Am I Racist?

January 20, 2011

To preface, no one has called me a racist.

I was involved in a benign discussion on Twitter that got me thinking about the ever expanding usage and application of the word. To reiterate, I was not called a racist and no one was wrong or right in this scenario, in my opinion.

It was simply a conversation that I wish to share here.


Me – Ordinary joe. A nobody with an overdeveloped sense of justice, a wicked love jones for the power of words, and a big mouth.

Guy entitled to his opinion – A smart, civically-engaged man.

Innocent – Poor guy whose tweet I found amusing and retweeted. Related: from Alabama, as am I. NOT to imply that anyone is guilty, only that Innocent did not engage further.

It begins with me giggling at Innocent’s tweet:

Guy responds with this:

I prickle, but attempt to diffuse:

Yes, I could have simply ignored it, potentially avoiding more Twitter Fatigue. But I didn’t. Neither did Guy:

I find the generalization of generalizations a bit unnerving. I believe that context should always be considered. So I push, as I am wont to do:

Now, of course I don’t believe Guy hates Alabamians and I’m 100% sure he had no idea that Innocent and I are from Alabama. I offered this unfair accusation to equate with his. And to be funny. Guy does not seem amused:

Guy is absolutely correct. Unfounded claims add nothing to discourse.

But the other part of this really gets to me. No one chooses to believe anything? They just believe? Um.

Our beliefs are informed by experience, education, cultural and environmental influences, and myriad other outside forces.

One isn’t born believing in or doubting God or rooting for the Detroit Lions. Our parents, friends, teachers, clergy, or even strangers serve to form our beliefs until we, hopefully, choose to research and explore the foundation of those beliefs in order to strengthen them or to create new ones.

All by choice.

But by now it’s late, it’s bedtime for me as well, and I’m trying to embrace the notion that I initially ascribed to him in my mind: “Dude, lighten up.”  So I attempt to diffuse again:

Guy kindly tolerated my silliness:

To Guy’s credit, he hasn’t yet blocked me, which I greatly appreciate because I hope this leads to the discourse he referred to and surely values as much as I.

Racism is evil. Identifying and ending racism is everybody’s job.

First, I get it.  Generalizing about any race as superior or inferior is, at the basest level, just plain incorrect.   Generalizing about any demographic as any one charactistic is probably incorrect.  Case in point, an earlier tweet by Guy:

Should someone reprimand him for generalizing about vegetarian girls? Of course not.  Also, blind people do go to movies. But whatever word might be used to connote discrimination about vegetarian girls and blind people probably does not have the immense power of the word racism.

The accusation of racism can destroy careers and reputations in an instant. To bandy about this term is to diminish its meaning. Paul Wachtel posits that “for some people it has lost its impact, lost its power to shock, to evoke guilt or revulsion. A term that once referred to the most deplorable and shameful of traits and actions has been extended to include virtually universal human characteristics and to include within its purview practically everyone in our society.”

I believe it is prudent to apply the term carefully and responsibly.

Second, it was a fucking joke. On Twitter. Jokes can absolutely reflect racism and be hurtful. This one seems pretty harmless to me.

I hope Guy will see this and not be offended. Perhaps he will choose to weigh in. I welcome his feedback and yours.

And yes, I clearly have way too much time on my hands.

31 Responses to “Am I Racist?”

  1. Texan Will Says:

    Great blog. One nit to pick.

    According to Merriam Webster – Definition of RACISM
    : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
    : racial prejudice or discrimination
    — rac·ist \-sist also -shist\ noun or adjective

    Racism isn’t evil in and of itself. It’s lazy. What many end up doing when using racism as a means, IS evil. Unfortunately, I know a few people who practice a form of racism, or sexism or any number of other -isms who aren’t evil, just misguided. These people need to be dealt with, not in some overt, confrontational way, but in very specific, case by case way. Many people who are well intentioned, use racist rationales.

  2. Megan Cottrell Says:

    Quite frankly, I am so tired of people calling other people racist. It’s not that I think we shouldn’t talk about race or racism in this country – I think we need to more. But whenever someone says something, even something that’s a joke, everyone thinks the right thing to do is jump all over them and call them a racist.

    Clearly, what you RT’d was a joke. Was it a joke that pertained to race? Yes. But, FYI, intense dude, there are differences between the ways people of different races behave sometimes. Is that inherent to their genetic makeup? No! It’s because we’re often segregated in this country, and we adopt the mannerisms of people around us. Sometimes, in the U.S., race is equal to culture as well.

