The kerfuffle over Roseanne Barr tweeting out something racist enough to get her show canceled has the TV talking heads discussing the issue of race in America. This has the supporters of Roseanne, Trump, and the right in general playing whaddaboutism with figures on the left. One tweeted out how Bill Maher called Donald Trump the son of an orangutan – “so how come lefties get to call people monkeys but righties don’t?”
Another whaddaboutism is ABC/ESPN’s re-hiring of Keith Olbermann, who’s been quite profane in tweeting his distaste for Donald Trump – “so how come lefties cursing out Trump is OK but righties praising Trump are not?”
Of, course, like most whaddaboutisms, they’re whiffing completely on the important concept of context. There haven’t been centuries of oppression of orange billionaire real estate developers by the dominant culture, aided by the dehumanization of them by calling them orangutans. And if unkind words toward presidents are cause for being dropped from mainstream media, the entire FOX “news” network would’ve been dark from 2009-2017.
But the whole incident has reminded me of a day in my past when I was racist as fuck.
Before I begin, let me offer what I think is the reason why so many white people, especially heartland conservative types, react so strongly when they are called racist. It’s a failure of binary thinking: that one is either racist or one is not. One is either a cross-burning Klansman who casually drops n-bombs, or one is not.
Very few white folks are the former. So, living in their own minds, they know their intent and think they are the latter. They like black people just fine, they think. They like classic soul music, they enjoy Will Smith movies, some even hang out with some black friends or have black relatives. When you call them racist, they know they’re not cross-burning Klansmen and suspect you’re just calling them names to disrespect their worldview.
In reality, though, racism is a spectrum. On one end is that cross-burning Klansman, sure. But along that imaginary line, there are subtle degrees of racism almost all white people exhibit. Not from malevolent intent, necessarily, but of ignorance. It’s the guy who, given two choices of players in a pickup basketball game of equal height, age, and build, will always choose the black guy over the white guy. It’s Starbucks employee who ascribes malice to two black guys just sitting around waiting for a friend. It’s the Yale student who calls the cops on a fellow student sleeping in a common area. And somewhere on that racism spectrum is a millionaire actor who tweets out that black women resemble apes.
Already I imagine some white readers recoiling with an “I’m not that way!” I know you think you aren’t. But it is hard for me to imagine any white person raised in America who can’t have internalized at least a little racism, just through just sheer cultural osmosis.
Like me. I consider myself to be a progressive liberal, accepting and promoting diversity, treating others equally and all that. I understand how my heartland kin feel slandered by being called racist; if I wasn’t more self-aware, I’d bristle, too. Why, I’ve got black family! My best man and best male friend is black!
But being a white guy raised in Idaho, racism was all around me, aided by the demographic fact that there were almost no visible examples of actual black people in my life to counter any stereotypes. I remember vividly one day in 4th grade on the school bus when we were parked in a lot and a man with his black daughters was walking by. It was such a rarity that all the (white) kids on the bus moved to the side to look out the windows to see them. Look! Black people! Not on Good Times or The Jeffersons or Sanford & Son, but right here in Melba, Idaho!
My racist AF moment was Halloween of 1993. I was 25 years old at the time and working as a burger flipper at a fast food drive-thru. I’m kind of known for my extravagant costumes, so for that year, I decided I was going to dress up as one of my favorite musicians at the time: Flavor Flav of Public Enemy.
(You know where this is going, but pause for a second to imagine me banging my head with a pair of Walkman headphones on to the cassette of Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black while rapping along with Flav to track #5.)
I did the whole shebang – I had the big gold chain with the clock on it, the matching track suit, the unlaced high-top sneakers, the Viking helmet, the gold grill, and, you guessed it, blackface. Hell, not just blackface, but black arms and neck, too. And dark, dark black – I even took a picture of Flav with me to the costume shop to find the makeup of the right shade to match Flav’s ebony complexion.
Now, keep in mind – I’m 25 years old at the time and a huge Public Enemy fan. But it did not once enter my mind that I was “doing blackface.” In fact, I was proud of myself for how accurately I had reproduced the image of Flavor Flav.
Also keep in mind that I was living with my folks at the time following a huge breakup with a live-in girlfriend. My fifty-something folks were there, watching me getting dressed up, and it didn’t occur to them that I was doing anything wrong.
Then I went to work in costume. I worked a drive-thru window at a burger joint in full-on blackface for an entire shift. No manager or co-worker had any problem with it. Mostly, I got laughs and praise for my costume. A couple of times I got disgust – not for being racist, but for liking rap. Need I mention not a single black person came through the window that day (or, for that matter, ever)?
Now, you know if I lived anywhere near a city or a coast, I wouldn’t have even made it out the front door without an ass-whuppin’. But where I grew up in southern Idaho, what I was doing didn’t even raise an eyebrow. (Thank God there was no social media then!)
What that night taught me later was an invaluable lesson in racism. Following the burger shift, I had to get in my car and drive to a town in northern Idaho called Grangeville. Some context: throughout the ’80s, we had the Aryan Nations’ neo-Nazi compound up in the Idaho Panhandle. Idaho was so synonymous with neo-Nazis at the time that I would get mentions of that second only to potatoes when I’d travel and tell people where I was from.
Grangeville is the first town you come to on the one northbound Idaho highway that you could say is in that “neo-Nazi zone.” I was still in my Flavor Flav costume. When I walked in carrying my bass, it was like that scene in Animal House when the Deltas walk into The Dexter Lake Club and the whole room stops silent.
They were all staring at me. And not in a “wow, what a costume!” way. More like a “who the fuck let you in here?” way. As the night progressed, more than one large white man let me know that the minute I walked out of the bar, I would promptly have my ass stomped. Not because I was being racist against black people, but, in their estimation, I was proudly portraying a black person.
During the last break of the night, I hurriedly washed all the black makeup off of me. I changed out of the tracksuit into some blue jeans and a t-shirt I had brought along. I completed the last set and either the ass-stompers had left or they were too drunk/stupid to realize the white guy playing bass was black during the previous set, so I escaped unharmed.
I’ve never forgotten that feeling of dread, the terror of not knowing when someone is going to attack you for no good reason, the sense of being the center of malevolent attention. Then I remember that there are about 37 million people who don’t get to wash off that feeling in some dive bar’s bathroom.
So, yeah, I was racist as fuck, but not out of a malicious hatred for black people but of ignorance of contextual history and love of a black celebrity. An ignorance fostered by being a member of the dominant culture at a time when Pretty in Pink’s Long Duk Dong and Soul Man were acceptable in mainstream movies. An ignorance bolstered by my love of Billy Crystal wearing tan makeup to do Sammy Davis Jr. on SNL. An ignorance of just not knowing any real black people.
I’m better now, I think, but I’m not dumb enough to think the institutionalized racism I grew up with still doesn’t color my perceptions somewhat. I remember recently being in a room with a bunch of white millennials who were watching Airplane! When it got to Barbara Billingsley’s “I speak jive” joke, they were aghast, muttering, “ugh, that’s so racist!” I’ve seen the movie so many times I have it memorized and it was the first time I’d ever considered that scene to be anything but hilarious.
White folks, face it, we’re all racist to some degree. It’s the flip side of the privilege coin. It’s not necessarily our faults that we were steeped in a racist culture, but is incumbent on all of us to do something about it. The first thing would to be honest about it and own it: I’m a racist white guy, learning and working every day to be a little less so.