Wasted Whiteness: The Racial Politics of the Stoner Film


  • Cornelia Sears Department of American Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
  • Jessica Johnston Department of American Studies, University of Canterbury




stoner film, whiteness theory, Up in Smoke, Cheech and Chong, marijuana

How to Cite

Sears, C., & Johnston, J. (2010). Wasted Whiteness: The Racial Politics of the Stoner Film. M/C Journal, 13(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.267
Vol. 13 No. 4 (2010): waste
Published 2010-08-19

We take as our subject what many would deem a waste of good celluloid: the degraded cultural form of the stoner film. Stoner films plot the experiences of the wasted (those intoxicated on marijuana) as they exhibit wastefulness—excessiveness, improvidence, decay—on a number of fronts. Stoners waste time in constantly hunting for pot and in failing to pursue more productive activity whilst wasted. Stoners waste their minds, both literally, if we believe contested studies that indicate marijuana smoking kills brains cells, and figuratively, in rendering themselves cognitively impaired. Stoners waste their bodies through the dangerous practice of smoking and through the tendency toward physical inertia. Stoners waste money on marijuana firstly, but also on such sophomoric accoutrements as the stoner film itself. Stoners lay waste to convention in excessively seeking pleasure and in dressing and acting outrageously. And stoners, if the scatological humour of so many stoner films is any index, are preoccupied with bodily waste.

Stoners, we argue here, waste whiteness as well. As the likes of Jesse and Chester (Dude, Where’s My Car?), Wayne and Garth (Wayne’s World), Bill and Ted (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Jay and Silent Bob (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) make clear, whiteness looms large in stoner films. Yet the genre, we argue, disavows its own whiteness, in favour of a post-white hybridity that lavishly squanders white privilege.

For all its focus on whiteness, filmic wastedness has always been an ethnically diverse and ambiguous category. The genre’s origins in the work of Cheech Marin, a Chicano, and Tommy Chong, a Chinese-European Canadian, have been buttressed in this regard by many African American contributions to the stoner oeuvre, including How High, Half Baked and Friday, as well as by Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and its Korean-American and Indian-American protagonists.  Cheech and Chong initiated the genre with the release of Up in Smoke in 1978. A host of films have followed featuring protagonists who spend much of their time smoking and seeking marijuana (or—in the case of stoner films such as Dude, Where’s My Car? released during the height of the War on Drugs—acting stoned without ever being seen to get stoned).

Inspired in part by the 1938 anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness, and the unintended humour such propaganda films begat amongst marijuana smokers, stoner films are comedies that satirise both marijuana culture and its prohibition. Self-consciously slapstick, the stoner genre excludes more serious films about drugs, from Easy Rider to Shaft, as well as films such as The Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine, the Muppet movies, and others popular amongst marijuana smokers because of surreal content. Likewise, a host of films that include secondary stoner characters, such as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, are commonly excluded from the genre on the grounds that the stoner film, first and foremost, celebrates stonerism, that is “serious commitment to smoking and acquiring marijuana as a lifestyle choice.” (Meltzer). Often taking the form of the “buddy film,” stoner flicks generally feature male leads and frequently exhibit a decidedly masculinist orientation, with women, for the most part reduced to little more than the object of the white male gaze.

The plot, such as it is, of the typical stoner film concerns the search for marijuana (or an accessory, such as junk food) and the improbable misadventures that ensue. While frequently represented as resourceful and energetic in their quest for marijuana, filmic stoners otherwise exhibit ambivalent attitudes toward enterprise that involves significant effort. Typically represented as happy and peaceable, filmic stoners rarely engage in conflict beyond regular clashes with authority figures determined to enforce anti-drug laws, and other measures that stoners take to be infringements upon happiness. While Hollywood’s stoners thus share a sense of entitlement to pleasure, they do not otherwise exhibit a coherent ideological orthodoxy beyond a certain libertarian and relativistic open-mindedness. More likely to take inspiration from comic book heroes than Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary, stoners are most often portrayed as ‘dazed and confused,’ and could be said to waste the intellectual tradition of mind expansion that Leary represents.

