"I can't imagine growing up thinking the American dream was real"
August 15, 2021 9:20 AM   Subscribe

F.D Signifier on Bo Burnham's Inside and "White Liberal Performative Art": White Habitus, Performative Wokeness and Existential Dread.
[auto-transcript only]
posted by simmering octagon (37 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I got about 15 minutes into Inside before I couldn't stand the self-absorption any more and flipped it off. This video made me think I need to flip it back on and soldier through.
posted by gurple at 10:16 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting this.
posted by Alterscape at 10:52 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]

Handy formula: Racism isn't evil because evil isn't real - and racism is real.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:02 AM on August 15 [14 favorites]

Liked it. I thought it was well-presented and argued. Liked how he talked about "WP Music" like it was a positive thing, as if we were the exotic other with a fascinating culture for a second.

Mostly I got to post-wokeness a long time ago by dating a Black woman while being a somewhat immature 20-year-old white guy who thought he was, uh, "with it," like, racially. I felt entitled to engage the concept of race with her and she quickly got to the point of shut the FUCK up. It just made her furious for reasons she couldn't even begin to articulate.

So, much of what's going on these days leaves me a little cold. It feels like it's not my place to go out and march and shit. I'm looking for subtle, authentic ways I can make a difference (mostly in how I do my job) and I'm just vaguely sad about it.

For me this didn't say that much about Bo specifically, but it captured and articulated some interesting things.
posted by anhedonic at 11:36 AM on August 15 [5 favorites]

This thread is starting off weird . . . "post-wokeness"?
posted by Think_Long at 11:39 AM on August 15 [4 favorites]

Well, "woke" is a loaded term of course but I think I'm on the same wavelength as F.D. with this. He talks about the performative aspect of activism and the way we do things to feel good about ourselves without making an actual difference, and he talks about his own lack of patience with it (though he seems like an endlessly patient person, actually.)

(I mean seriously, did you watch the video? What did it it mean to you? Sorry you find what I'm saying "weird.")
posted by anhedonic at 11:45 AM on August 15

Oh neat, I just randomly stumbled upon this video last night and enjoyed it. Glad to see it shared here.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:46 AM on August 15

He talks about the performative aspect of activism and the way we do things to feel good about ourselves without making an actual difference

I think I can see how it’s seen as “weird”, because this definition is very similar to “virtue signaling”, the argument that conservatives often used against any kind of social justice message or activism.
posted by FJT at 12:11 PM on August 15 [12 favorites]

He talks about the performative aspect of activism and the way we do things to feel good about ourselves without making an actual difference

I don't think he classifies activism as performative, it's that he's referring to activism that is itself performative. When Signifier is talking about wokeness, he's very deliberately not coming at it from the shitty Harper's Letter "the alphabet people and college students teaching CRT are threats to the freedom of speech" perspective, and I don't think he ever mentions stuff like "cancel culture." The major examples he provides are the pussy hat/safety pin and brands making their Twitter avatars into rainbow flags, the (IMO valid) criticisms of which probably makes a lot of what he calls white liberals pretty uncomfortable or even angry. Which, as he later points out, can be a problem when those white liberals don't confront or question why they feel that way.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 12:24 PM on August 15 [17 favorites]

Well, "woke" is a loaded term of course but I think I'm on the same wavelength as F.D. with this. He talks about the performative aspect of activism and the way we do things to feel good about ourselves without making an actual difference

I am most definitely not the expert on the definition of “woke”, partly because I am not in nor of the community that coined the term. Rather, I’m in the demographic that appropriated the term and shifted its meaning… which rather seems like a/the major cause of it now being a “loaded term”? Given that, it strikes me as, let’s say, challenging, to be a white person and express any sort of opinion on the term in a non-performative way. Any discussion around the definition of wokeness is perhaps a conversation that doesn’t need and likely would do better without our input, instead only needing for us to listen and act on any recommendations that come out of it.
posted by eviemath at 12:54 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

Any discussion around the definition of "wokeness" is perhaps a conversation that doesn’t need and likely would do better without our input

If the conversation is taking place at all, then the far-right are getting what they wanted.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:17 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

I don't think he classifies activism as performative, it's that he's referring to activism that is itself performative.

