Recently, I landed in Los Angeles on a cold and rainy afternoon. I was, admittedly, irritated—isn’t the social contract with L.A. that we ignore its many flaws in exchange for perfect weather? I was also feeling lazy and opted to splurge on a curbside pickup from Lyft. The service was called Lux, and, trust me, the price tag to get to the East Side matched the name. More intriguing, though, was one of the service options offered: your choice of a driver who would agree to maintain a “quiet ride.”
As I have already implied, the list of things that I truly love about Los Angeles is short. But, a major one is the excellent local radio, which mitigates the torture of spending half of your visit there in a car. The second is the chance to chat with the colorful Angelenos who drive even more colorful characters around for a living. I’m a writer, after all. People are sort of my business. So, in my ideal luxury taxi app, a quiet ride commands less of a premium than, say, a driver who can spin a yarn about their checkered past and also enjoys Teena Marie. But the option got me thinking about the concept of “quiet,” which somehow has transformed from a sonic state to an aspirational good. A superior mode of being deemed superior because it is valued by a monied class.
This isn’t “quiet’s” fault, mind you. Quiet organically inhabits some pretty erudite spaces: libraries, theaters, museums, certain kinds of concert halls, even. Of course, for a series of systemic reasons that I won’t enumerate here, these same places are disproportionately inhabited by the upper class, and, somehow, over time quiet evolved from a location-specific modality to an aesthetic co-opted by the well-heeled and its aspirants. Quiet became much more than a state of volume; it became a virtue. A quiet street. The quiet ride offered to you by your luxury vehicle. A quiet car available in a train. A quiet refrigerator, dishwasher, and washing machine. A pricey yoga class that provides you the space and time to “get quiet.” A sign outside a bar in a gentrified part of town asking people to consider the neighbors and please, be quiet. (I never understood why the neighbors are never asked to consider the bar patrons before they decide to live over a fucking bar.)
As with most matters of taste, this is all well and good until, of course, this subjective preference is deemed objectively better than another and is subsequently imposed upon those who don’t share this opinion. Quiet became bigger than itself: a territorial marker for this typically white, monied class. And therefore, it must be enforced. Which is a big part of what happened to poor ol’ quiet. The bar sign is an excellent passive example of this, but I could list about a dozen encounters I’ve had over the years where, when at a restaurant with a group of friends—almost all people of color—our good time was deemed “too loud” for another (white) patron who was just “trying to enjoy a quiet meal.” Or a personal favorite anecdote: A few friends were over at my house one Friday night, and my new neighbor came by, knocked on my door, and asked if we could “use our ‘inside’ voices.”
Which raises a larger question: Inside whose house?
I, for one, grew up in a very noisy home. My grandmother was one of nine; my grandfather, about the same. My grandmother had two modes of speaking: talking loudly and shouting. “Please don’t yell,” I would ask, to which she would scream, “I’m not yelling! This is just how I talk.” (Even at my young age, I sensed, somehow, that being more quiet was probably “better.” And my grandmother, somehow, sensed a certain judgment in my request, even if I didn’t realize it.) A normal Sunday dinner in our family could easily involve 30 people, all talking over one another, trying to win an argument or tell the loudest joke or the funniest story. Quiet was not a virtue there, not by a mile. If you had something to say, the only way to do it was to say it loudly.
This has become a trope: the loud ethnic family who has yet to learn the quiet ways of “America.” And there are countless racist variations of this stereotype on both sides of the sound spectrum. Much like my neighbor’s knock at the door, or the other patrons’ comments at the restaurant, stereotypes—and the fear people have of being perceived as one—are tools for inducing shame. And shame can often be an effective means of policing behavior.
Until the policed refuse to play along, of course. Sin vergüenza is the expression in Spanish. “Without shame.”
A not-small part of the current “culture wars” that we are living through is a collective recognition that “quiet” is not the aesthetic of America any more than whiteness is. It is the preferred aesthetic of a specific, wealthy class of Americans, namely, the descendants of the Founding Fathers and those who, through assimilation, have attempted to emulate them.
For generations, when people have discussed “American culture,” yes, they were talking about whiteness, but they were talking about a specific whiteness that was, or at least tried to be, WASPy. American whiteness. It’s defined by reason and reservedness and elite education and fiscal power and responsibility and, of course, quiet.
Over the past two decades, as genre boundaries in music have all but been eradicated and television, arts, and entertainment have (slowly) become more diverse, we have seen communities of color reject this insistence that the aesthetics of American whiteness dictate the aesthetics of American culture. We have been witnessing a collective rejection by BIPOC Americans of this smothering notion that we must be “quiet” in order to be “good.”
But what I think we’ve also been seeing—through the ascent of Sarah Palin and then the reign of Trump—is a white populace also rejecting this dominant strain of American whiteness.
When, early in the 2016 campaign, Trump supporters would say, “He talks like me,” they were, in a way, saying “loudly.” Yes, the “silent majority,” as they once called themselves, hates a diversifying America having a say in their government. But I believe that they equally hate to be told to use their “inside voice” by a group of people who they see as their peers. What I’m positing is the hilariously ironic idea that this movement—Trumpism—rooted in racism and xenophobia, is not actually at war with Black and Brown America. We are but casualties in their battle with a different sect of white supremacy. One that comes with behavioral norms associated with classist assumptions and that attempts to use shame to police them.
Indeed, we see this play out even on the other side of the aisle—the “open-minded” end of the spectrum. I remember clearly a couple of years ago, when elders among the House Democrats wondered aloud why the newly elected “Squad” couldn’t just “sit quietly” and listen for a while to “see how things are done.” And currently, despite the frustration I may personally feel with Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s centrist positions, I can’t help but wonder if some of the ire toward her is really about her willful insistence on conducting herself like a riled-up patron at a roadside BW3s. It’s not that she doesn’t know how other senators dress and speak—she is simply refusing to do it.
This is a self-made problem for the power brokers of American whiteness. The behavioral rigidity with which they played gatekeeper to their corridors of power made it such that not even actual whiteness seemed enough. Even then, you were asked to please quiet down at your own dinner table. Let the irony not escape any of us that despite the great stain of racism upon which this country was founded, it was not the George Floyd murder or subsequent protests that broke this country. No, the wheels of this American experiment flew off on January 6, 2021, when white Trumpists refused to keep playing nicely with the white elite. The result was a collective disregard of all social norms, period. Let alone ones of a white America.
The optimist in me wants to see all of this white infighting and say, “Let’s see where it all lands”—perhaps we will find ourselves all living in a more wonderful, open-minded “free to be you and me” kind of country. The cynic in me remembers that this white cultural “rebellion” is still being led by racist xenophobes. So what we are witnessing now may be less the death rattle of white supremacy, and more the fight for the right to dole out racism a bit more loudly.