Towards the end of White Boy Shuffle, Gunnar Kaufman recites a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote as a call to self-examination, and self-execution. The quote states, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” (199-200). It is unclear whether or not Gunnar has decided what he is willing to die for, and I wonder if Beatty himself completely figured out what this novel was meant to stand for?
If we consider this novel as a genre piece, the humor in this novel stands out through Beatty’s word play and use of hyperbole. The character of Ms. Cegeny, the fact that Gunnar and Nick Scoby attend Phyllis Wheatley High, and of course the unforgettable Kaufman legacy are each undeniably funny. But to what end is the humor intended to move the reader? Beatty throws pointed barbs at black intellectuals, Afrocentric activists, gang bangers, and bleeding heart liberals alike. He casts his satirical net so wide, that no one escapes criticism, and everyone is vilified rather than creating a clear thematic or political stance.
Despite Beatty’s broad stroke he touches on several issues in meaningful ways. White Boy Shuffle calls attention to the erasure of women from black history, most notably through his own family history, but inserts women into his narrative in surprising ways. Women inexplicably appear on the Phyllis Wheatley basketball team, his mother plays a formative role in helping Gunnar navigate (at least in the geographic sense) his racial identity, and Yoshiko and Naomi’s emergence at the end of the novel opens the possibility that women will reenter the racialized and patriarchal narrative which has left them out.
Perhaps the most clear issue that Beatty is addressing the concept of multiculturalism. Published in 1996, the heart of the multiculturalism debates, Beatty creates a landscape that deals with ‘color blindness,’ forced diversity, and complex notions of being biracial (Ms. Kim, Gunnar’s daughter, and Gunnar himself in some ways). How does Beatty’s critique of racial stereotypes fit with the Hillside Community that he seems to glorify? Is Gunnar’s call for suicide a means of providing a way out for those trapped in an outdated racial binary, or is it yet another symbol of ineffective black leadership? How useful is it to read White Boy Shuffle as a treatise on race, rather than a humor piece which simply reflects the realities of mid-90’s Los Angeles?