Sans Cilice


White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Update: “Getting Mad about the N-Word”

I am promoting a comment on the previous post to front page. It’s very worth your while to read the whole thing.

Here’s what I wonder. And I don’t really care about your stupid ugly neighbors who sound awful, because who cares, they’ll get theirs in 10 years when Goldman Sachs gives them smaller-than-expected bonuses. But what I wonder is, will there be a time, or could there be a context, in which casual use of the N-word (or potentially but probably not some other racial slur) is more indicative (or more likely to be indicative) of stupidity and a general inability to practice or experience empathy than it is indicative of racism? More than with most words, context is crucial to determining the meaning, and therefore the potential racist content, of “the N-word” [henceforth, for ease of conversation, “Taffy”]. Watch how much context matters:

1.Jay-Z, whilst rapping
Basically always fine to say Taffy. Can refer to self or others as Taffy. Almost no one has a problem with this;

2. Paul Mooney, pre-Michael Richards
Basically always makes white people cringe and black people laugh/chuckle in agreement when discussing/saying Taffy;

3. Michael Richards, all contexts
Shouldn’t discuss taffy, salt, candies or any chewy substances whatsoever. [Ed. No further extensions of the metaphor will be included in the below text]

Kramer is obviously racist. His eruption of anger and disdain was truly frightening, and he’s not that good of an actor. Not stupid. Racist. So no direct relationship to my stupid v. racist question. However, I think the reason Paul Mooney decided to eliminate “Taffy” from his vocabulary (which, for those too lazy to click through, was a decision “inspired” by Kramer’s outburst, and represents no small change of habit for Mr. Mooney) has a lot to do with that question.

That said, I’m not actually interested in the facts of why Paul stopped saying “Taffy”. (He has spoken frequently on the subject if you are interested.) (Be interested.) Instead, I’m more interested in speculation. Why would one like Paul Mooney, who has prodigiously used (and defended his use of) “Taffy”, be interested in stopping everyone from ever saying it?. And why was Michael Richards the straw that broke the camel’s back?

I think the answer has a lot to do with math, specifically probability. But before we break out the abacus and answer the riddle, I think it is important to explore how Kramer’s outburst may have differed in meaning from the late night conversations of the deformed neighbors. And since Kramer is old, and the awful neighbors are apparently in school and so likely are young, I’d like to submit the below plausible rough sketch of how “Taffy” might mean different things to people of different generations.

The situation is: Most/many/all whites say “taffy” in reference to blacks. The vast majority of whites feel/act as if blacks were inferior (making them white supremacists [a type of racist]).

The racist content of a white’s utterance of “Taffy” in this context is: Ambiguous

Use of the word “Taffy” is not a particularly useful indicator of racism in whites in this context. As all/many/most whites feel superior to blacks, white skin is the most reliable and useful indicator of someone having white supremacist feelings, not their use of any particular word or phrase. As most everything said by whites regarding blacks reveals white supremacist feelings, it is not clear that use of the word “Taffy” by whites would indicate unique or unusually intense racism.

The situation is: Fewer whites say the word “Taffy” in reference to blacks. Overt expressions of white supremacist feelings are increasingly taboo. Nevertheless, all of society’s cultural capital and all cultural cache remains firmly in white hands, save for a chance casting decision here and there.

Blacks begin to use say “Taffy” in reference to other blacks. This is not taken as indicative of self-loathing.

The racist content of a white utterance of “Taffy” in the context is: Very, obviously, and unsophisticatedly racist

Overt expression of a white supremacist ideology is no longer acceptable in polite company, and use of the word “Taffy” to refer to blacks is no longer a pervasive colloquialism amongst whites. Previously (in QUITE A WHILE AGO MAYBE), it would have been an intentional decision for a white not to use “Taffy” to refer to blacks. Now, however, it usually requires an intentional decision for a white [i[to use the word. Popular culture and the cultural/political elite largely discontinue and frown upon use of the word “Taffy”. This is called “political correctness,” and is interpreted as censorship by those whites who resent that they are no longer encouraged to publicly communicate white supremacist ideology Many of these whites continue to use the word “Taffy” to refer to blacks whenever they think it safe to do so. Evil and shrewd political operations court this very large subset of whites (concentrated in the South) by repeating boilerplate platitudes
that, in the right context,
silently signal white supremacist sympathies to those whites tuned to hear such messages. With mainstream access denied to those racists who use the word “Taffy,” white racists wishing to remain active in public life, or even those simply self-aware enough to care about the impression they make on others, resort to these dog-whistle techniques to communicate in public.