That stoner films are, at times, misunderstood to be quintessentially white is hardly suprising.  As a social construct that creates, maintains and legitimates white domination, whiteness manifests, as one of its most defining features, an ability to swallow up difference and to insist upon, at critical junctures, a universal subjectivity that disallows for difference (hooks 167). Such universalising not only sanctions co-optation of ethnic cultural expression, it also functions to mask whiteness’s existence, thus reinforcing its very power. Whiteness, as Richard Dyer argues, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. It obfuscates itself and its relationship to the particular traits it is said to embody—disinterest, prudence, temperance, rationality, bodily restraint, industriousness (3). Whiteness is thus constructed as neither an ethnic nor racial particularity, but rather the transcendence of such positionality (Wiegman 139). While non-whites are raced, to be white is to be “just human” and thus to possess the power to “claim to speak for the commonality of humanity” whilst denying the accrual of any particular racial privilege (Dyer 2). In refuting its own advantages—which are so wide ranging (from preferential treatment in housing loans, to the freedom to fail without fear of reflecting badly on other whites) that they are, like whiteness itself, both assumed and unproblematic—whiteness instantiates individualism, allowing whites to believe that their successes are in no way the outcome of systematic racial advantage, but rather the product of individual toil (McIntosh; Lipsitz). An examination of the 1978 stoner film Up in Smoke suggests that whatever the ethnic ambiguity of the figure of the stoner, the genre of the stoner film is all about the wasting of whiteness.

Up in Smoke opens with two alternating domestic scenes. We first encounter Pedro De Pacas (Cheech Marin) in a cluttered and shadowy room as his siblings romp affectionately upon his back, waking him from his slumber on the couch. Pedro rises, stepping into a bowl of cereal on the floor. He stumbles to the bathroom, where, sleepy and disoriented, he urinates into the laundry hamper.

The chaos of Pedro’s disrupted sleep is followed in the film by a more metaphoric awakening as Anthony Stoner (Tommy Chong) determines to leave home. The scene takes place in a far more orderly, light and lavish room. The space’s overpowering whiteness is breached only by the figure of Anthony and his unruly black hair, bushy black beard, and loud Hawaiian shirt, which vibrates with colour against the white walls, white furnishings and white curtains. We watch as Anthony, behind an elaborate bar, prepares a banana protein shake, impassively ignoring his parents, both clothed in all-white, as they clutch martini glasses and berate their son for his lack of ambition.

Arnold Stoner [father]:  Son, your mother and me would like for you to cozy up to the Finkelstein boy. He's a bright kid, and, uh... he's going to military school, and remember, he was an Eagle Scout.
Tempest Stoner [mother]: Arnold…
Arnold Stoner: [shouts over/to his wife] Will you shut up? We’re not going to have a family brawl!
Tempest Stoner: [continues talking as her husband shouts]…. Retard.
Arnold Stoner: [to Anthony] We've put up with a hell of a lot.
[Anthony starts blender] Can this wait? ... Build your goddamn muscles, huh? You know, you could build your muscles picking strawberries.
You know, bend and scoop... like the Mexicans. Shit, maybe I could get you a job with United Fruit. I got a buddy with United Fruit. ... Get you started. Start with strawberries, you might work your way up to these goddamn bananas! When, boy? When...are you going to get your act together?
Anthony: [Burps]
Tempest Stoner: Gross.
Arnold Stoner: Oh, good God Almighty me. I think he's the Antichrist. Anthony, I want to talk to you. [Anthony gathers his smoothie supplements and begins to walk out of the room.] Now, listen! Don't walk away from me when I'm talking to you! You get a goddamn job before sundown, or we're shipping you off to military school with that goddamn Finkelstein shit kid! Son of a bitch!

