“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That tag line from the Virginia Slims cigarette ads is gaining a lot more resonance for me in terms of my view of racial issues, especially after eight years in Maine.
I have had to learn when something is a truly racist act versus a lapse in judgment, or plain and simple ignorance due to lack of exposure to non-Whites. And while there may be thin line between love and hate sometimes, I think it’s even thinner between racism and ignorance.
When I lived in Chicago it was a lot easier to label someone a racist when they did something I found offensive, and then avoid them in the future. In a city with a few million folks it’s pretty easy to ignore the less-informed. In a state like Maine, though, where communities are smaller and the entire state only has 1.5 million people, you learn quickly that chances are you will see the offender again. Because of that, you need to find workable solutions for all that go beyond “label and ignore” strategies.
Some might say that’s a sign I’ve gone soft living here. But I prefer to see it as a form of maturity that I don’t see racism as the root of all offenses against me by White folks.
So, with that preface, let’s look at the story in the March 25 issue of the Portland Press Herald about Casco selectwoman Barbara York. She is being asked by some to resign her post after it came to light that she forwarded to a correspondent an e-mail that contained racist jokes about Michelle Obama.
York apparently did this from her private e-mail account and, at first glance, it would be easy to say that she broke no laws; she just used poor judgment. After all, many referred to former President George W. Bush as a chimp.
And yet . . .
There are times when one needs to be aware of the historical background when choosing to make light of a minority group. While Mary Fernandes, the Black resident who brought the story to the attention of the media, is being portrayed in some circles as an overly sensitive Black woman with no sense of humor, I question the judgment of anyone who finds humor in this.
Historically, Black folks have been likened to animals, specifically apes and monkeys. We’ve been labeled as savage and one can argue that in media representations today, we often still are. So while the last president may have been likened to a chimp and some might say that other first ladies have been dogged for their looks, comparing the first Black first lady to an ape is a line you should hesitate to cross.
Sure, complain about her appearance or priorities if you like. Call her unrefined if you must. But leave the animals out of it.
It is a long-held tactic to dehumanize and degrade Blacks, and sorry, that is not funny. Sorry folks, we are not that post-racial yet . . . maybe in another several generations or after a couple more non-White presidents we can go there. A rich White man likened to an animal is just crass, because at the end of the day that rich White man is still seen as a symbol of power in this country. When you say it about a Black woman, it undermines her credibility, and even with my own politically incorrect sense of humor I can’t find a legitimate joke.