Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Soggy Potato Chips

Allow me to begin first with a definition of the term and its etymology.

Soggy potato chips: annoying, obnoxious, entitled white people.

Origin of term: Makes its first appearance in the 1999 mockumentary, "Jackie's Back" (the best of the genre this side of Christopher Guest). Jackie Washington is attempting a comeback after years of booze binges, failed marriages, and flopped films and records. She goes back to her hometown with her film crew and runs into her old babysitter (played by the inimitable Isabel Sanford [aka Weezy Jefferson]). "Jackie Washington, get off my lawn and take those white people with you. You know what they smell like after the rain: soggy potato chips!"

"Soggy potato chips" is a most highly useful term for one's lexicon of racial epithets. It can be used in public around its targets, and go completely unnoticed. Its similarity to "cracker" is implicit but not obvious.   The term provides a much needed way to label the most annoying of white people, while in their presence.

But how do we identify the aforementioned "soggy potato chips." Politics can play a role. Clearly, John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, and Pat Buchanan are the clearest exemplars of "soggy potato chips." Their insistence on the whiteness of the American experience, their discomfort with anything marginal (gay, lesbian, feminist, black, hispanic, progressive, sane) marks them as the soggiest, most entitled potato chips around.

But conservatism is not the only marker of sogginess. The most anarchist of hipsters are also "soggy potato chips." Their non-conformity is marked by their utter and most banal compliance to the hipster "image":  skinny pants, messed up hair, and mediocre rip-offs of Arcade Fire.

White privilege affects all of us. Those of us who are white (especially those middle-class and male) benefit from it so constantly, we do not even notice it. When this privilege is pointed out (not even called into question), the first tactic of a soggy potato chip is to cry in horror. For example, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, Pat Buchanan told Rachel Maddow:

"White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks, who were 90% of the nation in 1960 when I was growing up and the other 10% were African-Americans who had been discriminated against."


This is the mantra of the soggy potato chips. When Michelle Bachmann discusses American exceptionalism, she is referring to the image of prim, proper white men in wigs carrying muskets fighting for an American republic. A highly skewed historical vision that effaces the many political battles and disagreements between the "Founding Fathers." (Can we also keep in mind that the term "Founding Father" was never used by any man who signed the Constitution, but was rather an invention of the twentieth century).

The nostalgic celebration of the 1950's as a time of great peace and American tranquility similarly eliminates the real turmoil of that decade. It was not simply a time of white picket fences, "I Love Lucy," and "Howdy Doody," it was a time of great racial violence (lynching, shootings, assassinations), persecutions of homosexual minorities, back-alley abortions, misogyny, anti-communist hysteria. Not a time to which I have any desire to return.

But yet the philosophy of the soggy potato chips is that the times are a-changing and not for the better. A black man (who is at once labeled a fascist, communist, socialist, Kenyan, Muslim, radical) as president is threatening to destroy "what America stands for." Black people, poor people, illegal immigrants (who are always Mexicans), feminists, gays and lesbians are taking away from white, heterosexual, middle-class Americans what is rightfully theirs.

Of course, this is where the great hypocrisy lies. White people benefit from invisible privileges, while the people that are so often criticized by the soggies face structural discrimination, and yet somehow affirmative action, fights for equal pay or recognition are examples of people trying to steal from white people.  Those who cannot make ends meet in this ideology are simply those who, in the words of the oppressive cliché,  have not "pulled themselves up by their boot straps." What happens to those who never had boots or straps to begin with?

A sample of a conversation from a soggy potato chip overheard just the other night at a Marie Callender's illustrates this point. This white girl most likely voted for Obama and is probably horrified by the human rights violations committed across the world, but yet the following conversation marks her as soggy, as unable to realize her own subjectivity in a world of objectification. "My mom keeps telling me that my life isn't that bad. At least, I don't live in Africa making 30 cents a day while dying from AIDS." Oh what breathtaking logic she exhibits! Yes, somehow the miseries of the world are justified because they make her feel better! Does she indicate a need to help alleviate these sorrows? No, in fact, she revels in them because they place her a notch higher in the great social hierarchy of the world.

This description does not only apply to the whites so easily marked as soggy potato chips (e.g. James Franco, Glenn Beck, Adrien Brody, Eric Cantor, Kirsten Dunst). One need not be white to be a soggy potato chip. Michael Steele is clearly one because of his politics. Radical Islamists with their hypocritical hatred of the West, women, homosexuals and concomitant love of modern technology and weaponry marks them as pringles in a bucket of water.

Now one may ask: But Dana you are as white as white gets, how can you be so critical of whiteness? In terms of racial legacy, you are quite right. My own family history is marked by some of the worst injustices of the soggies: I am a descendant of Samuel Sewall, who sent many women to their deaths in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. My southern family most likely owned slaves in the lead up to the Civil War (if they were too poor to own many slaves, they were at least unadulterated racists). I will try to assert a choice not to allow this to define my own identity.

I can, however, choose to renounce some of my whiteness. Following the argument of Robert Reid-Pharr in "Once You Go Black" (NYU Press, 2000), I may not be able to choose blackness, but I can surely utilize some agency to distance myself from the racial identity markers I find so abhorrent.

Let us all distance ourselves from the soggy potato chips. We unite in our irritation with those who do not realize or ponder their racial privilege in this world that (pace Dinesh D'Souza) is not post-racial.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you posting this. I've had encounters with said potato chips in which I tried to explain the reason white people aren't allowed to say the so called "N" word. It was difficult to have this talk, as she insisted that she's not racist and that she does use the term with her friends. Her boyfriend is racist, and did use that word as an insult when they were with my group of friends, but I chose to put that point aside. She also asked the question so many white ask me, "why are black people still so angry about slavery?" I just shook my head and changed the subject.

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