Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sorry Doesn't Cut It

Not all of my time goes to changing my Mego Wonder Woman doll in and out of her Diana-Prince outfits. No, no. Sometimes I also spend time thinking about race in the U.S. Allegedly it’s part of my job or something. Then again, I seem to think that my job involves blogging and watching That Girl on DVD. So I am often confused.

Over the past couple of weeks, a has-been sitcom star and his handlers went into “damage control” mode after he delivered a racist tirade. Okay, so this story is a bit old and well-discussed at this point. Hey, I never promised that CoG would be a timely blog.

For those who don’t know, Michael Richards, who played Krammer on the nineties sitcom Seinfeld, has been apologizing everywhere from David Letterman’s late-night show to Jesse Jackson’s radio program. He has also planned a tête-à-tête with those whom he attacked to make a personal apology and probably offer monetary compensation.

All of this started when four African American men interrupted Richards’ performance at a comedy club, noting that he was simply not that funny. Despite years of being a stand-up comic, Richards claims that he just had no idea how to handle hecklers. He therefore reached into the ol’ U.S.-white-bag-of-tricks. Apparently he was just so flustered that he decided to call the audience members “niggers” no less than six times and wistfully allude to a time when people like Richards lynched black men for such uppityness.

The next day Richards’ had a kicking bigot-fueled hangover. Shouting all those racial epithets felt plenty fun at the time, but dawn brought the pounding realization that his career could be even further in the grave if he didn’t offer some type of mea culpa.

“I'm not a racist, that's what so insane about this," Richards said when he first addressed the issue, "And yet, it's said, it comes through—it fires out of me.” Hmm – One wonders if there could be a less convincing way of phrasing that. How about: “I’m not a racist, I just play one on stage and screen.” Or, “I’m not a racist, I just say racist things.” Or, “I’m not a racist, I am really Trent Lott.”

The Associated Press noted that Richards had won the support of at least one individual: Mel Gibson. No, I am not joking. GayProf’s sense of humor is far more developed than that. "I felt like sending Michael Richards a note," Gibson told Entertainment Weekly,"I feel really badly for the guy. He was obviously in a state of stress. You don't need to be inebriated to be bent out of shape. But my heart went out to the guy." Apparently hate really can bring people together.

Gibson stopped just short of implying that he and Richards were the ones really being persecuted for their anti-Semitic or anti-black spews. Don’t people understand? He was bent out of shape? What else can you do in that situation but dehumanize an entire group of people? It’s hard out here for a Klans man.

You can just imagine, incidentally, how much enthusiasm I have for seeing Gibson’s celluloid-interpretation of indigenous Mexican civilizations. For over five centuries, white Christians have loved making themselves feel smug by castigating Mexica and/or Mayan civilizations. In particular, they love, love, love talking about “human sacrifice” as the ultimate sign of “barbarism.” I guess this makes the five hundred years of conquest seem more legitimate. Of course, they conveniently ignore that contemporary Europeans burned, drowned, or otherwise murdered Jews, heretics, witches and others to appease their own god. That, seemingly, we don’t consider “human sacrifice.”

Given Gibson’s history, just try to tell me that his helming a project about the “collapse of Mayan civilization” is not going to be fraught with problems. Early reports on that film suggest that Gibson decided to merge Mexica (Aztec) and Mayan history, beliefs, and practices. Seemingly in his mind all of those brown folk are interchangeable anyway. I will likely need to be restrained from slugging the first person who asks me if Apcocalypto "was really how it was." That, though, is another entry.

Now, which racist was I talking about? Oh, right, Michael Richards.

Richards’ rant shows how quickly all of those nineteenth-century racist mechanisms of oppression can be mobilized in a flash. Like the Texas A&M blackface video (No, I am still not over it), Richards shows how all of the racist language and stereotypes are instantly at hand when whites decide to pull them out of the trunk.

Racism is real. It has real consequences in this nation for people’s daily life. It has not gone away.

That seems like news to the few people who wishfully imagine that we live in a color blind society. Yes, it would be a good ideal if we didn’t “see race, but just saw people.” That’s just not possible, however, given this society and popular culture in which we were all raised. Racist language always stands ready in the side-curtains to come out when whites feel too challenged or at risk of losing their power.

For those who control major media, the Richards’ tirade was an unpleasant and uncomfortable reminder of all of that. At first, the media tried to present it as just the rambling of a single has-been nut. People of color, though, looked kinda pissed. As a result, the media decided that they needed to say something else.

Most newscasters, though, seemed at a loss on how to report on Richards’ racism. How many white, blonde newscasters have I seen within the past two weeks slip into a whisper when they said “the n-word”? Literally, they say “the n-word,” not “nigger.” Yet, they still felt the need to whisper. Their discomfort suggests just how hard it is for the media to even broach the concept of racism. No, I am not saying that I would prefer newscasters to feel at ease shouting “nigger” from the roof tops. Still, their lack of confidence or ability to talk candidly about racism means that racism is simply not discussed in this nation. It also makes words like "nigger" all the more powerful for whites' use and entertainment.

