I posted this earlier today in response to a post of post my friend put on FB. I later added a thank you to the original person who posted about Ellen participating in a legacy of anti-black racism. I should’ve put that at the top of the post but I thought it was understood that this was a continuation of that conversation and that it was an obligation to pick up where she left and participate in discussion between white people and non-black people of color to have about how we uniquely participate in anti-black racism. Subtly that looks like not giving full upfront credit to black women who initiate these conversations and enlighten us to histories of violence. Also it should be recognized that much of what I say is a response to the things I read by black and poc thinkers and I try to think with them and make sense of it through a mixed race white passing perspective. Anyways,
Thanks for this post and discussion Anthony! and my apologies for just restating much of what you already said but I appreciate you helping me think through this. I’ve been dwelling on this Ellen thing for the past couple days also (which I guess makes it old news at this point) so I also apologize for the length.
As you pointed out there is a ton of privilege in the mix here. I think that was most on display in the way she chose to react to people calling her out. It’s disheartening (to put it lightly) to hear “liberal” white people say things like, “I’m highly aware of the racism that exists in our country” and continue the narrative of denial and white fragility. If you are highly aware I’d assume you aware of how highly ingrained racism is even (or especially) in the most well intentioned people. That’s the supremacy part of white supremacy. It’s been maintained as supreme in just about every facet of our lives. Education, voting rights, housing, media/representation and on and on. It’s difficult to see how being racist could be the “furthest thing” from who she is, if she isn’t willing to do some hard work of acknowledging the racism that we perpetuate, intentionally or not. Partially I think that has to do with living in such a binary focused world, racist or not racist. That laziness and trained response of letting yourself off the hook by proclaiming to be racist or not, really is so damaging in the long run of unraveling interpersonal racism and dismantling institutional racism.
I think that when white people say things like “get over it” or “it was just a joke” it comes from an assumption that we are all playing on a level playing field, similar to all lives matter rhetoric. And from some fear of having to deal with the repercussions of our lifestyles. Unfortunately, that’s a catastrophic disregard of a continuous centuries long process of dehumanizing (I mean that literally and figuratively) black people. I think even saying things like sounds like whacko talk to white people because it entails some serious reconsideration of their own positions of comfort. The concept of connecting white people’s individuality and autonomy and hard work, perseverance, suffering, etc with anything but a merit based society is a tall task when the national conversation around race is guided by dolts like Ellen.
Because it probably was meant to be a joke. I doubt Ellen is like a full on Racist like in the way Bill O’Reily is but they both happen to share the same unearned status of privilege which enables them to think that you can make seemingly innocuous jokes involving white and black people and assume their aren’t severe historical racial realities in effect.
Like you said it would’ve been great if Ellen owned her mistake. It would’ve been great for Justin Timberlake to own his too. It would be great if white athletes in the NBA or at the Olympics spoke out too and stood in solidarity with increasing amount of Black athletes using their platform and incurring additional risks. So often it seems like we’re in the business of appealing to the morality of white people who think about owning purely in terms of property.
Really though what I think is most concerning about it is the inability for white people (and in a different way non black people of color) to understand that our own path towards humanity is obstructed by the ways that we don’t understand the full context of how intersectional oppressions work. How our privileges to ignore history exist because other people have to deal with the trauma and embodiments of that history. People get so freaked out about being called a racist or complicit in anti-black racism that it not only allows for the continued daily violence against Black communities but also denies our own ability to reconcile being on the privileged end of system which requires extreme inequalities of power and access.
I think the defining of humanity is a troubling thing for most of us. What is it and who has it? On one level there is the presumption of humanity for white people and the instant dehumanizing of black and other people of color. For example, I read on the news today about some college white kid in Florida who killed a couple and ate their faces. He was presented as a “good kid” and people were shocked. Mike Brown, to use an older but always present example, was left in the street for four hours and immediately demonized as a thug, criminal, etc. in the media. This is a pattern we are all too familiar with. But in that denial of humanity of black life, what is really happening is the loss or detachment of humanity of white people because they stay confused or in denial or in active participation of recognizing human life/rights in all people. [Naturally this happens for non black people of color as well, as we struggle to analyze the myriad oppressions at play all at once.] I guess it may have something to do with what we define as humanity. What are the conditions under which we are living with or without it. Obviously with things so far from a level playing field, maintaining humanity is going to be a process which looks very different for all of us. There’s this line in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she says, “Because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying.” I think that imagination piece is so key for us to consider. To imagine what full humanity might look like for all people. To imagine that our own humanity is inextricably bound to the humanity of other people who we share this rotten and beautiful world with. So it’s important to imagine ways that we can support each other in broadening our imaginations and to recognize that (direct) action is a big producer of conditions to do that work.