As fewer and fewer whites use the word “Taffy” in any context, use of the word becomes common in many different contexts amongst blacks. The word is reclaimed by blacks in many different contexts as a term of self-identification. This continuing reclamation project will have a profound impact on the future meaning(s) of the word “Taffy.” Regarding what “Taffy” means when uttered by a white, the most relevant reclamations will come from black-created media. Particularly influential in the long-term will be the reclamation that emerges from new musical genre pioneered by American blacks. But in the short-term, the effect will be more ambiguous, as most whites will remain very afraid of these particular blacks and their contemporaries.

Finally, we arrive back in…

Era 3: NOW-ISH
Everything seems complicated. Some whites (awful hicks) continue to use the term “Taffy” in a hateful manner when they feel safe to do so. Other whites (especially the ones who “Tweet”) will have grown up in a world where much of the cultural elite is black. The popular music that the Tweeting whites (and even many of the awful hicks) listen to is largely rap, a genre invented by blacks that was not immediately co-opted by derivative white artists. Whites are now fans of music that was not (originally) for them or by them.

For the first time in our country, large swaths of white America became interested in the “private” conversations of blacks. And these “private conversations” (in the form of music created by blacks and tailored to a black audience) used the word “Taffy.” A lot. In myriad ways, none of which communicated white supremacist ideology. And considering the economic opportunity Tweeting whites presented black musicians, no one had an incentive to enforce the “privacy” of these particular conversations. The “for and by blacks-ness” of the music ends up as a style, not a statement, and certainly not a barrier to consumption.

So now certain whites all of the sudden have a new influence on the context to their relationship to the word “Taffy”: enjoyment of a certain (and increasingly pervasive) style of music. Also Chris Rock and Jackie Robinson mattered probably. But anyways, the point is that there is no direct relationship between long-term exposure to Ja-Rule and a progressive/anti-racist/non-racist/moral disposition towards blacks. [If anything, long term exposure to Ja-Rule might cause….no, nevermind, not doing that.]

The upshot is that a group of whites, diverse in its racial ideology, has a common and non-racist new context in which to understand and hear the word “Taffy.” Rap begs to be rapped, so whites are almost induced to saying “Taffy” when singing along to their favorite songs. And when a white listens to a song performed by a black artist that includes the word “Taffy”, is there an obvious moral distinction to be made between:
(a) the listener hearing the word;
(b) uttering the word silently in one’s head;
(c) uttering it out-loud while alone; and
(d) and uttering it out loud in the presence of others?

Others have made a convincing case that, in fact yes, there is a moral distinction to be made there. And I agree with them. Whole-heartedly. But I would say it isn’t an exceptionally obvious moral distinction. Which means that it is the type of moral distinction that stupid people will not make. Not because they are racist, but because they are stupid, and they just generally don’t make difficult and nuanced moral distinctions. They lack the mental capabilities, and they lack the knowledge. They do not know, as the Paul Mooney of my imagination knows, that probability is at play here. Blacks are no longer speaking to an all-black audience, so the more times a black musician or comedian says “Taffy,” the more times it is heard by whites, and the more times it is repeated in whites’ heads, and the more times it is uttered out loud while alone, and the more times it is uttered out loud in the presence of others, and the more likely it is that callous idiots are going to be tossing around “Taffy” casually at 4am, because they are too stupid to understand what their drug-addled wanna-be-cool late-night shouts do to the psyche of a black person who might overhear them (that’s your second chance to listen to the Wale song – take it).


Filed under: Media & Culture, Pop Culture, Society

“Do You Listen to Jimmy Buffet Records?”

“Because if so, you’re white.”

From The Colbert Report Interview with Nell Irvin Painter, 3/17/2010. 4:40/5:10

I’ll venture to say that this is one of the truer race-based assumptions out there. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: On TV, Philosophy & Theory, Pop Culture, , , , , ,

Ms Magazine Blog!

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for quoting Annie Shields’ comments about the Ben Roethlesberger rape charges, and thereby reintroducing me to the stellar feminist media that is Ms. Magazine.

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Gabourey Sidibe is not a healthy weight.

On Monday Howard Stern said of Gabourey Sidebe, “There’s the most enormous, fat black chick I’ve ever seen. She is enormous. Everyone’s pretending she’s a part of show business and she’s never going to be in another movie[.]” Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that she’ll never be in another movie ever again. Apparently she’s cast to be in a Showtime series along side of Zoe Kravitz, and I think that if her performance was as good as everyone says it was, it’s likely that she’ll continue to get roles.

