On John Mayer’s ‘Hood Pass’: A moment of clarity

Culture, Pop culture — By Dr.Brittney on February 16, 2010 at 08:00

“Clarity” is one of my favorite John Mayer songs, and given the troubling comments in his forthcoming interview with Playboy Magazine, a little clarity is what we all need.  Mayer’s broad cross-over appeal has been construed by some as a “hood pass.” Laudably if inelegantly, he rejects such a notion:  “If I really had a hood pass, I could call it a n—gger pass.” Based upon his definition of blackness, “making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you. . .,” he recognizes that his connections with individual black people does not equate to a broad understanding of the black freedom struggle. Besides the misguided use of the n-word here, I initially thought, “well the guy actually has a fairly astute social analysis of the racial politics of the marketplace.” But it is never quite so easy to disentangle oneself from the vestiges of white supremacy.

The interviewer Rob Tannenbaum asked whether or not Black women “threw themselves” at Mayer. He replied that he wouldn’t be open to it because his genitalia was a “white supremacist;” in fact it was like the consummate white supremacist “David Duke.” However, at Tannenbaum’s prompting, he did name a few Black women he liked –Karyn Parsons from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Holly Robinson Peete, and Kerry Washington. Both Parsons and Washington were appealing because of their proximity to cultural codes of whiteness—light skin and/or a girls-gone-wild laissez-faire style sexuality.

Although Mayer’s comments greatly disturbed me, I am infinitely more disturbed by the public discourse that has occurred, especially the desire to exonerate Mayer and the calls to ignore his comments. In many respects, those calls to redirect our attention from individual racist attitudes to structural problems are absolutely correct. In this case, though, I would argue that we are so quick to dismiss Mayer because he betrays some hint of thoughtfulness about race, which obscures the racially insidious nature of his comments about black women. Here again, we need clarity.

Beyond the usual apologists who insist that his intent was not malicious, many argue that given Mayer’s critique and rejection of the “Hood Pass” at best, he’s a sexist jerk, but not really a racist. And sexism towards Black women is so pervasive as to be unimportant, apparently. Here is the problem: gone are the days when we can analyze racism and sexism as they though are separate systems of oppression. Black feminist scholars have been telling us forever (or at least since the 1800s), that these systems mutually construct one another. Failure to recognize that leads to a failure to recognize the specifically sexualized nature of the racism at play in John Mayer’s statements.

In fact, Mayer himself gives us the best framework for analyzing his comments. He called his own phallus a white supremacist. Given the sophisticated use of terminology, who are we to deny the implications of his characterization?

Based upon his racial taxonomy, Black women only have value to the extent that they can perform notions of white femininity. In other words, black girls who can pass socially and culturally, get a pass. According to Mayer, “all the white boys loved Hilary from Fresh Prince.” The statement implies that she acted like a white girl; and since she is bi-racial, what he really seems to suggest is that her whiteness makes her acceptable.

The same thing is true for Kerry Washington; Mayer maps his own love for fellatio onto Kerry Washington, arguing that she’s “white-girl crazy” and would perform such acts with reckless abandon. On face, these statements seem admittedly like a troublingly vehement sexism towards white women, mapped onto the bodies of black women.  And perhaps we can’t blame Mayer for his honesty about dating preferences, as we all have them, and race most certainly plays a role. In that case, I guess keeping it real can still get you a hood pass. But why would he need to name specific Black women and their “white” attributes?

In that moment of naming, he deployed his own phallus as mechanism of white supremacy, as a tool that could demarcate between acceptable forms of femininity based upon race. However, honest his comments were, they reinforce a taxonomy of acceptable black women, namely those black women who manage not to be too black, either culturally or phenotypically. This then is sexualized racism, a racism that discriminates racially based on stereotypes of sex. It is also racialized sexism, discriminatory comments about womanhood and femininity that get delineated based on race.

So here’s my real impression.  Mayer’s use of the n-word may have grated on the ears, but it isn’t the problem here. The problem is that our analysis of race is so simplistic and our devaluation of Black women is so ingrained, that a white man can admit his white supremacist fantasies about black female sexuality, and we still grant him a hood pass. During slavery, a hood pass [down to the slave quarters] conferred the same kind of power. It is also a hood pass because in our communities we, too, fail to see the denigration of black women as a legitimate race issue.

After the outcry, Mayer issued an apology, in part lamenting his attempts to “intellectualize a word that is so emotionally charged.” Here again is the problem. Mayer invokes the classic rational/emotional binary to frame what went wrong with his use of the n-word. In doing so, he sets up the scenario such that every person offended by its usage is merely being “emotional” whereas those who can withstand his attempts to “intellectualize” the word are rational.

White supremacy and male supremacy have historically functioned according to a logic that views whiteness and maleness as the inherently rational position. Blackness and femaleness are viewed as emotional positionalities. So even when John Mayer, a white guy, invokes the n-word, in a statement in ways that are clearly unreasonable and certainly gratuitous, his “apology” for such rhetoric still reinforces his position as the rational actor. How is it rational to deploy such a term to be provocative, and then to fault the audience for having an emotional response to a rhetorical provocation? Rationally speaking, that doesn’t make much sense, now does it?

There are two realities here: John Mayer screwed up and we have bigger problems to deal with. Even so, we should take heed to his words and let this be a moment of clarity: otherwise, “by the time we recognize this moment, this moment will be gone.”

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Author: Dr.Brittney (9 Articles)


Brittney Cooper Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her Ph.D. at Emory and her undergraduate at Howard.

  • 1 Comment

  • cmurray says:

    Thank you so much. I thought I was the only person who saw this as what it was. We are so confused that we don’t even recognize racism when it slaps us in the face! I am not able to articulate as well as you, but I certainly understand what it is.

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