Racist Mocking of First Lady Michelle Obama: Ape Imagery Yet Again

The Nashville Scene has a long account of the racist email sent out by Walt Baker, influential head of the powerful Tennessee Hospitality Association (motels, hotels, etc.). He sent out this email with a photo of the chimp Cheeta Chimp_email(see here too, Cheeta the chimpanzee) next to one of First Lady Michelle Obama:

From: Walt Baker Date: March 4, 2010 9:18:29 PM CST

Quoting Larry the Cable Guy…I don’t care who you are, this is funny…I was at the store yesterday, and I ran into Tarzan! I asked him how it was going and if he was into anymore movies. He told me that he could no longer make any more movies as he had severe arthritis in both shoulders and could no longer swing from vine to tree.

I asked how Jane was doing, he told me she was in bad shape, in a nursing home, has Alzheimer’s and no longer recognizes anyone, how sad. I asked about Boy, and he told me that Boy had gone to the big city, got hooked up with bad women, drugs, alcohol, and the only time he heard from him was if he was in trouble or needed something.
I asked about Cheeta, he beamed and said she was doing good, had married a Lawyer and now lived in the White House!!!

You can see both photos at this link.

Baker says he forwarded this email, which had been sent to him, to 12 prominent Nashvillians, including an aide to the mayor. Once outed, Baker indicated he was not racist, meant no offense, and had only sent it to “a select group of friends.” That is, he apparently meant for it to stay private and expected none of his friends to protest it. There was apparently little initial protest from most whites who first received it. This is yet another example of backstage racism where a white person felt safe doing this racist stuff with his friends. Baker commented later:

“It was done in the spirit of having some fun with some close friends. It was something that was forwarded to me, and I forwarded it to a couple of people that, quite honestly, I thought might find some humor in it like I did.”

He said that he thought it was good “political humor.” Not only did few whites openly protest and condemn this email as long as it was in the backstage, but according to Baker doing racist stuff is often about having “fun with some close friends.” There is a lot of evidence, like in the Two Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage book Leslie Picca and I did that whites not only do racist stuff in the backstage but really seem to “Have fun” doing such racist action.

Several days after it came out Baker sent a one word email to the recipients (“sorry”) and was fired by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which apologized much more openly for Baker’s actions and seemed to catch the irony of the head of a “hospitality” organization acting in such an inhospitable way. Baker’s company also lost at least one marketing contract.

Wikipedia has an article laying out the anti-Michelle-Obama “humor,” yet has no such article on anti-Laura Bush humor. The intensity and level of attacks on the Obamas in such a short period to time seem to be about the most extreme in recent political memory.

We might note once again that this racist framing of African Americans as ape-like is very old in the dominant white racial frame, and Thomas Jefferson was an open advocate of such vicious stereotyping and imagery–as he makes clear in the first major book by a secular American intellectual, his Notes on the State of Virginia (Section 14).

As we see here the still dominant white racial frame (see my new book here) includes not only the ape-like stereotyping (verbal-cognitive) but also coverpagevisual racist imagery and mocking emotions set in a “humor” framework. Note too just how white-centered such activity is, with its assumption of white superiority and virtue. None of the whites involved, so far as I can tell yet, has used this example of racist humor as a public way of calling out the white racial frame and calling for group instruction in extensive Racism 101 workshops in the city. Instead, like whites elsewhere, most there seem to see it as an isolated incident. Indeed, the white actors who do this sort of stuff usually do claim they are still white-virtuous, that is they did not “mean it” and are “not racist.”

Irish-Americans, Racism, and the Pursuit of Whiteness

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009): Today in New York City and throughout the U.S.,  Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk). What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century.  The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina).   Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater.   Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish.   However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically.   The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs.   Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon).  For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes.  And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic).   In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods.  Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs.  So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks.   While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture.  In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe,  Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America.  Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article,  in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'”   While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

Mainstreaming White Supremacy

There are a couple of news stories in recent days that suggest a new level of mainstreaming white supremacy in American culture. The first story (via the SPLC and Charles Johnson of LGF) that Robert Stacy McCain is once again blogging at the Washington Times. In case you’re not familiar with him, here’s a little background on McCain (via SPLC):

Robert Stacy McCain, a former key Washington Times editor who has suggested that “perfectly rational people” react with “altogether natural revulsion” to interracial marriage, apparently has returned as a free-lancer to the newspaper he left in January 2008. In a “Special to The Washington Times” article published today, McCain covers a congressional race in upstate New York involving a candidate with connections to the Tea Party movement.