You could even argue that the two things he cites are straw men. (I thought the pussy hats were funny, personally, and I never even heard of the safety pin thing.) It's not an analysis of the movement per se (which, he also concedes "did move the needle" on social justice) - it's a stance, a feeling that probably won't go away even if lots of things change.

Anyway, I don't see the point of focusing on me if you haven't watched the video. I liked it, I'm glad I watched it. You should watch it, too!
posted by anhedonic at 1:30 PM on August 15

Huh? I did watch it, that's how I know what examples he used and his discussion about them.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 1:37 PM on August 15

Yeah, sorry, I wasn't talking specifically to you with that bit. People raising hackles about "woke" isn't really interesting if you aren't watching TFV.
posted by anhedonic at 1:41 PM on August 15

Depends on the hackles? I find critiques about white misappropriation of the term interesting, myself. Thus my commenting on it. This is all rather beside the point of the video, of course. What is relevant is that, just as being “apolitical” is also a political stance, being not-one-of-those-performative-white-liberals is equally performative, I imagine.
posted by eviemath at 1:54 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

On a different topic, I’m not familiar with F.D. Signifier, but his discussion of Burham’s audience made me think/wonder about who Signifier’s audience is. It also put me in mind of the film Qallunaat, which also takes a sociological or anthropological look at whiteness from an outsider’s perspective.
posted by eviemath at 2:39 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

Having watched TFV (assuming we mean "flipping" video, because gross, no, demeaning and hostile, if we meant "the fucking video"), anhedonic, it seems you mean you got "post-white habitus world view," or at least aware of it, because you're coming across as performatively woke right here in the thread and also bringing the referenced existential dread. The fact that you're ~1/4th of the comments as of this writing, and centered yourself from the get go to perform your wokeness, I dunno, I think there's still probably work to do there.

I don't think white folks in the states get to a point where we "get it." If you are a white person and think you do, tbh that makes me uncomfortable, no, further frightened. We all have skillsets, lives, worldviews, economic circumstances, etc, etc etc that came from a certain ballistic trajectory that was/is deeeeeeeeeeeply white supremacist. From the words we learned to the preverbal and developmental architecture of our human organism, imo, we are sculpted so. I just don't see a "post-woke" coming from that, but maybe I'm just a slow learner.

On that note, I went ahead and downloaded Signifier's recommendation on my Kindle (Racism without Racists) and am going to see how it can fit into my reading habits. I felt like I was able to finish a few of his sentences for him (racism is systemic, calling racism evil saves face, do we want to help folks or do we just want to feel better), but much of my understanding is abstraction or extrapolation from personal trauma/cptsd and what is likely my own projection onto what I see Black folks experience. I just simply can't experience being Black, so if Racism Without Racists is the "best book for folks to learn about racism who haven't experienced it" (paraphrased), I'm going to take that recommendation.

I also haven't watched this special but I have a good friend who speaks very highly of Burnham but mostly circles the drain of "existential dread" and feeling bad about how his mere existence perpetuates racism (landed a cushy remote job out of college, paid off his loans, has saved for and plans to secure a home, lived safely in an urban co-op, etc). This seems like it could be a good touchstone to cocreate some more spheres of reality if I can get through it.

Thank you so much for posting this, simmering octagon.
posted by CPAnarchist at 2:53 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

This is a beautiful video and I learned a lot from it. If you're reading this comment but you didn't watch the video because you're uncomfortable with the word "performative" - do yourself a favor and watch it anyway. You'll be grateful!
posted by pazazygeek at 5:08 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

We all have skillsets, lives, worldviews, economic circumstances, etc, etc etc that came from a certain ballistic trajectory that was/is deeeeeeeeeeeply white supremacist. From the words we learned to the preverbal and developmental architecture of our human organism, imo, we are sculpted so.