Stern and his co-host Robin took issue with Oprah’s support of Sidebe in the following exchange:

“And Oprah’s lying and saying you’re going to have a brilliant career,” said Robin.
“Oprah’s another liar, a filthy liar,” said Stern. “She’s telling an enormous woman the size of a planet th she’s going to have a career.”

Again, I don’t agree that Sidebe’s weight will eliminate her career possibilities. I support Stern’s comments though because I think they shed some much needed realism on the hypocrisy of Oprah’s relentless support for women’s health initiatives and efforts to promote healthy female role models while ‘wooing’ Sidebe. I don’t take issue with Sidebe’s talent or beauty or acting skills in Precious; I take issue with her health. I’m always happy to see models and actresses surpass a size 4 and I think it’s great that the fashion industry is finally acknowledging the real danger of anorexia. However, I’m not convinced that Oprah’s glorification of true obesity promotes a realistic dialogue about bodies. I can’t think of another American woman who has done more to promote weight loss and health than Oprah so I’m surprised that she has not been more up front about the role that Sibede’s weight has played in her rise to stardom.

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, Movies, Pop Culture, , , ,

Huffington Post Starts a Religion Section

I am 100% ambivalent about Huffpo’s new Religion section. While I am in favor of a section for important religion related NEWS, I have been bothered by statements that are dismissive of the atheist population while trying to be inclusive. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Journalism, Personal, , , ,

On Avatar: My one and only post

See Huffpo’s full article.

Responding to the question of why the Na’vi in Avatar have boobs, despite the fact that they don’t even have genitals, director James Cameron told Playboy:

“Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals,”

Additionally, Cameron said that in creating the Na’vi, he wanted to “focus on things that can create otherness that are not off-putting.” 

Now, there are so many reasons to criticize this movie (it sucks, it’s too long, its story is lacking, its acting is lacking, it’s a simplistic interpretation of colonial narratives, it’s a reductive allegory for American foreign policy, etc) that I don’t really want to go into it too much, but as food for thought, I will be pondering two questions:

1. Why does Cameron call the Na’vi as a ‘race’ not a species if they are ‘non-placental mammals’? (obviously the answer to this is that a degree of relatability is necessary cinematically) Considering the presence of multiple human races in the cast, did you view the Na’vi as a race or a species?

2. What can be said about Cameron’s implication that there are features of “otherness” that are not “off-putting”? Isn’t part of the “essence” of “otherness” a degree of off-puttingness? Would eliminating the breasts have turned the Na’vi from Others to something actually different?

Filed under: Movies, Pop Culture, , , , , ,

Good Hair Comes from India!!!

Chris Rock’s trip to Chennai, India was one of the most intriguing parts of Good Hair. Apparently, the vast majority of hair used in human hair weaves comes from India. Most of it is bought from Hindu temples that perform sacrificial tonsures (head shavings). (An interviewee did speak about the black market hair trade but I found him to be a less than credible source.) The hair is then bought by weave manufacturers who sort it, wash it, comb it and assemble it into tracks of hair.

thanks to for the great photo!

I had an unnecessarily negative reaction to this information. Because I associate most products made in India or Southeast Asia solely for American consumption with capitalism, colonialism and destruction of local environments and knowledge, I hastily assumed that evil was at play within this transnational hair trade. After thinking more though, I really can’t see any problem with this. Tonsuring has existed as a Hindu ritual for much much longer than human hair weaves have become a profitable commodityCitizens choose to be tonsured as a self-sacrifice to Lord Vishnu, so one can’t really argue that they forced into this or unfairly compensated. The temples do profit off of hair sales, but the profit defrays overhead costs and supports charitable operations. I suppose the temples are not always upfront with the shavees about the fact they sell the hair, but the hair-buying weave-making industry isn’t underground so no one is being duped. Moreover, Indian people own and operate the weave companies which ensures that the profits go back to the community. Whether or not said profit is fairly distributed, I don’t know, but either way it doesn’t seem to be a capitalist enterprise more evil than any other.

To learn more about the collection, manufacturing and distribution, go to Sunny’s Hair Blogit has a great Q&A by an American online hair vendor traveling to India to see the process first hand.

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Good Hair

I just watched  Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Rock does a good job of exploring the aspects of black women’s hair choices that he finds problematic, especially the fact that most black American women’s styles emulate European hair. The meme that black styles emulate white hair has a legitimately problematic history. The racially fraught nature of the ‘straighter is better’ meme becomes more apparent when partnered with the colorist meme that blacks with lighter skin are more beautiful). At one point in the movie, a hair-stylist mentions that moms want their young daughters’ hair relaxed because its unmanageable. I’ve heard this defense before and it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Thinking about my own hair though, I think the manageability issue has a degree of salience.

