The Boy Who Cried Racism
A sidenote– for everyone tuning into this blog for news about my efforts in the world of writing, I apologize. For the moment, this blog has turned into a venting mechanism to distract me from the impending release of my upcoming iPhone game “dream:scape” (available on the App Store June 9, and yes that’s a plug). I will be back to my regularly scheduled artistic angstiness once that game is released and I revert to why-doesn’t-the-literary-world-recognize-my-genius mode.
A few years ago I was hanging out with a group of friends discussing the vagaries of life in general when one of those friends (I’ll call him Jim) used the term “tar baby” in a sentence. I wasn’t familiar with the term (turns out it’s from a Br’er Rabbit story), but I understood it in context to refer to a quagmire situation that was difficult to get out of. An African-American member of the group (I’ll call her Susan) silenced the entire conversation by stating flatly that she was offended by the term ‘tar baby’ since it was inherently racist. Needless to say, Jim was mortified and apologized profusely. This killed the conversation for the rest of the evening and, I think, affected the group’s interactions forever after.
I have since looked up the term tar baby to see if it has any racial overtones. While the use of the term by unwitting politicians has resulted in their ostracization by civil rights groups, the term itself, ironically, originates in African culture. It made its way into popular American culture several decades ago, thanks in part to being featured in a Disney cartoon. Turns out, Jim is a big fan of classic Disney animation, thus it is safe to say that he got the idea of the tar baby from a cartoon rather than from any inherent dislike of black people.
The main point, however, is this: Susan knows Jim isn’t a racist. He’d been her friend for a long time. And yet it was worth damaging that friendship with the allegation of racism– an allegation that made us all feel like we were suddenly walking in a mine field. After all, we white people have been so conditioned to be fearful of that particular charge that we tend to think we’re automatically guilty of it, no matter what we actually think or feel.
There was something deeply unsettling about that interaction, and it wasn’t just the residual white man’s guilt it evoked or the subtle way it affected the group from then on. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but I think I have finally figured it out.
Over the past few days, I have seen several stories alleging racism. One was about Naomi Campbell’s horror at being compared, in an ad for Cadbury, to a candy bar: “Move over Naomi Campbell,” the ad reads, displaying a picture of a chocolate bar lying on a bed of diamonds, “there’s a new diva in town”. Another news story announced that some social scientist or other has determined that the Smurfs are racist.
Really? This is what racism has become in America? A successful model being compared (favorably) to a chocolate bar, and blue Belgian cartoon characters? I am not arguing that these charges aren’t true, necessarily. But seriously: is this how we want to define racism in America these days?
Here’s what I find unsettling about this: racism is real, and it is far more serious than the above. I remember overhearing a former girlfriend’s southern family as they watched a football game, repeatedly mocking the onscreen players with blatant bigotry. I recall how my grandparents were threatened by their lifelong best friends that they would never be spoken to again if they allowed their house to be sold to black people (and no, that isn’t the term they used). I know the ugly racial history of the city I currently live in. I am aware that real racism led to tragic consequences here, and in many other places across the country, and I am aware that real, hateful racism is still alive and well in some places, still festering like leprosy and poisoning minds.
This is why the over-use of the allegation of racism is so dangerous. It cheapens the entire concept, makes it nearly meaningless, removes it of the power it requires to condemn those who are truly guilty of it. There is no honest comparison between my friend Jim, who inadvertently used the term tar baby, and the hateful hicks who gleefully hurl racial epithets at people who are different from them.
Maybe I just don’t understand. Being a white American male, I admit I cannot fully appreciate the difficulties of any minority group, no matter how hard I try (and I do try). But I do understand that racism is real. It needs to be called what it is where it is found. And that label can only continue to carry the weight it needs to carry if it isn’t smacked onto anything and everything that could imaginatively be construed as referring to skin color, ambiguously and in some cases even positively.
Or am I wrong?