My favorite scene in the surprisingly rewatchable Lethal Weapon 2 involves Detective Murtaugh (Danny Glover) going to the South African Embassy in America to inquire about taking a vacation there—a conversation that serves as an elaborate ruse so that Detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) can sneak into the building and investigate and annoy the murderous Afrikaner consul general.
Of course, South Africa was still under apartheid rule then—making it one of the last places on earth a black American would choose to vacation—and the exasperated embassy person, confused as to why Murtaugh would want to take such a trip, tries to convince him to reconsider. When Murtaugh asks why, he replies, “Because ... you’re black.” (With the South African accent, it sounds like “bleek.”)
Anyway, sometimes—not often, but sometimes—circumstances allow for race to be, if not completely inconsequential, peripheral. Superficial. Yeah, the barista who just took your order at Crazy Mocha might be white, but considering the nature of your transaction and how limited your interaction was, her whiteness just doesn’t matter. She’s just the person who happens to be delivering your latte to you.
For people to claim not to see race, their (fabricated) reality, I guess, is just a lifelong curation of these moments where they claim (wrongly) that race remains invisible until some external force places it dead in their sights. To them, Colin Kaepernick wasn’t black until he decided last year to be black. He was just a quarterback.
And, then, there are times when even those most aware and cognizant of race have “Oh yeah!” moments. Moments when they never actually lost sight of a person’s race, but something happens that reminds them exactly what it means and how it constructs and constricts reality.
I’ve known, since first seeing him in NSYNC when I was in college, that Justin Timberlake was a white man. Despite his soul-ish music and obvious talents, he fit all of the physical and cultural markings of whiteness.
But just exactly how white he was/is—and what his whiteness meant—became apparent in the aftermath of nipple-gate, as Timberlake acted whitely by throwing Janet Jackson under the bus after briefly exposing Jackson’s nipple on camera in a “wardrobe malfunction” (initially claiming he had no idea that what was going to happen happened), and America regarded Timberlake and Jackson whitely. She was virtually blackballed, while his career soared as he became arguably the biggest name in pop music.
To be fair, Timberlake’s star was already on the rise. He would have ascended without using the distance he created between himself and Jackson as a springboard. But where whiteness matters is that it didn’t matter. His role in what happened had no effect on his career. It wasn’t even a speed bump. It was a flashing yellow light.
And on Sunday, as a reminder of the value of whiteness and maleness as a currency, it was announced that he’d headline the Super Bowl halftime show—14 years after playing the innocent dude bro in distress.
This—being invited back to perform with open arms on the world’s biggest stage after being a vital part of one of the biggest Federal Communications Commission controversies ever—is something that could only happen with a person who happened to be white and happened to be a man. And that it would happen the same year the NFL and the country are ensconced in maddeningly divisive discussions about racial injustice (and the best ways to draw attention to it) feels white as fuck, too.
Anyway, Godspeed, J.T. I see you. Break a leg.