    “Stuff White People Like,” and “White Whine” and other sites like them are hilarious. To me, they’re a sign of progress – we can make fun of ourselves. Should we assume jokes are the gospel truth? Of course not.

    People are afraid to speak about race in America for fear of being labeled a racist. It’s just silly, and it’s not helping the world. Also, jokes are funny, dude. Chill out.

  3. kluckmeister Says:

    There’s a fine line between PC and Uber-PC. I think recent events have hightened sensitivity to the point where people forget how to relax. If you go looking for something specific you’ll find it and there are a lot of people out there looking for any excuse to let off some steam. It is often the case that those that preach the most end up being the most hypocritical.

    You know who you are, why let anyone else convince you differently?

    On a lighter but related note, have you seen Avenue Q? 🙂

  4. Lisa Says:

    I believe what you retweeted was a funny stereotype. In no way does it rise to the level of racism. Just because one has a stereotype about someone doesn’t mean that one is inferring superiority over them, which is what racism actually involves.

    Your retweet was intended to be a joke about a particular situation that had been experienced, not to imply that ALL white people suck at karaoke. But even so, is that implication harmful or dangerous in the way that racism is? No.

    Am I saying it is okay to perpetrate stereotypes, even funny ones? No. But if no harm was intended or committed then who should care?

    Now, some stereotypes are intended to harm, such as an e-mail picture I received from an ill-mannered acquaintance, depicting the White House lawn planted with watermelons under the title, “No Easter egg hunt this year.” The implication was that with Obama as the president of America, the White House had now been “blackened” and defamiliarized. This is clearly racism disguised as a stereotype and it is offensive.

    But as a white person who has frequented many karaoke bars in Alief, I can tell you that yes, we look stupid compared to the Asian clientele that clearly has a different interpretation of what constitutes good karaoke. It is perhaps a cultural difference that I am referring to, much as I would expect to see very few Asians attending a rodeo in Texas. That does not mean it is fair to say I am a racist, however.

    So I judge the retweet as funny. Guy needs to lighten up and stop using racism to an illogical conclusion, lest it be diminished in its true forms.

    • feliciacago Says:

      Thanks Lisa! How long have you been racist against Asians? HAHAHAHA

      • Lisa Says:

        Ha! I once called the rodeo a ‘redneck formal’ and got zinged for that. Being of redneck descent, I should know better. LOL

        It’s too easy to say the wrong thing when trying to be funny but as a failed comedian, I bow to greater threats to my dignity.

      • feliciacago Says:

        “I bow to greater threats to my dignity” may be the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Nice work.

  5. Jimmy Says:

    I’m certain you’ll survive this episode and live to blog another day. I’d like to share this movie:

    (I agree with it)

  6. Robby Says:

    Oi. I have to say that, as a white guy who feels like a lot of white folk are uncomfortable with institutionalized racism (Thanks liberal guilt complex!), we need to learn that it *has* to be OK to make “whitey” jokes.

    Here’s why:
    1) If you can’t laugh at your own cross-cultural foibles, you need to ask yourself, “why?” See “liberal guilt” above for a likely culprit. (whitey at the karaoke bar for the first time is likely to be hilariously bad…admittedly, as are most people, but…)
    2) As a white male, I actually have to *watch* to see the operation of institutional racism. My white priveledge is “transparent” to me. It affects me mostly by not affecting me. Minority groups *don’t*. Minority groups run into institutional racism as an “overt” obstacle. Humor is a common way to deal with it. And I accept the fact that, as a member of that majority group, I’m likely to be the brunt of that humor.
    3) Seriously, though, people get way too sensitive and try to call things “racism” and “reverse discrimination” all the damn time, and it’s usually a bunch of white people and it’s been annoying me for quite a while now.

    Rant over.

    On a truly non-race-related topic (& possibly inappropriate to your blog audience) are you trying to single-handedly up the hotness factor of twitter or something with the twitpic shots?

  7. heidimassey Says:

    Glad you blogged about this-you will help so many understand the nuances involved (not ever an easy concept for us ‘mericans) and I think it is probably helpful for you as you process the entire episode.

