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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spot the Racist

So I don't think of myself as a racist. As Avenue Q says, "Everyone's a little bit racist." It's something we all wrestle with, with me making generalizations about the drivers in my neighborhood, where macho Latino drivers share the road with timid Asian drivers. But my best friend in elementary school was black, and I never thought for a minute that I shouldn't be her friend because of it. Yencina was the best. Culturally, I don't have much in common with Gangsta Rap or Hip-Hop culture, so I don't interact with the people who participate in those cultures. (But heck, I'd be interested in learning Hip-Hop dance. Lord knows my body was built for it.) Anyway, I'm rambling.

The thing that put this in my mind was this article about a Math professor in Washington who had a test question about Condoleeza dropping a watermelon off a Federal building. Previously the question was written with Gallagher in mind, but he replaced it with Condoleeza because she was more recognizable to the (youthful) students who had never heard of Gallagher. The prof was then reprimanded for having a culturally insensitive question. But is he really the one promoting racism? Just as the student's don't know who Gallagher is, many of them also don't know of the Black Sambo caricatures with watermelons. It wouldn't occur to me to think of it as a black thing or an insult, certainly not when I was 18 or 19, and these kids are another dozen years younger than I with a radically different cultural experience. So who is the racist here? Is it the prof who wrote the question, or the person from the Urban League who is demanding that he be fired? Because, if it were me, I probably wouldn't have written the question thinking about it in racial terms because the whole black/watermelon association holds no currency in my mind. I don't perceive Condoleeza Rice as a black person (let alone a black sambo type), I perceive her as a powerful, well-educated woman who works in the highest levels of our government. Any stereotypes I associate with her in my mind have to do with Republicans or women, but never really with her racial color. So was the professor in the same boat as I, or was he thinking in the way he's been accused? And when do we stop passing these stereotypes to the next generation through their constant reintroduction merely as accusation? There are so many past stereotypes I'm just not familiar with because they've passed out of common currency and the community it affects has failed to make a fuss to keep it alive.

Back in college I remember debating what was more sinister - the overt racism of the south or the quiet whispers of the west. I wasn't sure then, but I'm pretty sure now. Quiet whispers eventually fade as the generation that is making the whispers passes away. It's a step on the path to the move away from the old paradigms. Sure, we'll never be without racism, as the old assumptions will be replaced with new ones, but at least the wheel keeps turning and everyone gets a chance to come out on top with a fresh outlook, so long as they don't hold themselves to the old paradigms, insisting that others see them as they assume they're being perceived.


  • Gallagher and watermelons makes sense, if you remember Gallagher. (And it's totally not racist, because Gallagher is white.)

    Changing the person to someone who has no particular connection to watermelons, but who is black, can be seen as racist, even if done without racist intent. I know I heard most of the racist cliches and associations when I was growing up, and I'd heard the watermelon one, even if I didn't quite get it.

    The disadvantage to the quiet, whispered racism is that the whispers are louder to the subjects of the racism than the whisperers' own race, and so people may unintentionally say something perceived as racist without actually being racist. In a school setting, that's more important than in many other settings.

    On the other hand, asking for the professor's resignation is seriously over-reacting. Next year, he should ask "If Condoleeza throws an Urban League President off a Federal building..."

    By Blogger Anthony, at 4:44 PM  

  • I got slapped down hard for this when I was working on time studies in a factory years ago. I made a flip comment to a guy and he took it as a racist comment...but he was white. He was pissed because he thought I'd called him Black (to put it delicately).

    I was called into a big meeting, the union was there, the CEO, all the 'big players'. I had to apologize, so I said "I'm sorry I offended you, I had no idea that what I said was a racist comment because I'm not a FU**ING BIGOT like you." Then I left the meeting. I heard that the union was unhappy, but my management was okay with it.

    By Blogger Flonkbob, at 7:49 AM  

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