Most networks decided to sidestep this problem by dragging out any person of color they could find to talk about the incident. They didn’t have to be African American, either. As long as they weren’t considered “white,” the media shoved a microphone under the nose for any sound bite. It also didn’t really matter if these people supported or disparaged Richards, just so long as they kept the good white folks from having to talk about racism. So, as I sweated on the treadmill in my gym, I saw an endless parade of people of color stepping up to comment on the incident. Even comedian Paul Rodriguez had a comment. I was astounded. Who knew Rodriguez was even still alive? George Takei must have been out of the country

This tactic makes racism a problem with people of color. “If only people weren’t different,” they media claims, “then we would all be the same.”

This event, especially coupled with the New York shooting of a young African-American groom, should remind us just how much race still plays an important role in the United States. It should also bust apart the naïve vision that we now live in a “color-blind” society.


Doug said...

I was heartened that most of the people in Richards' audience got up and left.

I've avoided watching most of the spin afterwards. After one or two, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. The truth came out, and now they're doing what you said: damage control.

The words "fag" and "faggot" are being treated the same as "nigger." It's censored. A great example is Green Day's song, "American Idiot." They say "faggot" a few times, but it's bleeped on the radio. It's there, but no one talks about it.

As for Mel Gibson, he can kiss my white faggot ass.

Anonymous said...

Being related to the Blackfeet Ozarks on my mothers side and to Pocahontas on my fathers side, I look back at history with disgust. The Native people of this land were treated worse than any others. Yet, we are still referred to as Wild Indians and heathens. Being Gay is just one more way to feel less of a human being. I'm second class because of my ancestry and third class because of my sexual orientation. If I was black I guess I would be considered fourth class. How do you think I feel when I hear of others being put down because of something they have no control over? When will they stop hiding behind religion and admit it is their own bigotted ideas that are beoing promoted. Oh, and I'm short too. Randy Newman said it best, "Short people got no reason to live". Is he right?

Anonymous said...

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words...

Great stuff, COG. By the way, TV Land is running a That Girl marathon next weekend. Just thought you should know.

Anonymous said...

The spotlight this episode has placed on the "n-word" is priceless.
What I find to be particularly intriguing is the presence of comedian Paul(?)Mooney on the Jesse Jackson radio program. He has made a career out of the use of this word.
Many are NOW calling for an end to its use in the African-American community.It's about time!
I can only imagine those who have died with this word being the last word they ever heard.

H. Lewis Smith said...


Los Angeles, CA., - Author H. Lewis Smith has written a thought provoking, culturally divided book that will not only spark heated conversation, but can also bring about real change. The N-word is often used in the African American community amongst each other and is generally not a problem when spoken by another African American. However, once the word is used by a Caucasian person, it brings on other effects. The question is "who can use the word and why?" Smith believes it is a word that should be BURIED!!!!

The book is written in a manner that all can understand. The points are well-taken and the wording is easy to follow. There are quotes from great people in our history including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin and many, many others. Smith has mixed history with honesty, love with life, education with effects. This is a great book for educators, parents, managers, professionals, newsmen, and anyone else wanting an in-depth look at the N-word, the effects and the solutions. A MUST READ!!!!

To learn more about Bury that Sucka, please visit

ChristopherM said...

If you really want to fear for the future of America, read the comments sections of celebrity blogs discussing this incident. The anonymity provided by the Internet can be a deeply scary thing when it enables the vicious racist ranting to surface like it has. I don't know if I will ever read the comments on TMZ was too upsetting to see what people really believe when they know no one can identify them.

Tomorrow, two attorneys from my home here in The Ville will argue before the Supreme Court the constitutionality of Louisville's school integration program. The program calls for all public elementary and high schools to be composed of 15-50% minority students, resulting in the bussing of some students. Our schools here are excellent, and while we have our share of racial tension, it seems like we have less than other cities our size. I'm afraid, though, that the program will be thrown out by the new court when we need it more than ever. When Justice Scalia dissented in the decision to allow law schools to promote diversity, he said that such programs weren't necessary for adults and should have happened 2 feet and 10 years earlier. That's just what our program here does, and if the racist comments I've been seeing today online are any indication, we need more programs like the one Louisville has, not fewer.

dykewife said...

there is no such thing as colour blindness when it comes to people, and personally, i'd not like that. i love being able to see the shades of skin colour we all have. i love learning about the people who live in those skins. when people talk about colour blindness, they're really talking about how they see the world in terms of "whiteness"

as to richards and gibson, they're paying the price that every person who walks around with the umbrella of white privelege and refuses to acknowledge that shade they have. they get to be the personification of a society. they get pilloried instead of society in general. people who actually agree with them get to stand back and 'tut tut' at them in righteous relief that it wasn't them.

Roger Owen Green said...

I've saifd it before, but people who claim that they don't see race, in some mistaken belief that (faux) colorblindness will mean that THEY aren't racist, make me EXTREMELY nervous.

I'm of the generation of black people who does not use "the N word", don't think it empowerers black people when they use it.+

r said...

As a teacher, I should be talking about this with my students. My little 13 and 14-year-olds who are trying to figure out the world, and their place in it.

