Wednesday, June 27, 2007

controversy remix: losing isaiah

The firing of Isaiah Washington from ABC's hit medical drama, Grey's Anatomy, has inspired a small discourse on minorities in television that I find interesting, yet problematic and slightly awkward. I write this with the intention of highlighting the ways in which one cannot easily add this to an already long list of examples that serve as evidence of Hollywood's enduring and sempiternal reflection of America's racism, and also to show how discussions of race in the 21st century seem to continue to lead us--i.e. anyone with a sincere desire to talk honestly about race--down a terribly unproductive path.

Washington was fired presumably because of accusations that he called former co-star, TR Knight a faggot last fall (Alleged Incident 1), and for the way he denied the event ever happened. During the post Golden Globes press conference he said, "No, I did not call TR a faggot. Never happened, never happened." (Incident 2) Now, some Washington supporters have cried foul, similarly echoing Washington's Golden Globes response by questioning whether or not the initial incident ever occurred. Also, I've read suggestions that lightly gesture towards conspiracy. Apparently, almost nothing and/or no one--not even Grey's co-stars who might have been witnesses--can unequivocally quiet these skeptics, and solidly corroborate Washington's alleged harvest-time antics. Visual evidence (youtube, perhaps) is seemingly imperative. Obviously, then, no one can contradict that Washington used the word faggot in his denial the evening of the Golden Globes; all the press was there to record and see.

I'm troubled by this logic. It places the onus on and simultaneously privileges visual, tangible evidence to determine the validity of these kinds of claims. That would mean, potentially, that sans a shaky cellphone recording, Michael Richards' actions one fateful night would possibly still remain alleged, theoretical, hearsay, conspiratorial mumbo jumbo. In other words, those blacks (and whites) in the audience who were directly affected by Richards' words, would have had to wait and hope that Richards would say something to the effect of, "I never called those Afro-Americans niggers. Never happened." Or, "I'm really sorry I called them niggers. Really sorry," or something like that during his Jesse Jackson-sponsored press conference apology.

Actually, that's not the case. (Many/some) Black people would've believed them. Richards' skin color automatically indicts him, and we'd find him guilty. Why? Because white people have a history of saying and doing things to Negroes that they later deny, are subsequently "believed," and are rarely brought to justice for, even if several witnesses--Negro or no--can corroborate the guilty action(s). Black men, however, have no similar history, right? White people claiming a black man spew(ed) hateful talk? Debatable. Consequently, folks calling for Washington's head (or less severe punishment) are potentially just haters trying to keep a brother down.

Despite my tone, I don't vehemently deny that Washington might not have said faggot in the first instance. I, too, sing America wrestle with my own general distrust for white people (and middle class blacks). Yet, I recognize the stakes of that position, as I outlined above. But fine, let's say AI1 was a fabrication, a ploy to remove Washington from the show. It doesn't matter, for in the end, Washington still employed the term faggot in his denial (I2)-- on the night before Martin Luther King Day-- for all the world to see. And that's enough evidence for some. Enough proof that he: 1) said faggot in the first incident, and/or 2) deserves to be fired. How, then, can we explain I2, and/or convincingly argue for Washington's reinstatement?

The above question is not a rhetorical one. I've thought about it, and have (only) three answers that could possibly exonerate Washington (legal jargon intended) :
  1. He's (allegedly, of course) gay. I subscribe to the belief that marginalized groups have the right to adopt epithets directed at them, and use them. Thus, I've no quarrel if gay men want to refer to themselves and each other as faggot. So, one way Washington's remarks would be somewhat adequately explained is if he's gay, but I don't think that's the case. If necessary, we could cite his wife and children as support of this, but with the bad taste of the "DL" in our mouths, that's a bit problematic.
  2. "Never happened, never happened." One could say Washington's response was in effect true--it was all made up. One should not, however, exhibit behavior similar to that which one's been charged. It only makes one look guilty.
  3. Strategic Semantics...Paralepsis--kinda? One might suggest that Washington got caught in wordplay quicksand in one of two ways. Perhaps it was a semantic strategy. Some of the 20th century's greatest minds have used stereotypical and otherwise offensive language to empty it, disrupt it, call attention to it. Yet I'm not convinced Washington had such aims. I've yet to figure out his rhetorical maneuvers; maybe someone smarter than me can, has. Or, possibly Washington underestimated the power of (this kind of) language. For me, that's even less plausible. Western influence aside, Washington was born and raised in Texas--technically a southern state, as it falls below the Mason-Dixon. And, as I've previously mused, the United States has a habit of projecting its racism onto that geographical location. Additionally, Washington matriculated through Howard University, an historically black institution. I highlight this to offer the idea that moving through such racially influenced spaces presumably gives one a knowledge not only of race and racism, but the words often employed to express racist thoughts and feelings. Further, the struggles and difficulties blacks experience in the entertainment industry are well publicized. I speculate that Washington has had to turn down his share of stereotypical roles. Additionally, outside of a writer, if anyone should know the power of words, it's an actor. Washington must know puissant language when he hears it, speaks it. If there is ever any question about whether or not one should use an epithet, I suggest employing what I call "The Huck Finn Rule": only use it (i.e. epithet in question) when you're quoting (from the text), or if whatever you're talking about necessarily requires usage of the real thing, and not the euphemism. Washington's remarks don't seem to fit either case.
One is left, then, with one option: Washington is/was a homophobe, who arrogantly, sloppily, and insouciantly employed an epithet to deny allegations. Playing a gay male in a movie does not mean one is not a homophobe; not participating in (a) gay bashing doesn't mean one is not a homophobe. I'm compelled to use the term not necessarily because I actually believe that Washington is a homophobe. Rather, I use it to reflect the ways in which we label people for such politically incorrect faux pas. There is no in-between. Thus, persons who are complacent when witnessing the use of or actively employ intolerant language--racist, homophobic, or otherwise--will be labeled accordingly. As such, the fact that my white neighbors growing up thought we were good enough black people to watch the house while they were gone didn't mean they weren't racist. They were. We were just exceptions to them; a respectable, non-pig's feet eatin' Negro family. And it didn't take a cross-burning them to garner such a title. Nearly always, there are shades of gray. What value we apply to those more ambiguous instances, however, may need serious reevaluation.

