Monday, November 14, 2005
Sarah Silverman's Racism
Chris Clarke is a writer that I respect a great deal. Clarke's observational skills are keen and his narrative ability is exceptional. Initially, his thoughtful appreciation of natural history attracted me to his blog, but I soon realized that his is a much wider focus.
Last week, however, when he responded angrily to a racist cartoon by John McPherson, I protested. Although I agree with Clarke that the cartoon is profoundly stupid and regressive, I argued that his attack on McPherson's racism is a mugging of the coded human inclination to categorize and label.
The tendency to generalize, fraught with complications though it may be, extends to all realms of human endeavor, be it art criticism with its many "movements," scientific nomenclature (Kings Play Chess On Fragile Glass Stairs), police profiling or political decisions (*cough* Katrina relief efforts; *cough* habeas corpus).
But the comments section of Clarke's post made it clear that we each have different ways of coping with racism. For example, I find comedian Sarah Silverman's propensity to pillory racism by highlighting it's outrageousness very funny, whereas Clarke thinks her routines are racist and "quite offensive."
Because of the varied response to his post about the cartoon, Clarke followed up with remarks that explore the definition of "racism." I detest political correctness as much as I do racism, but Chris's take on the term is insightful. He points out that the definition of "racism" has evolved; whereas it once referred to unrefined prejudice - the categorizations and stereotypes borne of "innocent" ignorance - today it is more clearly equated with immoral or chosen bigotry. Racists aren't, in other words, merely naive.
This lexigraphic shift accounts for much of our liberal handwringing. If we assume that an agreeable definition of "racism" centers on mere prejudice and not on wrongheaded notions of racial or ethnic superiority, then almost everyone can be fairly labelled a racist! Identification and classification are natural inclinations, encoded into our very being. Moreover, these inborn skills helped Homo sapiens sapiens outcompete the Neanderthals and survive the lions, tigers and bears! Effectively, we're naturally racist; this being the case, miscegenation is among the only viable hopes.
John X, the father of one of my best friends growing up, was ostracized by the local community when he impregnated a co-worker. John was a white man, his paramour was a black woman. As much as I'd like to believe that John was despised because of his infidelity (and his familial thoughtlessness) and not because he fathered a mulatto, I know that this was not the case.
I was young when this "scandal" occurred, but I remember well debating the matter with my mom in the pickup truck on the way home from school one afternoon. As we passed John's house, she "explained" that his actions were "wrong because the child will never be accepted in society." She continued, "It's just a terrible mistake to bring a person of mixed heritage into the world." Talk about a text book example of "innocent" prejudice! I shocked her southern-Victorian sensibility by insisting that it was only "wrong" because the rest of us couldn't accept the superficial difference. Make enough "mixed heritage" babies, I insisted, and the problem will no longer exist.
Even so young, I had embraced the "Make me mocha" approach to ending racism. Unfortunately, this blending won't yet happen overnight - thousands of years of racial mixing are necessary - but it will happen. Sadly, humanity, mocha or not, will always find something - religion, hand washing technique, culinary preferences - to fight about.
Chris Clarke has proposed that this December 1st be "Blog Against Racism Day." I'm not sure how many people will participate, but I think it a worthwhile proposal and Hungry Hyaena will definitely jump into the fray. Pass on the word if you're a blogger yourself, whether or not you enjoy Sarah Silverman.
Photo credit: www.digitalhit.com