A casualty of the housecleaning that occurred at the Times three years ago, McCain left the paper on his own accord after managing editor Fran Coombs, with whom he was close, was terminated (Coombs had his own connections to white supremacy).

Once identified as a member of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, McCain’s reporting while at the Times was always controversial. As editor of the “Culture Briefs” section of the paper, McCain used excerpts from racist publications including American Renaissance magazine and the anti-immigrant hate site VDARE.com. In fact, McCain may be the only mainstream newspaper reporter to have covered four American Renaissance conferences. Twice, he offered no description at all of the group he was covering, which is devoted to race science. Once, he said it was “critical of liberal positions on race and immigration.” Only in 2004 did he note that some viewed it as racist.

While conservative-leaning, the Washington Times is mainstream news outlet, and the re-hiring of McCain – a man with clear ties to overt white supremacist groups – is a noteworthy step toward mainstreaming white supremacy and rendering these kinds of views more acceptable.

The mainstreaming of white supremacy is not new. White supremacist groups in the U.S. since the 1970s have tried a number of strategies to make their views seem more acceptable and their agendas appear benign, such as changing hoods-and-robes for suits-and-ties to participating in the “adopt a highway” program.


The fact is, even apart from these sorts of efforts, the white supremacist ideology resonates beyond these extremist groups.

This is an argument I highlighted in my first book (White Lies, Routledge, 1997). While many people may find the idea of white supremacist ideology an anachronism in the post-civil rights era, the fact is that the views of extremists are reflected in mainstream American culture.   For example, the idea that white people – and specifically white men – were the primary force behind building the U.S. (as illustrated in this image from a racist publication) is one that resonates with large portions of the population and is widely repeated by leading news commentators on mainstream news channels.  Other examples include when extremely popular shock-jocks such as Don Imus and Howard Stern boost their already-considerable ratings by villifying young, black women.  Who needs to bother with joining a white supremacist group when you can listen to Buchanan, Imus and Stern spout the same ideas?

The second story is from Newsweek, which argues that white supremacists are “rebranding hate for the Obama era.” The Newsweek story (released on the web March 12 and set to be released in print on March 22) is a good bit of reporting about extremists groups by reporter Eve Conant and photographer Bruce Gilden. They visited two groups on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group list: the Knights Party, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan (during a cosponsored event with the Christian Revival Center), and the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement (NSM), one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the U.S.  However, I’m not that persuaded (and don’t think most readers of Newsweek will be) of their argument about the success of these groups at “rebranding hate.”  The photo essay by Gilden (from which the image above is taken) is compelling but somewhat at odds with the text of the article.  The people photographed do not, I would argue, fit the image of “mainstream” but rather trade on notions of white supremacists as “other,” as extremists not at all like most Americans.   It’s an interesting tension.

In a related piece from Newsweek by Joshua Alston, he notes the trend in popular television shows that rely on white supremacists as the go-to bad guy:

“…the supremacy surge seems to be much more acute in Hollywood than anywhere else in the country. The second season of Sons of Anarchycentered on a turf war in the town of Charming, Calif., between a white-separatist group called the League of American Nationalists and a motorcycle gang who are plenty unsavory, but at least they’re not bigots. Your friendly neighborhood serial killer Dexter has dispatched his own supremacist, and all three iterations of the Law & Orderfranchise have featured stories in which murders lead to an underground white-power cell. Even a recent episode of the sci-fi puzzler Fringefeatured a Nazi villain who tries to poison folks at a meeting of the World Tolerance Initiative. In this tenuous moment, when we talk about post-racial America as though saying it can make it so, there’s no more frightening a bogeyman than the occupational racist.”

Alston goes on to offer some analysis of this phenomenon:

“The reason the card-carrying white supremacist lingers in the public imagination is not just because he’s scary, but because he fortifies our self-regard in an area where we all occasionally need some convincing.   …to acknowledge—or even inflate—white supremacists is to assuage our guilt with the knowledge that there are people out there far more prejudiced than most of us could ever be. … For writers, these characters have even more appeal. Their beliefs are so stigmatized, there’s no need to bog down the story with motives and expository monologues.”

