White Boy Summer is a bad idea — but are its shirts racist?
“White Boy Summer” is one more item in a line of Chet Hanks’ bad decisions — but does it also have a racist aesthetic?
Son of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, the 30-year-old actor-rapper, who is the recent subject of a protective order requested by his ex-girlfriend, went on Instagram last week to announce (or threaten) a forthcoming season of white guydom; he hastened to say he didn’t mean “Trump, NASCAR-type white.” An apparel line soon followed, and quickly raised eyebrows higher than they were already pitched.
— Chet Hanks Updates (@upchets) March 30, 2021
Despite Hanks’ protestations that the white boys in question were white hip-hop artists like himself, the phrase certainly seems like it might appeal to the Charlottesville and Capitol Siege crowd, and the clothing isn’t helping. Internet observers were quick to opine that, while not quite a Camp Auschwitz hoodie, the text on the clothing, in Gothic font, appeared to be a bit… well, Nazi-ish if not just flat-out racist. The Guardian noted that it resembled Fraktur, a style of script used on Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and early Nazi letterhead. But what if a font is just a font?
“There is no question that ‘gothic’ lettering (the general style is more accurately described as ‘blackletter’) is associated with white supremacist groups,” typographer and book designer Scott-Martin Kosofsky wrote in an email to the Forward. But Kosofsky noted that this particular font was not actually Germanic, but English. It’s called “Cloister Black” and is “more closely related to the banner of The New York Times than it is to the early Nazi style.”
The word “early” tells a tale. While blackletter was once favored by Nazis as a signal of German identity, it was later abandoned. The reason? The Nazis thought it was Jewish. In what Kosofsky calls a “compound comedy of errors” the Nazis nixed blackletter because they believed that one particular form of it, Schwabacher, was associated with a late-Medieval Hebrew script. In fact, “the influence was the other way around.”
Harald Geisler, a German artist and typographer, said that the “fake story” labelling the painstaking Fraktur fonts Jewish was introduced to justify a transition to a more efficient state style. In any case, the lettering on Hanks’ merch doesn’t carry the same historical baggage.
“The “Old English” blackletter, as exemplified by Cloister Black, is no less ‘white’ than its German cousins, just not in that way,” Kosofsky said, adding that if this font was meant to be advance white supremacy, it would not be the “first visual malapropism” of the movement.
He argued in an email that using blackletter should not be “a priori, considered White Supremacist. But the mash-up of word and letter equals a mental picture that is hard to irradicate.”
Does the typeface have other connotations? Certainly. Goth culture is one obvious example, and Heller noted that hip-hop uses it often as well. (Hanks and the co conspirators named in his White Boy Summer announcement, Jon B. and Jack Harlow, are hip-hop artists.)
“It periodically returns as popular styles change from this to that,” Heller said of the font’s trend, adding, “Style uber alles!”
Here, however, the style is lacking.
“I thought it was just bad typography,” said Geisler. “There’s a lot of spacing between the letters. The lettering should be done very tightly. It’s also not something to be used in a typesetting environment. It’s something that used to be written.”
He suspected that the design was a hasty product — which makes sense given that it services an undercooked idea.
“It strikes me as going to a font menu and saying ‘This looks like fun,’” Geisler offered, wondering why Hanks might not have the funds to hire a professional calligrapher and, damningly, comparing him to a typographic dilettante who thinks that loathed fonts like Papyrus and Comic Sans look nifty in all contexts.
Even if Cloister Black is blameless, the whole sentiment of Hanks’ season of white guys, a far cry from Megan Thee Stallion’s empowering Hot Girl Summer, is questionable at best.
“I’m curious to know what ‘White Boy Summer’ signifies and who, in this era of post-Trumpism, would think it a good idea,” Heller said.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]