CHEVY CHASE: Spear chucker.
RICHARD PRYOR: White trash!
CHASE: Jungle bunny!
PRYOR: Honky! Honky!
PRYOR: Dead honky.
Thirty years ago the preceding exchange played out on "Saturday Night Live." It has since been hailed as a defining moment for television, one where barriers were broken by holding a mirror on societal mores and the language we use to separate ourselves along racial lines. Pryor and Chase were championed for their bravery in showing us how ridiculous it is for grown men to resort to slurs in an attempt to prove themselves superior over another human being. The two comedians so effectively diffused the hurtful power of language that many thought we had crossed hurdles that never need be crossed again.
Then came the elections of 2006.
In Virginia, senatorial candidate George Allen is accused by former teammates of repeatedly using the "N-word" during his days as a football quarterback. This after a video surfaced showing Allen calling a man of Indian descent "macaca." The man is a campaign volunteer for Allen's opponent, Jim Webb. Some charged that the term is a Francophone racial slur. Allen tap-danced his way around the issue by saying that he thought the term was just something he made up.
Just when Webb had seized the lead over Allen in the polls, charges surfaced that the Democratic challenger might have slipped up with his own language and behavior. Dan Cragg, a former acquaintance of Webb, told a newspaper that when Webb was in ROTC in the 1960s, he was stationed near Watts in Southern California. According to Cragg, Webb and his buddies had a strange way of letting off steam.
"They would hop into their cars and would go down to Watts with these buddies of his," Cragg told the reporter. "They would take the rifles down there. They would call them (epithets), point the rifles at them, pull the triggers and then drive off laughing. One night, some guys caught them and beat ... them. And that was the end of that."
Not to be outdone, Texas has a political "N-word" scandal of its own. Independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman has lived quite a life. He's a humorist, author and musician, and would like to add the word "governor" to his resume. Just as his candidacy was picking up steam, a 1980 tape emerged of Friedman using the "N-word" twice in a joke he told as part of his nightclub act. Suddenly, Friedman found himself playing the part of Lucy to Ricky Ricardo and had "some 'splainin' to do."
In all cases, the first thing that jumps out at you is the timeline of the alleged transgressions: 1980 for Friedman, the early '70s for Allen and the late '60s for Webb. Makes you wonder why any sane person would go into politics in the first place. Without making excuses or offering apologies for any of the three men, I ask this simple question: Who among you would like to be held publicly accountable for your words and actions of 20, 30 or 40 years ago? I can't imagine that many of you have your hands in the air.
When I was a kid growing up in the '70s, the white elders that I experienced routinely referred to African-Americans as "colored" people. Today, that term seems both archaic and offensive. In fact, forget the "N-word," how well do you think a politician would fare using the "C-word"? Imagine a gubernatorial candidate stepping up to the podium and saying, "I pledge to work hard for the colored community and to see that no colored man, woman or child is discriminated against for any reason." How quickly would CNN and their brethren blow that up into a "candidacy withdrawn" scandal?
It seems apparent that another "C-word" needs to be considered: context. As an outsider looking in, it appears that Allen might have a legitimate problem with racism. Aside from the incidents already covered, the former governor has also been accused of displaying the Confederate flag and of having a noose in his office. Not exactly the type of items that a Northerner would deem appropriate business decorations.
Friedman, on the other hand, was performing a routine in a nightclub. Comedians and social satirists routinely use language to shock and awe an audience into thought and laughter. It seems a monumental leap to use that instance to brand him a racist. Friedman is currently a finalist for the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor. American humor and taboo language go together like peanut butter and jelly, and it's become almost impossible to separate one from the other.
Chris Rock does a hilarious bit about old black men and their derogatory use of the word "cracker." If Rock ran for public office, someone would probably hold out a tape of that performance and attempt to paint him as a racist. As a Caucasian voter, I would turn a deaf ear to those claims and would vote for Rock for these simple reasons -- he's intelligent and he's funny, and those are two elements sorely lacking in American politics.
Both of these races have very little to do with racism and much to do with political mudslinging. It seems as if branding your opponent a racist is the great scarlet letter of our time. Once the "R-word" is hurled, talk of the issues ends, and an immediate defense of one's character begins. It's a great political ploy and a great energy-waster perpetrated on the American public.
Every white person over the age of 18 has been in a situation where someone else lacking dark pigmentation in their skin tone has approached and, after looking from side to side, launched into some racially insensitive joke. Most folks in that scenario react by feigning laughter and saying something along the lines of "that's a good one." Based on their social behavior, are those folks racists? How long will it be before someone surfaces in an election campaign and says of a candidate, "I was there on several occasions when an acquaintance of his told off-color jokes using derogatory terms. Not once did he speak up and say, 'I'm not comfortable with those terms you're using in that joke and I won't be party to that type of mind set.'"
Does it make you a racist if you listen passively to a racist joke and don't speak up against the person telling the joke? What if you actually laugh at the joke? Fortunately, private citizens don't have to answer those questions, but politicians soon might.
In November, voters in Texas and Virginia will have to step behind the voting curtain and examine their own souls by determining if the candidates on the ballot are racists or not. They are not in an enviable position, but the words of Kinky Friedman as he responded to the charges levied against him may help them in completing their task.
"Humor is the weapon I use. I use humor to attack bigotry," Friedman said. He then went on to call the people behind the attacks against him "slimy, sleazy, out-of-state cockroaches."
Now there's a slur we can all get behind.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||October 10 2006|