Monday, October 13, 2014

178.5 - Racism and that Boston Herald cartoon

[Welcome to Jon Swift Roundup 2014 readers. I hope you'll be interested in reading more of my stuff at or in watching my show Left Side of the Aisle on YouTube.]

Racism and that Boston Herald cartoon

We're going to finish up today with something needs to be talked about.

You may have heard about, you may even have seen, the editorial cartoon in that appeared in the Boston "Herald" on October 1. In case you haven't, it's reproduced to the right. You need to see it, not just to have it described, so that you can judge it in its proper context.

The cartoon was meant to satirize the recent incident of a serious breakdown in the security the Secret Service provides to the president, a breakdown which allowed a man to get over the White House fence and actually into the White House before he was stopped.

The caption says "White House Invader Got Farther Than Originally Thought.” It shows Obama brushing his teeth while a man in the bathtub behind him says "Have you tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste?"

And if that last bit made you cringe, you are a normal human being with a decent awareness of social and cultural reality.

The cartoonist, Jerry Holbert, "apologized," saying he got the idea after finding "kids' Colgate watermelon flavor" toothpaste in the bathroom at his home and was "completely naive or innocent to any racial connotations."

For the paper's part, it said "We regret the reaction this cartoon elicited among many and apologize for it. Clearly, that was not Jerry’s intent and it certainly was not the intent of the Boston Herald."

Now, I want to take the cartoonist at his word. That means leaving aside the question of why he thought it appropriate to use a children's toothpaste flavor in the context of an adult - and even more leaving aside the fact that I find it incredibly hard to credit the notion that a grown man could be so astonishingly unaware, so "completely naive," as to have no notion of the impact or connotations of a watermelon reference in the context of a black man.

But still, I want to take him at his word. I even want to take the "Herald" at its word.

But even if I do, we are still faced with the fact that these statements are not apologies. An apology is "I did something wrong," not "It's too bad you reacted that way." An apology is "I regret what I did," not "I regret how you reacted." These non-apologies are an attempt to shift blame, to shift responsibility from the one who acted to the one who was acted on. "I'm innocent; too bad you can't take a joke."

The "Herald" did somewhat better next time around after its non-apology had, it would seem, been vetted: Newspaper spokeswoman Gwen Gage referred to the cartoon as "unacceptable in its insensitivity and racial overtones," but she still insisted both the paper and the cartoonist "intended no such inference."

Holbert also did better on his second round of apologies, saying later that "I didn’t think this all the way through" and "I really did it wrong," which at least takes some responsibility, while still insisting he is altogether innocent of any bad intent.

He is so innocent, in fact, that when the syndicator of the cartoon contacted him, suggesting he change the toothpaste flavor from watermelon to raspberry because of the racial element of watermelon, he says he disagreed but went along because that's what they wanted. Curiously, the syndicator said Holbert agreed, not disagreed, and "happily" made the change, which makes things kind of odd because now we have conflicting stories, but never mind because that's not what's really important.

Because what's important and what's worse is that Holbert could be telling the truth - he could be that blissfully ignorant, that blissfully unaware, that blissfully insulated, so that he took no notice of the meaning of the words he used, of the implications they carried, so blissfully insulated from the fact of context because context matters.

He could be that unaware of the pokes and prods, the jibes and jabs, the slings and arrows, the daily pile of small insults that are normal part of the lives of African-Americans in this society. He could be that unaware of the protection, the insulation, his white skin provides him. He could be that unaware of his privilege, his privileged position. Because as others have said, that is the point of privilege: It is designed to be, it is intended to be, invisible to those that have it.

Because privilege, remember, is not always about what you get - it's also about what you don't get. It's not always about what others think about you, what they assume about you - it's about what they don't think about you, what they don't assume about you.

I can walk down the street past a group of women without them clutching their purses a little tighter.

I can go into a store without security watching me everywhere I go, or at least without them making it painfully - in both the symbolic and the literal sense - obvious they are following me everywhere I go.

I can walk into a fancy jewelry store in sneakers, jeans, and a t-shit with a hole in it without every head swiveling toward me and every clerk in the place looking at me like "What are you doing here?" and reminding themselves where the alarm button is.

I can flash some bling without people thinking I either stole it or that I'm a pimp.

I can see a cop car behind me in my rear-view mirror and my only concern is watching the speed limit.

I have never felt the need - and I'm damn sure Jerry Holbert hasn't either - never felt the need to be in the streets with a sign declaring "I am a man."

That's privilege. I have that privilege. And that privilege is not based on money, it's not based on education, it's not based on dress, it's not based on erudition, it's based on one overriding factor: my white skin.

That is privilege. and until we make an awareness of that privilege part of our everyday experience, until we stop dismissing the anger of our brothers and sisters as unimportant because we don't see what the offense is so they should "just get over it," until that time, black parents will still have to teach their children how to avoid getting shot by cops, knowing that neither wealth nor position will protect them, and live in fear of the day, which they know will come, when their child is called "nigger" for the first - but not the last - time.

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