They need to be able to talk about race and gender and sexual orientation and, dare I say it, religion.

But instead, they are topics "off limits" in my language arts classes. So is anything having to do with politics, capital punishment, and abortion.

Mustn't offend anyone. Mustn't challenge anyone...

And so instead we hold socratic seminars about the title of a piece of politically correct artwork and debate whether or not Becky Thatcher should have taken Tom back as her boyfriend.


tornwordo said...

What's wrong with shouting "asshole". I don't think I would ever use some derogatory term based on color. Behaviour, yes. And I didn't know that about Gibson. Unfuckingbelievable.

(oh and I think you mean epithet, not epitaph)

Anonymous said...

Interesting how words can wield such unbelievable power.

It used to be said widely "If you haven't anything nice to say, do say it at all". Of course, this world has little about it that is nice to talk about.

I've always hated that unspoken rule about how the "N" word was reserved for use by blacks alone. Not that I have any particular desire to use it, but it does make me cringe a bit even if I hear a black man calling another black man by that word.

As much as I hate the "n" word dichotomy ... I'd love to see that movement come to life amongst people who disavow thier "right" to use certain derogatory epithets "innocently" amongst members of thier particular race/ethnicity/social subgroup.

How is that sort of thing "empowering"?

Perhaps if only by the force of powerful political exclusion faced by a non-black if he uses it (except for Paul Rodriguez, who qualifies use of that word by any non-whites).

I guess that is just the way things are though... getting blacks to give up thier special "club word" would be like asking gays to give up calling one another faggot and the like. On second thought, I can't think of any other minority groups that reserve derogatory epithets for thier own "empowering" use.

That said, I still think that "Kramer" is a tool for not having the comedic creatively to engage and wittily disarm his hecklers without resorting to pulling out the N-bomb. Even once spoken is one time too many.

Gibson? I wonder how it is that Hollywood forgave him so quickly that he could bring his Aztec movie to market. I figured the crows would be still picking out his alcohol-sotted eyes after he was done getting strung up by his toes by the ADL.

GayProf said...

Doug: It's funny that Green Day would be censored given that they use the word "faggot" with satire, at least in that song.

Ed: Most Americans have little knowledge of Native Americans' history. It's shocking to me how little my students know when they arrive by the time they arrive at college.

Marsmsu: Ooooh -- I will so tune in to Ann Marie's adventures.

Brian: I agree that more discussion about the way different groups use "nigger" is time well spent. My concern, though, is that the discussion not drift away from white racism to focus on the African American community.

Christopher: I agree that the internet has exposed the level of hatred that still exists in the world. People do seem to feel more at ease to express their true sentiments.

Dykewife: You bring up a good point about "color-blindness" really being filtered through whiteness. It also strikes me that those who claim color-blindness are also people who have never really had a serious relationship (even friendship) with a person of color.

ROG: Whenever somebody has to explicitly state that they aren't racist/sexist/homophobic, it's usually a bad sign.

Rebekah: Yeah, see this is why I don't think I could go into public schools. Even at university level, I feel like I have to navigate a careful line. Not being able to talk about these issues at all, though, would be really frustrating.

I am going to go out on a limb, though, and say that Becky Thatcher should not have taken Tom back. He seemed like kind of a jerk. Plus, just what type of relationship did he have with Huck?

Torn: Yeah, that's why I am just not convinced by Richards' apology. The English language has many, many, many options for expressing your dislike of people. Out of all those choices, though, he opted for the racist language.

**Sigh** I should really learn to spell at some point. In the meantime, I fixed the error.

Seeker: Hollywood forgave Gibson because, in the end, I don't think they really care about racism or antisemitism.

Elizabeth McClung said...

It has always puzzled me that a country, which after 1865 spent a great deal of time and energy into entrenching racism to actively eliminate the idea of equality for the next 100 years constantly denies it has issues with race - when, so often everything from foriegn policy to entertainment has racial overtones (a study in the race of villians over the last 20 years of action films would be a good example).

I was unaware of the event you detail due to being in a culture closet but find it not only plausable but sort of suprised that there has been such a fuss - does America think a certain percentage of whites aren't using these terms on a daily basis; that black jockey lawn ornaments aren't still being sold? That everyone from military to police to the population don't either use these terms or make up new ones to fit the situation (I wonder what the US military personal use to refer to people in Iraq?).

I'm sorry but it seems that the US requires a mock renting of clothes every now and then before going back to business as usual (and as MIT proved, not hiring people with "black" names IS business as usual).

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I'm so disgusted by the whole "color-blind" movement. Maybe because Scalia is one of it's major supporters. It will also be interesting to see what happens at the S. Ct. with this school desegregation case. I loved the thought on human sacrifice and the comparison to other "purges" in Europe. As far as Mel Gibson being culturally insensitive, I would have been intensely shocked if it weren't. It's odd how he was so particular about Passion of the Christ to the point of making the actors speak what might have been the language at the time.

Anonymous said...

It's about time for Americans to come together on race and finally agree that the damn micks are ruining this country with their potatoes and their Guinness and their Riverdance. Especially their Riverdance.