Anyone who caught last week's episode of Jersey Shore likely noticed a rather interesting conversation between Jenni "JWoww" Farley and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi on the topic of race and identity. At one point in the show, the two women discuss the possibility of going to a nude beach, then move on to the topic of wacky things they have their respective bucket lists, like Snooki's desire to try bungee jumping. JWoww, philosopher and gentlelady, calls this a "white person thing," which prompts a seemingly annoyed Snooki to respond, "I'm not white... I'm tan." Say what you will about the cast members' behavior on this show, but their propensity to speak bluntly and without filter (other than, of course, that put in place by producers and editors) offers so much insight into how these eight people see one another and themselves without worrying about being politically correct or socially acceptable.
When Jersey Shore first launched last December, several media outlets jumped on the fact that these self-proclaimed "guidos" and "guidettes" were not all, it turned out, of Italian descent. Farley, for example, is of Irish and Spanish background and Polizzi was born in Chile and adopted by an Italian family. Through all the criticism and hand-wringing, the cast members remained unfazed and unapologetic about the manner in which they chose to identify themselves, which has never been uttered once on the show without some modicum of pride. Sure, these reality TV celebs might not have firm, weighed and reasoned opinions on race and ethnicity—or even any interest in the subject—but should this take away from their ability, and their right, to describe themselves as they see fit?
Whiteness isn't, after all, an inherent quality so much as it is an ever-changing social and cultural construct. Italians may be (mostly) Caucasian, sure, but the U.S. hasn't always seemed too sure about where Italians stood when it came to being white. John Tehranian, a law professor who has written about the U.S.'s changing definitions of race in his book Whitewashed, notes that, in different points throughout American history, Italians (and the Irish, Germans, Jews, Spaniards, Latinos, Slavs, and Greeks) have not been and may still not be ushered into that elusive realm of social hierarchy known as whiteness. So it's telling and perceptive that JWoww and Snooki recognize that a divide continues to exist between themselves and "white people." And, then again, there exist no claims of victimhood, or any sense that Snooki or Jenni feels as if they're less than those outrageous, bungee jumping white folks. They're on the fringes, maybe, but TV tells us that's where the camera is pointing anyway. For Snooki, the situation (heh) is, quite literally, one of thinking outside the boxes often already picked out for us. She recounts how, when filling out a job application for a tanning salon, she didn't check "white." She made her own box: "tan." (Spoiler alert: She didn't get the job.)
People may take issue with Polizzi being heralded as a modern feminist icon, but she does exhibit some characteristics associated with such a role. She is ostensibly in charge of her sexual identity, cleaning up the Smoosh Room because she expressly intends to bring a dude home that night solely for the purpose of, well. Hardcore smooshing. She isn't afraid to speak her mind, whether it's standing up to a dude who is stealing her shots or letting people know she's horny or annoyed or nervous or elated. Sure, she's complicated, like any woman. She's not someone with a degree in ethnic studies or a celebrated expert on the issue of identity politics, but she, nonetheless, notes that role dominant culture plays in her life and chooses to identify herself as she sees fit—even if this means eschewing her Chilean background by differentiating herself from the "Spanish people," she cannot dance like (although neither can many of us "Spanish people" for that matter, Snooks).
While it may be tempting to dismiss Snooki's remark as something born out of a lack of awareness or exposure to critical thinking on the subject of race and ethnicity, judgment should be doled out on a sliding scale. Feminism and discussions on racial identity are not reserved for the educated, for the academically inclined, for the well read, or even for the interested. If we only stick to considering the arguments and proclamations of women who are scholars, or who would intentionally seek out publications like Bitch or sites like Feministing and Racialicious, we end up preaching to the converted in a self-congratulatory echo chamber devoid of new ideas or truly alternative points of view.
So kudos to you, Snooki. Be as tan as you wanna be.