Statistically speaking, very few people want to be considered racist. Now, if you spend a lot of time reading message boards online, you'll be forgiven if you mistakenly believe that 2 in 3 people are tragically, mind-bogglingly racist, but it seems like, in real life, only a small portion of people still suffer from this brand of mental dipshittery. But here's the thing: Among those who aren't racist are the people (and they seem to be a majority) who are deathly afraid of accidentally being racist. And that fear clouds the way many of us, without even realizing it, conduct ourselves on a day-to-day basis.
I watch Maury sometimes because I'm terrible deep down. It's not that I can't help it; I just don't want to. And if you watch enough Maury, you're going to start noticing something funny about the names of a lot of Maury's guests.
I propose that, right now, if you're even passingly familiar with Maury Povich, you know exactly what I mean. You saw the subject of this column, of this entry, and you're there with me right now, without any further explanation. But to fully flesh out where I'm going, let's keep reading!
If you watch enough Maury Povich, you're going to run across an episode in which a guest comes on stage whose name is Shaneequa. Or Jamarcus. Or Trevian. I'm not even going to ask you what race you think these three people are, because we all know what everyone else is thinking, and right here is where some people start feeling uncomfortable. With no extra info available, if I ask you to tell me what Shaneequa looks like, you know what I expect to hear and I know what you're thinking and you're afraid to answer. Part of you is. But is it racist? You think it is. We're all terribly afraid that if we even say the name "Shaneequa" we're being racist. But it's a real name. I saw a girl on the show whose name really was Shaneequa. I also saw a woman whose name was Velveeta, but we're not getting into that.
I can't be the father, I'm lactose intolerant!
For a polite, middle-class white person, saying the name "Shaneequa" is as terrifying as invoking the name of the devil on a dusty stretch of Arkansas highway. You say it and look around to see if anyone heard. The fear that somehow you're casting aspersions on black America is suddenly right at the forefront of your thoughts. If you Google names like "Laquisha," you'll find them on lists of "ghetto names," and you just said it and that means you think black people are from the ghetto. You racist.
The real, legitimate fear in using "black" names is just that -- you're calling attention to a group of people because of their race, and we're told we can't do that. And worse, it's being done in a way that seems like we're making fun of them for it. Ever notice how white babies be named Gary and black babies be named Tyrese?
We've known for years now that people have a negative reaction to "black" names, with evidence showing you're less likely to get a job than someone with a "white"-sounding name, to the point that now there's an innate fear of being near them or using them lest people think we're racist as well.
Sons of bitches wouldn't hire me till I told them my name was Gord.
So now we have to ask -- why those names? The awesome answer would be that all of black America secretly got together to fuck with the heads of confused white America. A more legit answer is that African people used to have African names until some few Africans, kidnapped and renamed and forced to work for white people with similar names, lost touch with their roots. And when their freedom was regained and civil rights became a real, attainable thing for African-Americans, the tradition of naming their children with more elaborate names, names with root sounds from languages like Swahili, took hold. And it's evolved. And probably without even realizing what they're doing, an Americanized version of a naming tradition took hold and gave us "black" names.
It's kind of a sweet story when you think about it, and something to be proud of. Does that make a name like LaFawnduh not kind of dumb? Not really. But the name Dorcas is as white as snow and kind of awful, too. And just try to seduce a real, adult woman with a name like Felix. That's what you call a cat. I know, because everyone says it. All the time. It's clever. Keep it up.
In 2013, there is no venue in America that can publicly serve fried chicken, collard greens, and watermelon without the entire room falling into a dead, dumbfounded silence. Unless it's a soul food restaurant. But that's kind of the point.
On some level, I feel like it's possible that some black people probably have a degree of trepidation even going to KFC or Popeye's. But at the same time, if you had black friends coming for dinner, would you ever dream of serving them fried chicken? Fried chicken is damn delicious and we all know it, and it's a shame that there's this racial stigma attached to it.
Historically, fried chicken is a dish given to us by the South, coincidentally where a lot of slaves were kept around the time it was developed. In fact, the dish was likely perfected by slaves who added some spices to it and made it a little more than just doughy, shitty chicken. Combine this with the fact that fried chicken traveled well in a time when black people weren't allowed to go to restaurants for lunch, and if you wanted to go have a nice meal with friends and family while not being white, fried chicken was a fine choice. This is pretty much the entire link, historically, between black people and chicken. The fact that everyone loves fried chicken, even self-hating vegans, doesn't change the curious relationship that the food and the race still have, however. I don't mean any offense by that, vegans; I'm just saying that you're aware, on some level, of how delicious fried chicken is and you must resent yourself for choosing not to eat it.
Fried chicken? No thanks, I got this tofu and it's ... ahh, fuck.
The link between watermelon and African-Americans is mostly the same. Guess where watermelons grow? Everywhere, actually, but most came from Texas, California, Georgia, South Carolina, and along the Mississippi. They were cultivated by slaves, and in fact had origins in Africa. They were likely one of the few foods that Africans who were brought over as slaves would have been very familiar with. Again, it's a matter of geography. Black people and watermelon were in the same place. Black people ate the watermelon. White racists laughed and said, "Har har, black people love watermelon," and an illogical racist connotation was born.
When you think about it, even if you give in to the stereotype, what you're saying is that you like chicken because you're black, which shouldn't even be offensive but is because we fear drawing attention to color. We fear it like we fear spiders, venereal disease, or Tom Cruise. But you can just as easily say that white people love chicken and watermelon. I'm so white, light shines through me, and I will push your mother down for Popeye's chicken, I don't even give a shit.
