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October 31, 2006

like crying n-word in a racist theater

Uh-oh, Oakland! Our new blogger friend Kai needs help at the old mill!

Paging ebogjonson, paging ebogjonson, logic-flow decision-support is urgently needed over at Whiskey Bar...

Oops, too late. [full post]

Too late, indeed. Kai wasn't dialing 911 for me personally so much as calling attention to my "Should I use blackface on my blog?" decision chart, this following the application of blackface to CNN's Wolf Blitzer by liberal blogger Billmon.


Although the image above is certainly a fine display of photoshopping skills, Billmon's use of blackface fails my appropriateness test immediately for the simple reason that, in my opinion, white folks would be advised to never use blackface, ever. My thinking that a "no whites allowed" sign belongs over the burnt cork pile is straightforwardly reactive, as white folks (an admittedly imperfectly drawn class) strike me as having shown themselves to be rather, uh, maladroit at using blackface for peaceful purposes. (There are ways working class whites used the embodiment of black men as a from rebellion against Victorian mores, but that, as they say, is another story.) The "no whites allowed" thing is also utilitarian, in that the collateral damage invariably caused by a given use of blackface almost always outweighs whatever specific point was being made/scored by said blackface in the first place, so it seems best to leave the thing collecting dust in the rhetorical-weapon cabinet.

(Don't think of it as a prohibition, white folks, think of it as a kind of mitzvah, or, maybe like giving up sweets for Lent. Something little and relatively pain-free you choose to do or give up in order to go to white-people heaven.)

Billmon's intuition about the image's immediate back-story (he corked Wolf Blitzer after Blitzer whined about getting the rabid dog treatment from Veep Consort Lynne Cheney) is reasonable enough, in that Wolfie's whine could technically be characterized as "house negro-ish." The problem, of course, is the image's troubling older, world historical back-story. The specific racial archetype Billmon makes use of - the white minstrel re-enacting a white fantasy about black slaves for the entertainment of even more white folks - is bigger than Billmon, Wolf Blitzer, Lynne Cheney and yesterday's news cycle combined, so while blackface and minstrelsy might cover the CNN incident nicely, they also spill over from it onto, you know, my fucking lap, making them an attack not just on what Billmon calls "our pathetically servile corporate media" but on me as well.

Billmon's self-professed intent and racial virtue are largely irrelevant here, as the simple fact is that blackface and minstrels and house negroes are dangerously wild and crafty memes that have been laughing at intent and virtue for over 140 years. Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to race in America knows that these are the sort of images that tend to slip out of a user's grasp almost immediately, so deliberately handling them constitutes a form of willful recklessness. It's not exactly like shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater, but it is kind of like pissing off an overpass in hopes of tinkling on some or another passing motorcade. If I'm driving home at the same time and you get that shit on me, I don't care who your target was or what they did, I'm doubling back to give your stupid, adolescent ass a piece of my mind.

As Prometheus 6 succinctly advised about wild racial memes (also quoted by Kai), a little extra careful is often the better part of racial valor: "When you want to use race metaphors, put down the Photoshop icon and back slowly away from the program." This is great advice, but it's also basic common sense and home training. So why do our white comrades seem unable to remember their manners on such a regular basis?

Billmon's non sequitur response to criticism of the image doesn't provide a direct answer to that question, but his tone is pretty illuminating:

As for the liberals, well, political correctness goes with the outfit. It's one of the fashion accessories that's supposed to set them apart, stylistically speaking, from the conservatives in a society in which racism is pervasive -- real racism, the kind that lets people die in flooded cities or grow up in urban hell holes I wouldn't want my dogs to have to live in. It's a badge that says: "See, I'm one of the good ones. I may not be willing to fight for social justice or even lift a finger to protest the brutality of the system and the human carnage it's created, but at least I don't tell racial jokes."

Well, OK, I guess I'm not one of the good ones. Not only am I not out in the streets fighting for social justice and protesting the day-to-day oppression of the poor (black, brown and white), but I also used a racial stereotype to make a point about our pathetically servile corporate media. Bad Billmon, bad bad bad.[full post]

While it's hard for me to say exactly what the above was precisely about, Billmon's tone tells me that in addition to feeling unfairly maligned (shades of Wolf?) he also thinks he's been brave throughout all this. Leaving aside the fact that Billmon still doesn't realize that the folks most upset by his image are people of color (his focus on generic "liberals" indicates this is a whites-only affair), his plain spoken world-weariness, combined with the impassioned blather about what is or isn't "real" racism, suggest someone quite taken with themselves when it comes to standing up to the hypocrites of the world. It's almost as if Billmon is having his own personal (albeit smaller scale) Sistah Souljah moment, his use of blackface a two-fer that, besides sticking it to Wolf, also provided a chance for him to stand up to all those nattering liberals and coloreds, you know, the ones who've been keeping him from the important, manly work of saving America, what with their complaining and their false piety and their fashionable identity politics.

