Friday, May 16, 2008

The Dreaded "R" Word

That picture is from a t-shirt printed and sold by a bar owner in Marietta, Georgia. The homies over at Too Sense have the whole story on the bar owner and the shirt at their blog. Basically, this asshat thought it would be funny to compare a black presidential candidate to a monkey, and then feigned surprise that anyone would find his actions the least bit racist. Here's a quote of him expressing his surprise:

Marietta tavern owner Mike Norman says the T-shirts he's peddling, featuring cartoon chimp Curious George peeling a banana, with "Obama in '08" scrolled underneath, are "cute." But to a coalition of critics, the shirts are an insulting exploitation of racial stereotypes from generations past.


Norman said those offended are "hunting for a reason to be mad" and insisted he is "not a racist."

Why picture Obama as Curious George? "Look at him . . . the hairline, the ears, he looks just like Curious George," Norman said.

I've found that growing up black in America often means you have to become an expert at observing and documenting the behavior of white people. Now, some black people who grow up in extremely segregated neighborhoods often are ignorant of all the intricacies of white life because of their surroundings, but even they can learn a lot about white people just by watching television. Those of us who actually went to school with white kids and now work around lots of white people have an even broader knowledge base.

During my informal study of white culture, what I like to call my "pale safari", I've learned a lot about what white folks like and don't like when it comes to racial issues. Some of you have learned these things as well, and we could probably develop a pretty comprehensive list of the dos and don'ts for black and white relationships.

One rule that has become ingrained in my mind is that white folks don't like being called racists. In fact, many white people seem to view the word "racist" the same way many black people view the word "nigger." It's cool if they use it towards other people, but it's a fighting word if somebody uses it towards them.

However, in contrast to black folks, white people do not even feel comfortable using the word racist among themselves. For a whole host of reasons, many black people (like myself) use the word nigger as a substitute for "dude" or "man," it's just another word when we're saying it around folks we're cool with. But, because of their irrational dislike of the word racist, white folks hate to use that word to describe any other white person who is not wearing a Klan hood, or etching a swastika into their foreheads.

The most white folks will do is imply the possibility of racism in other situations. That's what the article's writer did with this bar owner, and then once that happened, the bar owner was allowed to spout a whole bunch of tripe about how he could never be a racist. That's another weird thing about white folks and racists, white folks will allow easily identifiable racists to make the most ridiculous arguments to try to justify or minimize their racist actions or comments. It would be the equivalent of this conversation taking place:

Man 1 The sky is definitely blue. There is no way you can deny this.

Man 2 You are wrong. The sky is only blue if you open your eyes and look at it really hard.

Seriously, it's like many white folks lose all trace of a backbone and the ability to think critically when race and racism are introduced into a conversation. This does not apply to all white folks, but as this election has shown us, way too many white people lack the ability or desire to have an honest discussion about race.

I've heard many theories about the source of this difficulty white people have with the term racist, and most of them have validity. Some theorize that white folks fear the stigma that comes along with being labeled a racist and are loathe to be responsible for burdening someone else with that title. Others say that white folks just subscribe to a different definition of racism because to subscribe to the same definition as black folks or other minorities would force them to condemn the actions of too many people they admire or love. One of the most ridiculous theories is the idea, usually promulgated by racists, that white folks try to view racial issues objectively, and are much less likely to use unfair labels than black folks.

Whatever the reason is for this failing of white people, it's something that needs to be addressed. It's impossible to have a meaningful and productive discussion about the realities of race in this country without being willing to clearly delineate between racists and non-racists. More importantly, there can by no equivocating for white people when it comes to dealing with white racists; they must be as swift to condemn and marginalize them as they are to attack minorities they feel have hateful views.

Finally, it is imperative that white folks be willing to except that their definition of racism is not necessarily accurate, and that they be willing to defer to groups who have had much more experience dealing with racism when these discussions jump off. The simple truth is that most minorities have a much higher level of expertise when it comes to racism; white folks need to accept this and behave accordingly.

Yes, the word "racist" is powerful and dangerous. Yes, there are black people and other minorities who have used it to hide their own deficiencies and to benefit their causes. However, the majority of the time, when minorities call someone a racist, they deserve it, and white folks need to take notice and take the appropriate actions.

