Karen O and the Future of Whiteness

Via the Democratic Strategist, I was interested to read Alan Abramowitz’s informative article on the demographic shifts undergirding America’s political coalitions. This is a topic also usefully explored by Ruy Teixeira in his recent report on “The New Progressive America”. Naturally, one topic that comes up in both of these discussions is the rising number of non-white—which is to say African-American or Hispanic or Asian—people in the electorate.

This, in turn, reminded me of another issue that also came to mind when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates casually refer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O as a “white girl.” In reality she is, as they say, “Half Korean, 100% Rock Star”. Nevertheless, I think there’s a clear sense in which it strikes people as more intuitive to refer to a half-white, half-Korean indie rock star born in Korea and raised by both parents in New Jersey as “white” than it is to refer to a half-white, half-Kenyan President born in Hawaii and raised by his white mom and grandparents as “white.”


All of which is to say that there’s a decent chance that we’re evolving in a direction where the salient divide isn’t between “white” and “non-white” but between “black” and “non-black.” Somewhat along these lines, yesterday I was watching Rick Sanchez on CNN, who I’d always thought of as just another white guy on TV, talking about Bobby Rush’s visit to Cuba and I suddenly realized that Sanchez is a Spanish name and he must be Cuban. Which is to say not “white” at all, but “Hispanic.” Just like, you know, me. But without wanting to put any words in his mouth, I don’t think either of us have a major problem hailing a cab or whatever.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to recall that many currently “white” ethnic groups—Jews, Italians, Irish, etc.—weren’t always understood as being white. And it seems quite plausible that more and more Asians and Hispanics will, over time, come to attain “white” status. In political terms, meanwhile, once upon a time white Catholics were a core Democratic Party constituency. But over time, things just changed and the GOP coalition expanded from a white Protestant one to a broader white Christian one.