Thursday, November 13, 2008

Black shows, white shows

I was listening to a podcast on my commute recently, and someone said something about how TV shows are segregated, and wondered whether Obama's election would either integrate sitcoms or push people to watch shows other than the ones of 'their kind.' I'm thinking Tyra more than Obama will integrate television, but we shall see.

While TV segregation is undeniable, especially regarding sitcoms, it always surprises me when "Seinfeld" is offered as the quintessential "white show." (Google "Seinfeld" and "white show" for examples, if you've never heard this argument). Gawker even calls Jerry Seinfeld, "The whitest man in America."

Clearly, "Seinfeld" is a Jewish show. Now before the avalanche of comments informing me that Jews (Ashkenazi at least) are white, let me explain. Yes, in America today, Jews see themselves as and are seen as white more than black. And a show can have actors who are Jewish and still be a 'white show.' "Friends," "The Daily Show," and so on fall into this category. But "Seinfeld" not only has Jews on its cast, but deals almost exclusively in Jewish themes, implicit (George as Woody Allen, parents in Florida) and explicit (rabbis, mohels, dubious "shiksas" and marble ryes). Just as speech intonation is different in black shows and white shows, "Seinfeld" is ambiguously Semitic New York English, if anything is. If black characters are rare on "Seinfeld," so are non-Jewish white ones, who tend to appear only as Jerry's one-line weekly love interests. They are the tokens from 'real America.'(The exception, of course, being Susan and her family, who, with their repression, drinking, and summer homes, are the definition of Gentile as Other.)

It's always something of a mystery to those of us who 'get' the show on a cultural level that it's had such a great success with those who, one imagines, do not. (Then again, I've watched enough "Designing Women" and "Everybody Hates Chris" to confirm one need not identify with a cultural situation to vegetate in front of it.) But the greater mystery still is how a show so gray could be understood as the whitest of them all.

21 comments:

Petey said...

"But "Seinfeld" not only has Jews on its cast, but deals almost exclusively in Jewish themes"

This is so bizarrely incorrect. Both George Costanza and Elaine Benes are non-Jewish.

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"Now before the avalanche of comments informing me that Jews (Ashkenazi at least) are white, let me explain."

While your explanation is fully noted and understood, it doesn't change the fact that Seinfeld really was an uber-White show.

Hispanics were always figures of fun, (with the non-syndicated The Puerto Rican Day episode becoming infamous), and African-Americans were notable for their utter absence.

The better-than-Seinfeld Curb Your Enthusiasm attempts to play off this by having Larry David constantly run into blacks who are pissed off at him over the uber-Whiteness of Seinfeld.

Phoebe said...

"This is so bizarrely incorrect. Both George Costanza and Elaine Benes are non-Jewish."

Explicitly non-Jewish, implicitly Jewish. I could give examples, but this would embarrassingly reveal just how much TV I've watched. It's like when a character is sort of understood to be gay, despite occasional references his to heterosexuality.

"Hispanics were always figures of fun, (with the non-syndicated The Puerto Rican Day episode becoming infamous), and African-Americans were notable for their utter absence."

I addressed this! On Seinfeld, even white characters who were Jewish neither implicitly nor explicitly were Others. A lack of black characters doesn't make a show "white," because the world is, uh, more than black and white.

My argument is not, once again, that Jews are actually black, or more black than white, in the U.S., but that there's something screwed up about calling "Seinfeld" a particularly white show. What's going on is probably that "very white" means "dorky," making Jews (and Asians?) "whiter" than WASPS, that is, than those who one refers to when one speaks of "white privilege.

PG said...

"African-Americans were notable for their utter absence."

What about Kramer's Johnny Cochran-esque lawyer?

I think this is just a sign of how Jews have been subsumed into urban whiteness -- think of the kind of white people who are mocked on the blog "Stuff White People Like," i.e. college-educated, upper middle class, living in cities. Also, you're necessarily seeing this from the perspective of a Jew who looks at Seinfeld and thinks, "My people!" Others may take more of the Chris Rock perspective ("we don't dice white people up into little groups, 'the Italians are OK but the Irish aren't,' you're all WHITE").

Also, I don't think I ever noticed the characters dealing with what seems to be one of the big markers of minority identity, the pressure to be part of that minority's culture by dating/marrying within it, participating in its religion, etc.

Phoebe said...

"Others may take more of the Chris Rock perspective ("we don't dice white people up into little groups, 'the Italians are OK but the Irish aren't,' you're all WHITE")."

