Coming to Terms with Race in The White Boy Shuffle

In his novel The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty conveys what it is like for a young African American male to grow up in Santa Monica, a coastal town heavily populated by chauvinistic Caucasians with social dominance – at least in the eyes of protagonist Gunnar Kaufman. In The White Boy Shuffle, Beatty demonstrates the horrors and absurdities of cultural labels in familial and social settings. Ultimately he shows that for maturing black boys, Americans’ comfort with racism degrades potential success both academically and socially.Gunnar Kaufman is part of two worlds, family and social. His family life is flooded with the realities of ethnic interpretation and gender understanding; it’s where black standards are kept black, where profanity and sexism are a part of everyday life, and where mockery and ridicule are used to demonstrate the sheer acceptance of racism. Gunnar reveals his family as one of slavery heritage. “I unfurled my gigantic family tree…the class ooohed the generations of crinkled stick nigger couples holding stick hands…I started with Euripides Kaufman…the only person ever to runaway into slavery” (Beatty 12). In establishing his family tree, Gunnar in turn puts him and his family in shackles. Every level of heritage up to his own existence has been preserved in a line that subjects itself to the norms of racial standards. Throughout his novel, Paul Beatty uses a great deal of profanity and racist remarks not to demean African American family life at that time, but to grab the attention of the reader and say “Hey, this is what really went on.” This method of boisterous writing takes a very serious topic like racism and turns it into something friendly and enlightening. Mansbach suggests this style of literature is common in a great deal of Lit-Hop. “Conversant with race literature and real-life struggle, the characters are able to position themselves in relation to these traditions, both playfully and seriously” (Mansbach, 95). This drastic approach to race related literature is effective in shedding light on racial intolerance in a way that demonstrates an unhealthy acceptance with struggle and furthermore a necessity for radical change.Gunnar’s family life is riddled with racism and sexism that limit Gunnar’s understanding of gender and race to meager stereotypes defined by his family. “To my knowledge, no male Kaufman had ever slept with a white woman, not out of lack of jungle hunger or for preservation of racial purity but out of fear. I’d watch my dad talk to white women, drowning them with “Yes, ma’ams” (Beatty 23). As a maturing boy, Gunnar’s awareness of chauvinism in society is important because he is distinguishing that something is not fair, right, or equal. In essence Gunnar demonstrates he is uncomfortable with racism in America, a depiction that Beatty portrays as rare and valuable. Beatty’s depiction of racism in Gunnar’s family life may or may not be a legitimate representation of racial understanding in African American families, but nonetheless it is a representation that Beatty feels is important to convey. Gunnar also recalls sexist scenarios within his family history. “There are no comely Kaufman superwomen…no nubile black women…the women who allied themselves to the Kaufman legacy are invisible” (Beatty 23). Gunnar establishes the harsh reality of the female existence not only in his family but in American society as well. This understanding of what it means to be male or female, black or white, rich or poor, has given Gunnar some perception of what his future may hold for him. His ancestral history and family experiences seem to hold him down, but Gunnar’s apprehension of the potentiality of gender and racial roles in society is the key to unlocking him from a cage of stereotypes. Gunnar strives for distinction. “They say the fruit never falls far from the tree, but I’ve tried to roll down the hill at least a little bit” (Beatty 24). Gunnar’s ability to differentiate what is right from what is wrong allow him as a maturing young man to pave his own future. With time, Gunnar takes control of his own life with the capacity to resist the norms of falling into patterns of accepting the common stereotypes and discrimination that exist in America.Gunnar’s social life is just as important as his family life in determining his future as a young African American. Gunnar establishes that his social life and educational life work interchangeably to some degree. “My early education consisted of two types of multiculturalism: classroom multiculturalism, which reduced race, sexual orientation, and gender to inconsequence, and schoolyard multiculturalism, where the kids…who knew jokes ruled” (Beatty 28). In this passage, Gunnar conveys that his social life revolves around the people he knows at school. At the same time, his educational life revolves around his social life as through experiences and relationships he learns more and more about what it means to be black. Much of his education about race and himself takes place in school, where he is dipped into both black and white cultures. In school, Gunnar and the other students are continuously told that color does not matter, but are quickly reminded that racial barriers are still in place no matter what. “Our teacher says we’re supposed to be colorblind. That’s hard to do if you can see color…Don’t say things like ‘Black people are lecherous, violent, natural born criminals” (Beatty 31). Beatty uses quick wit and racist stereotypes to portray the existence of discrimination even in elementary and middle school. This radical way of writing, as Mansbach suggests, is used in “attempt to make race approachable, [and] to reflect its complexity (Mansbach 98). Beatty absolutely makes race approachable in this novel and does so in a way that draws out the complications of dealing with black and white vision at an early age. Beatty demonstrates that even at crucial times of development for the human brain, students are being told one thing, color doesn’t matter, yet at the same time are observing another thing, racism is around every corner. This can be very confusing and complex especially in classroom experiences where students are told that everything they learn comes from cold, hard facts.Beatty uses satire to lighten the subject matter to some degree, yet there is no doubt that Gunnar’s accounts of racism are legitimate in shedding light on a topic that is shadowed in black and white. Gunnar recalls his family’s acceptance of black stereotypes: “What are a few nigger jokes among friends? We Kaufmans have always been the type of niggers who can take a joke” (Beatty 9). The Kaufmans’ comforts with racial remarks make it hard for Gunnar to dream big; he is essentially trapped to do little more than stand by and accept responsibility for being black. But Gunnar’s recognition of racism in America sets him apart as a child, a student, and a citizen that sees the realities of discrimination and understands what he must do to resist them. Beatty, Mansbach, and so many other Lit-Hop authors use satire to poke and prod at touchy subjects that society has told us we must be careful in talking about. These methods are very unconventional but are tremendously powerful in getting the same point across; Americans are far too content with current racism in society and such comforts make it hard for maturing children to do anything else but subject themselves to the norms of racist pollution. Beatty’s portrait of discrimination in America brings out a great deal of controversial subjects as it is able to “funnel[ing] the same raw energy into work that takes a stance in the endless struggle for socioeconomic, racial, gender, and sexual equality” (Davis 74). Through pretentiously pointing out the flaws in racial understanding for young African Americans, he in turn is able to point out how lack of racial understanding affects sexism and economic equality as well. Throughout The White Boy Shuffle, racism is addressed in a manner that portrays African Americans as hopeless. Gunnar, as an exception to this cultural law, finds meaning and clear reason to not fall into this hole of Caucasian dominance, but rather dabble and explore at the edges of social and racial barriers. Paul Beatty deliberately pushes buttons through controversial word choice and mockery as a means of portraying racial understanding not as system of tying a person of color down, but rather as a means of discovering potentiality. Throughout the novel, Gunnar matures into a young man who finds meaning in life and hope for his future. Beatty uses Gunnar as a social icon to demonstrate that racial brands should not define existence. By identifying racial and sexual limitations in society, Gunnar is able to recognize how diverging from stereotypes is the key to successfully coming to terms with not only who you are but, more importantly, who you want to be.