Racy Thoughts: Little Boxes, Little Boxes

Anyone who caught last week's episode of Jersey Shore likely noticed a rather interesting conversation between Jenni "JWoww" Farley and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi on the topic of race and identity. At one point in the show, the two women discuss the possibility of going to a nude beach, then move on to the topic of wacky things they have their respective bucket lists, like Snooki's desire to try bungee jumping. JWoww, philosopher and gentlelady, calls this a "white person thing," which prompts a seemingly annoyed Snooki to respond, "I'm not white... I'm tan." Say what you will about the cast members' behavior on this show, but their propensity to speak bluntly and without filter (other than, of course, that put in place by producers and editors) offers so much insight into how these eight people see one another and themselves without worrying about being politically correct or socially acceptable.

When Jersey Shore first launched last December, several media outlets jumped on the fact that these self-proclaimed "guidos" and "guidettes" were not all, it turned out, of Italian descent. Farley, for example, is of Irish and Spanish background and Polizzi was born in Chile and adopted by an Italian family. Through all the criticism and hand-wringing, the cast members remained unfazed and unapologetic about the manner in which they chose to identify themselves, which has never been uttered once on the show without some modicum of pride. Sure, these reality TV celebs might not have firm, weighed and reasoned opinions on race and ethnicity—or even any interest in the subject—but should this take away from their ability, and their right, to describe themselves as they see fit?

Whiteness isn't, after all, an inherent quality so much as it is an ever-changing social and cultural construct. Italians may be (mostly) Caucasian, sure, but the U.S. hasn't always seemed too sure about where Italians stood when it came to being white. John Tehranian, a law professor who has written about the U.S.'s changing definitions of race in his book Whitewashed, notes that, in different points throughout American history, Italians (and the Irish, Germans, Jews, Spaniards, Latinos, Slavs, and Greeks) have not been and may still not be ushered into that elusive realm of social hierarchy known as whiteness. So it's telling and perceptive that JWoww and Snooki recognize that a divide continues to exist between themselves and "white people." And, then again, there exist no claims of victimhood, or any sense that Snooki or Jenni feels as if they're less than those outrageous, bungee jumping white folks. They're on the fringes, maybe, but TV tells us that's where the camera is pointing anyway. For Snooki, the situation (heh) is, quite literally, one of thinking outside the boxes often already picked out for us. She recounts how, when filling out a job application for a tanning salon, she didn't check "white." She made her own box: "tan." (Spoiler alert: She didn't get the job.)

People may take issue with Polizzi being heralded as a modern feminist icon, but she does exhibit some characteristics associated with such a role. She is ostensibly in charge of her sexual identity, cleaning up the Smoosh Room because she expressly intends to bring a dude home that night solely for the purpose of, well. Hardcore smooshing. She isn't afraid to speak her mind, whether it's standing up to a dude who is stealing her shots or letting people know she's horny or annoyed or nervous or elated. Sure, she's complicated, like any woman. She's not someone with a degree in ethnic studies or a celebrated expert on the issue of identity politics, but she, nonetheless, notes that role dominant culture plays in her life and chooses to identify herself as she sees fit—even if this means eschewing her Chilean background by differentiating herself from the "Spanish people," she cannot dance like (although neither can many of us "Spanish people" for that matter, Snooks).

While it may be tempting to dismiss Snooki's remark as something born out of a lack of awareness or exposure to critical thinking on the subject of race and ethnicity, judgment should be doled out on a sliding scale. Feminism and discussions on racial identity are not reserved for the educated, for the academically inclined, for the well read, or even for the interested. If we only stick to considering the arguments and proclamations of women who are scholars, or who would intentionally seek out publications like Bitch or sites like Feministing and Racialicious, we end up preaching to the converted in a self-congratulatory echo chamber devoid of new ideas or truly alternative points of view.

So kudos to you, Snooki. Be as tan as you wanna be.

Comments

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Hmm...

I agree the Snookis of the world should not be dismissed merely for being Snooki-ish, but isn't laboring to elevate her comments on the show to something racially progressive sort of patronizing? I agree that "Feminists" and the academe should be receptive to the opinions of "lay" persons, but shouldn't it be in the context of actually letting them weigh in? The show is intended to make the characters (actors?) look foolish (although, they're getting money and celebrity for letting tv viewers gawk at them, so one wonders who the real fools are). I guess my point is that were I one of them, I'd want someone to ask my opinion rather than have my MTV-crafted persona on the show speak for my views generally.

That's just the thing - I

That's just the thing - I don't think I'm elevating her comments so much as giving her credit where it's due. Whether she intended to or not, her views on how she chooses to identify were, I thought, interesting and worth discussing. Snooki occupies a pretty complicated space in terms of the categories set out for people, so her analysis of that is of worth to me, especially since I don't often get to hear or read her voice. The conversation about "checking boxes" went on long enough for me to think it hadn't been chopped up or reconstructed in the editing room, so I do think Snooki's take on not being white were laid out more or less in full without additional tweaking.