Do you really think that in general, blacks don't distinguish between whites and Jews? I think blacks, like everyone else, see Jews as a subset of whites, but as somehow apart, even taking into account the existence of diversity among the white population.

"Also, I don't think I ever noticed the characters dealing with what seems to be one of the big markers of minority identity, the pressure to be part of that minority's culture by dating/marrying within it, participating in its religion, etc."

This is certainly complicated by the fact that, unlike on a 'black' show where the characters are all openly black, the Jewishness of "Seinfeld" is to a great extent implicit, again, as is sometimes the case with gay characters. The covert aspects do make the show more recognizably Jewish to Jews than to others, through coded situations, language, etc., but it's still a stretch to call the show among the whitest.

PG said...

I only know how blacks think about Jews from what blacks say about it, so if they tell you that they don't think of you as white, I'll assume that there's more disparity in thinking on this subject than my acquaintance and media consumption revealed.

In my own non-white capacity, even after learning about the Holocaust at school, I thought of Jews as a religiously-oppressed group of white people. I don't think I thought of them as different from just regular white people until my last year at college, when there was talk of starting a Jewish sorority. I really didn't think of a distinct Jewish culture unrelated to the religion (the marble rye, so far as I know, isn't part of Judaism) until I moved to Manhattan.

Phoebe said...

It's not that specific black people have come up to me, specifically, and told me I'm not white. Pale as I am, when I sit in class, ride the subway, walk down the street, I'm white compared even to most white people. It's that there's a history of tension (going both ways) between blacks and Jews in America, related to but different from tensions between blacks and whites.

Again, it's all context. The 'white' population of high school, how something like 2/3 Asian and Asian-American, was I would imagine more Jewish than non, but, Jewish or not, it was clear who were the 'white kids,' and that I was one of them. But I've also been in settings outside New York where it's been made clear to me that I'm not what one refers to when one says 'white' in that context.

Petey said...

"But I've also been in settings outside New York where it's been made clear to me that I'm not what one refers to when one says 'white' in that context."

Meh. You're 'white' anywhere in America. You just may not be seen as 'native' in the redneckier parts of inland America.

Similarly, white Catholics may be seen as the 'other' in Oklahoma, but they're still seen as 'white'.

PG said...

Similarly, white Catholics may be seen as the 'other' in Oklahoma, but they're still seen as 'white'.

As Phoebe probably knows better than all of us, "whiteness" is not simple. I didn't realize until recently that the CA Supreme Court case that got rid of the state's miscegenation ban dealt with a Mexican-black couple; the Mexican was considered "white." Asians once fought to be considered white, with my favorite argument coming from Bhagat Singh Thind, who figured he must belong to the highest racial caste in the U.S. because he belonged to the highest caste caste in India. (The Supreme Court conceded that he might be "Caucasian" but declared that to be different from "white.")

Not being white, I can't say whether Gentile whitefolks considered "Seinfeld" to be white, but I certainly saw it that way. It was different from the whitefolks around me, but I attributed that to a difference in geography and socioeconomic class, not to an ethnic or even religious difference (like most folks on NY-based TV, religion for the Seinfeld main characters seemed to be something that happened to other people). I didn't know marble rye from challah, but I considered it all to be part of Manhattan Life. And indeed, when I moved to Manhattan, there was the bizarre variety of bread options, so my inchoate theory seemed to have been proven. So "Seinfeld" may have been experienced differently by native New Yorkers as well by Jews, but to those of us in flyover country, it was all of a piece with that mysterious "rent control" on Friends.

Phoebe said...

"Meh. You're 'white' anywhere in America. You just may not be seen as 'native' in the redneckier parts of inland America."

I don't choose to have a 'yes it is,' 'no it isn't' kind of debate on this issue. My experience is what it is. If you choose to believe I imagined it, so be it.

Petey said...

"I don't choose to have a 'yes it is,' 'no it isn't' kind of debate on this issue. My experience is what it is. If you choose to believe I imagined it, so be it."

Not disputing the validity of your experience, I'm just saying that I've been Ashkenazi Jewish in various sections of the deepest heart of inland America, and I don't think a "lack of whiteness" is the proper phraseology for what's at issue here...

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"And indeed, when I moved to Manhattan, there was the bizarre variety of bread options, so my inchoate theory seemed to have been proven."

Good baked goods are merely a civilization item, not a specifically Jewish item.

This is one of several excellent reasons to be a Francophile, for example.

And Jews, like the French, were good Roman subjects, once conquered.

Phoebe said...