I have super thick, coarse, curly, frizzy dark blond hair. It’s not nappy like black hair, but– to give you a sense of how far away it is from being straight and silky– if I brush out my hair (styled in a bob) it will stand on end in what can best be described as a Euro Afro. I’ve always worn my hair curly. I blow dry and iron it straight two or three times a year, but I’ve never had it chemically straightened and am sure that I never will. Though I think my curly hair is beautiful (even gorgeous!) when I wash, dry and style it properly, sleeping on it transforms it into crazy-person hair. It really annoys me that I can’t just comb it in order to make it look sane. I’m about 80% Irish, 5% Welsh, 5% English, 5% Dutch and 5% French and I too have occasional dreams of silky straight shiny locks that lay down.

Filed under: Movies, Personal, Society, , , , , , ,

Reconsidering Content of Earlier Post Re: Desmond Tutu’s Decoded Genome

It’s such a complex issue! So many questions are raised by the motivations of the research, the scientific results and the media’s reporting of it.

The one thing I am absolutely confident about, is that this research will encourage positive health outcomes for people of African descent in the future. With the addition of Archbishop Tutu and the Bushmen, the human genome project includes 5 of European descent (two of whom are James Watson and Craig Venter– both prominent geneticists), 3 of Asian descent (2 Korean, 1 Chinease) and 3 of African descent (Desmond Tutu, Bushman, Yoruban) plus another three partially decoded Bushman genomes. This distribution is not reflective of the actual percentage breakdown of the global population. VERY importantly, it is not representative of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the Pacific Islands.

Read these for background: 1.  Time– “What Secrets Lie in Archbishop Tutu’s Genome?” 2. Sydney Morning Herald– Cracking an ancient code: Scientist believes Africa can unlock the secrets of disease. (what a headline!) 3. LA Times– Scientists find great genetic differences among southern Africans 4. Newsweek Blog–Desmond Tutu’s Sequenced Genes: How Increased Diversity Helps Doctors Heal

More thoughts to come!

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, News, Philosophy & Theory, , , , , ,

Real Time is Back!

Real Time with Bill Maher is back!


Elizabeth Warren, Elliot Spitzer, Nora O’Donnel, Seth McFarlane, and Wanda Sykes

Filed under: Current Events, On TV, Pop Culture,

Women CAN be funny (as I’m sure you already know).

I watched entirely to much TV today and came across the very talented Anjelah Johnson on Comedy Central. She can legitimately beat-box too! I know there are many very funny women out there, but they’re a rare breed in stand up. Ms. Johnson’s schtick is far from being the funniest thing that I’ve ever seen, but it was refreshing to see a comedienne who made jokes almost solely at other peoples’ expense. Unlike Janeane Garafalo and a whole slew of other stand up comediennes.

I’m so glad to know that someone else is perplexed when asked “do you like gel for you nail?”

Filed under: On TV, Pop Culture, , , ,

a great conversation

Just had a really productive transAtlantic g-chat conversation today with a friend living in Paris, whom I have dubbed Paris.
It’s a good follow up of previous posts about whites exploring race in a public setting, and about different attitudes towards white guilt, black comedy and discursive reappropriation in art. This part of the conversation was prompted by my earlier post about John Mayer.
Paris: i just dont really get why it kind of seems like [Mayer] gets away with stuff like that likes it charming or cool
me: ya, i don’t get it either. but, i guess he’s not really getting away with it
he’s had two ridiculous interviews and tabloids have gone nuts
fortunately i think he’s beginning to realize that he needs to shut up. his apology for using the n-word is better than many publicity-focused apologies about such things
also, have you seen Chris Rock’s Kill?
if not you must.
100% pure genius.
Paris: yes! athena and i actually watched it the other night
we were crying laughing
me: ah! so fun!I think I’d enjoy watching it like once a month
Paris: i started writing something about bamboozled
so i was watching it. but then i got all tangled up and confused and had to leave it. this was like, last week, but maybe ill give it another crack this week
me: what drew you in?
— i haven’t seen it
Paris: oh gosh! you should rent it
im not sure actually how it got started. i think because athena and i were talking about dave chappelle?
me: cool- i will. i haven’t read very good reviews, but i imagine it’s interesting regardlesss
Paris: i have no idea exactly how it got to bamboozled.
me: wow– haven’t thought about him in a while!
what happened to him. i guess his show had an expiration date. oh right–he went crazy too.
Paris: he did, yes. but i guess we got from dave chapelle to bamboozled bc we were talking about what it is for white people to like, participate in black comedy and what kind of issues it does or does not bring up Read the rest of this entry »

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