Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, has become one of the most polarizing culture vultures across the World Wide Web. And honestly, it was kind of funny at first. You might’ve been able to laugh through dude’s cringe — dubbing himself Chet Haze and White Chocolate, roaring his best renditions of Jamaican patois. But things became much less amusing a couple weeks ago, when he declared the months following the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the United States as “White Boy Summer,” followed by the release of a music video for a song of the same name.
“I’m not talking about Trump, NASCAR-type White boy summer,” he proclaimed, seemingly attempting to distinguish his own racial pride from that of overt supremacists. “I’m talking about me, Jon B., Jack Harlow–type White boy summer.”
Hanks’ announcement and subsequent music video emerged amid breaking news that he allegedly abused his ex-girlfriend Kiana Parker, who is a Black woman. Parker has accused Hanks of accosting, grabbing, and making physically menacing movements toward her person, presumably in the midst of him posting self-made videos that show him speaking like a reggae artist and asserting kinship with Black culture. (Hanks is reportedly also suing Parker for assault, battery, and theft.)
I can’t separate Hanks’ music and rampant appropriation from his real-life drama. Not only are the recent domestic abuse claims appalling, but it also seems inevitable that some will perceive his alleged behavior as a reflection on the culture to which he’s gravitated. His antics invite unworthy, ignorant questions about whether Black folks are innately violent and misogynistic. His appropriation, however, distracts from better questions of how a White male scion of one of our generation’s heralded actors became a man-child embroiled in such a mess. His stealing of my culture is a distraction from better questioning about the exploitative convergence of wealth, power, and Whiteness.
Since its inception, White supremacy has been a form of organized appropriation. Western Europeans stole Black people from their motherlands; they created the New World through exploited labor. According to Frank Wilderson III, as emancipation picked up around the world, White supremacy created three prisms for the Black experience: slavery, colonialism, and immigration. All three elicit survival responses — like appropriation — from White supremacy.
If the purpose of colonialism is to redistribute resources from the colonized to the colonizer, Chet Hanks did exactly that when he adopted Jamaican patois. His branding of “White Boy Summer” is a bleaching of Blackness derived from one of Megan Thee Stallion’s signature catchphrases, which is also the name of her collaborative track with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign.
Hanks’ use of Jamaican patois gives his appropriation a sense of agency that African American vernacular or conventional English does not. It tells his followers that he went out of his way to learn a Black dialect, stealing from Jamaicans in the diaspora, many of whom immigrated to the United States only to face discrimination when putting their culture (and dialect) on display. He reaches into White supremacy’s toolkit of colonialism as his choice of exploitation. Even when taken to task over the perhaps unintended harm his appropriation may cause — as he was during a Clubhouse chat in December — Hanks continued to wield his counterfeit patois with little regard for those he offended.
Wecan resist appropriation like that of Chet Hanks by reclaiming our stories. Slavery, colonialism, and immigration determine how Black people contextualize their experience in the West. Marcus Garvey was a historical product of all three. Toni Morrison and James Baldwin dedicated their careers to exploring the experiences of Black men and women who endured slavery’s afterlife. In the essay “Black Like Them,” Malcolm Gladwell shares how the slave story impinges on the immigrant experience. Black people who migrated from the West Indies enjoy the advantages of immigration and then see their traditions fade as their children assimilate. Frantz Fanon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith all work within the intersection of colonialism and immigration. The Black experience is rich with stories, which makes the products of our ancestral pain ripe for the plucking.
My upbringing made me sensitive to how White supremacy accesses the prisms of the Black experience to fuel its thievery. I’m a polyglot who read Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; my high school senior project was a rap; I daggered and wined at parties that blasted dancehall, soca, and zouk; I spent a summer in Cape Town listening to co-workers talk about the difference between Zulus and Xhosa. I’ve worked my entire life to tell Black-as-hell stories that the White gaze can’t mug for credibility, vitality, and profit.
My passion as a writer is to understand how the experiences of slavery, colonialism, and immigration shape Blackness in America. Appropriation seeks to rob me of the opportunity to do that by giving White people the chance to tell my stories.
I see Jessica Krug’s and Chet Hanks’ appropriation of Black identity as acts of spiritual violence. They’ve exploited the shared history that connects my people for their personal gain.
Last year, Jessica Krug mugged all three of the Black experiences to make herself excellent and successful without confronting the legacy of her ancestral pain. A professor at George Washington University, Krug built her career as an Afro-Latinx scholar who researched racism and White supremacy. She was an influential voice in racism studies; many Black scholars amplified her voice.
The Black academic community quaked when Krug revealed that she had fabricated her identity. Rather than being an Afro-Latinx scholar from the Bronx, as she claimed, she was actually a Jewish White woman from Middle America. Krug exploited the Black experience for her own personal and professional gain.
For Black people who aspire to a career in academia, Krug’s appropriation amounts to another act of unwilling seizure of their work, compensation, professional opportunities, and trust. How many Black scholars were passed over to promote the work of Krug, who won multiple awards and fellowships? How much money did Krug’s theft of Black identity — claiming our slave story for her own — net her?
Who lies about being Black? White people like Krug, who prioritize personal advancement over the community they seek to serve. In this national climate, where White supremacy seeks to politically entrench itself for another generation, Krug’s choices show why Black people remain on guard and how appropriation can be deeply detrimental.
I see Jessica Krug’s and Chet Hanks’ appropriation of Black identity as acts of spiritual violence. They’ve exploited the shared history that connects my people for their personal gain. In this way, they also avoid their pain. Who can look at Hanks and see through the tattoos and his bumbaclot uttered in an appropriated accent and not see a child who wanted more attention from his father growing up?