"Not disputing the validity of your experience, I'm just saying that I've been Ashkenazi Jewish in various sections of the deepest heart of inland America, and I don't think a "lack of whiteness" is the proper phraseology for what's at issue here..."

I think we can all agree that, as with blacks, there are some Ashkenazi Jews who can 'pass' and others who can't.

Phoebe said...

Finally, the best bread of all is found in Belgium. Yes, better than France. WANT.

Petey said...

"I think we can all agree that, as with blacks, there are some Ashkenazi Jews who can 'pass' and others who can't."

Not quite what I was getting at.

I don't think I was 'passing'. I think I was identified as Jewish, and as 'other' for purposes of our discussion, but not as 'non-white'.

Merely a semantic distinction, but I think semantics is our topic here.

Phoebe said...

Where do you draw the line between being seen as 'other' and as 'non-white'? Arabs? Turks? There are parts of this country where visible, racial foreignness is effectively being non-white, even if, forced at gunpoint to check a box on a census form, the above-mentioned groups, along with Ashkenazi Jews, might eventually be filed as 'white' by process of elimination, even by white-supremacists.

Petey said...

"Where do you draw the line between being seen as 'other' and as 'non-white'? Arabs? Turks?"

Turks are tricky, which is precisely why they create such a controversy about joining the EU. And Arabs are just exotic Turks.

Ashkenazi Jews, OTOH, are by definition European, which pretty much correlates with 'white'.

"There are parts of this country where visible, racial foreignness is effectively being non-white"

Again, I will offer up the example of a white Catholic in Oklahoma, perhaps an Italian, who is 'other' and 'white' simultaneously.

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Obviously the situation is not clear cut, which is what makes it interesting.

Phoebe said...

"Ashkenazi Jews, OTOH, are by definition European, which pretty much correlates with 'white'."

Now, often yest, but at any other moment, no. Jews were considered "Oriental" foreigners in just about all Western situations other than the present-day United States. (Thus the calls to 'go back to Palestine'--ending, of course, once this became a viable option.) Jews you meet in New York who speak of their grandparents being 'Russian and Polish' have grandparents whose neighbors definitively did not see them as either. Point being, that my ancestry is in Europe does not mean my ancestors were ever thought of as European.

Phoebe said...

yes not yest

Petey said...

"Now, often yes(), but at any other moment, no."

Ah, the anti-Dreyfusards rear their ugly heads.

But we live outside the confines of musty history. As the horrible song goes, "everybody gets to dance, only in America."

(Not that that has anything to do with the connotations of 'whiteness'...)

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My correct initial response in this thread should have been:

You know how white TV shows plot like this, but black TV shows plot like this?

PG said...

There are parts of this country where visible, racial foreignness is effectively being non-white, even if, forced at gunpoint to check a box on a census form, the above-mentioned groups, along with Ashkenazi Jews, might eventually be filed as 'white' by process of elimination, even by white-supremacists.

Hey, some people's concept of "Asian" is so circumscribed to "vaguely yellowish and eyes with different shape than Caucasian eyes" that they'll categorize a completely non-white person as "white." Though more while they're carrying a gun than otherwise.

kei said...

In high school, when I enjoyed deliriously believing that Chicago was all that mattered, I just thought "Seinfeld" portrayed their characters as living in New York, pronouncing things funny ("coffee" was my favorite; I once asked a NYC cops for directions when I didn't need them just to hear the accent), and being kind of neurotic. I didn't even know about the boroughs until 9/11.

And then I met Mordecai, which opened my world to first Long Island, then Manhattan (and Junior's in Brooklyn). He pointed out all the New York-ness and Jewishness of Seinfeld to me, so I see the show as implicitly Jewish. "White" is a vague description, anyway. I might've considered "Seinfeld" a "white show" in high school if someone asked specifically, "Do you think 'Seinfeld' is a 'white show'?" but if asked to come up with a "white show" on my own, I probably would've said "Married with Children" or "Roseanne" back then.

When I read "white show" in this post, I immediately thought of "Gossip Girl." There are the rich girls and boys, private school setting, sidelining the black and Asian characters, buying art for wives, the "poor" creative family living in Brooklyn, etc. I'm not sure if that's a better "white show" example. Some of these characteristics show up on my all-time favorite, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." There are always these hard-to-categorize cases, which is probably why they aired for so long in the first place.

CJ said...

Thanks for this post Phoebe. I've watched Seinfeld, but I never realized that it could even be interpreted as a jewish show. It's an interesting thought.