What’s this horseshit now?
posted by Atom Eyes at 5:20 PM on August 15 [9 favorites]

The “white people music” part stuck out to me because it seems like we’re realizing how big a role Black artists played in developing popular music, and how much white artists have taken from them and redeveloped some genres into a palatable white sound. The Blink-182 example in particular was interesting... I know their audience is mostly sheltered white suburban teenagers, but without bands like Death, Pure Hell, and Bam Bam, you wouldn’t have punk. Blink-182 and their fans probably weren’t aware of these bands (since their music wasn’t widely available in the 1990s), but how much could we call a genre “white people music” if Black musicians created it? This isn’t to take away from Signifier’s larger statement, but it was an angle that seemed significant.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:39 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

I only just saw "Inside" a few days ago, never having heard of Bo Burnham before, and found it every bit as amazing as FD Signifier says it is... and I enjoyed FD Signifier's discussion of it. Thanks for posting.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:38 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

Wow. Thanks for posting this. I was expecting it to be more of a critique of Inside, which I loved (and which I was a little afraid he was going to tear down for the things I loved about it). And instead this was about the thing I loved most about it - Burnham's clear discomfort with whether he can/should make jokes at all, and the whole idea of performativity in the face of that dread (if you don't have time to watch the whole video, the way he breaks down to existential dread starts at around the 29 minute mark).
posted by Mchelly at 6:42 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

I have only ever heard of the safety pin thing in the context of people pointing out how ... inadequate it is.
posted by RobotHero at 7:23 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]

We all have skillsets, lives, worldviews, economic circumstances, etc, etc etc that came from a certain ballistic trajectory that was/is deeeeeeeeeeeply white supremacist. From the words we learned to the preverbal and developmental architecture of our human organism, imo, we are sculpted so.

What’s this horseshit now?

Charitably read, you can say that many of the institutions and culture of the past 500+ years of Western history has built itself around anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and it's difficult for white people living in the midst of all of these invisible influences to be truly anti-racist.

A good example are BLM signs inside of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood - someone bought the house, changed the neighborhood, got that slice of the bank's money in a system that still disproportionately favors white people, raised the property taxes with renos, paid vast sums into the incredibly white development/real estate industry which grows and expands as a result.

But then a BLM sign is plopped down, $20 donated to a Black trans person's GoFundMe, a protest they didn't organize was attended, subsequent volunteering/organizing and doing the actual boring, hard work of organizing (like attending city council meetings about zoning policies, or working with others to roll out canvassing/book clubs/etc) just isn't done.

It's a truly blissful kind of ignorance to be an agent of acute suffering all while being able to see oneself as an angel of charity.
posted by paimapi at 9:53 PM on August 15 [7 favorites]

>From the words we learned to the preverbal and developmental architecture of our human organism, imo, we are sculpted so.

What’s this horseshit now?

It's not horseshit. Babies start to demonstrate racial bias at around 6-9 months old, i.e. generally before they can verbalize their first word:
In the first study, published in Developmental Science, Lee showed that six- to nine-month-old babies begin to associate faces from their own race with happy music and those from other races with sad music.

In the second study, published in Child Development, the researchers found that babies as young as six months were more inclined to learn information from an adult of his or her own race, rather than from an adult of a different race.
The professor involved in the studies believes that lack of exposure to other races may be the cause. So we've got white segregation/isolation that sets the stage for white habitus, all at the preverbal development period.
posted by naju at 4:10 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

...and if "everyone" did show up to zoning meetings, what then?

I've had varying levels of involvement with the east bay SURJ chapter, which has tried very hard to thread the needle on doing meaningful positive work as a white ally organization. A few problems to solve at the get-go:

a) How do you handle newly-wokened people, who are practically dripping with savior complex?
b) When you get large influxes of people (eg, fall 2016), how do you keep them from overwhelming PoC-led efforts? A recurring theme in anti-racism organizing work is white people (of whom there are, demographically speaking, a lot) slowly becoming a majority of originally PoC orgs. Activist gentrification, basically.
c) How do we do this in a sustainable way? Efforts are going to be entirely volunteer based, which means you're going to have high turnover as people's other priorities in life (work, kids, parents with failing health, night school, etc) get in the way.
c') oh, and btw, 'volunteer-based' also means that your active membership will consist almost-entirely of well-off retirees and spouses of wealth. Untangle all the extra class and generational baggage at your leisure.

