Not knowing David Frears, I won't make any assumptions on his beliefs,
motivations, or meanings regarding his use of the phrase "white
enough." On the other hand, the question of whether that phrase can
be offensive is, I think, an important question to consider,
interested as we all are in the use of language, the meaning of humor,
and the question of race in American culture.
I did some initial research into the use of phrases like "white
enough" after the original post, as I was not familiar with the usage.
I haven't found much information of the derivation of this usage.
Can other members of the listserve help on this point?
As someone who studies humor, though, I must disagree--firmly but
respectfully--with the post of Mark Coburn in his defense of Mr.
Frears' language. Mr. Coburn's premise is fine, but the examples of
humor he chooses are only two types of joking--we could call them
"stereotypical" (blonde jokes) and coping (Alzheimer's, etc.).
While these are excellent examples, they do not directly pertain to
the case at hand, other than to point out that what we joke about
doesn't define us, as murderers, misogynists, racists, etc. But not
all jokes are the same. Try replacing the blonde joke in the example
with any of the hundreds of jokes that mock the intelligence or
capabilities of African Americans (or other races, or on women as a
group). Clearly, it would no longer be "blithering twaddle" to
question the suitability of the joke. In America, as in most other
places, jokes involving race do not exist only at the level of
"meta-reality" but on the level of everyday reality where language has
complicated meanings and those who don't laugh at a joke are not
simply starchy fools. Plus, some jokes just aren't very funny...(see
the blonde joke, for an example).
Anyone who studies humor will readily admit that jokes about
Alzheimer's patients by their caregivers do not mean that these jokers
are cruel people (although Freud might find some repressed anger or
resentment there somewhere). People who understand humor also know
that different kinds of jokes have different connotations, not all so
innocent as those aimed at agnostic insomniacs, and that joking about
race is fraught with cultural complexity in America.
I'm not actually sure the use of the phrase "white enough" was meant
as a verbal joke, but, even if it was, this does not erase the
question of what that kind of humor would mean. As those interested
in Twain, we all know that humor is a complicated subject that goes
beyond the merely funny.
American Studies, UT Austin