I submit that serving chicken to a black person is not racist, provided you don't serve it by saying, "Massa done made us up some good chickens!" or anything Jar Jar Binksish like that. Watermelon, collard greens, and grits aren't racist either, any more than rice is racist to Chinese people or Olive Garden is racist to tasteless people. They're a race, right? It's just a preference born from geographical location and access to ingredients for a certain group of people. Also, someone please get me some chicken.
Remember True Lies? It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis' rack. It wasn't bad. It's also been pegged as racist time and time again because the villains in the film are Islamic jihadists and they touch on pretty much every single negative stereotype you can think of for Arabs and Muslims. At the risk of sounding awful, I'd ask: Who should the villains have been? And would it have been better if the jihadists in the film had not been bumbling and creepy but handsome, skilled, and successful terrorists?
You can replace True Lies with all sorts of movies -- Steven Seagal's Marked for Death is accused of being racist for its portrayal of Jamaicans, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was pegged for its depiction of Indians, Scarface portrays Latinos as ultra-violent criminals, and countless others have been singled out over the years. But with the criticisms being tossed out, you have to wonder if it's acceptable for the bad guy in a movie to ever be of a discernible minority. While Muslims certainly don't need any more ignorant reasons for people to hate them, who should the villains have been in True Lies? Chinese? North Koreans? Cubans? Inuits? Any potential answer has equal potential to offend someone.
You're totally doomed, eh. Oh wait, is this offensive to you hosers?
The bad guys in Temple of Doom were thuggee cultists. And while Indy himself represents some kind of bizarre colonial paternalism, the white man who solves the problems of the inferior non-white people, the depiction of the thuggee cultists as savage, animal-like beasts isn't wrong. It's fact that the thuggee cult were known as mass murderers. That's not racism so much as a good thing to put in a tourist brochure. Beware of dudes behind you with garrotes. They'll kill you and steal your shit to honor Kali.
As far back as the original Die Hard, directors were aware that their villains would be politicized, which is why Hans Gruber is not a terrorist and of no discernible political leaning. That was on purpose. He was made a thief from Germany so that the movie couldn't be linked, even tentatively, to anything that made sense in the real world and no one would be offended by the way it portrayed its villains. Directors have to make generic villains that, by their own admission, don't even really make sense, just to avoid the fear that they're trying to send a message.
We can still have movies about terrorism; they should just be well-made. Your terrorists shouldn't be shitty bumblers. Arabs and Muslims should not be offended that the villains in True Lies were Middle Eastern; they should be offended that they sucked. Even if a bad guy has to lose, he can still be cool and not a moron.
Possibly the saddest entry of all, especially for a writer, language has now become so ultra-sensitive to some that we need to be wary, for no good reason, of what we say and how we say it for fear of accidentally offending someone else. Which is sad, because it's so easy to intentionally offend someone in really fun ways with language. When's the last time you called someone a goat-felching prolapsed ass clown of a turd wrangler? Or suggested that their birth was the result of an unfortunate coupling between their father's smegma and a horse's ass? You can do that with the magic of words. I imagine it's a lot like a girl coming into the flower of womanhood, and may also include tampons.
Unfortunately, through ignorance and political correctness (which is to say ignorance), we're forced to make guarded word choices. For instance, ever used the word "niggardly"? Yeah, check out the Quick Fix we did on that. In fact, that whole article works here. But it's so much more than misunderstanding words. I've witnessed awkward silences after a white guy calls a black guy "brother" or makes a joke about going to the "ghetto mall." It's a comedy cliche now for the awkward white guy to try to "act black" around black guys and say things like "What up, homey?" But you should be able to say that stuff, except for the homey bit, because that's lame, because why not? Calling your black friend "brother" seems very friendly, and if your mall sucks, it totally is the ghetto mall, so what?
This dude, whose job it is to interview actors, nearly weeps on camera when challenged by Sam Jackson to say one word. They both know the word, you know the word, I know the word. But he won't say it. The word is "nigger." He doesn't want to say it even though he knows Sam Jackson has said it on camera thousands of times and asked him to say it. His lame ass defense is that the question won't make it to air if he says it, but by not saying it, the question still won't make it to air. Why not say it?
The word "nigger," more than any other word, scares the shit out of white people. And a lot of the time it should. It's loaded like Uncle Jack over the holidays, and has a dirty history, also like Uncle Jack. But if Sam Jackson asks you to say it, in the context of a discussion about its use in a movie Sam Jackson stars in and the perceived controversy around it, is it racist? Fuck no! How can you talk about something you refuse to say? That's idiotic. Even Harry Potter knew it was OK to use Voldemort's name. Pretend it's evil and magical and you give it more power than it deserves.
Does this mean you should go to Starbucks tomorrow and belt out, "Gimme a mochaccino, nigga!"? No. God no. Because in that context, it is inappropriate. As inappropriate as following it up with "and put some cinnamon on it, bitch tits!" There's no need.
We've become so afraid of the word "nigger" that we have to call it "the N-word," and we're starting to do it with other words, too. Like "retard." But the thing is, an offensive word is offensive in context. It can't exist in a void. You're a fool to use it as a racial epithet, as an insult directed at a real person who deserve it in no way, just like you'd be a fool to call someone with Down syndrome a retard. I'd go so far as to say a person who does that is retarded. But if you want to discuss the history of Africans in America and racism, can you not use the word? Should you be afraid of it? You can't be. It makes it the boogeyman of words. It makes it so two people, in the privacy of their own home, wince if they happen to hear it on TV. You should never let a word control you, intimidate you, or make you uncomfortable, and that applies to people of all races. Intent is where insult lies, and hate. Not in language. So fuck that shit right in the ear.