...and so on.

There's a tendency in The Discourse to be rather hard on imperfect people who are trying to do the right thing. I think this is a mistake. The primary problem at the zoning meetings isn't the supporters who don't show up, but the people who are actively supporting white supremacist structures. Getting people to show up helps, but really doesn't solve the problem, because the council members were elected by and (thus) are themselves on the side of bad policy. To solve /that/, you need to build out electorally-meaningful networks of people who are willing to engage at the level of, say, putting a sign in their window and following a voter guide. ie, exactly the low-information/low-effort supporters.

There's a tendency, in the face of unsolvable problems, for activist circles to turn on themselves. If we can't win in the real fight, maybe we can at least win at some in-fighting! And if we can't get any actual racists to reform, we can at least make our new members feel ashamed! This is obviously counter-productive.

For the newly-a-wokenened, embrace, educate, and point them towards work that does more good than harm. Point out that it is, in fact, possible to do more harm than good, but teach them to listen, teach them some history, and get them started on some worthwhile work. Maybe they'll burn out and do something else after a few weeks of stuffing envelopes, or maybe they'll go on to do piles of interesting work over the next 20 years.

And for the working mom with three kids to juggle, give her a window sign and a voter guide, and leave out the fucking grief. We do, in fact, need the votes.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:46 AM on August 16 [37 favorites]

Re: the video, I thought it was really good, but he is way more charitable than I am about Bo Burnham, and IMO doesn't dig down to that extra layer of ironic self-awareness that Burnham (and a lot of the young white fanbase he speaks to) traffics in. The overwhelming feeling I got from watching Inside was that he's a particularly adept comedian at navigating "The Discourse" - it seems like he spends a lot of time in twitter spaces where race discourse happens, is savvy about the criticisms levied against various white comedians, movies, music, etc., and is self-conscious about the many pitfalls and landmines of being a white comedian during a time of pronounced scrutiny of / reckoning for white media. So Inside within the first 10 minutes wants you, the viewer, to be very clear that Burnham is quite aware that he is just another white, privileged voice centering himself and his white experiences and taking up space in a cultural landscape that is shifting towards non-white voices, that he is duly conflicted and favors that shift and is on the right side of The Discourse, and beyond that is also aware of the pitfalls of "wokeness" and of White Allyship syndrome - in other words, he has already anticipated all of your graduate-level criticisms and is already speaking at your advanced level and to your heightened sense of scrutiny about him. And since he "gets it" in the same way you do, including sidestepping the landmine of actually saying you "get it", he's at the highest evolved form of white dude possible, and you can relax and drop your guard and call off the dogs, and go along for the ride. Again, this is all within the first 10 minutes, which might count as the most remarkable "white person showing to (primarily) other white people that he has done the work on race and self-interrogated" ever put to film.

Having done that, he hammers this point home again and again, including the sketch where the puppet is a stand-in for oppressed peoples, which doesn't really say anything so much as "I've absorbed the discourse enough to know that the way out of the trap is to talk about how I'm the problem".

It's an intense, elevated form of navel-gazing and falling down the labyrinth of his own learned construction of how to behave as a white person in a performing space. Inside as a whole is Burnham self-centering to an extreme, and answering the question of "why should I pay attention to yet another young, cishet white male talking about his personal woes and struggles?" with "I acknowledge that you're asking this question, and I actually agree! You didn't expect that, did you?"

