human behavior

Kramer vs Kramer

Posted in Race & Ethnicity by humanb on November 28, 2006

My husband (who is white) asked me what I thought of Michael Richards’ racist tirade at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. My first impression on reading about it, was that the guy was clearly humiliated by some hecklers and wanted to hurt them as much as they had hurt him. Turns out this was precisely his defense.

As a black woman, I wasn’t offended. This was not the first time I had heard someone use the “n” word and I’m not so naive as to think that the word is not used by non-blacks in anger at some blacks for whatever reason, or in hatred or disrespect of us as a people. And many blacks, afterall, use the word exhaustively. It is 2006 for goodness sake. Much worse has been said and done, and we really have come a long way since the days of “pitchforks” in America. I didn’t take it personally, which is to say that I didn’t feel personally wounded as a black person.

If I took personally every racial slur or comment made against blacks, I’d be a perennial victim, and I have zero interest in being or promoting myself as a victim. Who does that serve? What pride can there be in declaring yourself a member of a victimized group? I want to be a member of a group who is strong, resilient, courageous, impervious to the criticisms of the close-minded, a people proud of our actions, our achievements, our contributions to American society, our behavior. There have been millions of black people truly victimized, ostracized, dehumanized, tortured and murdered in our history, and many of these people were resilient and courageous and strong. I’m not one of them, but I’m proud to share in their legacy.

Richards, in using the “n” word, at most called me a bad name by extension. But I really think Richards was just calling those guys that name precisely because he was so wounded by their behavior. He wanted payback (a ready inclination of the emotionally weak). His remarks were disgusting and his ethusiastic delivery, horrifying, but I really don’t think he has any desire in seeing a return to 1800’s race relations.

However I was offended as a human being for the same reasons I’m offended by people using other words I find distasteful. The word “c*nt” for example used here in Australia I find especially repulsive along with other sex/gender-based slurs. I also find any number of racial slurs distasteful against any number of races.

I find these words repulsive precisely because they’re designed to be offensive by denigrating the very unchangeable nature of a human being. They don’t speak to the changeable nature of human beings – that is, their behavior. Those two men could do nothing about being black. But, they could do something about their actions at a comedy club towards a man standing alone on stage with only one aim: to entertain them.

When you revert to name calling, you achieve nothing but offending. You’re not challenging someone to consider their behavior. They might refrain from ever heckling again because of the humiliating racial abuse it may incur, but they don’t leave the situation feeling as if their behavior was in any way reproachable. They leave the situation feeling that you need to engage in some serious self-reflection and behavior modification.

Those black hecklers knew being black was something they could do nothing about, and that was what they were criticised for in being called the “n” word. Richards should have taken the opportunity to offer a focused criticism of their behavior (without reference to their unchangeable identities) and in so doing, could have created a good running joke about hecklers, or about his own career post-Seinfeld, or about the challenges of being a comedian. He didn’t – not because he is a racist (necessarily) – but because the guy just wasn’t clever enough on his feet. That makes him a really lousy stand-up comedian.

There are too many issues to speak about from this story: public apologies, so-called leaders of the black community, supposed collective-insult, media stoking of fires best left to burn out, and post-racist tirade “healing” and therapy. Subjects for future posts.

My view on who is a racist must also be the subject of a future post. Sufficed to say, that if Richards is a racist simply for what he said one night in a moment of weakness, then we all are.

ELSEWHERE: Defining a racist.

UPDATE: 21 December 2006. Since writing this post, I haven’t been able to watch a single Seinfeld re-run. Not sure if it’s because I subconsciously think Richards is in fact more of a racist than we all are, or because I just think the guy is contemptible. Of course, celebrity is fragile and fleeting. We’re quick to divest people of it when they behave out of character.

UPDATE: 15 April 2010. I still haven’t been able to watch a Seinfeld episode. Wow.

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3 Responses

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  1. Moira said, on November 30, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    What a considered and thought-provoking analysis. Thank you.

  2. humanb said, on November 30, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks Moira.

    Issues like this are always difficult to address – dangerous even – for blacks, whites, and others. No one is safe!

  3. Tanu said, on December 15, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    But the question remains, if someone has that weapon…to make you feel small with one word….what kind of a world is it?

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