Smile Politely

Michael Scott as The White Guy

Here’s a half-baked thought: Perhaps Michael Scott is a contemporary stereotype of a white person.

Michael Scott is the ultimate nightmare boss, played by Steve Carell on The Office. But he’s not the mean kind that yells at you and demands unreasonable production and hours. He’s the kind that wants to be your friend while being completely clueless about how to interact with others.

I had always thought of Michael as representing bad bosses or buffoons, but not necessarily representing (or caricaturizing) his race as a white person. Perhaps this is because I watched The Office only intermittently until this summer. Then the miracle of DVD season releases gave me a more complete picture of him. His main qualities seem to be 1) he wants everyone to like him 2) he’s unwilling to let go of any privilege or power that he has, and 3) he’s generally unaware how his actions negatively affect others. This is uncomfortably close to how a lot of white people generally behave towards minorities.

Despite real progress that has happened in the last 40 years, it still remains true that white people continue to enjoy power and privilege that minorities do not. I’m not going to spend time on a case for it in this space, but some good words on the subject are available here, here and here.

However, one thing that has changed in recent decades is that white people, for the most part, are now embarrassed by racism. As a white person, I happen to know many other white people, and I believe that very few of us want to be racist. Even if we are racist, we don’t want others to think of us as such. We white people place a high value on the idea of racial harmony, and of not being responsible for the hardships of others. The problem isn’t our desire to get along, it is that a lot of us don’t have a clue as to how to accomplish it, and are mostly unaware of or unwilling to admit the privilege we automatically carry around with us.

That’s why Michael is such a potent stereotype of a white person. He’s not mean-spirited, and he certainly doesn’t want to be thought of as racist. It’s just that he has no actual experience with people who are different from him. He totally buys into generic stereotypes of other races. He believes all black people are good at basketball, and that no Hispanics are, because Hispanics are good at baseball. He likes to do impressions of Asians that would make Chief Illiniwek fans blush.

And the documentary style of the show works to highlight his self-consciousness. He is always well aware when the camera is on, and what acts of symbolism will play well to others. He often catches himself before saying something overtly racist. He knows what he’s allowed to say, and what must be kept off-record, for fear of appearing racist.

When Michael does get nasty, it is usually because he is threatened in some way, and he is never shy of using his privilege to get what he wants. When a cute girl visits the office, he viciously undermines all the other men in the office. During a fire, he shoves everyone out of the way to get out first. His desire to be liked does not get in the way of his desire to be privileged. It reminds me a bit of how nasty some white people can get when the subject of affirmative action comes up. The thought that someone else may be getting the privilege of “first among equals” drives many white people nuts.

And there’s just something very white about Michael’s inability to recognize that other people are nice to him simply because he holds all the power in the office. He’s oblivious to the frozen smiles, the awkward pauses, the downward glances of people looking intently at their shoes when he does something very inappropriate. This isn’t necessarily a white culture thing, but simply something that everyone in a position of power is subject to. It’s just that white people tend to have more power, and so are more prone to get caught in situations where people react to their position, rather than to how they actually behave.

Lastly, he always wants to be seen as benevolent, despite his inherent cheapness. He wants to throw big office parties, as long as someone else is paying, and offers an employee he just fired a gift certificate to Chili’s (to remind the employee how giving he is). This is also a common human trait. Despite Jesus’ request to do good in secret, how many people do you know that demand lavish praise and gratitude for every act of charity and service, no matter how small? Again, all people do this, but white people generally have more money and time on their hands, with which to expect gratitude for their charity.

If you are white and offended by Michael Scott as your racial caricature, then all I can say is … good. It is offensive to define a group of people based on a stereotype, so this one should be no exception. And Michael, despite his wanting to do good, is nothing but over-the-top offensive. Take heart that most (but not all) of the other white characters in The Office are horrified by him most (but not all) of the time.

Personally, I’d like to have Jim Halpert as my white stereotype. Not because he is especially racially aware, but just because he is so dang cool.

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