The whiteness of Anthony’s parents is signified so pervasively and so strikingly in this scene—in their improbable white outfits and in the room’s insufferably white décor—that we come to understand it as causative. The rage and racism of Mr. Stoner’s tirade, the scene suggests, is a product of whiteness itself. Given that whiteness achieves and maintains its domination via both ubiquity and invisibility, what Up in Smoke accomplishes in this scene is notable. Arnold Stoner’s tortured syntax (“that goddamn Finkelstein shit kid”) works to “mak[e] whiteness strange” (Dyer 4), while the scene’s exaggerated staging delineates whiteness as “a particular – even peculiar – identity, rather than a presumed norm” (Roediger, Colored White 21). The belligerence of the senior Stoners toward not only their son and each other, but the world at large, in turn, functions to render whiteness intrinsically ruthless and destructive.  Anthony’s parents, in all their whiteness, enact David Roediger’s assertion that “it is not merely that ‘Whiteness’s is oppressive and false; it is that ‘Whiteness’s is nothing but oppressive and false” (Toward the Abolition 13).

Anthony speaks not a word during the scene. He communicates only by belching and giving his parents the finger as he leaves the room and the home. This departure is significant in that it marks the moment when Anthony, hereafter known only as “Man,” flees the world of whiteness. He winds up taking refuge in the multi-hued world of stonerism, as embodied in the scene that follows, which features Pedro emerging from his home to interact with his Chicano neighbours and to lovingly inspect his car. As a lowrider, a customised vehicle that “begin[s] with the abandoned materials of one tradition (that of mainstream America), … [and is] … then transformed and recycled . . . into new and fresh objects of art which are distinctly Chicano,” Pedro’s car serves as a symbol of the cultural hybridisation that Man is about to undergo (quoted in Ondine 141).

As Man’s muteness in the presence of his parents suggests, his racial status seems tentative from the start. Within the world of whiteness, Man is the subaltern, silenced and denigrated, finding voice only after he befriends Pedro. Even as the film identifies Man as white through his parental lineage, it renders indeterminate its own assertion, destabilising any such fixed or naturalised schema of identity. When Man is first introduced to Pedro’s band as their newest member, James, the band’s African American bass player, looks at Man, dressed in the uniform of the band, and asks: “Hey Pedro, where’s the white dude you said was playing the drums?” Clearly, from James’s point of view, the room contains no white dudes, just stoners. Man’s presumed whiteness becomes one of the film’s countless gags, the provocative ambiguity of the casting of a Chinese-European to play a white part underscored in the film by the equally implausible matter of age. Man, according to the film’s narrative, is a high school student; Chong was forty when the film was released. Like his age, Man’s whiteness is never a good fit.

That Man ultimately winds up sleeping on the very couch upon which we first encounter Pedro suggests how radical and final the break with his dubious white past is. The “Mexicans” whom his father would mock as fit only for abject labour are amongst those whom Man comes to consider his closest companions. In departing his parents’ white world, and embracing Pedro’s dilapidated, barrio-based world of wastedness, Man traces the geographies narrated by George Lipsitz in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Historically, Lipsitz argues, the development of affluent white space (the suburbs) was made possible by the disintegration of African American, Chicano and other minority neighbourhoods disadvantaged by federal, state, and corporate housing, employment, health care, urban renewal, and education policies that favoured whites over non-whites. In this sense, Man’s flight from his parents’ home is a retreat from whiteness itself, and from the advantages that whiteness conveys.

