African American studies scholar Mark Anthony Neal has suggested that Beatty's protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman, is "a reference to the Swedish ethnographer Gunnar Myrdal, who chronicled black life in An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy".
Paul Beatty’s protagonist Gunnar Kaufman embodies the progression that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned with the Civil Rights Movement. He is an African American male who was raised in predominately Caucasian environment without profound discrimination. Although the white community accepts him, he struggles to be accepting of his native African American community. Even after his mother moves his family to Hillside, a notorious California ghetto, he initially does not connect to the “ghetto” lifestyle. He has notions of what life as an African American should be like, but he has yet to live it. Gunnar is a chameleon that slowly but surely fits into almost every environment he is placed in. When Gunnar moves from the predominant white Hillside to a predominantly Black neighborhood he slowly changes "colors" and begins to represent everything that is considered to be "black." Gunnar's personality prior to moving to the predominantly Black neighborhood was "white" because he spoke proper English, he dressed a certain way and he acted a certain way. However, it could just be Gunnar's environment that is shaping his personality and not his desire to conform. Gunnar did desire to be accepted in this new community but even if he did not desire to be accepted he was bound to retain some of the attributes of the people that were in his surroundings. Many people interpreted Gunnar's friendship with Scoby and Psycho Loco as him validating his "blackness" with black friends but I believe it was him validating his right to live in that predominantly Black neighborhood even if he did not spend his entire life there. Gunnar friendship with these “black” characters can be interpreted as the white person saying these are my “cool black friends.” Gunnar is no longer the “cool black” friend he is the “white person” saying these are my “cool black friends.” Through the help of Scoby and Psycho Loco, he begins to fit into the black aesthetic, but superficial conforming does not change his innate personality. When his father forces him to return to a predominately white school, he naturally reverts to his true self, one that does not see skin color as a barrier.
Beatty, writing Post-Civil Rights Movement and during the Black Arts Movement, creates a character that transcends racial barriers, as many African Americans at that time wished to do. He along with other activists redefined what it meant to be black. Beatty created a character that fit into a white community as equally well as a black community; he also marries and impregnates a Japanese woman. From Gunnar’s encounter with the Harvard graduate, he learns that he is not interested in losing his true African American self to become a pretentious imposter. The African American community appoints him to the status of Negro Demagogue. They overlook the Caucasian environment that saturates the majority of his upbringing and his Japanese wife because at the end of the day, Gunnar is simply an African American male. This book proves that being raised in a ghetto or only having African American friends are not the only qualification that one must fill to be considered “Black.” Anyone can represent the African American community, including well-spoken, well-educated black men and women. Paul Beatty’s novel puts the foot in the door for a new Black being. It is a New Black Aesthetic.
The theme of black exceptionality is explored in the characters of Gunnar and Scoby. Both Gunnar and Scoby represent "the talented tenth", in that they escape Hillside and go on to higher education and promising futures. However, their successes are perceived differently by the white community. Scoby, the perfect Basketball player who is incapable of missing a basketball shot, is vilified and perceived as the pagan African demon with mystical powers. In contrast, Gunnar, a great player but not as good as Scoby, becomes “white society’s mercenary”. He is accepted, tolerated, and claimed by whiteness, because of his lack of apparent blackness. Because Gunnar has never fulfilled the stereotypical "black" role, whites view him as less of a deviance from the hegemonic ideals. This is a larger commentary on where Blacks are allowed to be in the social hierarchy, and the limitations placed on their successes. Gunnar comments of the white community’s treatment of Scoby saying “they would be a lot better off if they simply called Scoby a god and left it at that, it's no way they’ll proclaim a skinny black man God”.