Philosophical Psychopathy

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…”[1] The work of twelve artists was displayed, each taking a different approach to representing whiteness.

Nikki S. Lee, The Yuppie Project (14), 1998

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.[2] 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.

Photo courtesy of

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.”[3]

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…

[1] Maurice Berger, “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art,” International Center of Photography, n.d.,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christian Lorentzen, “Why the hipster must die: A modest proposal to save New York cool,” Time Out: New York, May 29, 2007,

3 thoughts on “Philosophical Psychopathy

  1. A dialogue indeed. You have brought up many interesting points. At what point and to what degree is wealth automatically equated to whiteness? Or, is it vice versa, are certain types of whiteness automatically parallel to wealth?

    One of the most interesting comments on was written by someone else named Christine. She wrote:

    “You obviously don’t know anything about race if you consider President Obama a white person or a Chinese person of a certain class a white person. What you’re saying is completely offensive and negates the savagery of racism. Because a non-white person attains a certain class means they’re white all of a sudden? Please stop being so ignorant and offensive.”

    So, if wealth can make some think you are more white or make others white, then when did denying your wealth make you a cool white person? It seems from the article by Christian Lorentzen that the only way to be “cool” if you are white, is to strip away your privilege. What is the the root of this idea: Is it purely a post-civil rights phenomenon? Or, a backlash to the me-generation 1980’s? Is it rooted in post-9/11 society? What is the effect of the 2008 crash? Maybe, this is an unavoidable casualty of the 2008 recession and the resulting boomerang generation.

    I am interested in the outreach you have found about whiteness. What does a student or a museum goer learn from these exercises? They learn about privilege and the proliferation of presumed and sought after whiteness in our society. I guess, the real question is what do they do with they learn? I don’t really have answer to this question. Maybe one of you do?

  2. Cool find on the exhibit!

    I also liked reading the Time Out article. “Real” New Yorkers love to hate that curious specimen known as “the hipster” and I get a kick out of these impassioned diatribes against them. Also, I’m so confused about what constitutes a hipster these days, but there’s one thing I do know for sure: they do not, nor did they in 2007, wear trucker hats.

    1. True dat on the Tucker Hats, sister! Even LA hipsters would never have been caught dead in a Paris Hilton Trucker Hat. Unless it was seriously ironic, like wearing a Run DMC pants suit and carrying around Dion Warwick’s 1980’s box cell phone that you found at pawn shop in Melrose.

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