I've tried to illustrate the reasons why associating this situation with an allegedly insidious effort to keep people of color off the network television screen. This instance is not the same as canceling Chicago Hope, Roc, or Frank's Place, or even killing off the black character first in a horror film. It's hardly that simple. That said, I'd like to suggest that this situation shows how awkward it can be to align one's self simply through racial identification. There is nothing inherently natural about orienting one's politics, etc. only--or even primarily--via race, and doing so allows for simplistic outcomes, like naming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, or using Washington's firing as another example of the man--or some other abstract power structure-- trying to keep us invisible. Historically, Negroes have provided diverse, complicated, and oft-contradictory opinions and suggestions on ways to alleviate the "race problem." Yet, in modern society, we've continually narrowed the discourse among ourselves by emphasizing black/white binaries and oversimplification(s), thereby allowing a black face/blackface to determine whether or not we're satisfied with efforts of inclusion, whether or not we'll protest, or whether or not someone was treated fairly. There are, obviously, social realities common to most--if not all--Negroes; but there is also considerable difference. And to allow race to be the primary way in which one views our political world will inevitably put one in a quagmire, one that potentially moves us to excuse inexcusable behavior in exchange for ill-judged race pride, ill-informed discussions on race, and ill-fated activism based on race.

I don't agree with Washington's firing, or any additional blacklisting. Yet, I understand that if I was to sit on a jury and conclude that someone had broken the law, I would then be obligated to vote guilty. Granted, I may not agree with tactics of the criminal justice system, but that does not absolve the guilty party. To be sure, the example has more severe ramifications, but the logic is the same. This is the climate we (meaning Negroes) have been instrumental in creating. Currently, articulated insensitivity (or, periodic exorcisms of the id) is being punished with job termination, and a stained reputation. In this environment, public apologies, rehabilitation, diversity training, or other acts of humility, will not serve as a life preserver--unless, of course, you're Ozzie Guillen--and assuming one is safe once he/she has corrected accordingly is a terrible miscalculation. I can't say I agree with it. Such situations, I find, are much more complex. And there's something quite irreconcilable and unsatisfying about arguing that Washington's antics, alleged and other, were more complicated than we know by discussing race. One should not replace one "simple" entity (homophobia) with another (race), and hope to elicit different results.

Firings, silencing, trying to make people disappear does not eliminate the thinking, or solve the "problem." But that doesn't mean that I will protest for Washington's reinstatement. That would be like, if I can return to my analogy, letting a black man off for robbery because I know the criminal justice system is racist. Rather, I'd suggest a reevaluation of the consequences we've deemed appropriate punishment. I concede that process is more difficult, but it would be more constructive and fruitful. But in the end, I guess, I believe that (alleged) homophobes, racists, sexists, et al. can all be "rehabilitated"--Don Imus and Michael Richards included. Can it be that it's all so simple?**

NB: If I even bother to watch Washington on Larry King, perhaps I'll revisit this "issue." I'll even eat crow. I ain't scared to be wrong.

**Race and sexual orientation are not always analogous, but I find enough commonalities for comparison in this particular case.

Previous musings:


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison

Monday, June 18, 2007

start a rumor monday: Bush takes Immigration Battle to a Whole New Level

(a deprave little shout-out to my favorite toddler, Marley Bleu. keep working on those knock-knock jokes, homie.)

Dubya is a Rough Rider (when he plays dress up), and he means business. El Presidente returned to the States last week, only to be met with the grim news that the comprehensive immigration policy he'd backed was nearly dead. Bush countered with a speech at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast last Friday, imploring the passage of the immigration bill, saying that immigration reform was an imperative, and a "moral obligation." Leaders from both sides of the aisle have agreed to review the issue, but made no promises beyond that. If this morning's press conference is any indication, however, this Texas Ranger intends to play hardball.

