The Great Gatsby is considered by pretty much everyone to be an American classic. The story of a young, rich man living a life of luxury, driving nice cars, and falling in love. But wait–it also tells of the expectations associated with wealthy white people. Gatsby created a life for himself, serving as an example of the “American dream” through his rise to the top of the upper class, but it came with a heavy price.
In 2005, UMBC partnered with the International Center of Photography to create “White“: an exhibit that examined how “white skin and white privilege inexorably shape images of the world…” The work of twelve artists was displayed, each taking a different approach to representing whiteness.
In Nikki S. Lee’s The Yuppie Series, for example, she infiltrates and chronicles the world of Wall Street professionals, adopting their dress, behavior, and living habits, thus implying their easy definability. Other artists also concentrated on the generalized categories of white people—“white trash”, WASPS, and executives.
In comes the dichotomy of identity: If a person is white and in the middle to upper class, presumptions are often made about what they’re supposed to like, buy, or how they interact with their surroundings. Take the Stuff White People Like website—apparently white people like single malt scotch, coffee, awareness of other racial groups and cultures, and expensive clothing. Gatsby used these racial and social assumptions to pass himself off as the rich white stereotype—he ordered his shirts from England, drove a Rolls Royce, and led people he received a degree from Oxford. Essentially, Gatsby cemented his place in the social hierarchy by presenting the “right” background, wearing the “right” clothing, and through his conspicuous consumption.
That was the 1920s. Now, filling the rich, white stereotype isn’t quite as simple, especially since the emergence of the “hipster” figure. Hipsters, I have learned, are the bane of many people’s existence, but their existence itself says something about American society. In a scathing article by Christian Lorentzen about hipsters, she writes that “Hipsters in their present undead incarnation are essentially people who think of themselves as being cooler than America. But they are afflicted by that other ism sociologists made an industry of decrying in the 20th century: narcissism.”
This narcissism likely comes with wealth—if you’re already white and wealthy, apparently you don’t have to prove anything to people.
Instead of concentrating on presuppositions of whiteness, Nancy Burson’s installment in the ICP exhibit depicts Jesus in her works in a variety of ethnicities and colors. As the original creator of a composite system that allows people to see what they would look like if they had different racial features, Burson challenges stereotypes and pushes people to look past their outward appearance and into the facial features of someone else. But is it someone else, or are you always you?
Interested in the concept of the exhibit, I dug a little deeper. I learned that UMBC (in affiliation with the ICP) created a curriculum packet about the exhibit and its contents. Given my typical skepticism, I wondered how they planned to pull that off—how do you teach kids about being white?
You use art.
While the curriculum seemed a big lengthy, I got the point, and I have to admit I found it fascinating. Imagine the discussions kids could have about perceptions of beauty, advertisements, and societal ideals! While I’m positive that parental outcry is almost a given for classroom conversations such as this one, it’s a conversation kids need to have. It doesn’t need to be about perceptions of white people and being white, it can start that way, but I think that by looking at art, they can draw on shared experiences and perceptions of the art rather than immediately being forced into a comparison of more personal experiences. Sounds like a good dialectical discussion to me…
 Maurice Berger, “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art,” International Center of Photography, n.d., http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/white/intro2.html
 Christian Lorentzen, “Why the hipster must die: A modest proposal to save New York cool,” Time Out: New York, May 29, 2007, http://newyork.timeout.com/things-to-do/this-week-in-new-york/8355/why-the-hipster-must-die.