The White gaze will steal and appropriate to take the focus off their delayed introspection. Our conflicts, while real to us, are simply the work of distraction to them. Knowing this, it is imperative that we tell our stories — and insist that they tell their own.
A few years ago, one of my friends confessed something over coffee. She leaned forward. Her voice fell to a hush: “I love my kids, but from a financial standpoint, I regret having them.”
My friend is a tenured professor. She’s published books with major presses, including Oxford. People beg her to speak at conferences.
Despite all this, her family is barely getting by. (Her husband is also a highly-regarded professor in engineering.) When she was done talking, her face glowed with shame.
It’s a common story these days.
We can’t afford to live anymore.
Here’s something that might surprise you: The average cost of living in the U.S. far exceeds the average income of most professionals. We’re talking about nurses and social workers, firefighters and police officers, school teachers and pediatricians, even carpenters and engineers.
They’re the ones who keep society running, and they currently don’t make enough to support their families.
Take a look at the average monthly living costs for a family of four. These are extremely conservative estimates gathered from multiple cost of living calculators, plus my own observations:
Transportation (including gas): $800
Emergency savings: $500
The median household income stands at $5,264 per month before taxes. That leaves just under $4,000 after taxes, and it doesn’t include deductions for 401K and basic health insurance — or student loans.
All things considered, the average household is sinking into debt by about a thousand dollars per month.
The average household requires two incomes now.
Households with two incomes used to have extra cash to spend on things like vacations or private school tuition.
That’s not true anymore.
Two years ago, The New York Times reported on the average incomes and expenses of parents with two children. Time and again, they found that even two incomes barely brings in enough cash, since you wind up paying anywhere from $500 to $2,000 a month for childcare.
The reason is simple. The average job hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. It doesn’t even come close:
Source: New York Times
Basically, half of one parent’s monthly income covers daycare, and the rest goes to offset the cost of living. It’s pretty brutal. These days, the luckiest families break even. Everyone else is still going into debt, just not as much as they would be with a single income.
Starting a family has become a luxury.
CNN has a new online calculator called “How much will it cost to raise your child?” It’s fun to play with, in a perverse kind of way. Here’s how much it’s going to cost me to raise my daughter:
According to calculators like this, having just one kid adds about $17,000 a year to your annual cost of living. After all, you have to feed and clothe them. You have to move into a bigger house or apartment.
This might explain why the U.S. birthrate is the lowest it’s been in 32 years. More than 40 percent of millennials report putting off children and buying homes because of financial instability.
This is going to have consequences for baby boomers. They should care, if only for selfish reasons. According to Joseph Coughlin of Forbes, it means they’re not going to be able to sell their homes. That’s important because older people typically want to downsize after they retire and cash in on their equity. Here’s how Coughlin imagines that conversation going:
Boomer Seller: The town has great schools.
Millennial Buyer: I don’t have kids.
Boomer Seller: The house has three bedrooms. My husband and I have enjoyed it for years.
Millennial Buyer: I live alone…with my dog.
Boomer Seller: Well, there is a big, wonderful yard for your dog to play in.
Millennial Buyer: It’s a very small dog.
In other words, not great.
The wealthy engage in financial gaslighting.
Gaslighting is when you construct a fake reality to excuse yourself from your own sinister actions and behaviors.
Abusers do it all the time.
Hoarding wealth is a kind of abuse the wealthy inflict on the entire world. To excuse it, they construct a series of lies that allow them to blame everyone for their own financial problems.
It’s pretty easy to distract someone from systemic inequality and make them feel guilty about a financial situation that’s not their fault. You just have to talk about flat screen televisions and smartphones, even if those make up a tiny fraction of someone’s monthly budget. You call them lazy, and tell them they spend too much time watching Netflix.
You browbeat them for not investing in stocks, or pouring money into volatile assets. You shame them for working meaningful jobs that contribute something to civilization, instead of becoming rich so they can opt out of the economy altogether.
You accuse them of resenting wealth, and tell them they have a poor attitude toward money (whatever that means). Then you pump them full of fairy tales, about how someone made a fortune from nothing. Finally, you tell them money doesn’t matter, and that no amount of it will ever make them happy unless they learn to love themselves. It works wonders, because it confuses the hell out of people. Sufficiently gaslight someone over their finances, and they won’t know what to think anymore.
That’s the point.
Financial gaslighting is doing serious damage.
There’s millions of desperate people out there. If they have a job, it doesn’t pay enough. Here’s the advice they’re getting:
Invest in stocks.
Start a side hustle.
Start your own company.
Spend less money.
No offense, but this all sounds kind of like throwing a drowning person a paddle made out of lead. It might look helpful, but it’s not. It does nothing but shift responsibilities from governments and economic structures to overwhelmed, overburdened individuals.
It’s great to make extra income off a side hustle, or turn your talents into a job that doesn’t exist yet. It’s great to be exceptional, but being exceptional by definition means that not everyone can do it. You don’t solve poverty and wage gaps by expecting everyone to be a genius.
Let’s get real for a minute.
The economy needs baristas. It needs cashiers and servers and farmers. Society needs police officers and school teachers. It needs nurses and social workers. When someone gaslights them about their finances because they can’t pay their bills, they’re pretending we can live in a world without them. The truth is, we need them far more than we do lifestyle vloggers. The solution to widespread financial desperation isn’t to turn everyone into millionaire YouTubers and Instagram models.