This, too, is something I’ve noted in the earlier work (White Lies, Routledge, 1997).  At the time, television talk shows regularly featured white supremacists as sure ratings-boosters.   Providing white supremacists with this kind of platform – whether in fiction or non-fiction television – contains the threat of white supremacy by identifying specific targets (“those are the white supremacists – there”) while it simultaneously lets other whites off the hook.  So, the not-so-subtle message gets conveyed that those of us sitting at home watching white supremacists on the television have nothing to worry about.

What’s remarkable here is that two mainstream news outlets – the Washington Times and Newsweek – are calling our attention to the mainstreaming of white supremacy (although there’s clearly a difference of intention and political allegiance between the two news organizations).   The question is how will the rest of the U.S. respond to this attempt to ‘rebrand’ hate?

Laughing at Racism

It is hard to find anything to laugh about when it comes to racism and anti-racism, but damali ayo (her capitalization) has put together some humorous and satirical books, How to Rent a Negro, and the 2010 book, Obamistan! Land without Racism, to demonstrate the nonsense about a post-racial world with humor and insight.

She has an art background, and has also been involved in eco-activism. Her website describes her approach as “Now Art”:

She describes Now Art as being immediate, participatory, and engaging social issues. Ayo believes that “art should make you think and feel.” She eschews art that is primarily for decoration. She believes that artists and comedians have a special task to push our culture to understand itself in order to change itself.

One of her interesting “Now Art” pieces is a

free practical guide of ten steps to improving race relations titled I Can Fix It! This guide gives ten simple solutions to address our current “third grade level of race relations.” … damali brings the I Can Fix It! guide [download from here] to life in her stage shows where she uses humor, stories, and slides to inspire people. Presented simply and directly, ayo’s approach to race relations is unforgettable. She makes people pay attention to what is going on inside and around them and to take responsibility for changing it. And damali has plenty of first-hand experience doing just that- she started at a young age by integrating her school’s doll collection with Black Raggedy Ann and Andy.

The commentaries by numerous whites on her book point up the impact of even a humorous look at white racist stuff on many whites. The positive and confirmation comments from people of color and some whites are even more interesting and revealing about its truths. Strategies against racism come, and need to come, in many different forms.

Role Models and Mentors for Black STEM Students: College Racial Climates

Inside Higher Education has a summary piece by Scott Jaschik on a national data analysis by Cornell Ph.D. student, Joshua Price:

A constant theme of reports about math and science is that the United States will have a large enough supply of scientists only if it does a better job of attracting black and Latino scientists …. Many of these reports note that large shares of black and Latino high school students don’t receive the kind of preparation they should in math and science.

This lack of preparation and/or related role model and mentoring factors likely extends to the college level, as Price’s research clearly suggests:

The study finds a statistically significant relationship between black students who plan to be a science major having at least one black science instructor as freshmen and then sticking to their plans. The finding could be significant because many students (in particular members of under-represented minority groups) who start off as science majors fail to continue on that path — so a change in retention of science majors could have a major impact.

Jaschik continues:

Price analyzed data on more than 157,000 students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in one of the 13 four-year universities in Ohio between 1998 and 2002 and who said that they intended to major in science, technology or mathematics. He then examined whether those black students who had a black instructor … were more likely to stick with their planned STEM major than those who did not. For purposes of the study, “instructor” had to be the person — typically but not always a professor — who was responsible for a course.

Price found no gender effects, but he did find another significant effect, after controlling for various factors:

… black students who had at least one black science instructor as freshmen were statistically more likely to continue on as STEM majors than those who did not. … black STEM students were more likely than white students to end up in STEM courses or sections led by black instructors, again suggesting a key role for these black science professors. … In an interview, Price … [said] that the impact of having a black instructor could come from a “role model effect” or from a mentoring effect.

