Timothy Yu (continued): So, to be a little arch: what’s a white poet to do? Here’s where I want to turn to another debate around race and poetry I was involved in a few years back. This was a discussion that took place in 2006 around a poem by Michael Magee called “Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay.” After Magee read the poem in the Bay Area, several of those in attendance began a discussion about the images of Asians in the poem, which continued over numerous blogs (including my own, where it generated over 100 comments). Some readers felt that the poem was uncritical in its use of Asian stereotypes, while defenders of the poem argued that it was anti-racist, calling attention to the way images of Asians circulate in our culture.
(My own blog posts on the poem, with appended comments, can be found here:
An archive of the full discussion from several different blogs can be found on the what we said site [scroll down to “RACE”]:
There is little resemblance between Magee’s and Hoagland’s poems, and certainly no resemblance between Magee’s anti-racist intentions and Hoagland’s winking embrace of racism. But I do think that there are similarities in the way the discussions around both poems were framed, and I also think that both poems, in their utterly different ways, end up illustrating what Rankine calls “whiteness thinking.”
In my blog posts on Magee’s poems, I proposed three different ways in which racial stereotypes get used in contemporary poems: ambivalent, ironic, and self-critical. Ambivalent use of racial imagery is a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion from race, marked by a deep unease with the racial other. Ironic or parodic stereotyping is a more self-conscious use of stereotypes that usually holds the stereotype at a distance; the most common forms are when a person of color uses stereotypes about his own group, or when an author puts racist statements in the mouth of a character who is not the author herself. Finally, self-critical stereotyping, rather than taking a position outside racist discourse (as the ironist does), deploys, explores, and even exaggerates racist imagery in the hope of turning it against itself, breaking it down from within.
My initial assumption in creating this taxonomy was that no contemporary poet would consciously set out to create a racist poem. Hoagland may seem to challenge that assumption through his avowals of racism, but as I’ve shown, he’s much cagier on the question than it might first appear. The poem itself shows the classic signs of racial ambivalence—the mixed awe and anxiety over the African American tennis player, the fetishization of her massive body and her “Zulu bangles”—but Hoagland’s defense preserves the ironic position by suggesting that this is a dramatic monologue, a persona poem whose speaker is not the author. Am I a racist…or aren’t I? is the tease Hoagland performs. Dancing on the line between ambivalence and irony can be profitable—stand-up comedians and David Mamet make their living there—but also apt to be politically disappointing, as it is finally, as we can see in Hoagland’s case, a dodge of responsibility even when it masquerades as an avowal of one’s own subject position. It’s the particular privilege of white authors who reserve for themselves the right to step outside of racist discourse to a position of ironic superiority—though it’s also exploited by performers of color who assume that their mimicry of racial stereotypes will be excused as parody.