Sunday, May 6, 2007

the white boy shuffle

Paul Beatty's novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996) is an outrageously funny, thoroughly unsentimental portrait of life in inner-city America. It follows the life of Gunnar Kaufman, an African-American poet and basketball player who is raised in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood before moving to inner-city Los Angeles. Initially out of his element in "the 'hood," Gunnar eventually becomes a community leader of sorts, organizing weekly events at which even drug dealers and gang leaders are compelled to give testimonials and confessions.

What is most wonderful about this book is its unflinching and merciless treatment of racial stereotypes. Beatty leaves no stereotype unexamined -- from gang bangers to white liberal poetry aficionados to Japanese mail-order brides -- and the result is always funny and unpredictable. Most of my students, I think, enjoyed it as much as I did.

One student remarked that although she thought the book was funny, and although she thought it was an appropriate book for the course (which was a bit of a relief to me, as some of the language and subject matter are pretty risqué, even by today's standards), she didn't like it because she "couldn't relate to it." I pressed her to explain what she meant, but she couldn't. She gave her criticism in a polite and measured tone; nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering if she only wants to read books about conservative white girls from Nevada. What a boring, boring world it would be if we only opened our hearts to the experiences of people just like ourselves.

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