Neither the article nor the study mentions the numerous other factors that enter into this institutional-racism reality in our historically white colleges and universities. There is the problem of the hostile racial climate that scattered evidence suggests is strong in departments where there have historically been few students of color. This doubtless greatly affects the persistence of many. (To my knowledge, there is no systematic research on variation in this climate by department in historically white institutions–another area for research if you looking for an important project.) Still, our field research on several historically white universities shows that it is a common problem generally for black students, undergraduate and graduate.

Researchers have also shown that this hostile racial climate also affects, often greatly shapes, the reality of too few faculty of color in most departments, not just so-called STEM departments. Since faculty of color often find these historically white campuses difficult places to teach, indeed to be at, it is not surprising that students of color frequently find few faculty of color there. Research indicates, again and again, that the U.S. higher educational system is still fundamentally and deeply racist in its structures and everyday operations. No post-racial America there.

The “Darkening” Effects of Incarceration

07/23/2009 At 16:54:27 PM
Creative Commons License photo credit: Troy Holden

Research has repeatedly shown that race, rather than being an immutable trait of individuals, is actually quite fluid and may change over time and by social context. In the February issue of the journal Social Problems (v. 57, #1), sociologists Aliya Saperstein (University of Oregon) and Andrew Penner (University of California, Irvine) report their analysis of data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which demonstrates how incarceration affects convicted offenders’ self-perceptions of their race as well as others’ perceptions of their race (“The Race of a Criminal Record: How Incarceration Colors Racial Perceptions”). The NLSY asked a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women (aged 14-22 years in 1979, when the survey began) a series of questions on a variety of topics, including their racial and ethnic identification; respondents’ race/ethnicity were also classified by NLSY interviewers. After the initial survey, participants were interviewed every year until 1994, when biennial surveying was initiated. In their intriguing and socially important study, Saperstein and Penner analyze NLSY data from 1979-2002 to see if participants’ own racial/ethnic identification changed and whether interviewers’ classifications of respondents’ race/ethnicity changed, depending on whether the respondent was or had been incarcerated in the intervening time period.

Without going into the complexities of the statistical analyses, which included numerous controls to rule out the effects of intervening variables, suffice it to say here that Saperstein and Penner found that NLSY participants who self-identified as European American in 1979 were significantly more likely to self-identify as black in 2002 if they had been incarcerated compared with those who had not been incarcerated. As Saperstein and Penner report, “these findings demonstrate . . . that incarceration leads to changes in racial self-identification and the effect operates primarily through making individuals see themselves as not quite white. To put this into perspective, consider that currently nearly 6 million people in the United States have been incarcerated . . . Based on our results, we would expect that more than 250,000 previously incarcerated individuals no longer identify as white as a result of their incarceration” (p. 103).

Saperstein and Penner also found that interviewers were more likely to change the racial/ethnic classification of NLSY respondents if the respondent was currently or had been incarcerated since the time of the last survey – and the change they made was to “darken” incarcerated respondents. That is, respondents who had been classified by interviewers as white prior to incarceration were more likely to be classified by interviewers as black once they were incarcerated.

Apart from further affirming the socially constructed nature of race, Saperstein and Penner’s study has, as they put it, “real-world consequences for racial inequality.” There is a good deal of research, some of which is cited by Saperstein and Penner, that shows that many white people associate black people, especially black men, with crime. This association is what underlies the practice of racial profiling by police, who, as I have pointed out on this blog before, target black neighborhoods for saturation policing, not surprisingly contributing to higher arrest and incarceration rates for blacks. This association also likely contributes to misidentification of criminal suspects by “eye witnesses,” thus resulting in higher erroneous convictions for blacks. I have also pointed out on this blog how incarceration contributes to poverty – especially poverty among black men due to their disproportionate incarceration rates – because a prison record lowers the likelihood of stable employment in a job that pays a decent wage. Saperstein and Penner’s analysis shows how “actual disparities in incarceration are exacerbated by stereotypical associations about the types of individuals who commit and/or are punished for committing crimes” (p. 110). Interestingly, more states are using early release of prisoners as a way to address fiscal crises, but as the Saperstein and Penner study reminds us, release from prison will do little, if anything, to reduce inequality; we must simultaneously address the invidious link between blackness and crime, not only in the minds of the general public, but also in minds of the formerly incarcerated themselves. Further research on why some people who have experienced incarceration change their racial identification from white to black and the meanings that race has for them, as well as for those who do not undergo this redefinition of self, would be most welcome.