In choosing the ramshackle, non-white world of stonerism, Man performs an act of racial treachery. Whiteness, Lipsitz contends, has “cash value,” and “is invested in, like property, but it is also a means of accumulating property and keeping it from others,” which allows for “intergenerational transfers of inherited wealth that pass on the spoils of discrimination to succeeding generations” (vii-viii). Man’s disavowal of the privileges of whiteness is a reckless refusal to accept this racial birthright. Whiteness is thus wasted upon Man because Man wastes his whiteness. Given the centrality of prudence and restraint to hegemonic constructions of whiteness, Man’s willingness to squander the “valuable asset” that is his white inheritance is especially treasonous (Harris 1713). Man is the prodigal son of whiteness, a profligate who pours down the drain “the wages of whiteness” that his forbearers have spent generations accruing and protecting (Roediger,  The Wages of Whiteness). His waste not only offends the core values which whiteness is said to comprise, it also denigrates whiteness itself by illuminating the excess of white privilege, as well as the unarticulated excess of meanings that hover around whiteness to create the illusion of transcendence and infinite variety. Man’s performance, like all bad performances of whiteness, “disrupt[s] implicit understandings of what it means to be white” (Hartigan 46).

The spectre of seeing white domination go ‘up in smoke’—via wasting, as opposed to hoarding, white privilege—amounts to racial treason, and helps not only to explicate why whites in the film find stonerism so menacing, but also to explain the paradox of “pot [making] the people who don’t smoke it even more paranoid than the people who do” (Patterson). While Tommy Chong’s droll assertion that "what makes us so dangerous is that we're harmless" ridicules such paranoia, it ultimately fails to account for the politics of subversive squandering of white privilege that characterise the stoner film (“Biographies”). 

Stoners in Up in Smoke, as in most other stoner films, are marked as non-white, through association with ethnic Others, through their rejection of mainstream ideas about work and achievement, and/or through their lack of bodily restraint in relentlessly seeking pleasure, in dressing outrageously, and in refusing to abide conventional grooming habits. Significantly, the non-white status of the stoner is both voluntary and deliberate. While stonerism embraces its own non-whiteness, its Otherness is not signified, primarily, through racial cross-dressing of the sort Eric Lott detects in Elvis, but rather through race-mixing. Stoner collectivity practices an inclusivity that defies America’s historic practice of racial and ethnic segregation (Lott 248). Stonerism further reveals its unwillingness to abide constrictive American whiteness in a scene in which Pedro and Man, both US-born Americans, are deported. The pair are rounded up along with Pedro’s extended family in a raid initiated when Pedro’s cousin “narcs” on himself to la migra (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) in order to get free transport for his extended family to his wedding in Tijuana. Pedro and Man return to the US as unwitting tricksters, bringing back to the US more marijuana than has ever crossed the Mexican-US border at one time, fusing the relationship between transnationalism and wastedness. The disrespect that stoners exhibit for pregnable US borders contests presumed Chicano powerlessness in the face of white force and further affronts whiteness, which historically has mobilised itself most virulently at the threat of alien incursion. Transgression here is wilful and playful; stoners intend to offend normative values and taste through their actions, their dress, and non-white associations as part of the project of forging a new hybridised, transnational subjectivity that threatens to lay waste to whiteness’s purity and privilege. Stoners invite the scrutiny of white authority with their outrageous attire and ethnically diverse composition, turning the “inevitability of surveillance” (Borrie 87) into an opportunity to enact their own wastedness—their wasted privilege, their wasted youth, their wasted potential—before a gaze that is ultimately confounded and threatened by the chaotic hybridity with which it is faced (Hebdige 26).

By perpetually displaying his/her wasted Otherness, the stoner makes of him/herself a “freak,” a label cops use derisively throughout Up in Smoke to denote the wasted without realising that stoners define themselves in precisely such terms, and, by doing so, obstruct whiteness’s assertion of universal subjectivity. Pedro’s cousin Strawberry (Tom Skerritt), a pot dealer, enacts freakishness by exhibiting a large facial birthmark and by suffering from Vietnam-induced Post Traumatic Stress disorder. A freak in every sense of the word, Strawberry is denied white status by virtue of physical and mental defect. But Strawberry, as a stoner, ultimately wants whiteness even less than it wants him. The defects that deny him membership in the exclusive “club” that is whiteness prove less significant than the choice he makes to defect from the ranks of whiteness and join with Man in the decision to waste his whiteness wantonly (“Editorial”).

