As a person born, raised, and currently residing in Pittsburgh, PA — a city whose metropolitan area was recently named the second Whitest in the country (Yes. The entire country. Des Moines freakin’ Iowa is more racially diverse than Pittsburgh) — I’m very acquainted with White people.
Actually, ‘acquainted’ isn’t strong enough of a word. I know White people. Every school I’ve ever attended has been at least 50% White. I live in a neighborhood filled with the type of well-intentioned liberal White people parodied on Stuff White People Like. I know White church customs. I know why (many) 17 to 25 year old White women tend to end every sentence with the same vocal inflection used to ask questions. I know which type of beer goes best with pierogies. I know what the hell a pierogi is. I know which insults are more likely to encourage White people to fight. I know on sight (with 89% accuracy) whether a White guy is the type of White guy who’s interested in dating Black women
I even know the songs that, if heard even faintly, will prompt them to immediately and unconsciously sing along, regardless of where they happen to be. (Lemme put it this way: If someone’s phone happened to ring while you happened to be at a predominately White funeral, if that phone’s ringtone was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, don’t be surprised if you witness at least a dozen people mouthing the lyrics and nodding their heads before catching themselves and stopping after remembering they’re at a funeral.)
Yet, despite being surrounded by all this Whiteness, a glance at the part of my phone that shows who I call the most frequently tells me an interesting thing. Out of the 15 numbers on that list, not one of them belongs to a White person. In fact, I’m sure if that list extended to 30, no Whites would show up there either.
Basically, while I personally know dozens, even hundreds of White people, I’m not particularly close to any of them (at least not close enough to call on a regular basis). Sure, there are many I’m very cool with — a few college teammates I still keep in touch with, the group of White guys I play basketball with on Thursdays, a couple of the baristas at the coffee shop around the corner from me, etc — but none have made it to my inner circle.
Now, I’m (obviously) just one person in one city with one story. I’m sure there are many people whose cliques resemble a real life Benetton ad. I also realize it may be possible that the Pittsburgh-area’s unusual Whiteness creates a certain type of tribalism not found in more diverse places. But, I suspect my experience is more the norm than the exception. I’d even bet that most young urbanites — people usually assumed to have a cascade of diversity trickling through their lives — belong to social circles where the vast majority of people in them share the same racial background.
I thought of this the other day as I was reading one of the dozens of race-centric takes on “Girls” — a new HBO series following the lives of a group of friends in their 20s trying to make their way in New York City. While the show has received a bit of praise for its humor and its portrayal of the all-too-realistic angst many educated young people feel — an affliction that can best be described as “What the eff am I doing with my life?”-itis — it’s received just as much attention for its Whiteness. Or, to put it better, “lack of other than White”-ness.
“[T]hese girls… are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out… I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them.”
This sentiment was echoed by Kendra James at Racialicious in a letter to “Girls” creator Lena Durham:
“If Lena Dunham and I come from similar educational backgrounds, honed our writing and narrative skills at the same school (and likely with some of the same professors), and grew up spending time in the same city (she’s from Tribeca, and I was a bridge-and-tunnel kid from a nice New Jersey suburb about 30 minutes away), then how could we conceive such radically different images of New York City?”
“Girls” isn’t the first NYC-centric show to receive this type of pushback. Both “Friends” and “Seinfeld” were regularly chided for the lack of diversity present on each show, and “Mad Men” currently hears similar criticisms.
Although I don’t necessarily see people who look like me when I watch a show like “Girls” or “Seinfeld,” I do see circles that mirror my own — groups comprised of people with many diverse characteristics, but one common one (racial background) — and I’d honestly find any inclusion of non-Whites for diversity’s sake to be unrealistic, pandering, and insulting. The majority of us — Black, White, Laker fan, etc — don’t have lives like the perfunctory light beer ad where a group of four White guys and one Black guy hit the town and magically happen upon a night club where there are, gasp, four available White chicks and one available Black chick from them to drunkenly make-out with.
The social interactions we willingly choose tend to be somewhat monochromatic, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not a bad thing that many of us found our inner circles through our predominately Black neighborhoods, our predominately Black places of worship, our historically Black colleges and universities (or the predominately Black lunch tables we sat at and parties we attended if we happened to attend a predominately White university), or our predominately Black fraternities or sororities, and I can’t chide White people for creating worlds where the circles are presumably formed in the same organically segregated way ours usually are.
I know the experience of “most” isn’t the experience of “all.” As stated earlier, I’m fully aware that there are many people actually in racially-diverse close knit circles. But, as I, the dozens of White people I know, and the majority of people reading this will tell you, a lack of that type of diversity may be the realist thing we’ll ever see on T.V.