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August 15, 2009

Thinking about racist jokes / what blackness has meant to me as a white gay man
By Scott

I'd like to take a moment to talk about race (=racist) jokes because I told an inappropriate one the other day. What happened was, I was walking down the street with a new friend of mine and it began to drizzle. I repeated a joke that I saw on Family Guy a long time ago - it involves a weatherman who embodies a stereotype of militant Blackness and gives the forecast, "It's gon' rain." Offended, my friend told me not to repeat these kinds of "jokes" in front of him again. Mortified that my careless remark hurt my friend's feelings (and made me look like an ass), I tried to interrogate why I thought the racist line from Family Guy was funny in the first place.

Racism is hard to think about, especially when I personally am the perpetrator. It is difficult for me to confront the idea that my words can, in however small a way, contribute to racial oppression. It is deeply uncomfortable for me to think of myself as being capable of marginalizing someone else. That's a heavy, squeamish concept to have resting on my heart. Of course, this discomfort pales in comparison to the suffering of people who are the recipients of racial oppression.

The reason I thought it was okay to repeat the joke, I think, is because I tend to assume my social interactions are basically free of the racism prevalent elsewhere. What I mean is, I assume that my friends and I are on some level "post-race," giving me license to joke about the issue. This way of thinking is insensitive to the actual experiences of my friends who are racially oppressed.

Another thing is, I felt comfortable saying the joke because it's a "mild" form of racism. The fact that it wasn't overtly malicious made it seem more okay. Our society is "actually" "post-race," so it's okay for me to make flip comments without considering my words more carefully. Later, I realized that the joke is not innocent nor free of prejudice. That making fun of the anger many Black people feel as a result of being racially oppressed makes it seem like that anger isn't legitimate.

Family Guy is a TV show that makes it its business to parody everything. I haven't watched it in a long time but I remember race, rape, gay, and pedophile jokes all being on the table. There's something exciting about how the show crosses accepted boundaries of decorum. But at the same time, these kinds of jokes are often hurtful when used in everyday conversation. Duh. I've felt this way about rape and gay jokes for a long time - particularly when they're coming from someone who hasn't experienced these things.

I don't know why it took me until now to think about race in a similar way. So my new rule of thumb is this: not to make fun of something unless I've embodied it myself. I'll stick to the identity categories I know, which include but are not limited to being a homo, being a slutty homo, and being into daddies.

Thinking about racist jokes has made something else clear to me that I've known intuitively for a long time: as a White gay man who grew up in the 90s, Blackness, Black culture, and Black friends have been vitally important to me and my ability to cope with oppression as a sexual minority. I'm not saying that being marginalized sexually is the same thing as being marginalized racially. It's not. But I have drawn and continue to draw an enormous strength from Black artists in popular culture, particularly female ones.

When I was in middle school, I was part of a very particular cultural moment in the 90s that gave rise to an unprecedented number of very popular Black musicians. Listening to Destiny's Child's "So Good," Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)," or TLC's "Waterfalls," made me feel a certain way that I didn't feel listening to other kinds of music. I perceived not only these women's words but also the way in which they sang them as assertive, unashamed, and strong. What I was hearing was "the great muscle of the unconstricted throat," as Adrienne Rich calls it, that gets exercised when a person has to draw on inner resources to transcend durable social prejudices. I needed that muscle too.

On the one hand, it is a huge problem that White people like me who grew up in the suburbs have commodified Black music. We listen to Black artists sing about their experiences of oppression and step out of our middle class bubbles for a moment so that we can feel something. But that empathy is too often false because it's temporary: when the song is over, we step right back in the bubble. On the other hand, Black women have given me an incredible gift. Implicitly, they told me not to pay too much attention to the constant messaging I receive in my world making me feel inferior for having strange sexual desires.

I still feel this way, of course. That's why I've been playing "So Good" on repeat while writing this blog post in my underwear for the last hour. Time to get a new song before the neighbors complain.

PERMALINK | Posted at 11:56 AM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

Yes, we may be "post-race" or "post-gay," but not all of America is that way yet.

However, I always worry about whether I'm restraining my speech to be polite or just to be "politically correct." Not saying something to be polite is OK, but I resent being restrained by so-called "political correctness." This resentment is exploited by rightwingers to politically divide people. Blacks and gays only encourage this division by being overly sensitive to racist or homophobic speech.