    I think Robby’s a smart guy…and spot on! It’s always a little funky in a country that has practically extinguished an entire indigenous population (Native Americans) and has brought over huge numbers of another population (African Americans) to make them slaves, and held huge numbers in concentration camps (Japanese) just because of what country they are from-and we continue to witness extraordinary racism regularly in our cities and everywhere else toward these and so many other groups in America. The one group that has never truly experienced what racism feels like is white America. So the irony of calling anyone a racist in this country because of references to white people is just beyond laughable. Dare I say that doing so demonstrates an incredible lack of experience in reality-in other words, it’s just a really stupid thing to say. So yeah, he’s entitled to his opinion-just like my thinking that he is against Alabamans-regardless of the facts. Meh

  8. dbsalk Says:

    Your description of beliefs reminds me of a Spanish guy I worked with in Wisconsin about 15 years ago. He was born, raised and educated in Barcelona. Moved to Wisconsin for six months on some kind of work exchange program. Barely spoke English. Didn’t know the first thing about American sports except that our soccer teams were a poor substitute for those in Europe. Our cheesehead neighbors to the north were more than happy to educate him. Six months later, (much to my chagrin) my Spanish friend leaves town as a die-hard Green Bay Packer fan, praying at the altars of Brett Favre and Reggie White.

    That is an extreme example of beliefs created as a result of our environment.

  9. Alicia Says:

    I think that the word “racism” is thrown around way too often, and used in inappropriate settings. I completely agree that Guy is incorrect in the generalizations=racism argument. Your previous commenters have hit upon my main thoughts on this issue, and I’m not going to bore you with my psychologist’s perspective.

    All that being said, I think that many people, of all backgrounds, make plenty of karaoke mistakes. 🙂 But you know, mistakes are how you learn, and karaoke mistakes can be incredibly fun and entertaining for all parties involved.

  10. People like that make me stabby. If everyone edited all their tweets to make them safe for the easily offended and the holier than though preachers like your guy above… well that would just take all the fun out of it, no?

    Just for the record, white people ARE bad at karaoke. I know because I AM a white person with a crippling addiction to it. I torture people weekly.

  11. Jennifer Says:

    I’m white, and I ROCK the karaoke. 🙂

  12. TurnJacson Says:

    Wow… Lots of comments!!

    The problem is it’s fluid, what I deem appropriate and funny, another person might deem over the line and offensive. Hence why we tend to surround ourselves with like minded people, so we can make jokes about stereotypes or race and not get the stinky eye from everyone. (Unless you’re that guy that always takes the joke one step to far… you’ll always get the stink eye)

    As a black man in Canada… the number of race jokes I hear on a daily basis are ridiculous. Some of them are funny, some of them are over the line… and some of them are tired and over played.

    Either way there’s overt racism which is never funny, and then everything else just depends on the people you’re communicating with and their beliefs. Some might laugh… some might think your a racist.

  13. Guy Says:

    I’m glad I found this. Yes, I am Guy, and no, 140 characters is not enough for this discussion.

    I’ll get to the topic of race in a second, but first I want to touch on the unrelated tweet of mine Felicia posted. Of course blind people go to movies. They can still hear. I used the analogy to get to this point: when I take a girl out to dinner who happens to be a vegetarian I labor over the decision of where we’re going to go, because whenever I take a girl out to dinner I want it to be a place we’re both going to enjoy. Since I really don’t know what constitutes a good vegetarian meal, the choice is always a difficult one. How does this compare to taking a blind person to a movie? If I’m going to take a blind person to a movie, I want to make sure it’s going to be one with excellent sound effects, one with a plot that the person would be able to follow easily by sound alone. However, I have no idea what it is like to be blind, and therefore have no idea what type of movie would be easy to follow solely by the sound. Both examples are, for me, difficult choices and both instances can easily be compared.

    Onto the main subject of the post. First, you must understand my unique position. I am Italian. Not like a 4th generation, 50%, happen to have a vowel at the end of my name Italian. All four of my grandparents were born in the same small town in Italy, a town that to this day has a population less than 1,000. I have a very Italian first and last name, and both of my parent’s first language is Italian. My father was born there; my mother was born here shortly after her parents crossed the Atlantic.

    Black, Latino, and Asian people see me as white. White people however do not think of me as white. Some have even told me so in the past. Whether it is because of my name, because of my dark features, or because of the way I talk, white people see me as something else.

    Whenever I approach the topic of race I do not do it as a member of any particular ethnicity or race, but as a member of the HUMAN race. I do not consider just the history of white, black, Latino, and Asian people in this country, but the history of all peoples all across the globe. For example, most civilizations since the dawn of time have had slaves of all different colors and backgrounds. The Romans enslaved the Greeks, the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, etc. etc.