Stoner masculinity is represented as similarly freakish and defective. While white authority forcefully frustrates the attempts of Pedro and Man to “score” marijuana, the duo’s efforts to “score” sexually are thwarted by their own in/action. More often than not, wastedness produces impotence in Up in Smoke, either literally or figuratively, wherein the confusion and misadventures that attend pot-smoking interrupt foreplay. The film’s only ostensible sex scene is unconsummated, a wasted opportunity for whiteness to reproduce itself when Man sleeps through his girlfriend’s frenzied discussion of sex. During the course of Up in Smoke, Man dresses as a woman while hitchhiking, Pedro mistakes Man for a woman, Man sits on Pedro’s lap when they scramble to change seats whilst being pulled over by the police, Man suggests that Pedro has a “small dick,” Pedro reports liking “manly breasts,” and Pedro—unable to urinate in the presence of Sgt. Stedenko—tells his penis that if it does not perform, he will “put [it] back in the closet.” Such attenuations of the lead characters’ masculinity climax in the penultimate scene, in which Pedro, backed by his band, performs “Earache My Eye,” a song he has just composed backstage, whilst adorned in pink tutu, garter belt, tassle pasties, sequined opera mask and Mickey Mouse ears:

My momma talkin’ to me tryin’ to tell me how to live
But I don't listen to her cause my head is like a sieve
My daddy he disowned me cause I wear my sister's clothes
He caught me in the bathroom with a pair of pantyhose
My basketball coach he done kicked me off the team
For wearing high heeled sneakers and acting like a queen

“Earache My Eye” corroborates the Othered natured of stonerism by marking stoners, already designated as non-white, as non-straight. In a classic iteration of a bad gender performance, the scene rejects both whiteness and its hegemonic partners-in-crime, heterosexuality and normative masculinity (Butler 26). Here stoners waste not only their whiteness, but also their white masculinity. Whiteness, and its dependence upon “intersection … [with] interlocking axes [of power such as] gender … [and] sexuality,” is “outed” in this scene (Shome 368). So, too, is it enfeebled. In rendering masculinity freakish and defective, the film threatens whiteness at its core. For if whiteness can not depend upon normative masculinity for its reproduction, then, like Man’s racial birthright, it is wasted.

The stoner’s embodiment of freakishness further works to emphasise wasted whiteness by exposing just how hysterical whiteness’s defense of its own normativity can be. Up in Smoke frequently inflates not only the effects of marijuana, but also the eccentricities of those who smoke it, a strategy which means that much of the film’s humour turns on satirising hegemonic stereotypes of marijuana smokers. Equally, Cheech Marin’s exaggerated “slapstick, one-dimensional [portrayal] of [a] Chicano character” works to render ridiculous the very stereotypes his character incarnates (List 183). While the film deconstructs processes of social construction, it also makes extensive use of counter-stereotyping in its depictions of characters marked as white. The result is that whiteness’s “illusion of [its] own infinite variety” is contested and the lie of whiteness as non-raced is exposed, helping to explain the stoner’s decision to waste his/her whiteness (Dyer 12; 2).

In Up in Smoke whiteness is the colour of straightness. Straights, who are willing neither to smoke pot nor to tolerate the smoking of pot by others/Others, are so comprehensively marked as white in the film that whiteness and straightness become isomorphic. As a result, the same stereotypes are mobilised in representing whiteness and straightness: incompetence, belligerence, hypocrisy, meanspiritedness, and paranoia, qualities that are all the more oppressive because virtually all whites/straights in the film occupy positions of authority. Anthony’s spectacularly white parents, as we have seen, are bigoted and dominating. Their whiteness is further impugned by alcohol, which fuels Mr. Stoner’s fury and Mrs. Stoner’s unintelligibility.  That the senior Stoners are drunk before noon works, of course, to expose the hypocrisy of those who would indict marijuana use while ignoring the social damage alcohol can produce. Their inebriation (revealed as chronic in the DVD’s outtake scenes) takes on further significance when it is configured as a decidedly white attribute. Throughout the film, only characters marked as white consume alcohol—most notably, the judge who is discovered to be drinking vodka whist adjudicating drug charges against Pedro and Man—therefore dislodging whiteness’s self-construction as temperate, and suggesting just how wasted whiteness is. 

