Thursday, October 6, 2011

Does making racist jokes mean you're racist?

Salt Lake Community College Writing Center's group-think writing
project, Utah Freedom Writers, had advertisements invoking the
1960's civil rights era with a "Get on the bus!" slogan.
(I've reproduced below a modified version of the paper I submitted to the SLCC  Community Writing Center's 2011 Utah Freedom Writers project. The other submissions on the writing center publications page are written in varying styles and by authors of all ages. Take some time to check out what Utahans are saying.)

Does making racist jokes mean you're racist?
This is my take on what journalists are calling the "Marilyn Davenport email scandal." I previously titled this paper, "Removing the Screen: Turning Civil Rights Debate into Dialogue") 

First, let's get on the same page about perception. Everybody's got a paradigm. It's a web of philosophies, values, morals--the screen through which an individual or group sees the world. A good dialogue about civil rights can only begin if individuals take into real consideration the philosophies that oppose them. It's not enough to befriend people who are different from you. Real consideration requires removing your "screen," and looking through someone else's.

I believe there are two primary reasons individuals have closed their ears to the contemporary message of civil rights activism.
  1. They start off with a belief that the essential problem civil rights activists want to solve is fabricated, that it used to be real, but that that's all over now, and it doesn't exist anymore.
  2. Activists often use inflammatory, accusatory rhetoric. It offends the could-be listeners, and they never return.
Here's a charming example of an opportunity-to-discuss-racism gone bad. An Orange County Weekly blogger posts an article with this title: Racist Orange County Republican Email: President Obama and His Parents Are Apes. Marilyn Davenport, a local Republican figure, had sent out an email with an ape family photo featuring President Obama's superimposed face. She responded with incredulity to the enraged public when she offered OC Weekly this explanation over the phone:
the image Davenport emailed to friends and fellow politicians
Oh, come on! Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist. It was a joke. I have friends who are black. Besides, I only sent it to a few people--mostly people I didn't think would be upset by it.
She said she had thought of President Obama as a chimp only because of his policies, not because of his race, and that she "doesn't think in racist terms," "doesn't look at Obama as a black person," and,
In no way did I even consider the fact that he's half black when I sent out the email. In fact, the thought never entered my mind.
Before I talk about Davenport's statement, I need to comment on the article itself. It started with this zinger:
Orange County might be a beautiful oceanfront locale, but it's also home to Holocaust deniers, vicious anti-gay bigots and freakish big-haired televangelists
These titles weren't applied to anyone specific, but the author's language seemed to suggest, "If you're not on my side here, then you're just another ignorant, right-leaning jerk,"  This anti-Republican posturing set the tone for the angry, heated reader conversation comprised of 1,371 comments. (That's a lot for a local weekly news source.) Many writers could spark respectful non-partisan civil rights dialogue, but instead go for controversial headlines, and gutsy hooks. They incite readers to segregate themselves, crouch behind their screens, plug their ears, and attack.
In this children's book, Mickey receives a large box of
bananas from a friend. In the banana box is an African
man (who looks like an ape), and a note from the friend
obligating Mickey to take care of him.

And now, my response to Davenport's statements. The comparison of blacks to primates is historically-charged. As a justification for slavery and Jim Crow laws, several nineteenth century scientists perpetuated the idea that blacks were an evolutionary step down from whites, that they were more closely related to apes. This thinking trickled into pop culture (e.g. racial slurs like, "porch monkey," and old children's cartoons in which black characters looked and acted like monkeys). While historical context makes it clear that any Obama-primate photo is indisputably racist, what's unclear is Davenport's intention. Is she lying to save face, or is it possible that she honestly believes that she "doesn't think in racist terms?"

She might just be unaware that she's blinded by her screen, her belief in colorblindness. I think sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva would agree with me. In the book, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, before Bonilla-Silva goes into his famous four central frames of color blind racism, he suggests that many people are unknowingly blinded by paradigms that perpetuate current systems of social power:
All groups build ideologies to rationalize social inequality . . . Analyzing ideologies is not a matter of finding good and bad people, but of examining the collective understanding and representation produced by social groups to explain their world. Doing ideological analysis about race then is not a matter of finding "racists," but rather an attempt to uncover the frames . . . that help lubricate a racial order at a particular historical juncture. (emphasis added)
Marilyn Davenport
Marilyn Davenport sees things through a frame Bonilla-Silva calls, "Minimization of Racism." That is, she fails to see that racism is a societal structure, a system that still empowers whites over others. She sees racism, instead, as limited, sporadic, and declining. To her, "racist" probably means a person involved in housing or employment discrimination or in violent hate crimes--she knows that she's not that person, so she's offended that others are using the term "racist" to describe her. Perhaps she didn't suppose that a picture of a black man as an ape would be racist, because she didn't know that racism includes the language, the images, the concepts, the stories, and even the jokes that uphold the system that favors whites. She didn't realize when she said she "doesn't look at Obama as a black person" that she was suggesting that to look at a person as black was bad. Many people who adhere to the philosophy of colorblindness don't realize that pretending to ignore differences strengthens the standard idea that difference is wrong, or at best, annoying. I wonder if anyone cared to just explain that to her nicely.

No matter what area of civil rights activism we're talking about, we need to be wary of our tendency to vilify when we should be teaching. We also need to try to understand the other point of view to the point where we can empathize, care about what others value. Until we put down our rhetorical weapons and find some common ground, we are just slinging mud, and everybody's getting dirty.

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