Recent news stories that show us exactly what NOT to do if we’re trying to be less racist.
Listen, talking about race can be really hard. Most of us white folks (inducing myself) make mistakes, even when we have the best of intentions. But knowing that it’s challenging and emotional shouldn’t make you stop trying to not be racist.
The fact is, we each have a huge responsibility not to harm others. Part of that responsibility means taking it upon ourselves to be thoughtful to others.
In that vein, let’s look at some news stories where people did it wrong – and actually promoted racism – in the past couple weeks.
1. Consider the Cultural and Historical Implications of What You’re Saying About Our President (looking at you, Boston Herald).
How did this political cartoon get past editors? Did people not know that there is a rich, racist history around implying that Black people love watermelon? Or did they just not care if their political cartoon (which is actually supposed to be about the failure of the Secret Service to protect the White House) dredged up hundreds of years of race-based stereotypes and oppression?
Talking Points Memo highlights the Herald’s weak apology here, where the author says he chose watermelon because… well… he likes watermelon! And yes, watermelon toothpaste does exist, for children mostly, but the author saying he didn’t think of any sort of racial implications to the use of watermelon in association with a Black President begs the question of how a political cartoonist with such a large platform could possibly be that naive and bereft of historical and social education? (The same goes for his editors, by the way.)
Always remember: an apology isn’t worth much if you don’t take full responsibility for how the mistake happened, acknowledge that you understand the reasons why people are hurt and offended, and explain how you’re going to prevent it from happening in the future. I would suggest the Boston Herald hire a significantly more diverse editorial staff in positions of authority.
2. Don’t Use Your Giant Platform and Immense Talents to Inflame Islamophobia. Especially If You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About (Ahem, Bill Maher).
It’s time to grow up, and realize that with your huge platform comes massive, massive responsibility.
Luckily, Reza Aslan took the time to explain the ridiculousness of Maher’s question, which was whether Islam is a violent religion. We need to listen to Aslan’s explanations here, they are smart and explode basically every myth about Islam that the media has been feeding us.
3. Don’t Use Halloween as an Excuse to Be Racist or Appropriate Culture.
Okay, I get it, headdresses and war bonnets are cool. I think they’re gorgeous and even awe-inducing. There’s a possibility I would look awesome in one. But am I going to wear one? NO. Why? Because first and foremost, I’m not a Native American. On top of that, headdresses are not just everyday wear for Native people, and never were. Different tribes have different culture and traditions surrounding headdresses, regalia and war bonnets, and you can totally look into that history if you’re interested, but in no way should wearing this traditional garment be considered a costume, worn for fun or because you think you look hot in it.
Don’t believe me? Read this awesome explanation by Jacqueline Keeler.
This goes for other racist Halloween costumes. Don’t appropriate people’s traditions. You don’t need to wear a sari to go out and booze it up. Forget the sombrero. Leave other people’s cultural traditions out of your party (and your kids’ parties) and choose something else. There are SO MANY options you guys. Like, ANYTHING ELSE pretty much.
And I know I don’t have to mention blackface, right? Or any other make-up intended to make you look like you have the features of another race… Don’t do it.
Here, go as a Ghostbuster or a tube of toothpaste or Rosie the Riveter (here’s me!). How about a chef, a magician, a telephone repair person, I don’t know. Anything else. I know you can figure it out.
4. If Someone Calls You a Racist, Don’t Act Like You’re the Victim (Hi, R*dsk*ns Fans on The Daily Show.)
So here’s the deal. I’m not going to get into the technical details of whether the “keep the name” fans of Washington’s NFL team were tricked into appearing on camera with Native “change the name” activists. I can tell you, from having worked in production, that if The Daily Show had violated any sort of contract, they wouldn’t have aired the segment.
What I want to talk about is something that one of the “keep the name” guys said in The Washington Post after the segment was filmed. He said that if he’d know activists were going to be in the room, he wouldn’t have worn his R*dsk*ns jacket.
If you own an article of clothing that you know is considered so racially or ethnically offensive that you won’t wear that article of clothing around the people who may be offended or hurt by it, YOU SHOULDN’T BE WEARING THAT ARTICLE OF CLOTHING EVER, AROUND ANYONE.
I do feel badly that the “keep the name” people on The Daily Show felt intimidated by the Native activists being in the room with them, but if you want to understand what real intimidation is like, you need to read the moving and powerful account by Migizi Pensonou of the comedy troupe The 1491s about what happened to the activists when they were taken to a Washington NFL tailgate party, including being told “I’ll fucking cut you” by one die hard Washington fan who clearly is very attached to the current name.
And while activist Amanda Blackhorse explained in the segment that she doesn’t think the Washington fans are necessarily racist, but that the team name is, my basic rule of thumb in all situations is this: If someone calls you a racist, no matter how much you think you’re not a racist, you have a duty to sit quietly for a good long time and figure out what you’re doing wrong.
5. Resist the temptation to use racist stereotypes as a “rhetorical device”.
It’s hard to believe I have to say this, but somehow I do.
I don’t care how clever you think you’re being, do not – I repeat DO NOT – exploit a racist stereotype and then call it a “rhetorical device”.
That’s exactly what Alessandra Stanley did when she wrote a review of a new show by TV super-power Shonda Rimes (the brains behind Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy to name just a few) starring Viola Davis, called How to Get Away With Murder. Her intro line: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”
Yeah, that happened. When the NYT apologized, they said three editors had looked it over and not seen a problem with it, which is astounding. Nobody saw a problem with using the term “angry Black woman” in an article about one of the most powerful Black women in the history of the entertainment industry?
Here’s the deal, fellow white people, we don’t know what it’s like to be Black women. Some of us may not know what it’s like to be a woman at all. One thing I can tell you is that my friends and relatives who are Black talk about the ways in which society marginalizes them – makes them feel unimportant, dismissed, like they don’t matter, like they don’t deserve to be listened to or given the benefit of the doubt – based upon stereotypes. One of those is that of the “angry Black woman” which implies that Black women aren’t rational, intelligent, measured or thoughtful, and we know that’s complete bullshit. It’s a way of dismissing legitimate critique, frustration, challenges and emotions of people that we, as mainstream society, are afraid to truly listen to.
It’s not clever. It’s not clever and it’s not okay, even if you think you’re being flattering when you say it. It’s not even original! Stop. And editors (including myself): Read more carefully. Consider the historical and social implications of the things your writers are saying.