While stonerism is represented as pacific, drunkenness is of a piece with white/straight bellicosity.  In Up in Smoke, whites/straights crave confrontation and discord, especially the angry, uptight, and vainglorious narcotics cop Sgt. Stedenko (Stacey Keech) who inhabits so many of the film’s counter-stereotypes. While a trio of white cops roughly apprehend and search a carload of innocent nuns in a manner that Man describes as “cold blooded,” Stedenko, unawares in the foreground, gives an interview about his plans for what he hopes will be the biggest border drug bust in US history: “[Reporter:] Do you expect to see any violence here today? [Sgt. Stedenko:] I certainly hope so.” Stedenko’s desire to act violently against stoners echoes mythologies of white regeneration in the Old West, wherein whiteness refurbished itself through violent attacks on Native Americans, whose wasteful cultures failed to make “civilised” use of western lands (Slotkin 565).

White aggression is relentlessly depicted in the film, with one important exception: the instance of the stoned straight.  Perhaps no other trope is as defining of the genre, as is the scene wherein a straight person accidentally becomes stoned. Up in Smoke offers several examples, most notably the scene in which a motorcycle cop pulls over Pedro and Man as they drive a van belonging to Pedro’s Uncle Chuey. In a plot twist requiring a degree of willing suspension of disbelief that even wasted audiences might find a stretch, the exterior shell of the van, unbeknownst to Pedro and Man, is made entirely of marijuana which has started to smoulder around the exhaust pipe. The cop, who becomes intoxicated whilst walking through the fumes, does not hassle Pedro and Man, as expected, but instead asks for a bite of their hot dog and then departs happily, instructing the duo to “have a nice day.” In declining, or perhaps simply forgetting, to exercise his authority, the cop demonstrates the regenerative potential not of violent whiteness but rather of hybrid wastedness. Marijuana here is transformative, morphing straight consciousness into stoner consciousness and, in the process, discharging all the uptight, mean-spirited, unnecessary, and hence wasteful baggage of whiteness along the way. While such a utopian potential for pot is both upheld and satirised in the film, the scene amounts to far more than an inconsequential generic gag, in that it argues for the disavowal of whiteness via the assumption of the voluntary Otherness that is stonerism. Whiteness, the scene suggests, can be cast off, discarded, wasted and thus surmounted. Whites, for want of a better phrase, simply need to ‘just say no’ to whiteness in order to excrete the brutality that is its necessary affliction and inevitable result. While Up in Smoke laudably offers a powerful refusal to horde the assets of whiteness, the film fails to acknowledge that ‘just saying no’ is, indeed, one of whiteness’s exclusive privileges, since whites and only whites possess the liberty to refuse the advantages whiteness bestows. Non-whites possess no analogical ability to jettison the social constructions to which they are subjected, to refuse the power of dominant classes to define their subjectivity. Neither does the film confront the fact that Man nor any other of Up in Smoke’s white freaks are disallowed from re-embracing their whiteness, and its attendant value, at any time. However inchoate the film’s challenge to racial privilege, Up in Smoke’s celebration of the subversive pleasures of wasting whiteness offers a tentative, if bleary, first step toward ‘the abolition of whiteness.’ Its utopian vision of a post-white hybridised subjectivity, however dazed and confused, is worthy of far more serious contemplation than the film, taken at face value, might seem to suggest. Perhaps Up in Smoke is a stoner film that should also be viewed while sober.


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Author Biographies

Cornelia Sears, Department of American Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Cornelia Sears is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. She is currently at work on a book on the stoner film in American culture.

Jessica Johnston, Department of American Studies, University of Canterbury

Jessica Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Canterbury. She is currently working on a book about emancipatory education and neo-liberal educational agendas.