Author Profile Page Thomas Kraemer User Profile | August 15, 2009 2:22 PM

WE are not in a post-race world. Look at the dating websites and see how the advertisements read. "White seeking white or the same." "White seeking black thugs." White seeking white but Latino and Asian ok, sorry not into black." Even to the point of "Black seeking White, sorry not into black" Yes, it is also true that some Black only seek Black. My point is that race is still very presence in the psyche of the general public and in gay communities, especially against Black men. Two wildly popular TV shows, if we must utilize pop culture, were "Friends" and "Sex in the City." In the multiple years of Friends broadcasts, I recall only one Black male on the show in a supporting role as "shower guy" who sung across from Joey's and Chandler's apartment. Even though Joey and Ross in one season dated a Black female and Ross an Asian woman, none of the main female characters were attracted to a Black male and none of the main White male characters befriended a Black male in any season. In all of New York City, no representation of Black men in the multiple years of broadcasts. Yes, I know plenty of Black men and women who were obsessed weekly by this shows like many other Americans.

Now let's move to the other show that was popular among gay men, Sex in the City, also set in Manhattan. The producers of this show had the foresight and knowledge to pair one of lead character, Miranda, with a male of color, African American male. This male character was placed in a professional and realistic career as a sports doctor. Though the couple's relationship did not last but a few episodes, it was one based on Miranda's attraction and mutual pursuit of the man. Yet, two stereotypes still permeates his character. One deals with African Americans in sports and sports related careers as occupation and the second deals with revenging Black males in anger and sexual prowess. The former connection is obvious. The latter connection occurs after Miranda decides she still loves longterm interest Steve then breaks off her doctor relationship for the bartender. The doctor is then depicted as being a scorn brute who damages Steve's property as he relocates to live in the same building as the doctor with Miranda. Then, upon confrontation, Steve finds the doctor in his own apartment as the sexual Mandingo who has multiple women to help him deal with lost of Miranda. One can only be thankful that neither show depict raging, flaming, child like black stereotyped homosexual males as support nor permanent characters on either show--again set in New York City where such a character would have been believable and easy to portrait.

Having recently received a racist email due to being listed as a friend on someone's mailing list, a joke intended for his White Only list can be more characterized as a ghetto joke against single mothers of color. I quickly responded to the person sending the joke, then asked to be removed from his friend's list. Yes, he is gay and more importantly he is the owner of a prominent veterinarian chain in the Mid-West so I quickly began to wonder about his hiring and selection practices for employees in his business. I would never have known the biased nature of this person had I not been included accidentally in this mailing to a friend's list that I joined several years back.

My point again is that this is not a post-race world just because the country has elected a black male, born of a White mother and Black father, as president. Neither is it a post-race world simply because a gay white person takes to his or her bed a person of color and ethnicity. More work still has to be done to understand race and gender as it relates to both Black males and females in gay communities. I am often amazed how often urban gay White men identify and associated their own existences with those of Black female entertainers. Very few find any characteristics or behaviors in common with Black male entertainers. Additionally, in my experiences, most white gay males do not know personally any Black males who fully embrace African American culture, traditions, and beliefs while also being gay and/or bi-identified. I vividly remember one conversation with a gay White male who utilized a Richard Pryor quote to head his profile, then in the body of his text wrote:" Sorry not interested in black men." I am fully aware that this young man did not realize the contradiction in his profile caption and body. Yet the message was nevertheless clear that Black men were of no value to his personal life even as he appreciated the satire and comedy of a comedian who embraced black life and community wholly. A paranoia concerning Black men--gay or straight-- still exist in both gay and non-gay communities.

While I appreciate this blog's author's view and frank discussion on race, I am disappointed that when he had the opportunity to discuss gender and race, he quickly celebrates African American diversity through black female singers only, instead of listing both black men and women who influenced his life and world views as examples to support his thesis. In fact, as an aside, the writers of this blog site have exhibited extraordinary sensitivity to ethnic inclusion and racial awareness; yet, no Black male of color appears to write for this site, even though other ethnic groups appear to do so (website photos and last names evidence only). Again, to reiterate my point, this is neither a post-race nor post-gender world, especially in gay communities where Black males and their presences, as well as other ethnic males and their presences, go mostly unacknowledged and in most instances invisible.

Author Profile Page Jason L User Profile | August 16, 2009 7:11 AM


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