In The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, the main character, Gunnar Kaufman, constantly changes his dialect, in an attempt to blend in with his surroundings. For instance, while living in the predominately white neighborhood of Santa Monica, Gunnar speaks improper English, with a major emphasis on extending words, to be accepted by his friends. Yet, when he moves to the “ghetto” community of Hillside, he uses colloquial speech, in a vain and misplaced attempt to fit the black community’s perception of him.
Despite gaining the black and white communities’ acceptance through different styles of verbal communication, each time, Gunnar must give up a part of himself to be liked. As a result, Gunnar’s attempts at being either an all-American, white boy from the west coast or a dangerous, black, gang member from the ghetto eventually fail. The reason being, he can’t be one without the other because he’s a combination of the two. By acting solely as a black or white boy, he neglects his “other side”; when trying to fit in with white folks, he ignores his blackness, and when around black people, he disregards the language and behaviors learned from his white upbringing. Thus, as Gunnar moves from East to West Los Angeles, the failures of his language adaptation, depending on his social context, expose his attempts at being something he’s not; to be accepted, Gunnar must always give up or cover a certain side of himself.
A good illustration of Gunnar’s grammatically incorrect English is noticeable through his communication with friends. “White Gunnar” would say things like “no waaaay, duuuude”, tuuuubular biiiitchin to the max, and “tooootally fucking raaaad.” He’d spend his days riding the waves in the scorechering California sun, sniffing glue from model airplanes, and listening to rock and roll. He would sign letters with statements like “be cool”, “xoxo”, and “shalom, motherfucker” (p. 35). He was the “black cool guy” acting as a “white boy” in an attempt to fit in with his buddies. Although Gunnar’s deliberately incorrect English gained him acceptance in the white community, it failed to uncover his black side. As a result, Gunnar was a black boy, who had to act white and hide his blackness, to be accepted by friends.
An example of Gunnar’s use of colloquial speech and the black gang member act is seen through a conversation he has with the police. Since Gunnar had a history of numerous encounters with the Santa Monica police, he was immediately harassed by the Hillside police. Because of his previous records, the police automatically assumed that Gunnar was still involved in illegal acts. Thus, in trying to find out what he was up to, and who he associated with, the cop asks him, “who are your crimeys, your homies, your posse? You know, yo’ niggers” (p.47). Before responding to the cop’s question, Gunnar is faced with several ways, in which to answer. He could accept the police treatment and deny any wrongdoing, or he could be defiant. Instead, he chooses to mock the police, by using his exaggerated street talk, which he believes is what the police expect to hear. “You know, it’s me, my homegirl jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chuqiao, and my nigger even if he don’t get no bigger Yao Wenyuan. Sheeeeit, we runnin’ things from Shanghai to Compton” (p. 47).
Despite fulfilling the cop’s expectations, once again, Gunnar tries to be someone he’s not. He isn’t a gang member but acts like one to fit in. Unlike before, when Gunnar ignores his blackness to be accepted, this time, he disregards his “white upbringing” and acts as a dangerous black boy. If he wasn’t so concerned with blending in, Gunnar could have kept his pride, by being himself. He could have told the truth; explained that he wasn’t involved in any kind of gang.
Finally, Gunnar begins to realize that altering his speech to fit in will not work. He criticizes a rapper’s lyrics that he overhears during a video shoot “suck my dick, slob on the knob, lick my stick’, non-fucking-stop” (p. 78). Gunnar realizes that both the rapper and his schoolmates, by using this language, attempt to create an image of toughness. All this false bravado is an act designed to make these kids feel and behave like someone they’re not. Instead of being tough to Gunnar and his mom, the words sound homoerotic, which would be the opposite of toughness. He begins to realize that if he uses this language, then he’s casting the same misguided image of himself as these rappers are. Thus, Gunnar comes to the point that there is no use in not being yourself. The rapper’s lyrics made him grasp the fact that he shouldn’t hide or give up his blackness to be liked by his white friends, nor should he ignore the values instilled in him, by his white friends, when around black people.
Gunnar is a perfect example of a person who learned from his mistakes. Despite having ignored his blackness to be liked by white, and hiding the behaviors he learned from his white friend when around blacks, he eventually learned that it wasn’t worth it. He was a black boy, who grew up in a white community. Thus, he had a combination of black and white values and behaviors instilled in him. As a result, Gunnar concluded that no one group of people, whether black or white, were worth forgetting his “other side”. It was a waste of time to act like someone you’re not. Thus, Gunnar would live a life that enabled him to flaunt his blackness, continue to believe in the values and behaviors taught by his white friends, and are accepted by all.