    That is a much larger topic for another day. The underlying concern of mine associated with this specific thread is a double-standard I encounter almost daily: it’s okay to make fun of some types, but not okay to make fun of others. Perhaps a better way to respond to your original tweet would have been to use the word “stereotype” instead of “racism,” but frankly to me they are both on the same level, and both are ugly. Those same stereotypes in the hands of racists serve to reaffirm their beliefs of superiority and therefore should end. Don’t agree? Well let’s go over a few common stereotypes that get used by racists to degrade that group and assert their own perceived superiority: 1. Asian men have small penises. 2. Asians suck at driving. 3. Asians are timid. 4. Black men are born criminals. 5. Black people are scared of everything. 6. Black people are loud and talk in theaters too much. 7. Italians are mobsters. 8. Latinos mow grass really well. 9. Polish women make excellent maids. 10. WASPs are chicken. 11. WASPs are boring and have no style.

    Get the point yet? These are some of the ugliest stereotypes out there. “White people suck at karaoke” is not on that list. But where does that originate from? It is a nicer and more specific way of saying #11. I can take number 4 and say it another way that sounds nicer or comedic, like “He’s black, he must be packing heat.” It still comes from a very ugly stereotype that does serious damage to any discussion of race in America.

    Robby and Heidi are entirely wrong. To Robby’s point, I agree entirely that white people should be able to make fun of themselves. When I’m with other Italians, I call them greaseballs or deigos, just like black people call each other niggers. But that does NOT mean that other groups should be able to make fun of white people. Again, a double standard.

    Heidi’s point I do not think deserves discussion beyond saying that she’s wrong, because she is generalizing.

    I think TurnJacson make a good point. What is okay to one is over the line to another. However, if we are going to be serious about promoting racial unity in America, we need to lay some ground rules, and one of those ground rules should, in my opinion, be that stereotyping does more harm than good. It does not matter what that group’s history is, if we are going to move forward some stuff needs to be left behind. Period. Just because one group has, in this country, experienced less discrimination than another it does not make it okay to have a double standard. To do so is to make the SAME mistakes all over again and seriously jeopardize any hope of eliminating racism entirely. Just because one group is the majority, it does not mean it is okay to make fun of them. By that logic, we are in for a serious comedic conundrum in a hundred years when there are more Latinos than whites in America.

    Now, let me have it.

    • feliciacago Says:

      Is it really you Guy!? I’m delighted that you are here and I thank you for the thoughtful dialogue. Hopefully, if you take a blind person to the movies, he or she will decide on the movie, just as a vegetarian date might want to suggest a great restaurant to introduce you to something new. I am a carnivore to the bone (get it?) and had to be educated on the idea that I can eat vegetarian and not lack for flavor. I recommend Indian food.

      Regarding double-standards – Isn’t what you did a double-standard? How often do you call out a tweet posted by a black person making a “whitey” joke with either a #racism or a #stereotype alert?

      And regarding, “it’s okay to make fun of some types, but not okay to make fun of others” – I don’t think it’s ok to make fun of anyone. Making fun entails intending to be hurtful.

      White people sucking at karaoke doesn’t originate anywhere. It was simply a joke, in my opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. I disagree entirely that it has nothing to do with #11. In fact I’ve never even heard of #11. WASPs are boring and have no style? I thought they were stereotypically equated with racism and elitism.

      I understand your logic and agree that all of this unfair stereotyping can perpetuate hate and ignorance but I think the more important take away is that this is a joke. And it is incredibly important to emphasize, in our quest to change/save the world from itself, the necessity of recognizing a non-issue. And not selecting the innocuous, rather than more deserving vitriole, to champion your cause.

      It diminishes the message.

      Thank you for your comment.

  14. Desmognathus Says:

    I think that it will be a sign of a healthier cultural attitude toward race when it becomes easier to joke about it. When people get offended at an unhurtful joke, it’s usually because they assume the worst about the mindset of the person making the joke. Lots of professional comedians riff about race without offending many people because (a) they are genuinely funny and (b) they can joke about race without making people feel that they mean it negatively. When almost anyone else makes a joke, even if it seems innocent, people who don’t know him/her assume that he/she is a racist unless proven otherwise. It will be nice when the default assumption can be “not a racist jerk,” and we only consider people racist if they actually do something to justify it.

    It’s easy to see racism behind every phrase, if you’re so inclined. Has there been a politician in the last 30 years who hasn’t been called racist? Surely they can’t all be? 🙂

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