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.

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


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