Thursday, April 21, 2011


By now you have no doubt heard about the California GOP official who sent out an email with a doctored photo that depicted President Obama and his parents as chimpanzees. The caption: "Now you know why no birth certificate." I could post the picture here, but I won’t. Why should I? For that matter, why should anybody post it anywhere? It’s disgusting and sophomoric. If anything, we should all post the picture of the idiot who sent the email. Okay, just did. It is the lead photo for this story. Marilyn Davenport is originally from Kansas, but is now a resident of Orange County, one of the whitest counties in California. The U.S. Census bureau puts the black population in O.C. at two percent. Davenport issued a half-assed apology after her transgression became public. Too little, too late, Marilyn.

Why should we allow the Marilyn Davenports of the world to denigrate an entire segment of the U.S. population? And if she does so in keeping with her Constitutional right to freedom of expression, why should her job as a public official remain intact? I don’t get it. Do you? There seems to be some disagreement about whether Davenport should be fired. That baffles me. As a society, we have collectively moved forward from the days of “anything goes,” as it refers to insulting each other based on religion, skin color, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. Oh, it still happens, but these days it can cost you. Hey, it cost Kobe Bryant $100,000 the other day when he called a referee a faggot. It cost acerbic radio host Don Imus (left) his job with CBS a couple years back when he referred to the women of Rutgers basketball team as “nappy headed hos.” Let’s not forget widely acclaimed fashion designer John Galliano of the House of Dior who was fired after a video surfaced that showed his anti-Semitic outbursts at a Paris bar. And in case you're wondering what ever happened to "Seinfeld" alum Michael Richards, you can see his racist swan song on Youtube.

What’s going on here? In two words – social change. Commonly heard today among those stuck in 1950: “I’m sick of everything having to be so politically correct. Who knows what you can and can’t say anymore?” Well, I do, and so do you, if you think about it. First we are working hard to evolve certain words out of the language. The word “nigger” is no longer passively overlooked. Still, the other day I found myself in a back and forth written tussle with a Facebook friend who is black. She said, “We call each other nigga and that has nothing to do with you.” I said, “Well, I think it does. So many of us are trying to get rid of that word once and for all, and we can’t do it as long as you say it’s okay as long as it is said between two black people. What makes it okay?” She said, “It doesn’t offend me at all.”

We’re stuck hard on cultural versus historical context. Historically, for example, “nigger” has never been used in any culture as a positive expression. Culturally, however, my Facebook friend seems to think it’s endearing if said among black people. You can’t really have it both ways. Just as we have to distinguish the relative weight of humor versus racism in the Marilyn Davenport debacle. Some people who would never consider themselves racist can see the humor in the photograph. But as soon as the brain cells all line up inside their heads they realize the real issue here is not how funny it looks, but the historical racism it represents. Equating black people with monkeys has long been understood to connote racial bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it looks funny. It matters that it perpetuates a stupid stereotype that contributes nothing to a civilized society. We are a civilized society, aren’t we? Aren’t we??

Let’s break this down: Calling a black person a “nigger” reduces him or her to nothing more than skin color, which suggests anything else that they are doesn’t count. Calling a woman a “cunt” reduces her to nothing more than her sex organs, which does much the same thing as calling a black person a nigger. Calling a gay man a “faggot” reduces him to nothing more than his sexual calling, which means that anything else he is or does will never really rise above his sexuality.

If you are one of those people who routinely uses words like these to categorize whole segments of humanity, what do you really get out of it? It is not elevating you or them. It only accomplishes holding both of you down in a place that prevents you from being bigger than what you are now. If you belong to one of those population groups that is routinely denigrated through language, and you start using the language among yourselves, all you have really done is re-appropriate the offensive terms, and thereby granted your oppressors license to use the same words. It’s a lose/lose situation.

I’m shaking my head in disbelief at those individuals who have come to Marilyn Davenport’s defense. “She didn’t mean anything by it,” they say. “It was never her intention to sound racist,” others contend. You know what? It doesn’t matter – at all – what her intention was. What matters is the result of her socially unacceptable, ignorant communication. That matters. Marilyn Davenport needs to turn in her GOP pass and go home.


Joan Eisenstodt said...

Paul - I am so grateful to you for writing this. And interesting that Ms. Davenport is from Kansas - the new state of racism. If you are not following on Rachel Maddow's show, do. Kansas is not where I want to be. In fact, other than DC, I'm not sure where one can live that has some compassion and empathy. -- Joan

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