Everyday Semiotics

Thursday, July 26, 2007

/seme/ is the new /seme/

What to make the furore over "Brown is the new white"? This nonsensical T-shirt slogan seemed to rock the nation for a day, before everybody just forgot about it. The outrage, or at least theory of outrage, centered on how the message might be "misunderstood"; in other words, the various ways in which it might be read. It was read by critics as meaning hispanics should try to act more white. It was also read as a take on the fact that the latino population of the U.S. is bound to surpass the white population in now time at all; ergo, brown-skinned people are on deck as the new racial majority. One blog offers this interpretation:
The motto "Brown is the new White" also implies that whites are the original occupants of America and Hispanics and other minorities are Johnny-come-latelies. Hispanics were thriving in California and in the Southwest centuries before Europeans set foot in America. If anything, the T-Shirt should be emblazoned with the catch phrase, "White is the New Brown." [link]
There was a great NPR discussion a little while ago about how "next" has supplanted "new." The anticipatory, in marketing certainly, has become more powerful than the merely current. We want to know who America's Next Top Model will be, and once she becomes so, we'll have forgotten all about her. This discussion doubtless figures into the semantics of "brown is the new white"; but don't forget the slogan isn't "brown is the next white."

Of course the verbal construction x is the new y is nothing new itself. And a little Googling shows "brown is the new white" has been uttered well before the T-shirt fiasco. c|net reports Microsoft "stressed" this fact a little less than a year ago. What were they talking about? How the dun-colored Zune music player was poised to overtake the iPod. Ha.

And over two years ago, a snooker (that's four-pocket billiards, you berk!) player changed his surname from White to Brown in a ridiculous publicity stunt, and the Guardian informed its readers "Why Brown is the new white."

I mused on the meme for a while, searching for more alternate meanings. Trying not to stray too far outside the realm of real possibility, I arrived at this: "Brown is the new white" could also describe heroin's rising dominance over cocaine. But what color is crystal meth?

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