Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America

June 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Don't tell me what to do, Amazon screengrab

“The Wages of Sin: Stories of Sex and Immorality”

This is not a cheerful selection, and makes my job feel much more perilous. But such is life, I suppose. So — throughout this selection, Gary Alan Fine and Patricia Turner challenge the pollyanna-ish (white person reference very much intended) contention that America has totally solved that whole pesky race thing. Yes, they concede, some minorities have it less bad than in previous generations (talk about being damned by tepid praise) — but the rumors and stereotypes which function to buttress structural inequities are just below (and frequently lay directly atop) the surface, no matter how vociferously someone might insist that race doesn’t just not matter, but doesn’t even exist.

Significantly, these types of stereotypes –which Turner and Fine loosely bifurcate as either portraying the target group as shrewd, greedy and untrustworthy or stupid, violent and sexualized– form the backbone of all ethnic joking. Historically, blacks as seen by whites fall into the latter category, a position even well-meaning whites frequently justify by citing various crime, welfare and educational statistics, ostensibly the “grain of truth” in whatever stated stereotype. As the authors are quick to point out, of course, “statistics are numbers, collected for particular purposes, depending on the categorizing schemes of those in power, and are often used in ways for which they were never intended” (150) — in many cases, to lend pseudo-scientific credence to prejudiced attitudes, simultaneously “verifying” the belief in question and exonerating the messenger of even the slightest tint of racism. After all, numbers don’t lie! -a position that the authors are quick to dismiss. As they explain, “The discouraging reality is that widely held stereotypes seem justified, even though this justification may misstate the causes of these phenomena, ignoring the results of other, more powerful societal forces such as discrimination or the hostile beliefs of others” (150).

The most insidious of these rumors and stereotypes speak to perceptions of black male sexuality, which is often portrayed as voracious and animalistic (images which the authors trace to the fears of white slaveowners) (150), and which continues to animate many negative perceptions of an apparently homogenous black community. When humor enters the equation –and it frequently does, as stereotypes are only a punchline away from a joke– whites often justify their laughter by insisting they’re only kidding and/or that some people need to learn to take a joke (151-152); Fine and Turner present a particularly telling example of an egregious (some might even say laughably) racist joke-flier plastered across the city of Milwaukee in the early 90s (151).

As further evidence of the implications of racist h(r)umor, Turner and Fine present two case studies: the OJ Simpson trial, in which the once-popular football star was framed by a rabid (white) media as an abusive, murderous drunk –indeed, what many whites already regard to be “normal” behavior for a black man (155)– and various rumors surrounding the existence and spread of the AIDS virus. Regarding the former, the authors contend that, “For many African Americans the charges [against Simpson] represented the white power structure’s attempt to get back at this uppity negro” (156), a suspicion which fueled a whole host of alternative forensic theories. Unsurprisingly, say Fine and Turner: “If one lives in a world in which the police can do whatever they wish, manufacturing and manipulating evidence at will, and in a world in which black men, no matter how prominent, are always at risk, such scenarios about the Simpson case are plausible, if not likely” (157), a conclusion echoed in and by the suspicion that widely-held belief by blacks (and others, primarily groups most strongly effected by the virus) that AIDS was deliberately created by the government and either purposefully or accidentally introduced into “undesirable” minority populations. Again, the existence of such theories are hardly surprising — in many ways, it speaks to the cybernetics of racist rhetoric and behavior.

If feeder question: Will be similar to my response if stand-alone question, though will focus specifically on trolling humor as opposed to transgressive humor generally. The basic idea is — well jesus, ok, you’ve got these “jokes” which are born of actual intolerance, actual hatred, ideas which don’t just allow for but actively sustain the invisibility of racist power structures. If your assumption is that racist power structures are bad (and who would disagree with that, publicly at least), then anything which helps make them stronger are by extension also bad. If racist jokes feed into racist power structures, then one can only conclude that racist jokes are bad. The question of course is just that — do racist jokes feed into racist power structures? In other more accurate words, do all racist jokes always feed into the same racist power structures in the same ways? I still say the question (and/or the impulse to ask the question) is strange, since it presumes right out of the gate that all language is always-already created equal. But as we’re already discussed, jokes themselves (saying nothing of individual signs, which is a related but currently unaddressable can of worms) don’t have static ontological status. They aren’t things, they’re mediums for particular messages. If the message is racist, then the joke is racist. If the message is something else, then the joke is something else. That doesn’t mean that a trace of the original/historically accepted meaning (in itself a tricky concept) doesn’t persist — in terms of trolling, that trace is necessary to elicit the appropriate level of discomfort in whatever target. Still — what do we do with this trace? All kinds of shit has traces of other shit, it’s called language, it’s messy, and that’s just when we’re talking about how the word “cat” refers to the specific four-legged evil thing who sits at my feet all day and glares at me for no other reason than she’s pretty much an asshole.

The question, I guess, is this — does transgressive humor make racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or whatever other -ism) worse? Not just “racism” (or whatever) as abstract noun, but as a lived experience. Does ostensibly or explicitly or inadvertently or deliberately racist/sexist/homophobic humor, no matter where or why the joke is told, no matter who tells whatever joke, or why, make individual people’s lives worse? Again, I’m inclined to say … oh my god it depends, in large part because people’s individual experiences vary so greatly. Presuming that all people have the same reaction to the same thing seems to me to … well, to suggest that people are simple. And for fuck’s sake, we’re a lot of things, but we’re certainly not that. So I don’t know.

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