Penny For Your Thoughts: Am I Naïve Or Ignorant For Not Thinking Certain Things Are Racist?

April 9, 2015  |  

I admit it: I’m one of the millions of stupid Americans who keep up with the Kardashians. The KJs (as I call them) are my favorite Internet distraction.

Judge me, if you must. I get it. That’s fine. (And, no, this isn’t a post intending to defend the K-clan’s relevance and influence.) I’m just being honest about the fact that I’m a fan of TV’s most infamous family.

So imagine my surprise when I Googled Kylie Jenner the other day and these words showed up: Blackface.

Now, you’ve probably heard about the whole Kylie-blackface thing already. And upon hearing about the Kylie-blackface thing or seeing the photos that caused the controversy, you may have a) been morally outraged in the name of all things utterly racist and artistically abhorrent, b) earnestly thought, Blackface? Huh? She looks like a gold-dusted alien to me… c) disgustedly rolled your eyes and thought, Here goes more stupid Kardashian sh*t… or d) blithely rolled your eyes and thought, Like I care.

Or, perhaps, you had an altogether different response. (In which case, do tell!)

As far as my response goes, I would say that I was option b. I earnestly thought, Blackface? Huh? She looks like a gold-dusted alien to me…

And this is where I get self-conscious.

By writing that I honestly didn’t get a blackface vibe from Jenner’s photos, I’m opening myself up to the accusation that I suffer from the same racial naïveté that made Jenner think publicizing those photos of herself with darker skin was okay in the first place. Basically, I’m afraid that you’ll call me ignorant.

In my worst case scenario way of thinking, you will think of me as the Ignorant Black Person. To you, I will be someone who doesn’t “know our history” or “respect our struggle.” It’ll be as if the founders of my alma mater, Spelman College, are turning over in their graves (and all my Spelman sisters are lining up to unfriend me on Facebook). To you, I’ll be the Ignorant Black Person, simply because my racism radar lacks a knee-jerk “oh hell no!” reaction.

While “ignorant” isn’t a word I’d use to describe myself, I dare not pretend to be a scholar on race or race issues. As for issuing an educated response to the Kylie-blackface thing, I’m not armed with a history professor’s arsenal of references to 19th century minstrel shows. I wish I were the academic/intellectual type who could be a talking head in the 24-hours news cycle and speak knowingly about the historical facts that pertain to conversations about race. Thing is, I’m not.

And I’ll be honest again by saying that sometimes the “that’s racist!” online brouhahas somewhat elude me.

Don’t get me wrong: I get it. I don’t often feel the same way, but I get it. And when I witness another black person taking a “that’s racist!” stance, I don’t mentally charge her with the alleged crime of pulling the race card (or being paranoid, groundlessly suspicious, having a chip on her shoulder or anything else condescending like that).

Rather, I think (or, in some circles, I may say aloud), “Really? You went there? Yo, I didn’t go there at all. Not. At. All.”

Afterwards I may wonder, Wait, am I a race betrayer? A double-dealer? An Uncle Tom (or Aunt Tomasina)? A gullible house negro?

I don’t seriously believe I’m any of those things. While I’m not inherently distrustful of white people and the things they do, I consider myself to be more than marginally circumspect when it comes to race matters. (So “more than marginally circumspect” makes me what? Moderately watchful? Relatively vigilant? I don’t know.)

My bottom line on race, however, is simple: I’m incredibly in love with black folks and being black. That may sound trite (and/or offensive, depending on who you are), but it’s truer than true. Yet I recognize that my saying “I’m in love with being black” is a privilege. That’s right: A privilege. Granted, it’s a minor privilege if you even agree that it’s a privilege at all. Still, it’s one the very few privileges of being a person of color.

Most folks of any color would be okay hearing an Indian person say, “I love being Indian” or a Japanese person say “I love being Japanese.” The “I love being ____” privilege also extends itself culturally and religiously, not just racially. I’d bet a Jewish person who is white could say, “I love being Jewish” and not receive much, if any, backlash.

But I pity the poor Jewish or non-Jewish white person who says, “I love being white.”

Think about it. Here’s a picture of the beautiful Kimberly Elise wearing an “I love being black” T-shirt. I see that picture and I think, Look at her and her lovely afro and her lovely black self! But let’s say that, I don’t know, Ellen Pompeo (the star of Grey’s Anatomy, a show that Kimberly Elise once guest-starred) wore an “I love being white” T-shirt. Please. I might not call “racist!” but I’d give her the “You should know better” side-eye (especially since Ellen Pompeo’s husband is black, so I suspect she really does know better).

