Pride and Prejudice
These days discussions about race are like a knot where the more you work on it, the tighter it gets. I do not recall a more racially charged time and I have been through several of them.
To give just a brief summary of the last few days: the entertainer Nick Cannon made some comments about whites and Jews having melanin deficiency and thereby being inferior, or, to use Cannon’s own words, “closer to savages.” As a result, Cannon was partially “cancelled,” dropped from a lucrative deal with CBS/Viacom, then defended by some members of his own echo chamber. Cannon’s defenders then turned on him when he apologized to the Jewish community. Then Charles Barkley castigated Cannon’s defenders for adding fuel to the Cannon fire. And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo, as the song goes by Sly & the Family Stone.
This very same week, the African American sportscaster Stephen A. Smith has been construed (accused) to have worn whiteface on social media which was actually a white mask from the hip hop dance group Jabbawockeez – not dissimilar to the goalie mask Jason wears in Friday the 13th movies. Or, for that matter, the masks that hockey goalies themselves wear.
In the 1980s the top goalie in the NHL was Grant Fuhr who is mixed race and wore a white hockey mask. I never thought of him as “in whiteface.” As recently as today, Megyn Kelly has called out Robert Downey Jr. for a 2008 movie where he appeared in blackface. Which was four years after the Wayans Brothers appeared in whiteface in their 2004 comedy White Girls.
Just last month, several – actually, many – TV shows pulled blackface episodes from their syndication packages including 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Scrubs, and Golden Girls. Up until that announcement, I had no idea blackface was still so prevalent in our culture.
This was especially woeful, coming at a time when blacks are underrepresented on TV.
Today there are so many whiteface and blackface aspersions being cast back and forth, along with so many other accusations of racial insensitivity from all segments of the melanin spectrum, I felt fortunate to have sidestepped the whole unseemly, distasteful mess.
Which was true until this past weekend when the Journal received a charge of racial insensitivity all its own. Friday, I received a thoughtful but definitely angry “WTF” letter from a reader of this newspaper’s twice weekly internet newsletter, the “Morning MoJo.”
Last week in the MoJo we referred to an article in the Montecito Journal about the health dangers of tanning, and because we try to keep the MoJo light and breezy and lively, an editor chose to illustrate the “dangers of tanning” story with a photo of the bizarre internet meme known as “Tan Mom,” an habitué of the carnival sideshow that has become the center ring of our mass culture. Tan Mom is a person who has the same importance and gravitas of, say, the Tiger King.
Tan Mom (real name Patricia Krentcil) earned her place in our meme-ory simply by over-tanning to an absurd extent; her initial burst of publicity came from not just her bizarro tanning addiction, but apparently taking her five-year-old to a tanning bed in New Jersey. At one point, Anderson Cooper did a story about Tan Mom and “what it all means” and the takeaway was, pretty much, nothing. Tan Mom made Anderson laugh, he wondered if he himself was “too white,” just some chuckles, and that was that. But that was 2012.
Fast forward to 2020, I was stunned that Tan Mom seemed to have somehow taken on racial meaning, at least for one reader who looked at the meme and saw it as “blackface.” Or at least blackface-adjacent. And I could tell by the tone of our reader’s letter that she found it hurtful, and surprising – just as I recoiled at her charges of racial insensitivity against the Journal that I did not feel were warranted.
Frankly, I was horrified but also a little incensed. Having led social justice groups including Santa Barbara’s Human Rights Watch chapter, and, while at UCLA, having organized the nation’s largest anti-Apartheid rally, I actually took pride in my racial sensitivity. I grew up being outraged by the famous and oft relayed incident in my family of how my dark-skinned father (though white), while on his honeymoon in 1957, had been refused service at a mostly empty coffeeshop in the South. “We don’t serve your kind here,” he was told.
My husband joked that the incident went more like this: “You can’t come in, you’re Black.”
My dad: “Actually I’m Jewish.” “Oh, then you really can’t come in.”
The letter I received upset me, so I reached out to a few trusted friends of color who find themselves at the center of this conversation to find out… did I somehow… miss it? Had I somehow, even inadvertently, lapsed into… Karenism? (Its own offensive term particularly to anyone named Karen.)
Circling back to Blackface, my friend who teaches Black Studies at a major university said this:
“Blackface is done to imitate a Black person, usually to mimic so-called Black behavior to ridicule it. Extreme tanning is done to imitate dark skin color, without being seen or read as a Black person or person of color. In this case, the people end up in an in-betweenness, a disturbing middle ground where they are neither Black nor White but alien presence. They’re like an overly tinted windshield that once cited by the police has to be chucked. Both Blackface and extreme tanning could be categorized under the title, The Psychopathology of Whiteness. Just to be clear, appearing in what is today called ‘Whiteface,’ is not exactly the same as appearing in ‘Blackface,’ since the latter has the history of sustained humiliation of Black people – Black actors had to don Blackface in the late 19th century in order to perform on vaudeville stages as Black people! – that so-called ‘Whiteface’ does not.”
Still, obviously, in this racially charged time, in the eight years since Tan Mom crash landed on our cultural landscape, our racial atmosphere or marinade has changed significantly. And, as we all know, sensitivities are running high. So, despite feeling rankled, I took the reader, who took the time to write to me, up on her invitation to talk. I told her I never saw a connection between Tan Mom and Blackface – though today I can see how that image – at first blush – could be a trigger for someone. Like when I see a Hindu swastika that looks almost identical to a Nazi swastika (the Nazi symbol is tilted and the Hindu swastika has four dots inside).
As it turns out, the MoJo reader and I were able to have a productive telephone conversation. She gave me the opportunity to speak my piece and vice versa. We talked instead of shouted. I think we both brought openness to our dialog rather than vitriol. Over the course of our talk I learned about some of the hurtful experiences she has had as a person of color in Montecito. And it occurred to me as we were talking that it’s easy for me to say, “That’s ridiculous, you’re being overly sensitive.” Because as a white person living here, I’ve never lived those hurtful, humiliating, perspective-altering experiences. I certainly feel more enlightened for having talked with her. I’ve learned the only time it makes sense to fight fire with fire is if you want a lot of fire. She and I will wind up having a Martini cocktail rather than Molotov cocktails.
The truth of the matter is times change. Tan Mom was an acceptable meme in 2012, but through the prism of our country’s racial fractures today, Tan Mom probably IS too close to Blackface. Regardless of intention. The innocent, silly meme didn’t change but the zeitgeist did. Looking back, I wish we had chosen a more recognizable ludicrously tan person to illustrate our story on the dangers of tanning. Like John Boehner. Or George Hamilton. Maybe even our Tanner-In-Chief.