Faking Multiracial Democracy? More Proposals for Educational Reform

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has laid out some new enforcement efforts by the federal government, to press school systems to improve and meet their civil rights obligations.
Little Rock Nine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Snodgrass
According to a New York Times story:

”For us, this is very much about working to meet the president’s goal, that by 2020 we will regain our status in the world as the number one producer of college graduates,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, told The Associated Press. The department is expecting to conduct 38 compliance reviews around 40 different issues this year, she said.

In recent speeches Duncan has cited (quoted here) horrendous statistics like these, for a supposed “advanced democracy”:

A quarter of all students drop out before their graduation, and half of those come from 12 percent of the nation’s high schools. Those roughly 2,000 schools produce a majority of the dropouts among black and Latino students. Black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as white students, and those with disabilities more than twice as likely to be expelled or suspended — numbers which Duncan says testify to racial gaps that are ”hard to explain away by reference to the usual suspects.” Students from low-income families who graduate from high school scoring in the top testing quartile are no more likely to attend college than the lowest-scoring students from wealthy families.

This is 2010, right? Supposedly, this is to be more aggressive enforcement that under Bush:

”If the district has violated the civil rights laws and does not come into compliance with them, we could put conditions on existing grants,” Ali said.

But leading desegregation scholars like Gary Orfield have suggested that we need to wait and see if this is just more nice sounding rhetoric, or whether they mean business this time.

One educator on the Schools Matter blog (Dr. Jim Horn) had a much more critical take already on Duncan’s obviously meek efforts:

* If Duncan were serious about Civil Rights, he would end the use of testing policies that punish, humiliate, and separate the poor and the brown and the disabled from the rest of society….
* If Duncan were serious about Civil Rights, he would challenge the use of tracking inside schools to segregate, contain, and intellectually sterilize poor children who do poorly on tests that are now the only measure of what matters in a child’s school life….
* If Duncan were serious about Civil Rights, he would be advocating for a humane and challenging whole curriculum for poor children, rather than years of basic reading and math that leave the neediest unprepared for work that requires thinking and for college;…
* If Duncan were serious about Civil Rights, he would actively support the development of hospitable and humane school environments, rather than the academic and behavioral lockdowns that now make schools look like low or even medium security penal institutions.

And he adds yet other actions too. While these stated enforcement steps by the Obama administration are likely to be more and better than for the Bush administration, they do not come anywhere close to meeting this latter reasonable list of actions. Welcome to our fake democracy once again in action, as much educational and other data still clearly show a still systemically racist nation.

White Saviors at the Academy Awards

Andrés Tapia has an interesting blog post summarizing critical views of the Academy Awards that resonate with some reviews we have done here of prize-winning movies like Avatar and The Blind Side.
He begins:

For different reasons I was entertained, challenged, and/or inspired by Avatar, District 9, Precious, and The Blind Side, four of this year’s ten Oscar nominees. Smart script writing, convincing performances, off-the-chain special effects, first-class editing. And I simply loved the first two sci-fi flicks. . . . but it’s time we name the elephant in the room: what is it with this spate of Hollywood movies that require a member of the majority culture to save us poor people of color from ourselves or others every single time?

He adds:

So in Avatar, it takes one white male who goes rogue to save an entire civilization of classically depicted noble savages from the destructive forces of Western civilization (by the way, not unlike in Disney’s Pocahontas. …. there’s a point when one simply gets tired of always seeing stories of our being saved by white messiahs. It is not good for the majority culture who may be subliminally encouraged to keep taking on this white person’s burden and it’s not good for our communities of color where we are vulnerable to abrogating responsibility to be effective advocates for ourselves without having to have our redemption depend on the kindness of well meaning — and bigger than life — strangers.

It was an informative night Sunday, what with the white savior and other stereotyped movies doing well. Hollywood’s supposed “liberals” seem to be constitutionally incapable of doing a movie that is critical of mainstream white-racist institutions and realities.

