appreciation of Black symbolic culture, coupled with a lack of aversion to being the only white person in the room (particularly when you cannot count on all the faces being friendly) can mature into sustained support for racial justice.
Making a Favorite White Boy List might initially seem like a peculiar project to take on. I imagine it seems most bizarre and/or inappropriate to white people who have seldom, if ever, had to contend with the stakes of their whiteness. As a Black person in America, I am consistently perceived through the valence of race, even if it is not regularly mentioned in “polite” society. In my various movements—whether on Greenfield basketball courts, in encounters with law enforcement, or throughout my career in higher education—I carry my Blackness with me and am conscious of the risks, occasional benefits, and complex implications of how my race gets read. Of my three favorite white boys (and what I know about them), it strikes me that the third name on my list, the one I primarily know as a music fan, may have never had to grapple with his whiteboydom at anything more than the most surface level. Cultural consumption alone brings few risks and requires no interpersonal transactions. I would like to think that my second favorite white boy (my fellow basketball journeyman), through choosing to spend time with Black people, putting himself out there by making his whiteness visible, and performing both on-the-court excellence and humility, is sincere in his beliefs and actions around racial equality. If nothing else, he helped a Black fifteen-year-old from a mostly white town find his footing in both Black and white social spaces.
My friendship with my favorite white boy began with our mutual love of hip hop music. Thus, I don’t wish to suggest that music fandom doesn’t matter. However, by itself it is woefully insufficient. So how does the remarkable white fan of Black music mature into someone who lives their life in support of racial justice? In his particular case, I believe that consuming racially conscious Black culture (hip-hop music in particular) in communion and dialogue with Black people helped to make him more accountable and aware of the experiences and standpoints of those around him. Ultimately, the people around him and the conversations we had mattered more than the popular culture we consumed.
Image illustration: Kevin Earley
Black and white charcoal portrait by anonymous.
Hall, Perry. 1997. “African-American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation.” Pp. 31-51 in Borrowed Power (edited by Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Tate, Greg (ed). 2003. Everything But The Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. New York: Broadway Books.
Anthony Kwame Harrison is the Edward S. Diggs Professor in Humanities and Professor of Sociology, with a joint appointment in Africana Studies, at Virginia Tech. He is author of two books—Hip Hop Underground (Temple University Press, 2009) and Ethnography (Oxford University Press, 2018)—and co-edited Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Standpoints: Black Feminist Knowledges (Virginia Tech Publishing, 2019).
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