When White People Ridicule Black People

Centuries of racism don’t make us critic-proof — but be careful.

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Photo: flickr/majunznk

Eminem appears to have started a September trend. He called his fellow rapper Tyler, The Creator a “faggot” on his latest album, Kamikaze, which was released on August 31, launching a new wave of white-on-black disses. Or maybe President Donald Trump kicked it off mid-month by calling his former aide-turned-literary enemy Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog.”

With the furor over Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad raging on, September has spawned monster after monster, and their digs against people of color keep coming.

Last week, Twitter exploded with righteous indignation (yes, again) over something former The Bold and the Beautiful soap star Windsor Harmon posted about a black woman. The 54-year-old actor shared a “separated at birth”-type joke that compared Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters to something that looks like a live-action Dr. Seuss creation or a sci-fi monster reject from Star Trek , the ’60s TV series.

His message that accompanied the tweet — “I don’t know which one scares the hell out of me the most… Who did this?” — twisted the pitchfork. Suddenly, the underemployed actor was cast in a new role for the first time in years. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t have much awards potential: His detractors cast him as an insensitive racist.

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The implications of the comparison are far scarier than either photo.

While I get why people are incensed, my knee-jerk reaction wasn’t to pull out the racist card. This was not the same, as some suggested, as Roseanne Barr comparing a black woman to an ape. Whatever that Star Trek-y thing is, it’s not an animal, so the argument against equating blacks to animals doesn’t quite fit here.

I didn’t see this as commentary on Waters’ race. I saw it more as commentary on her looks and on her age. The comparison was based largely on Waters’ wrinkles, which is pretty absurd. Most octogenarians who aren’t Jane Fonda have them.

Using an unflattering photo to mock the appearance of an 80-year-old woman for the sake of making a political statement is tired, ageist, and well, old. Go away.

By sharing the “joke” and adding his own punchline, Harmon was condoning it. As a pink-slipped over-50 soap star whose own career has been affected by ageism, he should have known better.

A lame “apology”

The actor, who says he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, deleted the post and sort-of apologized three hours after sharing it with his 23.2K followers. (Dear apologists: If the word “if” appears anywhere in your “apology,” you’re not really sorry.)

When I read the story, I entered a discussion-board debate, which had already begun to escalate into name-calling. Some who damned the tweet also damned those who defended it as being “ignorant” and “racist,” while on the other side, someone used the uproar as an excuse to excoriate “leftists.”

This is not about “right” and “left.” We need to stop making everything about right vs. left, conservatives vs. liberals, and Republicans vs. Democrats. It’s about different ways of seeing the same thing.

If I were white, I would always exercise caution when criticizing minorities. The United States earned its racist legacy, and we must all suffer the consequences of the oversights and sins of our Founding Fathers. Black people have been struggling with the fallout for centuries, and white people need to deal with it, too, rather than acting like racism is some PC conspiracy.

In 2018, we all have to be careful how we characterize minorities. There is a lot of ignorance and racism out there.

Days before Harmon’s blacklash, artist Mark Wright landed at the center of similar controversy over an illustration he did for Melbourne, Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper in which he depicted Serena Williams as an overweight angry black woman with “Sambo”-like features, throwing a tantrum.

Wright based the cartoon on Williams’ controversial outburst over violation rulings while losing against Naomi Osaka at the September 8 U.S. Open final. The umpire penalized her and fined her $17,000, a punishment that some, including Williams herself, says reeks of sexism and maybe racism, too.

Meanwhile, Wright depicted Osaka, in the background, as a slender blonde, even though she’s Haitian and Japanese with a muscular build similar to Williams’. The narrative becomes one in which the cool, calm, collected (and skinny) white woman must coddle and patronize the fat, unruly black one. That, to me, is clearly racist, as it’s loaded with racial coding, subtext, and context, including Australia’s long history of racism against its indigenous population.

Not quite the same

The Maxine Waters parody, though insensitive and repugnant, isn’t quite in the same category. To me. I’d be just as annoyed if the creator of the comparison had made the same monster connection to an 80-year-old white woman. It’s OK if you feel differently. I just had a different reaction when I saw it.