Campus Racism: The “Other” African American Students

Mustafa Jumale, a Somali American student at the University of Minnesota, has been blogging on experiences there and in South Africa. Here is what he just sent me about some of his own experiences and insights about the experiences of other African-origin students:

The experiences of Black South African and African American students at historically white universities and predominantly white universities are both problematic and unique. South Africa has had a black democratic government since the fall of the Apartheid government. However, incidents at the University of the Orange Free State University, in which a few “white” South African students asked university housing employees to participate in a game. The students asked the employees to eat food, which contained urine. Moreover, these [white] students video recorded the game and entered it in a competition that was facilitated by students that were employed by the university as resident assistants; furthermore, these students won the best documentary for their video. In the United States, ever year we hear about white students participating in parities with racial themes in Black History Month, like the recent incident at University of California-San Diego.

After the elections of former President Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama, media outlets enabled a discourse, in which these countries were referred to as “post-racial.” As a Somali American at a predominately white university in the Midwest, I understand the struggles of being black and Muslim. My senior honors thesis is entitled “Post-Racial” Societies: A comparative study of South Africa and the United States. I argue that “post-raciality” is in and within itself problematic. I used ethnographic methods and qualitative approaches to examine the “Black” South African experience and “African American” experience at historically white universities and predominantly white universities in South Africa and the United States. Moreover, I opened the discourse to students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of the Western Cape by using a blog and facebook to generate discussion and to collect narratives of the experiences of students.

Here is an excerpt from an article from the Mshale (local African community) newspaper cited on his blog on some Somali Americans’ experiences in Minnesota:

“‘Minnesota nice’ at this university is covert racism,” Jumale said . . . just outside the university’s West Bank campus. Jumale’s sentiments stem from observation and interviews he conducted of least a dozen students for a research paper he wrote about the experiences of “Somali College Students at a Predominantly White Institution.” In his research, Jumale heard from a Somali honor student who majored in English Literature but was told by a professor on the first day of class that the course was “too advanced.” Then there was another student who told him he received a D in a term paper because, according to the professor, “the words in your essay are not words you would be able to understand.” But no grievance was more common than alleged harassment by the university’s police. Jumale heard complaints about police officers randomly searching Somali students’ supposedly looking for stolen property. Others complained about being asked to provide IDs while white students walked by uninterrupted. … It wasn’t until last October, when a police officer detained three Somali students for robbery, that Jumale and his fellow students realized that these were no trivial issues. …. Shafii Osman, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Biology, said he and two of his friends were walking from the university gym to a nearby MacDonald when an undercover police officer stopped them and asked for their IDs. . . . After looking at their IDs and searching their pockets, the officer allegedly said they “fit the description” of “East African males” who had just robbed Subway…. Osman said the officer ordered them into the car and took them to Subway.….. Despite the Subway employees’ failure to identify the men who had committed the crime a few minutes earlier, the officer allegedly asked Osman and his friends to pay for the sandwiches or risk criminal charges. They chose the latter. … With the help of an attorney, the three students were able to get their cases dismissed. But for one of Osman’s co-defendants, who did not want to be identified, the whole ordeal was so damaging that said he is still struggling to understand it. “It caused me a so much stress,” the friend said. “I was approaching exams with the possibility of being sent to jail.”

This is a common experience for native-born African American college students, as reported in research studies by social scientists on historically white campuses. And such academic and policing incidents are now becoming more commonplace for the “other African Americans” as they are sometimes called. They too are often viewed by many whites from the same white racial framing that has long negatively portrayed those African Americans whose ancestry goes back generations in the United States. BTW, Social scientists Yoku Shaw-Taylor and Steven Tuch have a very good edited book with chapters on various subgroups within this increasingly diverse group, titled The Other African Americans: Contemporary African and Caribbean Families in the United States.

Whites Discussing Racial Matters: Some Debate

One of our blogger-readers (Sara Libby) has blogged recently on the question, “When Exactly ARE White People Allowed to Talk About Race?” She critically assesses another blog post by Elie Mystal, who recently wrote too under the title of “White People: If You’re Not Bill Maher, Please Shut Up About Race.” Mystal has a long and interesting post on whites trying to speak on racial matters, and among his points he makes these:

Over a year into the first presidency by a black man in the history of the United States, we’ve learned one thing about race in America: Bill Maher is the only white man in the country that can make a quality racial joke without sounding racist. I don’t know how we got here, maybe white people who listen to Rush Limbaugh honestly don’t know the difference between edgy commentary and racism Limbaugh spews on a daily basis? Maybe conservative media outlets have convinced white people that talking about race respectfully means the terrorists win? . . . . [Maher is] seemingly the only one that can find the humor in having a black President (the same way he saw the humor in having a retarded President) without actually offending people with a basic sense of humor. In fact, he’s the only white person that can find the humor of having black people and white people live together (as they do here and no where else on Earth) without offending people.