And somebody get Pat Buchanan's ass off television.


Unknown said...

Yes, yes and yes. Did you know that I have never met a white racist? All of them 'have Black friends' or 'work with Black people and we get along just GREAT' or start sentences with, 'now, you know I'm not a racist, but...".
Listening to them you'd think that there was no race problem in the US.

Unknown said...

Oh, and I have something at my blog for you...

Mac Daddy Tribute Blog said...

I believe that the Clinton's campaign race baiting created an environment that made people feel that such racism is possible. Although she won the battle in W. Virginia, she lost the war there as well as in Pennsylvania. People got tired of the race baiting as part of her pandering to low-income whites.

I blogges about this over at

Anonymous said...

I was having a fruitless debate with Constructive Feedback on the Curious George/Obama T-shirt issue over at Field Negro, in which he suggested a double standard exists when he can find images of Dubya as a chimp/monkey and no one howls about that.

His reaction didn't surprise me, since C.F. is always confrontational and contrary. But then another poster, DMD, came around with some modest support for C.F.'s point based on the idea that such animal images are dehumanizing to any person of any race...and also suggesting that two wrongs don't make a right.

My response to that is I wrong? Am I harboring some double-standard that I'm not seeing? Or am on a logical track here?
Look, dmd I get the point that we shouldn't spread hatefullness and that two wrongs don't make a right. But let's not push the "dehumanization" thing TOO far. The issue with Curious George and Barack Obama is the use of a traditionally RACIST image. That isn't far off the mark of using the N-word.

When animal images are used in general for folks, that isn't necessarily dehumanization as such but imagery/metaphor/parody. There is a difference.

The guy at Mulligans can say all he wants that he just thinks cute little Curious George and Obama look a lot alike...but he knows that blacks are taking offense and he doesn't care. I can tell from the way he's responded in the news and the fact he's gearing up to make more of these T-shirts, last I heard, after selling out of them...depsite the rancor this is raising.

if you portrayed some Russian political leader as a bear...or an ardent democrat as an ass (since the donkey is the symbol of the party)...or a Republican as Dumbo (since the elephant is theirs), these are not dehumanizing acts. And portraying Dubya as a chimp is not dehumanizing him. Why? Because the image doesn't resonate. It doesn't STICK.

Monkey and ape images STICK when it comes to black folks. I don't think it's dehumanizing. I think it's just plain racist. All the more so because the guy who made the shirts can no longer play ignorant to the fact it is racist.

To put it another way, I would be offended on behalf of our current prez, no matter how much I despise him, if someone were to put out a cartoon or image that suggested he makes his decisions the way he does because he's snorting coke and slamming down bottles of whiskey. You know why? Because despite all his MANY flaws, he seems to be someone who's gotten past his addictions and is trying to rise above THAT part of his life at least. And it would be offensive to suggest otherwise.

Big Man said...

Good comments everybody, and I'll check out those links.


I agreed with your post, but I must admit that when people insinuate that W likes to make decisions after snorting an 8 ball and drinking a fifth I laugh.

I laugh a lot.

Anonymous said...

Ok, truth be told, I laugh too. I just feel bad about it in hindsight.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Deacon. But the real reason he is gearing up to sell so many t-shirts is because all of the fuss over the shirt has generated free publicity for him. Without all of the noise being made over the shirts, it would have probably died down as a little thing in his hole-in-the-wall town. But because so much attention has been brought to the shirts (which are obviously racist, and the same goes for anyone wearing them), that they are guanteed to sell all over the world now rather than die as a local racist fad. The real sad part is, not only will he be unrepentant in his racist views, but he has also learned that being an open bigot is very profitable. The next time he wants to sell a t-shirt, he will probaly be even more racist jsut so he can get the free attention. All this talk about boycotting his establishment and ending the production of the shirts does nothing but make a racist richer.

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

they pulling out all the tricks, chk my post today folk

Unknown said...

I'm with Deacon and Dewfish.
It's sticky in that I don't think we can ignore these things and must actively work against them, but the publicity they bring and the money that brings, tend to cancel out the negatives.
Seems like a cath-22.

NoRegrets said...

Hi - white person here. What are the appropriate actions in your opinion?

Big Man said...