Last week, Senate majority leader, Harry Reid commented that it was up to President Bush to get the bill passed; it seems the President has taken this toro by the horns. This morning, Bush abandoned the Jesus talk, and got down to business. After greeting the press corps, Bush reminded everyone in the room that the war in Iraq was not the only "smack down" he intended wage on brown people, "who don't speak English too good." Rather, Bush stated, "Citizens of the United States are also entangled in the more figurative war on immigration." Since weapons inspectors are a bit inappropriate in helping the Bush Administration goad the American people into seeing things his way, he's resorted to another tactic: kidnapping.

After preliminary comments which reiterated Bush's strong desire for the quick passage of the above-mentioned immigration bill, Press Secretary, Tony Snow dragged a large sack in front of the corps, and dumped its contents onto the floor. The President provided an explanation, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you Dora, Baby Jaguar, and Dora's cousin, Diego. Many of you know them as stars of the NickToons shows, Dora the Explorer, and Go, Diego, Go!. Dora is the face of a multi-billion dollar merchandising business, and Diego isn't too far behind. What you do not know is that they are also illegals. I have the power to deport them, but I don't want to have to do that."

Dora, Diego, and Baby Jaguar stood bound as the President ransomed them in front of the press. Bush continued, "If this bill is not passed, I will put all three of them somewhere Dora, here, can't locate on her map." [The press involuntarily interrupted, "Saaaaay map!"] Bush again referred to the war on terror, "We'll find Bin Laden before anyone finds them if things continue to go badly. My fellow Americans, please call your local Congressman and declare your support for the proposed immigration reform. If you don't, I will throw this little senorita and sus amigos into the Rio Grande faster than you can say livin' la vida loca." And with that, our beloved cartoon characters were ushered back into the sack and out of the press room. The President followed. Microphones still on, members of the press overheard Bush's apparent flatulence, followed by an explanation, "Must've been those refried beans I had with my breakfast BOR-REE-TOE. Oh, that's bad." Then, he chuckled.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

love bizarre

Since I'm sort of an NPR junkie, the wonderful folks at All Things Considered brought to my attention that today marks the 40th anniversary since the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. That case, heard by the Warren court (the homies who brought you the Brown v. the Board of Education decision), struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, enabling the homesick Lovings to return to Virginia.

After surfing the web, I discovered Loving Day--an annual holiday which commemorates the Loving decision, and celebrates interracial couples... and legalized miscegenation. (Tongue-in-cheek... Really, I love racial mixing. How else could I have this afro?) Along with a list of Loving Day events on or around June 12th held throughout the country, the website includes legal history, testimonials from people in interracial relationships, e-cards, and a downloadable Loving Day kit for those wishing to start their own celebrations. (There is also a Loving Day Decision Conference being held in my own backyard. I don't particularly care for academic conferences, but I must admit that the "Multiracial Comedy Night" aroused my interest.)

What I found most interesting about the Loving site is its mission statement. One of the goals is to, "Build multicultural awareness, understanding, acceptance, and identity." I'm curious about the identity part; the creation of community/ies committed to uniting people under a multi-cultural/multi-racial banner. It seems to me that this kind of dedication to community building shows the limits of employing the courts to promote revolutionary social change in a way that makes race an actual myth. (Not that that's the point of such court cases.) For, though it may allow one to marry across racial lines (or go to the school closest to one's home), it seems that this kind of response understands that (assigning certain values to) race, though it may not connote inherent inequality, still implies difference beyond physical characteristics. That it is something so ingrained in our social psyche that efforts to integrate otherwise stratified groups simply create another ("mulatto minded" if I may borrow from Schuyler) identity that is equally based on race. The culture that results, I suppose, is a sort of reaction formation.

My point, if I have one, is that race--the way we understand it socially--still exists not only because racism still exists, but also because people continue to orient themselves racially. That difference, if we remember Morrison's, Paradise, is essential to societies; and in America, if we remember Schuyler's, Black No More, that difference is based on skin color, race. Though Marxists would have us believe that differences can be assigned to class, that is not the way people understand themselves. I have a tendency, for example, to add geography to the equation. Black culture often seems to overlap with Southern culture. When I think about it, though, I have to go one step further, for Southern--above the Mason-Dixon, at least--often means white, and black can often just mean Southern. In other words, I've yet to understand the concept of color-blindedness outside of an actual visual disability.

That said, you love who you love. It's hard to find a partner out there, and who am I to make political assessments via one's partner? This does not, however, deny that certain pursuers of partners outside of their own racial group aren't fetishizing the object of his/her affection. Yet, I believe that to a certain degree fetishization occurs in all relationships; some are just more easy to discern.

N.B. Along with a Loving Day Celebration Kit, I think organizers should also provide an, "I married an uber-Negroid man, and my kids didn't get 'good' hair kit" for potential non-Negro mothers. Such kits would include Vaseline, a pressing comb, some Blue Magic, emergency phone numbers, etc. I'm just saying...


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison