White People—from the Spartans to the Vikings, from fraternities to the French Revolution, from colonialism to the Crocodile Dundee, from Hitler to Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Bostonians to Braveheart, there seems to be an endless stream of examples in history and popular culture that imply that white people may just be the craziest race to ever exist. Is there any truth to this? Or have modern views of power, masculinity, and raw insanity conditioned us to believe that white aggression can be partially justified under the superficial guise of badassery? Where does this romantic image of the crazy white man come from?
Truthfully, we don’t really know why so much attention is given to the acts of homo sapiens appearing to have as little sanity as they do melanin. But it is still an important question to ask. Why? Because human fascinations, both good and bad, have a very terrifying tendency of eventually being externalized. I love a lot of the movies and stories that involve history’s most over the top honkeys. However, a culture that never asks itself why it roots for the blonde guy swinging the axe or for the soldier shooting the sniper rifle takes on the risk of inheriting a comfort zone with these violent caricatures.
An enlarged comfort zone with the theme of white dudes wreaking havoc can potentially make us idolize bad qualities in ourselves or even regard other groups of people as somehow less important. It’s what fuels unrecognized prejudices. Granted, there’s no absolute certainty that social studies classes should spend more time looking at one race or another, or that prejudices could be lessened if more action movies employed stars of mixed race. What is certain, however, is that the things that entertain us, especially the ones with a racial or bloodthirsty aspects to them, are worth examining.
The only real way that white people can truly be crazier than the rest of the world is if we want to believe that they are. And if we do, regardless of the answer, it’s worth wondering why.
When we learn about history, we hear about the perseverance of the Pioneers, the resourcefulness of the Vikings, and the bravery of the Pilgrims. Although we also hear about the darker sides of these groups, we seem to project onto them a dashingly entrepreneurial spirit that we hesitate to connect to the non-white aggressors of history, such as the Ottomans, the Mongols, the Zulus, or Imperial Japan to name a few.
Popular culture has promoted spirited white fanaticism to such an extent that it can’t resist reinventing symbols of it within the dark digital bloodbaths of “300” and the clever killings in “Game of Thrones”. We love Scorsese style violence. We love Braveheart battle scenes. Schools basically teach Western history with tally boards of which white dudes were the gnarliest mass murderers. Film and literature often amplify this scorekeeping. Think about how many WWII films seem as preoccupied with making evil Nazis look cool in their uniforms as they are with contextualizing the magnitude of one of the world’s worst genocides.
And while there is of course a deeply ingrained atavistic side of human nature that will always be drawn to violence and imbalance, the surprise is not so much that such media exists but how so much of it highlights violence or even insanity in a more positive light when white people are present. The world over doesn’t just love crazy white people. It worships them. Nearly all American action heroes, most of whom are white men, end up playing either unstable cops or marauding barbarians at some point in their careers. Granted, this is some serious cherry-picking, but they are extremely common themes nonetheless. When storytellers need an audience to love a crazy guy, they make that guy white.
Images of violent non-white people in Hollywood films, and to a certain degree historical depictions, are nearly always contained to clear-cut caricatures. We have the black gang member, the Chinese martial arts expert, the savage Indian, the Hispanic drug lord, or the terrorist Arab. The Japanese get to choose between being samurai or ninjas. If you are a non-white person and don’t fit one of these bills, odds are that western TV and film don’t want to cast you in a violent or crazy role. White people on the other hand are permitted to appear crazy in all sorts of situations, caricature and non-caricature alike. Think of how many times we’ve seen Leo Dicaprio glamorously lose his mind in a movie playing everyone from Howard Hughes to Jordan Belfort.
Can you imagine a black Walter White, an Arab Dexter, or a Chinese Tony Soprano gracing your TV screen? Don’t interpret this as whether or not you can imagine being okay with it. The question is, can you imagine any current example of a major TV network giving a complex role centered around brutality or insanity to a non-white person? The examples are few and far between.
There’s a lot of ways in which people have tried to explain this. Part of it could come from the fact that America, the country that most directly affects the trajectory of popular culture, is still very much a white country. Despite how much we enjoy calling it the melting pot, more than 2/3 of the population still identifies as white. Although a more open world and more racially mixed younger generations are redefining for the better what American culture is, it’s still worth noting that through most of US history, the majority of the population has come from continental Europe.
America’s music, fairy tales, Disney icons, and of course, it’s role models for what a crazy person looks like, are at least for now rooted primarily in European culture, religion, and mythology. It’s also not just America that roots for Whitey. Some of the most successful Scandinavian films, for example, thrive off of the romanticized image of crazy Nordic tribes essentially raping, pillaging and conquering whoever is unlucky enough to have been in their way. This proven popularity of psychopathic white men can be what persuades filmmakers and storytellers alike to use white protagonists in their most insane tales. They are archetypes that are assumed a mostly white population will most easily identify with.
Popular music has the same approach as film. Eminem, for example, a rapper marketed as a crazy white guy, gained success partly because it’s assumed that emotionally troubled white men connect with him due to his appearance, as pointed out by Eminem himself in the song White America. If white people are seen by the entertainment industry as the strongest way to pander to consumer tastes and preferences ( especially to white populations with money), then certainly all forms of character complexity, violent or not, shall overly represent white people.
But this explanation by itself feels incomplete. People have complained about all kinds of institutions favoring white people from Congress to Hollywood. It might be too surface-deep to merely accept that white favoritism in European style institutions on their own can explain the modern demand for characters like Conan the Barbarian or spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. Is this narrative really forced on most of the world, or is it actually what the people want? Could white people actually just be crazy?
An attempt by some academics in explaining at least white aggression is that when the Roman Empire fell over a thousand years ago, a huge population drop in Europe followed. The power vacuum left by the Romans spawned centuries of tribal warfare that redefined borders and killed off all but the most violent people in certain areas. Combine this with the status quo concept of empire left by the Romans, and one could imagine how conquest and its inevitable violence could come to be interpreted by western culture as somewhat entrepreneurial. Legends of the Celts and the Saxons in Britain, as well as Viking raiders in the North and Baltic Seas has propagated the idea that at the very least, a culture of ruthlessness was a survival tactic in the fragmented mess that followed the fall of the Romans. Perhaps that helped propagate systems like colonialism, mercantilism, and even… eugenics. Could there be a unique genetic propensity towards aggression in the mind of a suburban white kid who adores violent series or gory medieval video games? Probably not. Though our culture still likes to allude to it all the time.
Political culture might be a better measurement of aggression than chromosomes. It’s perplexing to think, for example, that just about every western superpower was once a colony of the former. America was a Colony of the British Empire. Britain, France, Spain, and even parts of Germany were former colonies of the Roman Empire. The Romans too originally stemmed from the colonies of ancient Greece, who also had colonies in the black sea that hugely influenced the Byzantines and later the Russian Czars. Combine all of these conquest-centric cultures with Europe’s historical access to beasts of burden and the raw materials required for industry (Guns, Germs, and Steel, as coined by Jared Diamond), and you have a somewhat tangible theory as to how white people at least got started attacking other lands and imposing their culture upon them. This argument too is still flawed, for it’s not as if white people are the only culture to elevate violence or conquest.
Whatever explains culture’s elevation of violent white insanity, whether it’s the Romans or Mel Gibson, glorification of crazy crackers is a very old practice indeed. It’s an idea that takes on many strange forms, but whatever an individual absorbs from the barrage of crazy whiteness that we constantly see, it’s important to at least try and analyze it. Otherwise, white people and non people alike risk endorsing as much oppression as they do badassery.