In a subsequent clarification/response, Billmon goes on to defensively plead a range of bona fides that perhaps only Rick Blaine could credibly embody:

I'm more of an ex-Marxist, ex-socialist, ex-revolutionary who realized long ago that Marx got his economics wrong, that socialism doesn't work and that Peter Townsend was essentially right about the new boss being the same as the old boss. When I was in Russia, I even got to see the old bosses who became the new bosses turning back into the old bosses again.

On the other hand, I still despise bourgeois "morality" (the mother of all oxymorons), feel a persistent pull of sympathy to class-based, left-wing movements in places like Latin America (even though I believe resistance is essentially futile) and would very much like to see a radical redistribution of political power in this country -- although through peaceful, not violent, means. Obviously, I'm not holding my breath.[full post]

IMHO, white progressives who unabashedly use/defend white use of blackface tend to be precisely the above kind of holier-than-thou, tough-talker, someone quite heavily invested in making sure you never, ever confuse them for a trad liberal wuss. Like white prizefighters who believe that no one gets a championship belt without knocking out their fair share of Negro contenders, folks who defend the use of blackface like this do so largely (if perhaps subconsciously) to prove their hard-earned independence from traditional liberal special interests, much as Clinton was accused of doing in 1992 when he decried Souljah's comment that "if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

But, of course, cynical or no, Bill Clinton had an actual, incendiary quote to work with, whereas Billmon created this entire incident of-a-piece and in response to an inciting incident that had absolutely nothing to do with race at all. I guess that means the Sistah Souljah's he's standing up to are the ones in his head, because they certainly weren't on CNN.

Posted by ebogjonson in race and other identities, on October 31, 2006 7:38 PM


Booyah. And that is how it is done.

Posted by: nezua l mon xolagrafik-jonez at November 1, 2006 7:28 AM


Thanks for responding to my 911. ;-) Clearly, I paged the right person, because this post is as lucid, well-reasoned, and entertaining as anything I've seen on the matter.

I agree with the simple utilitarian argument that white folks just shouldn't use blackface (I love Prometheus's "back slowly away from the program"), but as Temple3 pointed out last time this happened, this cadre of bloggers take tremendous pride in their hyper-intelligence, so they seem to think it can be pulled off by a properly virtuous and erudite author. Not.

Anyway, great stuff.


Posted by: Kai at November 1, 2006 11:17 AM

Oh, you are so bookmarked!

This is not the first time I've stumbled over to this blog from elsewhere to be subsequently mightily impressed. I'll have the good sense to visit regularly in future.

Great, great response!

Posted by: Sandy at November 2, 2006 9:18 AM

You are officially my new superhero, Gary.

Posted by: the izza at November 2, 2006 9:19 AM

y'know, i was remarking elsewhere: wasn't there -also- a part on your chart that specifically asked "are you funny?" I mean, yes, that came considerably farther down the line than "are you white," so should be moot; and yet, i feel, that really just clinches it. anyway i just finished a long rant about how very TIRED the "lookit me, i'm anti-PC! aren't i wit-TY!" crap is. no. (she said to the air in the general direction of the current Supragenius on the hot seat as well as others of like...mind) you're not. you're -really- not. i mean: South Park goes a lot father and is a lot funnier a lot of the time. whether one finds them overly offensive or not as well, seriously: why do we need this shopworn gag from you? oh, right: we don't. we -really- don't.

Posted by: belledame222 at November 3, 2006 5:51 PM

two other thoughts:

1) I like that you talk about memes, ideas, images, taking on a life of their own: you know, it's really true.

2) all else aside: that Cheney/Blitzer business (the actual interview and Wolf's response, that is) certainly is amusing, in a schadenfreudic sort of way. (one day, history will recall this period as the Schadenfreude Era. or it should).

Posted by: belledame222 at November 3, 2006 6:11 PM

I'm more of an ex-Marxist, ex-socialist, ex-revolutionary who realized long ago that Marx got his economics wrong, that socialism doesn't work and that Peter Townsend was essentially right about the new boss being the same as the old boss.
That is, he's a liberal. What a freaking tool.
When I was in Russia, I even got to see the old bosses who became the new bosses turning back into the old bosses again.
That's because socialism had been mostly beaten back by 1923, and the socialists had been completely defeated, and nearly all killed, by 1928. The man is a liberal idiot.

Posted by: FoolishOwl at November 6, 2006 1:37 AM

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