Now, I’m not saying that white folks should skip around town sporting “I love being white” T-shirts. But I’m also not saying that sporting “I love being white” T-shirts is something that white folks should not do. Would it be stupid of them to do it? Sure. Would it be insensitive? Absolutely. Is there a double standard? Well, yeah. Is the double standard fair? Well, historically speaking, white folks’ version of racial pride hasn’t been about positive self-esteem as much as it has been about blatant supremacy. So, yeah, while there might be a double standard, I’d argue that it’s a reasonable one.

As a black person though, I know can rock my “I love being black”-ness openly and it won’t be as offensive to white folks as it would be to everyone else if a white person were to follow suit by expressing pride in their own race.

And yes, I understand that publicly affirming one’s blackness isn’t wholly acceptable and can still be met with a lot of criticism. Consider the Black Girls Rock! vs. all girls rock vs. #WhiteGirlsRock commotion. But I suspect that the criticism that racially self-affirming black folks would get from white folks is considerably less than the criticism that racially self-affirming white folks would get from black folks.

What I’m saying is this: There are nuances wherein black folks kind of have an advantage in some race matters. And whenever I’m considering who has the most advantage in any given situation, I can’t help but feel a little pity for the person who has the least.

Which means that sometimes I feel a little sorry for white people.

Generally speaking, I certainly feel more support and empathy for black folks than I do pity for white folks. I know that in an overall who’s-more-disadvantaged contest, we’d certainly win. But despite that, I occasionally feel a twinge of pity when a famous white person wanders into a racial minefield. When he or she gets slammed for being racist after making some extemporaneous remark or display on social media or TV, I’ve noticed myself extending him or her an unsaid “bless your heart.”

A couple days ago, I virtually extended a “bless your heart” to Kylie Jenner during her blackface incident, just as I virtually extended a “bless your heart” to Giuliana Rancic after she made that bad joke about Zendaya Coleman’s faux locs in February.

When I read about Rancic’s comments the day after the Oscars, I was convinced it was hippiness, not blackness, that she was lambasting. To me, her bad jokes were meant to conjure up an outmoded stereotype of the tie-dye wearing, Grateful Dead-loving flower child. Yes, I know that “meant to” is a slippery slope, and that the “she didn’t mean to offend anyone” defense is spurious reasoning. Whether a person from one racial group knowingly intends for their words or actions to harm or offend a person from another racial group isn’t the point, as much as the point is whether that person’s words or actions actually do offend. But I believe that black women and dreadlocks aren’t inextricably linked to the same degree that, say, afros and black women are. If you ask me, Zendaya’s thoughtful Instagram response to Rancic could have just as easily mentioned non-black women who’ve worn dreadlock styles (i.e., Ani Difranco, Jennifer Aniston, Shakira or Lady Gaga).

Now, I concede that Kylie Jenner’s Instagram reply to the uproar was considerably less thoughtful and lacking in diplomacy than Zendaya’s. In response to blackface accusations, Jenner basically told her Instagram followers to just calm down, which is a fairly rude response, considering the very prevalent belief that when people surmise racism in a matter they’re being irrational or un-calm. Though, surely, a person’s suspicions of racism can be quite calm, rational, composed–and, more often than not, on the mark.

Just the same, I agreed with Jenner’s sentiment that her pictures were not distasteful and not the stuff of Amos ‘n’ Andy (or even the stuff of Julianne Hough, for whom I did not feel one bit of “bless your heart” pity during her blackface incident back in 2013).

And I don’t think I’m the only black woman who wasn’t offended. Even my friend Sharmane, who’s as racially conscious as they come, said she didn’t think twice about Jenner’s photos. For her, they only brought to mind the music videos for Salt-N-Pepa’s “None of Your Business” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away.”

All I’m saying is this: Maybe my radar is off, but I haven’t been getting offended by some of these so-called racist events as of late. Or maybe I’m the 21st-century version of the house negro who chooses to empathize with the master. Or maybe I’m…*gasp*…ignorant.

Personally, I don’t think any of the above is true about me. (And, you know, feel free to disagree.)

But if I were a hashtag person (which I’m not because I forget that “hashtag” is even a thing people say and end up saying “pound sign” instead), I might initiate #RaceCardEtiquette, #RaceCardRules or #RacismRadar to gauge where other people stand on the topic of feeling, managing or expressing racial outrage.

So tell me: Were you offended by Kylie Jenner’s photos? Could you care less? Where do you typically fall on the public-outcries-over-racism scale when gaffes like this happen?

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