The reason I love the show (and love it I do!) even though it often makes me cringe so damn hard, is because, yeah, sure, these kids can get crazy foolish. But they also come across as sweet, hurt, loving, angry, funny people that, really, are not so far removed from people with which I've grown up.

I fucking love this.

I fucking love this.

I agree with so much of

I agree with so much of this. I'm a Italian-American person, and I've been reluctant to watch Jersey Shore. I identify as white, I know I largely benefit from white privilege, but I've always been unsure where my experience fits on the racial spectrum. My dad, who is quite dark-skinned, will tell you he's "Italian," not white. I feel like I'm getting into dangerous territory here, trying to claim an experience that isn't mine, but I've always felt that while I was white, I was other thing too and I don't know exactly where the two meet.

kperfetto, I can relate to

kperfetto, I can relate to this. My dad is Portuguese and quite dark, with very kinky hair that he wore grown out when I was a kid. He has often been assumed to be Latino and sometimes African American. It wasn't as big a deal when we lived in California, but then we moved to a tiny town in Oklahoma, and things did not go well for us there (though it wasn't anything violent).

I'm fascinated by this show,

I'm fascinated by this show, but haven't watched it. As a Jewish, Brazilian, Portuguese and Black person who is usually only read as "black" I tend to check the box that causes me the least amount of grief. Usually that means the "black" one. Good for her. Folks should identify in whatever way works for them.

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I think this is interesting

I think this is interesting in light of those academic types who have argued that whiteness is the absence of ethnic identity. (A reference would be helpful, but I don't have it. If you know it, please do tell.) Anyway, I think the argument was more or less that whiteness in the US had at one point been the absence of ethnic identity, and in this context ethnic identity was a bad thing. Assimilation was king. So, as various ethnic groups (African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans) began cultivating positive ethnic identities it kinda left white people with a bit of a crisis. At that point, we started to see white folks attempt to build positive identities around nationality - like being Irish, which was curious since Irish folks in particular had worked real hard in the previous era to be white. So, yeah, I think it's interesting to see Snooki's lived experience with race, which I see in part as her recognizing the absence of identity of whiteness. On Jwoww's part, the bunging-jumping-is-white-people line also seems like a recognition that whiteness as a social construct is really hard to disentangle from a certain class experience. And, not every person who checks the little 'white' box necessarily feels that class experience is part of their identity, leaving many to feel ambivalent or contrarian about whiteness.

As for those who have only hatred in their hearts for the Jersey Shore, I encourage you to check out "The Real Situation" on Funny or Die.

Yes, yes, yes!!!

I love everything you wrote in this article. The part that hit me the most was the end:

"If we only stick to considering the arguments and proclamations of women who are scholars, or who would intentionally seek out publications like Bitch or sites like Feministing and Racialicious, we end up preaching to the converted in a self-congratulatory echo chamber devoid of new ideas or truly alternative points of view."

As a young activist and feminist, I find it very hard to speak my mind because I may not know all of the history of movements or "important" people in the same field or area of interest that OTHER people have told me are a must to read to be a part of any movement and it becomes the same hierarchy of "read this read that" people telling me what is important and not important blah blah blah. It makes people feel excluded from any group and it's easy to get overwhelmed with the jargon, therefore making them feel silenced.

So anyway, hell yeah!

Snookie as Latina

As much as I'd love to give credit to Snookie (for whom I have a curious and unremitting affection), I don't think she was dissolving or resisting race categories here (or challenging the concept of whiteness). Snookie was adopted from South America - Argentina, I believe - and is, in fact, Latina. She was brought up with Italians and identifies with that culture, but it seems from her comment ("I'm not white, I'm tan") that there's some part of her that does recognize the "nonwhite" part of herself. However, on one episode she grows positively nauseous over a Latino guy who was chasing after her and apparently held back vomit when he called her "mami." (She said, with some hostility,that she hated that word). What I see - and this is my own interpretation based on a perhaps unforgivable amount of time watching/following these people -is an adopted Latina woman who is distancing herself from that culture - who doesn't identify with it and is even uncomfortable with it (which makes me upset, frankly, as a viewer)- yet who doesn't sit comfortably in a "white" zone, either. She's invested, however, in the caricaturish Italian "guido" thing.
Watch her on george lopez's show, when he calls her an "honorary latina" - and she says nothing to correct him of the "honorary" bit.

She's ready to say she's not white, holds on tenaciously to the Guido culture (which has been talked about by the Italian community with more jeers than cheers), shows some contempt for Latino signifiers, and yet doesn't claim a race, only ambiguously referring to herself as not being white. Interesting,(and somewhat disconcerting?)stuff. Not necessarily progressive.

Snooki as Latina

I just looked it up - Snooki(e) was born in Chile, not Argentina.