I see why people are saying it’s racist, but I don’t agree that it is, and I’m neither ignorant nor racist. I’m just someone with an opinion that’s different from yours, I wrote in response to someone who blasted those on the discussion board who didn’t share his outrage as being “ignorant at best or racist at worst.”

I see why people are saying it’s racist, but I don’t agree that it is, and I’m neither ignorant nor racist. I’m just someone with an opinion that’s different from yours.

This is such an important discussion to have. But you can’t have a discussion when no-one wants to listen to the other side, when you have those who are offended automatically dismissing those who don’t find it offensive as “ignorant” or “racist.” Meanwhile, how can you reason with someone who uses the controversy as an excuse to go after “leftists” who “are always offended by the truth”?

One man called me “the most ignorant and racist” person on the comment board for having the gall to see both sides.

As a black man, I live with racism every day. I know it’s everywhere — in blatant actions and in more subtle movements, screaming out in the open and hiding in the shadows.

I’m alert and aware, but I don’t see racism in everything that portrays a black person unflatteringly. Blacks have had it hard — only a blind fool can’t see that. But past and present oppression doesn’t exempt us from criticism and from caricature.

Comic cruelty

By nature, caricature isn’t complimentary. Counselor to President Donald Trump Kellyanne Conway has been mercilessly lampooned in illustrations as has Hillary Clinton, sometime as monstrously (literally) as Waters was. Parody takes the most prominent qualities of their subjects and magnifies them to comic — and often cruel — effect.

It’s not meant to be pretty, but the “Sambo” caricature is a travesty because it’s based on a set of stereotypes that have been meant to demean blacks and portray them as ugly and less-than-whites for centuries. They don’t have anything to do with how black people actually look.

Taken out of the tennis context, who would have linked Wright’s cartoon to Serena Williams? It would have been just a depiction of a tantrum-throwing black woman. Oh, how typical, right?

A friend of mine who would rank among the least racist white people I’ve ever known once drew a caricature of me that floored me. I had eyes on the side of my big head! I looked like a frog — or Bill Cosby. It was so revolting that I… laughed.

I didn’t see it as racist at all, though if I were famous and it had found its way onto social media, both the artist and whomever posted it probably would have been crucified for being “ignorant” or “racist.”

I’d understand where they were coming from, but I wouldn’t agree. That wouldn’t make me ignorant or racist by association. It would just make me an individual with my own way of seeing things.

Sadly, some people — including ones with whom I share common ground socially and politically — can’t accept different points of view.

Black people shouldn’t automatically dismiss white people as “ignorant” or “racist” for not seeing everything as we do. But that respect needs to be reciprocated. White people need to listen up and think about what we’re saying when black people talk about race and racism rather than just dismissing us as being too PC or too sensitive.

I don’t like it when I write about racism via my own experiences and white readers try to manage how I respond to my own experiences. I don’t need anyone telling me how I should and shouldn’t feel. At the same time, I’ve never dictated what others should and shouldn’t consider racism.

Don’t try to manage my feelings

The “ignorance” and “racism” isn’t in telling a black person how you feel. It’s in telling a black person how to feel — even when the person attempting to manage a black person’s feelings is also black.

In my writing, I’m sometimes as hard on black people as I am on white people. I’ve written about being bullied by black kids in my Kissimmee, Florida, neighborhood growing up because of my West Indian accent and how it plays into my relationship with black Americans today. I’ve called out rappers for being offended by the N-word yet continuing to use it. I’ve called Beyoncé overrated.

And I’ve faced firing squads for all of the above. Trigger-happy readers have taken aim at me for demonizing black people and for not understanding rappers or Beyoncé. Hit me with your best shots, but I won’t be bullied into changing my opinions by white people or by black people, and I will react to my experiences with white people and with black people as I see fit.

I’m all for equality when it comes to criticism — and I accept that there will always be dissenters, people who don’t agree with me. I just wish we could disagree more respectfully, without all the labeling and name-calling.

“Nothing is certain but death and taxes,” the old proverb goes. I’d add criticism to the list. No-one is exempt from it — not even black people. But unlike death and taxes, we have a degree of control over criticism, both how we receive it and how we dish it out.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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