I'm not trying to bear pretensions toward knowing anything out of the ordinary about race and racism--because I surely don't--but this Michael Richards incident has come out at just the time that I've been reading and thinking a lot about images and conceptions of blackness in my country's cinema and popular culture--obviously. So. The problem I have here is the widespread cultural assumption--basically held by white people--that being a racist is almost an "occupation," that Michael Richards can claim with a straight face that he's "not a racist," yet that that these words just "bubbled up." (Perhaps had he dropped the N-bomb alone one could chalk it up to a racist action merely fueled by a misguided attempt to "shock," as though he were just following in the fearless footsteps of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. But the furious, and initial invocation of a lynching murder--a fork up your ass!?--just confirms something deeper.) This is the sort of irrational mentality that justifies statements like, "I'm not racist, but..." But what? As though pre-emptively asserting that you're not a racist nullifies the vicious idiocy of the racist statement you're about to make?
One of those trashy reality TV shows--was it an episode of America's Next Top Model?--had one white "contestant" (or should we 'fess up and just call them characters?) spewing racist cant: no dreaded "n-words" if I recall, but a lot of stupidity about (y'know) those types of people--welfare mothers, FUBU clothing, all the regular caricatures promoted by Limbaugh-types. When some of the other contestants called her on this, including, particularly, a black woman, this racist insisted to the other contestants that they couldn't accuse her of racism because she knew in her heart that she wasn't racist, you see, and since they couldn't know the state of her soul as well as she did, they couldn't be sure that she was a racist. This is the belief: that being a racist can only, strictly mean one who actively lynches blacks people, uses racial slurs openly, and willfully admits that he or she thinks whites are superior to all others. Nobody else is racist by this illogic: actually racist behavior, for instance, is by the same token dismissed as 'mistakes,' 'accidents,' 'misunderstood actions.' Never for what it is. (I believe the unsavory aspirant was eliminated early from the model comptetition, by the way.) In an interview Stephen Colbert said to Tim Robbins recently, "You're white, right, 'cause I can't tell, you know. Race doesn't matter to me, I can't even see a person's color." A typical rallying cry for my fellow whites well-caricatured by Colbert there.
So look at the spectacle we have before us recently with regards to Michael Richards' outburst. I'll handsomely wager he doesn't have a KKK hood in his closet. He's not some vigorous, full-time, Aryan Nation-style racist. But his behavior is simply an outcropping of deep-seated racism embedded in the power structure of this society (which his "apology" very vaguely acknowledged, albeit as a way of rationalizing his actions). What interests me also is that Jerry Seinfeld was so shocked and saddened by this outburst (and the forthright, unignorable racism of a certain word), but as the Danny Hoch video above demonstrates, he is no angel either as far as the propogation of racism in art and media. It's not enough to allude, as Richards does, to some kind of wounded Zeigeist which we need to heal--that's true enough, in its cloudy ethereal way--but to also identify those instances, material and recognizable instances or practices, when this racism against all people of color comes through in ways less immediate and blatant (to nonwhites) than a single word, like "nigger." Racism also means something like "Ramon." Nonwhite individuals & communities of course are sensitive to these instances, already, and have long been. How can they help get the rest of us to pay attention?