“Why isn’t it racist?”

Over break I went to my roommate Alex’s house for the week. One night, Alex and I were watching TV and stumbled upon MTV’s show, The Real World Road Rules Challenge. About five minutes in, we witnessed two cast mates attempting to “poke fun” at their friends’ interracial relationship by using black face, which they did by covering their faces with nutella. While the two of us stared at each other in disbelief, her mom asked us why that was inappropriate, “black people make fun of white people all the time and no one points the finger at them.”

I quickly thought about the exercise we did a few weeks ago in class about explaining what we are learning to others. I started off telling her about the racism is historically rooted within the practice of black face; how black face was used usually as propaganda to perpetuate the sambo image and to derogate blacks. While she nodded her head, she jumped to her next idea and said, “But you know I just read something about Tracy Morgan tracing his family tree and finding that his ancestors owned slaves. Really how are we the only ones to blame?” I knew what I wanted to say, but similarly to class I was fumbling for the words. In my head I immediately thought about how overall, whites still grossly profited over the few blacks that did own slaves and how slavery developed into a racial hierarchy, where whites experience privilege at the expense of disadvantaging blacks.

I started by explaining how slavery began and the economic gains that whites developed into an economic and social advantage, which was passed on through generations. The next step was the hardest to explain; while I made the jump in my head and explained it by chalking it up to how racism developed historically, I had trouble breaking down what “the dominant culture” means and “white privilege.” I couldn’t articulate what the terms meant; I’ve used them so frequently over the past few years that I sometimes can’t think of how to explain them. I tried explaining to Alex’s mom about these concepts, but I found it impossible to explain the terms I’d been using in my head. Despite having a class dealing with how to explain racism, I felt anxious about having a sensitive conversation with someone who had graciously hosted me in her house for a week, and in the moment I lacked the clarity to articulate my thoughts—which turned into frustration. While my explanation wasn’t completely useless, she left the room disinterested with the conversation soon after. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of disappointment and guilt when the conversation ended. Why, when I had the perfect opportunity to put our class work to good use, was I unable to apply it successfully to a real life situation? What strategies can I use to feel more prepared to explain myself in situations where I feel uncomfortable?

Here’s the link to the MTV clip in case you haven’t seen it


3 thoughts on ““Why isn’t it racist?””

  1. I agree with Dan, you shouldn’t be disappointed. You took the chance and tried to explain the concepts to your friends mom. And, as Nashalys said, you have to pick your battles. And even the simple fact that you tried to explain to your friends mom may be helpful. She may have seemed disinterested but she may think of what you said sometime in the future. You made a good attempt to share your knowledge and educate someone else even though it may have been uncomfortable.

  2. I wouldn’t feel disappointed. So your friends mom didn’t totally get it or may not have cared to try to get it. She still heard what you said…even if she wasn’t trying to listen.

    I’m sure none of us understood these issues right away. I know in multicultural psych it took weeks for me to truly understand, and, even with this class the most important thing I’ve learned is that I may not understand everything about racial injustices right away, but, the most important thing to do is to learn.

    Alex’s mom might not think she learned anything, but just by understanding that someone has an understanding that this blackface incident is atrocious, she may have learned more than you think.

  3. Sometimes we have to pick our battles, and it seems that in your situation you did the best you could to explain what was problematic about black face. I think that sometimes it’s difficult to remember how to have these sorts of conversations with people who don’t always have these conversations. We talk about race in our class at least twice a week, and on a more personal note, you and I have discussion on social injustices all the time. When we move the conversation outside of the people who already “get it,” I think sometimes we have to take a few steps back and realize that there’s only so much that they might be willing to hear. Racism is a HUGE thing, and it’s really complicated. Part of its complexity is that as a culture we try to make it so black and white (no pun intended, seriously). People get defensive when we talk about race, because they don’t want to seem racist. So if Tracy Morgan had ancestors that owned slaves too, then that somehow displaces the blame and now no one’s a racist (but most importantly, they aren’t racist).

    Short of carrying all of our readings on our person all the time, how can we decide what aspect of racism is most appropriate to address in those uncomfortable situations? In Michela’s example, there were a lot of issues that could be addressed. How do we decide which issue(s) it’d be most beneficial to address?

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