No Regrets

First and foremost, don't pussyfoot around when it comes to labeling an action or even a person "racist." There should be no hesitation when something has clearly been identified as racist. More importantly, the ridiculous denials offered by racists should not be given any weight whatsoever. That's the first step that is rarely taken.

Second, there needs to be swift condemantion of not only the individual action, but the societal structure that allows that action to take place and even condones it.

Third, there needs to be some sort of penalty for displaying racist beliefs. It is not good enough to just ignore these people and hope they die off. There needs to be an active push in the larger culture to force these people to confront the lies they are telling, and then fight these lies with the truth.

There are many more actions that could be taken, but these are the first few that came to my mind. I understand that people are leery of false accusations of racism, and that many white people have a different definition of racism then black people. However, I'm not talking about those grey instances, I'm talking about something that should be obvious.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you in that we should condemn racism in all of its forms, but the problem with this situation is that the more it is hyped up, the richer the bigot gets in the end. This isn't the first t-shirt with a racist image or message, so i don't see the point in making such a big deal of it. its just giving the racist free publicity.

slag said...

All good points. Here's a great article about the origins of prejudice in the recent Scientific American Mind:

It seems to me that one way to address racism is to understand where it comes from. When we call out something/someone as racist, people see that as an intrinsic negative characteristic--something that they are or they aren't; not that they choose. The knowledge that we can all have racist tendencies and can choose to control them should help most people get over the defensive reaction.

But maybe not Pat Buchanan.

Coincidentally, I wrote a post on this very issue this morning as well: Thanks to wng for directing me to this post!

Susan said...

I've swung by here due to WNG talking about your balls of steel. I live in a racist town, probably what would be considered a racist state. I found this very interesting. I've always found it interesting when people will saying they're not prejudice because they don't discriminate. Discrimination is an action -- you can be prejudice without showing the action.

Babbling in your comments. Just wanted to say good read and she's right about the balls.

Anonymous said...

@ No Regrets

As a white guy myself, here's my take on the single most important step...and perhaps the hardest and most unlikely to be achieved any time soon (though I always like to hold out hope):

White people in America need to fess up to the insidious and comprehensive manner in which racism persists and is perpetuated in this country (this isn't to say other countires don't have similar problems/needs btw).

We need to fess up and try to be aware of when we perpetrate this shit...and we need to NOT do it from guilt but from a desire to be better people and start fixing the mess our ancestors made. It's not about who's at fault but about doing the right thing. And that also takes a realization among white Americans that white privilege ISN'T some mythological construct of minorities but a simple truth. For example, in general, a poor white person still has huge advantages over a poor black person...sometimes even over a working class black person depending upon the area of the country.

That's my pair of shiny copper coins, anyway...

Gye Greene said...

[Sound of brain going ''pop'']

That t-shirt guy is an IDIOT -- or, has zero artistic sense. (Or, both?)

GW = chimp, because GW **does** look a bit monkey-like.

Obaman in **No** way looks like Curious George. At the most basic: C. George has a round head; Obama's is a long inverted triangle. That's **such** a far-fetched excuse...

Now, if that guy had used a baboon -- mebbe. (Yes, I will catch flack for that; just thinking like a cartoonist/caracturist: long, narrow face; also maybe, a horse.)

But even then: To do so would be pretty danged clueless. Like comparing a female candidate to Betty Boop or Barbie.

OTOH -- there are all sorts of racist idiots out there, who think they're "clever": did the media **really** need to give him his fifteen minutes of fame?


Anonymous said...

great article Big Man,

unless it is someone like pat buchanon or that t-shirt guy sometime last year I decided to bury the "R" word in favor of something like "he is racially biased".

As you have already stated, the word "racist" is often perceived as being a Klansmen. But what about all of those racially-biases that aren't quite buchanon level, but extremely harmful nonetheless. the word "racist" often acts as a discussion ender, and even ammunition for a shield. so the question that i would pose is: is it worth having language that distinguishes between the Buchanons, and those with slighter cases of racial bias?

I'm not saying that i know the answer, but your article is something that I have given considerable thought to in hopes of progress around what types of racism should be immediately and unequivocally condemned, which deserve extended dialogue, and where to draw the line

Raving Black Lunatic