Which is, yes, absolutely fascinating. And worth dissecting at length, though I feel like we didn't get that in this video. Like F.D. Signifier, I thought parts were really funny and even formally brilliant. But the lingering aftertaste really stood out to me as, essentially, an extended portrayal of the educated white leftist intellect devouring itself. Which is a spectacle we're going to see more and more of, and many of us non-whites will likely be forced to familiarize ourselves with (as a survival tactic, if nothing else), in the coming years.
posted by naju at 5:00 AM on August 16 [14 favorites]

... assuming we mean "flipping" video, because gross, no, demeaning and hostile, if we meant "the fucking video")
That there is some performative wokeness, I'm pretty sure.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:01 AM on August 16 [15 favorites]

I really needed and appreciated this.
My life was recently... ruined? because of some very public work I did in organizing against the Proud Boys, bringing the fight to them, and doing so as a self-described White Christian Man. This led to the firing of our fairly beloved Chief of Police, which sucked, be they sucked at their job when it came to fighting fascism.
The first people who turned on me were white liberals, and I hate to say this but it was most especially white liberal women - who claimed that I was responsible and that if we'd just "ignored" them they would have gone away.

All of this is, I guess, my way of saying that I'm only interested in listening to white activists who have significantly and materially sacrificed from their own personal wealth and well-being. Everyone else is background noise at best, or a likely candidate for piling on to you when you start to actually do the work.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:36 AM on August 16 [12 favorites]

Metafilter: Because you're coming across as performatively woke right here in the thread and also bringing the referenced existential dread.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:20 AM on August 16 [5 favorites]

^ if MeFi spit rhymes
posted by elkevelvet at 9:41 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

I've largely buttoned up for threads like this, though I read through them, because, if the last 5-7 years have taught me anything, it's that I, a cis, het, white, old(er) man, need to STFU and open my ears more than add my voice to most of these, a course of action which I have tried to follow. I feel that I can make a comment on this one as it directly references and deals with, well, me, and people like me.

I appreciate Signifier's empathy and even his 'morbid curiosity'. I'm trying to shed the default status of white worldview, largely by replacing it with a more rational, historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological (esp. Tajfel's work on identity) structure of analysis, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't (deconstruction is messy). But it's not easy - it takes intellectual work, and sometimes some emotional work, as I reinterpret scenes that come in from my life's worth of memories from swimming in this water. But, largely, I don't go around spouting about how hard it is, 'cause that's the very shit that Signifier is talking about: 'It's just another Tuesday' to him. Nobody wants to hear about my problems, including you and even me - just do the work.

So, I STFU, learn as much as I can from as many voices as I'm exposed to, and slowly bore my way to a better world, hoping that there's someone across the gulf that's being interested, empathetic, and understanding, and will meet me halfway, even though I know, with absolute certainty, that it's neither their responsibility or their problem if it doesn't happen - this is my responsibility, and I will only succeed to the degree that I'm willing to do the work, and that meeting me halfway is a great gift, as halfway was nowhere near where they themselves started, and they didn't have a choice. But I still hope, because I'm going to have to help people that won't do the work (like some people in my life), and having a 'chain of understanding' (for lack of a better term) from one side to the other will make it easier to destroy white habitus, white supremacy, whiteness, and eventually, race as a thing. I hope, and, lo and behold, there's someone like Signifier.

I have crazy numbers of thoughts on the 'performative wokeness - existential dread' interaction, (taking performative wokeness as a form of identity signifier) especially since I'm doing research on this as well as its interaction with class and imperial/colonial dynamics, but that's kinda getting far afield of what I wanted to comment on.
posted by eclectist at 10:05 AM on August 16 [9 favorites]

All of this is reminding me of a time when I attended a George Floyd memorial/protest that was organized and led by a group of brilliant BLM high school students from my town.
I was doing what I do, which was - at the time - to shut the fuck up and quietly pay for port-o-potties and tables and chairs and the PA system and whatever else the students needed.

Anyway, during the event I was still serving on the local police oversight board and I made it clear to the cops that the teens really, really didn't want to see any police uniforms at their event. I made them promise that if they absolutely had to show up it would be black, plain-clothes officers and they seemed pretty chill with that. To their credit, they were doing some work to elevate black voices in their own department and recognized that there was a long road ahead of them.

