On Racism: on stage, on the court and in your homes

Before we get underway, I want to make sure readers understand that comments that assert or imply that racism, ethnic stereotyping and/or sexism don’t exist will be deleted, as will comments that seek to minimize the impact of oppression or deride or dismiss those who call attention to how privilege and oppression are manifested. Repeated comments to this effect will result in bans. This space is intended to be explicitly anti-oppression; if you would like to debate the existence of oppression in its various forms, I can’t stop you, but I also won’t provide you a venue. There are, unfortunately, countless other places that will not only allow but gleefully welcome your defense of privilege. Find one. [Borrowed with permission from DiSnazzio]

Once upon a time, I knew someone (while this someone is specific, it could be anyone, really) who would often get visibly uncomfortable and sometimes angry when Black people fell to their knees and sobbed dramatically after seeing their new home on Extreme Home Makeover. This person said that while they understood the magnitude of the moment, that the hysterics were a little over the top. Comparisons were made between these moments and the stereotypes white people have generated over time of Black churches, gospel and the general enthusiasm that white culture does not understand nor incorporate into their enjoyment, or displeasure, of life. I quarrelled with this person over the clean and simple racism in their judgments, but they vehemently opposed my perspective. "Just because they're black doesn't mean I'm saying this because they're Black and I'm not racist, ok?" was the common refrain. It set up a really comprehensive and far-reaching paradigm for the experiences I have regularly with whiteness about the emotion of persons of color and how they elect to display it.

We all have common stereotypes that we force POC to fit into. We assumed that Kate Gosselin, witch that she is, married Jon Gosselin because the percentage of Korean he had within him most certainly certified the fact that he would be silent and complacent - because all Asian men are the strong, silent type...right? Black women, while lauded and loathed for the ampleness of their bosoms and behinds, are often regarded as the least feminine women on the planet (see: Caster Semenya). Asian women are silent, submissive, and quite skilled at precise handiwork. Black men are violent, less than intelligent, and abusive. Latin women are sensual, seductive and hot-tempered. I could go on and on with this. The point I'm attempting to make is not that these stereotypes are valuable or valid, because they are not, but that they inform our opinions of people at a level so buried in our subconscious that sometimes we fail to consider our prejudices before we speak.

Last night Kanye West stormed unceremoniously on stage at the Video Music Awards on MTV and grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift, who was accepting her award for Best Female Music Video. This young, thin, pale, blonde white girl was able to squeak a few words out before the angry Black man interrupted her acceptance speech and announced his displeasure with the results. West, rightfully in my opinion, was admonishing the public that voted for Swift's video saying that Beyonce's "Single Ladies" video was, essentially, epic. And to be honest, her video and the dance moves contained within, will probably rank up there with Thriller and Rhythm Nation insofar as they are permanently tattooed into the collective consciousness as powerful and original choreographic cultural vignettes. Comparatively speaking, Beyonce's video was beyond Swift's in both quality and craftsmanship. But the VMAs are about the people's vote, and just as we were displeased when Bush II was reelected (though this wasn't so much the public's fault but one of the biggest mistakes made by the Supreme Court ever), the people who supported the rightful candidate were disappointed. And West took it upon himself to say so, in an aggressive and seemingly disrespectful manner.

The internet shot ablaze when this happened. There wasn't an internet service I could access where people weren't expressing their shock and disgust at West's lack of decorum. People called him an asshole, douche bag, jerk, and a whole slew of tasteless insults levied at a man who has moved in and out of the collective annoyance over the past 12-18 months. West is critiqued for his sexism, chauvinism, for his sexuality and his outspoken, inarticulate and often brash nature. Most people forget, though, to look within and consult their own prejudices when calling out the unsavory behavior of a person...especially a person of color. What West did was call a spade a spade - on a stage fueled by the opinions and wallets of a predominantly white populace. And he did it in a way that they found crass and inappropriate. Is this a legitimate critique of his character or an easy out because we don't have our racism in check?

This weekend we also grappled with uncharacteristic and foul-mouthed outbursts from Serena Williams on the tennis court. Tennis, which is to me (still) a stereotypical affluent white sport, allows the Williams sisters on its courts because they are wonderful athletes. What they don't enjoy is when they dress inappropriately, have less-than-feminine bodies, and especially when they open their mouths. Based on everything I've read, Serena had a legitimate bone to pick with the line judge. Offering to shove a tennis ball down someone's throat is not often regarded as a gesture of civility, but one must admit that if any official in your place of work passed a judgment or even generated a formal grievance against you for an action that was not actually fact or fair, you too would be overcome with anger and outrage. After years and years of being forced into a cookie cutter in which she does not fit, Serena seemed to have enough. I cannot fault her for that. And I do believe that doing so, without regard for one's own racism, would be a questionable statement of privilege.

I'm not asking anyone to rescind their judgments and statement about West or Williams or any POC they've incidentally or intentionally critiqued in a public forum. HOWEVER, I do think that if you are committed to eradicating oppression, disinterested in fueling racism, and a person who understands (or at least endeavors to) the complex human experience, that instinctively passing judgment against a person whose life experiences have been and will be dramatically different than yours is just plain wrong. Privilege is not a matter of what you have in your wallet, or what you have on your dining room table - it's a complex system of oppression levied, in this case, against a group of people for hundreds if not thousands of years. If the resentment of that oppression takes the form of an angry threat, an unkind microphone grab at an indulgent industry event, or as frustrated condescension in the home of a Harvard professor, it's really ok. White people have NO CONCEPT of what the general or personal experiences of POC have actually been like, and it is not within our right to pass judgment. And by doing so, we make ourselves no better than the conservative and religious right who is currently calling our Black president Hitler and degrading him in unimaginable ways every single day. Enough.
All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.