Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Michael Richards and the Truth

Michael Richards, Seinfeld's Kramer, has recently (and rightfully) been criticized for comments made during a stand-up comedy routine. In response to a black heckler, he responded "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside-down with a fucking fork up your ass." He then proceeded to refer to the heckler at least seven times as a n*****, and in response to objections to his treatment responded, "That's what happens when you interrupt the white man." The video is here. Richards later apologized on The Late Show, stating "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this."

Certainly Richards has a received a lot of well-deserved criticism and I'm not writing here to add more. No, instead I wish to point out that this is not just a "Michael Richards" problem, but rather an "American society" problem. It would be easy enough for us to take this incident, say it is the racism of a single man, and sweep beneath the rug, away from our consciousness. It may be tempting to believe so, but the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act did not absolve us of our sins. We are heirs to a society which, through the exclusion of some, directly benefited, and continues to benefit, others.

Michael Richards did not pull these words out of thin air. The n-word has *power*, a very tangible power (hence my refusal to even type it). For a white person to invoke it against a black person is to invoke hundreds of years of coercive control and power - slavery, beatings, killings. It is an invocation of privilege and status in society, often (indeed generally) by persons unaware of their own privilege. To invoke the image of a lynching makes this more explicit, and to say "That's what happens when you interrupt the white man" is to leave no question in anyone's mind as to precisely the power you are drawing upon - the power of racism, force, and coercion.

The thing is, this isn't unique to Michael Richards. The privilege that allowed him to invoke these images in response to a heckler is present in every white American today. We know the magic words to assert control in a situation. We know that if we feel threatened by a person of color, help is but three buttons away. We know that if we shout for help, someone will likely respond - and when they intervene that it will be on our behalf. We know know that we will be believed. These are all forms of privilege; privilege we cannot yield, privilege we must confront But further, we are taught to believe that "they" are different; "they" are dangerous; "they" are 'gangsters' and violent and would do us harm; "they" are exist within "our" society. We are taught these things by the television news, custom and practice, and popular representations in film and literature, to say nothing of the legion of right-wing ideologues who put forth such assertions as facts on a daily basis.

So from this ugly Michael Richards affair we have again been forced to confront our reality, a racist reality. What to do with it is the question we're left with. Do we sweep it under the rug once again, reassuring one another under the cozy blanket of triumphalism? Or do we step forward and ackowledge the reality many of us cannot help but be aware of and tackle the racism that surrounds us and dwells within us?

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