He continues:

But after watching general white people (talking heads, journalists, celebrities, average people on the street) stumble through racial humor for a year, I now live in fear that some untalented white comedian (think: Dane Cook) will try to get on the trail Maher blazed and inadvertently start a full scale race war.

He then suggests that Maher might well take on the task of teaching the racist white activists, our “best educated” young whites (as we have blogged about several times recently) about racist joking and racist framing, as well as hate crimes:

If Bill Maher had a “ghetto-themed” cookout, it’d be funny. I don’t know how exactly, maybe Chris Rock would show up asking for “just one rib,” Maher would go as a predatory lender, Cornell West would come to drop some knowledge, and everybody would leave high on what we all assume is Maher’s top notch horticultural products? Somehow, he’d would make it work. . . . Clearly, we need to educate white people on the difference between funny and offensive. I understand that the line must seem blurred to many white people — especially the ones that are themselves racist but think they are not because they don’t wear pointy hats. It must be hard for some of them to balance the desire to hide their personal racial animus with their desire to sound lively and interesting at cocktail parties.

Libby comments on this post with her own questions, thus:

Clearly, we need to educate white people on the difference between funny and offensive. I understand that the line must seem blurred to many white people — especially the ones that are themselves racist but think they are not because they don’t wear pointy hats.. I hesitated to write this post, lest it be seen merely as an attempt to have people pat me on the back and tell me that no, Elie couldn’t possibly have been talking about me! . . . Your insights are precisely the kind of dialogue we need to see more of from aspiring white-girl pundits. . . . There is something to be said, though, of the fact that condescending to people who truly try to understand, dissect and move the ball forward on racial discourse without having dark skin themselves will only assure that the people who do speak out about race are the ones who don’t care how offensive they’re being.

She continues with a bit from her own background:

I came from a lily-white community (and state), and was raised by conservative parents who sometimes make vaguely racist statements; and yet I’ve tried to eek out a career discussing race in a thoughtful and measured way, without having much of a personal stake in it . . . , other than wanting to live in a world where people are judged individually and by “the content of their character,” as Dr. King has said. … I care more passionately and deeply about racism than probably every other issue facing our society right now. . . . Have I personally experienced racism before? Hell no – I’ve got blond hair and blue eyes. But how else will we ever get to a point where we can have an honest and intelligent dialogue on race if people like me don’t at least try to grapple with it? … if non-black people are constantly being told that they shouldn’t even attempt to broach the issue, since they’ll inevitably reveal how racist they are, then progress is impossible. . . . Two of the incidents he addressed in his “Bill Maher” post – John Mayer and the “Compton Cookout” party at UC San Diego – are ones I’ve also tackled on my blog, and roundly critiqued for their racial insensitivity. . . . Perhaps I’m getting worked up over nothing, because … Elie and I basically agree about the racial issues we both end up covering – and YES, there is an enormous amount of offensive, derogatory, hateful, shameful stuff out there being spewed by white people. If there weren’t, my writing career would quickly grind to a halt. And I can’t imagine how horrible it feels to experience even the most subtle types of racial discrimination. But I can attest that being told you can’t possibly conjure a valuable contribution to a public discourse on race just because you’re white doesn’t feel great, either.

I think Sara may be, as she suggests, overreacting a bit to Mystal’s post. Apart from his flamboyant title, Mystal is really pressing for whites to develop at least the racial sensitivity of Maher if they are going to presume to converse seriously on racial matters, and especially if they plan to make humorous comments. He is clearly not saying whites who are grappling with and critically assessing the racist hierarchy and white racial frame should keep quiet. In my view such whites certainly need to continue with serious searches for antiracist understandings and actions, and speak out especially to other whites, even as they make mistakes in that process. IMHO, speaking out as critically as one can on the dominant white racism is the obligation of all ethical human beings. Why do you think?