Day of, I'm watching these kids pull off this brilliant, emotional, honest event, everyone is pumped. And I see a white lady, maybe early 40s, animatedly talking into her cell phone. And I swear to God she was wearing a pink pussy hat.
I overhear her phone conversation and it becomes clear she's talking to a Person In Authority, she's saying something like, "I don't know, there's just a lot of kids here and he looks kind of sketchy, he's wearing a backpack, I think somebody should just check him out..." and I realize she's calling police dispatch about a homeless guy who is sitting near us under a tree.

Immediately after she hangs up I confronted her - "did you just call the cops?" "Yes," she says in hushed tones, "I think that guy over there is planning something, like maybe he has a bomb in his backpack or something?"

I say, "That's Thomas, he lives in this park, and you just called the police to come and detain someone at a black lives matter protest - I am absolutely baffled that you would think it's ok to do this and you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

She gets indignant, "i'M tHe OnE tRyInG tO ProTecT tHeSe KiDs and how dare you imply this and that and the other thing etc." but I already had my back to her and was on the phone with dispatch, explained who I was, explained who Thomas (the man with the backpack) was, and begged them to please not send a PSO to "check things out."

And thank God, we were a smallish liberal city and dispatch laughed and said something like, "yeah, that's what I figured," and said "public safety is keeping a low profile today," and I thanked her.

The woman in the pink hat went on to harass me throughout the afternoon, especially when she saw me explaining to the event organizers what had nearly transpired, even more especially when one of the students got on the mic to say, "If you are a white person and you call the cops you are part of the Problem. You aren't a helper. You are responsible for state violence."

So, eh, fuck white liberals, they ruined my life and they can't just keep their sticky little paws from attempting to "help" (and by "help" they mean "take control of things and make everyone feel nice") and now I live way way out in the country with my animals and my family and my guns and it will be a long time before I return to a white liberal city. I don't want to feel 'nice' and I don't like spending time with white people who value feeling 'nice and safe' above everything else on this planet.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:11 AM on August 16 [28 favorites]

Eclectist - I really, really appreciate your honesty in your comment.

White habitus is 100% the place to begin with this work - and imho it gets us the furthest down the path toward some kind of better world where white guys can actually make some kind of positive impact. In one of my classes that was almost exclusively older white men sorting out their shit we'd play a game. We'd try to list stuff that represented "white culture" (which is an oxymoron.)
Not just "shit white people like," because a lot of that is just appropriated from other folks and watered down.
But what is whiteness in America?
And we'd come up with stuff, funny stuff, like "buying a $75,000 pickup truck in order to cosplay as working class" and "never living more than ten miles from a Cheesecake Factory," and it helped lighten the mood.

Understanding that we do have culture, a cultus, things that make us individuals that aren't "white culture" can give us something to hold on to. Learning how to simultaneously STFU while putting the resources you have into the hands of organizers is hard work. For me, I had the benefit of access to church money, I viewed a large part of my work as transferring wealth from white liberals trapped in the "existential dread" into the hands of BLM organizers. But there are a million ways to approach this problem - and avoiding the hand-wringing of performative existential dread is really, really important.
Because otherwise we just become a different flavor of "sick, white, brother" - sick less with directionless rage of racial hatred, and sick instead with the debilitating impotency of nice, white, liberal dread - which turns us into simply another burden that black folks need to overcome to get the work accomplished.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:23 AM on August 16 [8 favorites]

If we can't say fucking anymore, I am done with the entire world. Just done.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:39 AM on August 16 [6 favorites]

That was a really great piece. Signifier really put words to what I, a 46 year-old, middle class white guy, have had bouncing around my head for the last six years or so. His statement that racism isn’t evil really hit home for me — I’d long ago come to the conclusion that we label things “evil” so we can pretend they aren’t part of our makeup.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 10:21 PM on August 16 [4 favorites]


I feel the same. I put it as "skin in the game", moment for me. Things that are important to me; I have realized that I need to get involved one way or another. Otherwise, I need to STFU.
posted by indianbadger1 at 12:50 PM on August 18

« Older Canadian Federal Election   |   The homebuyer’s course said always look inside the... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments