Wiggers just wannabe black: White middle-class kids are adopting black street style and chilling out to rap music. David Usborne reports from Washington

David Usborne
Saturday 21 August 1993 23:02

IF THEY are male they are likely to be wearing shorts 15 sizes too large that barely grip their hips. Their hair might be shaved close to the scalp in a style called 'butt-fade'. The girls prefer boiler-suits, probably with one shoulder-strap left undone, perhaps with a little padding in the seat. These are white teenagers in America and they have one common goal: to act and look black.

They are a disparate group, some taking their quest as far as exclusively dating blacks and immersing themselves in African-American history while others just buy the requisite gear. They have attracted a social label that some are happy to espouse and others not at all. They are the 'wiggers', the new class of white blacks, and they may be the pop culture trend of the Nineties.

The wigger uniform of baggy shorts and T-shirts, usually accompanied by a cap worn backwards or at a cocky tilt and basketball shoes, can be found modelled by kids in shopping malls across the country - especially those in well-to-do, white neighbourhoods. The clothes are also dominating the back-to-school racks this month in K-Mart and Gap. And then there is the music all wiggers listen to and buy: the black urban street-beat of hip-hop and rap.

'To put it simply, black is where it's at,' says Marian Salzman, president of BKG Youth, a New York consulting firm that offers product and marketing advice to companies such as Levis, Reebok, Nintendo and Pepsi. 'This is the most important new trend to hit fashion and it may turn out to be the biggest trend of the Nineties.'

The evidence, she says, is visible in the way products such as sports shoes and burgers are being pitched to young consumers this summer. 'We're seeing that most of the good advertising today is going to have strong black icons,' she explains. Moreover, stars such as basketball hero Michael Jordan, who have been long familiar to white audiences, are being rivalled by personalities considered more 'black'. Top of the list is Shaquille O'Neal, a 7ft 1in basketball newcomer who plays in Orlando, Florida.

But interest in the movement goes beyond the advertising parlours of Madison Avenue. Some social commentators see in it the first signs of an evolving cultural cross-over in a country otherwise depressingly riven by race. Among black Americans themselves, there seems to be uncertainty about so youthful and apparently feckless an invasion into their culture. Most, unsurprisingly, dislike the epithet wigger, a combination of white and the most classic and emotive of racial slurs, 'nigger'.

'They're perpetrating a fraud by being something they're not,' rails Erica Fite, 19, a design assistant from Los Angeles. Wiggers, she says, are not entitled to espouse black culture as their own. 'We don't need that. We're in enough trouble as it is.'

She is particularly offended by whites who try to identify with the anguished history of black Americans, for instance by wearing Malcolm X T-shirts. 'You don't have the right to wear that shirt because you haven't suffered the way we have,' she spits.

To a wigger like Brian Willwerth, a 16-year-old from Cincinnati, such reactions are disappointing. He considers himself a bridge-builder, reaching out to blacks without rejecting his white background. (Higgers and chiggers, incidentally, are the names given to white children similarly identifying with Hispanics and Chinese.)

'I want to show that I am totally against racism,' Brian explains. 'I've never said I wanted to be black. I just feel that in a few years the two cultures are going to be colliding anyway and I might as well get a head start.'

Brian may be the quintessential wigger. He buys Cross Color fashion clothes that are baggy and vivid and ostensibly designed for young blacks. Among wiggers, however, they are virtually de rigueur. He has the 'butt-fade' hair-cut and, though he lives with his parents in a predominantly white neighbourhood, has many black friends. He remembers being labelled a wigger by disapproving white school-friends for the first time about three years ago.

'When I first heard it it made me mad but then I started adopting the name because it sounded all right. Now we just live with it,' Brian says.

Like every wigger, Brian is also passionate about hip-hop and rap, the musical forms that first took hold in the black neighbourhoods of New York in the late Seventies before reaching a young mainstream audience - black and white - in the mid-Eighties. For the unattuned, exposure to rap can feel a little like an aural mugging. Against a relentless beat, the lyrics are barely sung but 'rapped' out in virtual monotone. Often they are a fierce polemic about black power and alienation from whites. The most contentious songs, like the infamous 1989 hit, 'Fuck tha Police' by Niggaz With Attitude (or NWA for short), prompt establishment outrage and often are banned from radio stations, thereby guaranteeing sales.

That rap has become so popular among young whites - Columbia Records reports that 45 per cent of rap music sales are to white teenagers - must be partly attributable to the music-video cable channel MTV. The 24-hour station, which offers rap sessions, together with other pop music, serves the 'biggest dose of street culture that has ever been in middle America's living rooms', according to spokeswoman Tina Exarhos. And white kids who may already have been fans of more 'acceptable' black performers such as Michael Jackson, may be drawn to rap precisely because of the exotic crudeness and daring of performers like Schooly D or, more popular today, Dr Dre.

Whites crossing racial lines for music is not, of course, a first-time occurrence. In June 1951, a Cleveland disc-jockey named Alan Freed began teasing his white, Midwestern audience with a few black rhythm-and-blues numbers - known then as 'race records' - that first hooked whites on to the black r & b sound and thence triggered the music revolution that he himself named rock'n'roll. The first white performers successfully to mimic the black artists included Bill Haley and the Comets with 'Rock Around the Clock'. Elvis Presley and the Beatles followed. In the same way, white artists such as Marky Mark - most famous for modelling underwear for Calvin Klein - and Vanilla Ice have attempted to perform rap. Marky Mark could, in fact, be considered the foremost celebrity wigger.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Brian is attempting to form his own rap band which will have three white members and one black. He draws inspiration mainly from Ice T and NWA. In the controversy over the word 'wigger', it is worth noting that 'nigga' - albeit with the detoxified spelling - is all over the song sheets of NWA, Dr Dre and other bands such as ONYX.

Robin Givhan, a columnist in Detroit, says that when she wrote about wiggers for the first time in June, it stirred more reader reaction than any other piece she had written. Most of the letters were from older blacks objecting to the use of the word wigger. Her hunch, however, is that for young blacks, the term nigger has lost some of its poison: 'I think for them it has fallen more into a grey area - that is certainly the case in the music world.'

Ms Givhan, who is black, believes the wigger movement is more than just a one-season fad. 'The kids know exactly where the culture has come from - a lot of them seem to know the history of it too,' she explains. 'I think this is a generation that has been removed from a lot of the things that traditionally separate race; there is a lot of cross-fertilisation out there.'

But Anthony Wein, a gruff 18-year-old from Long Island, New York, is less impressed. Like Brian, he is a white with black friends, baggy sweat- shirts (most with hoods), and hopes to be a rap producer. He has mixed with blacks for years, he says, and recoils from the wigger label. 'I just don't like it, it's an insulting word,' he says. And as for all those scrubbed kids suddenly wearing Cross Color gear and walking the black walk in the malls: 'They don't even wear the pants right - they just pull them part way down their ass so they're exposing all that stuff they shouldn't. I just laugh at 'em.'


FOR the curious and confused, Regina Parisi, a 19-year-old New Yorker and a self-proclaimed wigger, offers useful tips on how to spot a wigger:

True wiggers would not refer to themselves as wiggers.

They read Malcom X, and other books on black history; they watch BET (Black Entertainment Television), and attend lectures on black culture.

They wear hip-hop and street-smart clothes, but also adopt the casual and comfortable look; the dress style of a true wigger is inconspicuous.

They attend black (Baptist) churches on occasions

Black girls love them; black guys who get to know wiggers like them, but black guys who don't know them probably wouldn't like them.

They listen to rap, Motown, soul and r & b. They will not play the hip-hop rap of bands such as Kris Kross and Arrested Development, but they will listen to Public Enemy, NWA, A-Clan, Ice Cube, Ice T and EPMD because of their hard-core message.

Suburban wiggers have all white friends, most of whom are not wiggers.

Wiggers usually have open-minded parents (who were probably hippies during the Sixties and Seventies).

They come from middle-class or upper-class families.

If they can rap, they want to work in the rap industry. If not, they want to do something to help ease racial tension.

Most wiggers like to date white girls or girls of mixed parentage.

Wiggers are sports fanatics and are obsessed with basketball and football.

Top wigger films are Boyz N the Hood and Jungle Fever.

Wiggers believe the government ignores the needs and problems of the black community, and that blacks are an oppressed group.

(Photographs omitted)

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