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:


Devo said...

OK, I'll be honest with ya, I didn't even read your post yet, but I am commenting to tell you that I think Sarah Silverman is the (second) hottest thing on two legs. Excepting my fabulous wife, of course. She's number one on my celebrity to-do list. That, and she's funny, too. Maybe I'll say something slightly more intelligible once I wipe my chin free of testosterone laden drool and actually read your undoubtedly compelling and thought-provoking post...

Devo said...

As I figured, both thought-provoking and compelling... anyway, here be my two farthings (or is it four ha' pannies?):

The human tendency to categorize, be it by way of racism or mnemonic devices, is just as easily used for good as it is for evil... I don't want to get too far into that cliche, but I'll merely point to subatomic physics as an example. On one hand we have hydrogen bombs, in the middle we have nuclear power, and on the other hand we have the potential for quantum computers. There's all sorts of good, bad and somewhere murky in between in those three examples. The same can be said for racism. Without it, you are likely correct in assuming that we may have never defeated our Neanderthal rivals for primacy, and wouldn't THAT be a disaster. Along the same lines, we wouldn't have such charming radio shows as Amos'n'Andy, or such hilarious comedians as Bernie Mac.

Seriously, though, while I don't want to be branded and categorized, I think that to some extent, paying attention to differences is an important practice. Exploiting these perceived differences is not. Paying attention to perceived differences allows us to be the stewards of our own identities. Many people would like to abolish all differences -- perceived or real -- and "make mocha" so to speak. However, other people cling to differences -- again, perceived or real -- to forge an identity in the face of otherwise crushing facelessness.

One of Tocqueville's most astute observations about the character of America is its reverence for individuality. It seems, though, that in the past few decades, we've begun a bizarre swing towards erasing this individuality. Categories are bad. Difference is bad. Difference automatically translates to racism or bigotry of some flavor or another.

Perhaps we should take a step back before we throw away the multitude of babies that might be bobbing around in this particular tub of bathwater. The two "flavors" of racism you point out are most certainly at best ignorant, and at worst downright detrimental to the fabric of society. However, there are other impulses buried among these two broad categories that deserve attention as well. Identity forming is likely one of them. Preserving cultural heritage is another, albeit slightly more controversial, one. Every culture that I know of has a rich, diverse history full of wonderful, terrible events and people. Both need to be remembered and honored, ideally to be used as a collective compass to indicate a possible direction to steer the boat called humanity, as well as a direction to steer it AWAY from. South Carolina's divisive state flag is perhaps a glowing example of both reasons to preserve cultural heritage. To many people this flag represents generations of opressive slavery, a blight on several different cultures that -- as heinous and unsettling as it is -- is still a significant piece of history. Keeping that history alive in the minds and souls of those that it affected as well as those who perpetrated the crime is essential, mostly to prevent future recurrence of that type of transgression. On the other hand, the flag also represents a genteel, urbane history, high southern society and a period of great contribution toward the future prosperity of the United States. We would do well to remember that aspect of this state's history as well as we would its less palatable aspects...

I suppose what I'm saying is that when people talk about "racism" in almost any capacity, they often fall into the very selfsame trap that likely shaped the topic of conversation in the first place: categorization, and its relative detriments or merits. Before anyone decides to delve into such a complicated arena as the role of categorization in human endeavor and its effects on culture -- whether positive or negative -- they prepare themselves for a discussion far more nuanced and frustrating than simply pointing a finger and judging.

Hungry Hyaena said...


First off, yes, Silverman is hot as hotty hot-hot can be. Reluctantly, I'll admit that this may play a role in my adoration of her, but she is also very funny.

Nextly, thank you for the very thoughtful comment. I agree with everything you say. In fact, though I believe I failed, I intended to celebrate our tendency/need to generalize in the post. I'm glad you jumped on board to do a more complete job.

Tocqueville's American individuality is a rare commodity these days and, like you, I do worry that much is lost as we "erase" our differences. On the other hand, many of the cultural distinctions we celebrate in ourselves can easily be turned into critiques of "the other." And so, once again, begins the hand-wringing.

Your addressing of South Carolina's flag debate is excellent and, given the current climate, even brave. To suggest that there is a valuable, rich cultural history represented by the rebel flag makes you persona non grata in the eyes of most contemporaries. I appreciate your taking that leap.

Your conclusion is also of vital importance when considering racism. Some academics argue that a prejudiced member of the minority can not properly be called racist, for they are without "the power to oppress." I contend that there are racists of every stripe, minority or otherwise. The militant black man speaking of the "white devil" is as racist - unless he's referring to Dick Cheney, and then he's just right - as the local bigot who speaks of "Jews running things" or a college sports team having "African auxiliaries." Even so, sometimes racism has it's place, as when it is employed to spoof our hangups, ala Silverman.

Devo said...

I did kind of sense your defence of our individuality, and I share your hesitance to fully embrace an all-out celebration of difference... It's a touchy line to toe, and one we would do well to toe very lightly and very consciously...

As for my illustration of the situation surrounding the rebel flag... I intended it to be not merely celebration... but cautionary as well. Just as much as certain portions of a cultural heritage DO deserve celebration, that celebration can only be responsibly accomplished in light of a broader picture. For every Southern Gentleman there was a tyrranical slavedriver. To celebrate one without lamenting the other is worse than ignorant, and do demonize one without acknowledging the other is no better. I understand that my stance on this issue will undoubtedly invite criticism from virtually every angle, but perhaps that criticism can serve to illustrate the very point I'm trying to make.

Cultural heritage is not some moldy artifact to be appreciated or vilified. It is a vibrant part of a person's or culture's very Being, and must be integrated into that person's Being seamlessly. Celebrated, lamented and everything in between.

Thanks for the compliment, by the way! When I first started my very own blog, these were the conversations I strove to foster. It's difficult to keep the volume of intellectual discourse as high as you seem to be able to, HH. And while I can't seem to generate it myself (I'm too buys marveling at salmon flavored soda and pictures of monkeys rubbing the Buddha's belly), I certainly enjoy analyzing it and reacting to it when it's presented to me. Keep up the good work, my man. One day perhaps we can get published in a nerdy, egghead magazine like the New Yorker... or maybe even the Atlantic Monthly!!! Woo hoo!!!

Hungry Hyaena said...

Oh, I realize you didn't mean to "merely celebrate" South Carolina's having included the rebel "colors" on their state flag and neither would I. In fact, I think it wise for them to have removed it and I find it curious that only Mississippi, of Mississippi burning fame, flies the emblem over their capital today.

What I was celebrating in your making an example of the South Carolina flag brouhaha was your willingness to look at the situation from multiple angles. That alone will invite criticism, as you well realize. Furthermore, your assertion that such criticism "serves to illustrate" your point is dead on. That's what impressed me.

As for The New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly...dubious at best. I'd get a kick out of doing a piece for them, but it would have to be the annual Junior Retard issue. The New Yorker writing staff is so bloody good. BTW, The Family Guy did a funny take on that magazine this past Sunday. Good laugh.

Devo said...

I was trying to figure out a way to write the sounds that came out of that guy with the enormous lower jaw's mouth... Priceless.

You know, I think I'd settle for writing a piece for the "Raving, Rabid Liberal Blogger" issue of The Nation. I think us retarded nutjobs would fit in pretty well there...