Published as a ZNet Commentary, June 30, 2002
Recently, while I was speaking to a group of high school students, I was asked why I only seemed to be concerned about white racism towards people of color, and not racism from people of color towards whites. We had been discussing racial slurs, and several white students wanted to know why I wasn’t as critical of blacks for using terms like “honky” or “cracker,” as I was of whites for using the infamous n-word. Although such an issue may seem trivial in the larger scheme of things, the challenge posed by the students was important, and allowed a dialogue about the essence of what racism is and how it operates.
On the one hand, of course, such slurs are quite obviously offensive and ought not be used. That said, I pointed out that even the mention of “honky” and “cracker” had elicited laughter, and not only from the black students in attendance, but also from other whites. The words are so silly, so juvenile, that they hardly qualify as racial slurs at all, let alone slurs on a par with those that have been historically deployed against people of color.
The lack of symmetry between a word like honky and those used against blacks was made readily apparent in an old Saturday Night Live skit with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, in which Pryor’s character is applying for a job at a company with no other black employees. Chase’s character has the power to either hire him or not, and wants to make sure that if Pryor is hired, he’ll be able to deal with the potential racial animosity that might come his way at the hands of his white colleagues. To test Pryor’s character’s forbearance, Chase suggests a test for Pryor: namely, he’ll throw out racial epithets and see how Pryor’s character responds. And so it begins, with Chase calling Pryor a number of pretty mild slurs, to which Pryor responds in kind with pretty minor league quips about whites. Then Chase calls Pryor a “porch monkey.” Pryor responds with “honky.” Chase ups the ante with “jungle bunny.” Pryor, unable to counter with a more vicious slur, responds with “honky, honky.” Chase then trumps all previous slurs with “nigger,” to which Pryor responds, “dead honky.” The line elicits laughs, but also makes clear that when it comes to racial verbiage, people of color are limited in the repertoire of slurs they can use against whites, and even the ones of which they can avail themselves sound more comic than hateful. The impact of hearing the anti-black slurs in the skit was of a magnitude unparalleled by hearing Pryor say “honky” over and over.
As a white person, I always saw the terms honky or cracker as proof of how much more potent white racism was than any variation practiced by the black or brown. When a group of people has little or no power over you, they don’t get to define the terms of your existence, they can’t limit your opportunities, and you needn’t worry much about the use of a slur to describe you, since, in all likelihood, the slur is as far as it’s going to go. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right. So whereas the n-word is a term used by whites to dehumanize blacks, to “put them in their place” if you will, the same cannot be said of honky; after all, you can’t put white people in their place when they own the place to begin with.
Power is like body armor; and while not all whites have the same power, all of us have more than we need vis-a-vis people of color, at least when it comes to racial position. Consider poor whites: to be sure, they are less financially powerful than wealthy people of color; but that misses the point of how racial privilege operates within a class system. Within a class system, people compete for “stuff” against others of their same basic economic status. In other words, rich and poor are not competing for the same homes, loans, jobs or even educations to a large extent. Rich compete against rich, working class against working class and poor against poor; and in those competitions — the ones that take place in the real world — racial privilege attaches.
Poor whites are rarely typified as pathological, dangerous, lazy or shiftless to anywhere near the extent the black poor are. Nor are they demonized the way poor Latino immigrants tend to be. When politicians want to bash welfare recipients they don’t pick Bubba and Crystal from the trailer park; they choose Shawonda Jefferson from the projects, with her five kids. Also, according to reports from several states, ever since so-called welfare reform, white recipients have been treated better by caseworkers, are less likely to be bumped off rolls for presumed failure to comply with regulations, and have been given more assistance at finding jobs than their black or brown counterparts. Poor whites are more likely to have a job, and are more likely to own their own home than the poor of color. Indeed, whites with incomes under $13,000 annually are more likely to own their own home than blacks with incomes that are three times higher due to having inherited property.
None of this denies that poor whites are being screwed by an economic system that relies on their misery. But they retain a leg up on poor or somewhat better off people of color thanks to racism. It is that leg up that renders the potency of certain prejudices less threatening than others; it is what makes cracker or honky less problematic than slurs used against the black and brown.
In response, some might say that people of color can indeed exercise power over whites, at least by way of racially-motivated violence. Such was the case this week in New York City, for example, where a black man shot two whites after announcing that he wanted to kill white people, and had hoped to set a wine bar on fire to bring such a goal to fruition. There is no doubt his act was one of racial bigotry, and that to those he was attempting to murder his power must have seemed quite real. Yet there are problems with claiming that this “power” proves racism from people of color is just as bad as the reverse.
First, racial violence is also a power whites have, so the power that might obtain in such a situation is hardly unique to non-whites, unlike the power to deny a bank loan for racial reasons, to “steer” certain homebuyers away from living in “nicer” neighborhoods, or to racially profile in terms of policing. Those are powers that can only be exercised by the more dominant group as a practical and systemic matter. Additionally, the “power” of violence is not really power at all, since to exercise it, one has to break the law and subject themselves to probable legal sanction. Power is much more potent when it can be deployed without having to break the law to do it, or when doing it would only risk a small civil penalty at worst. Discrimination in lending, though illegal, is not going to result in the perp going to jail; so too with employment discrimination or racial profiling.
Likewise, it’s the difference in power and position that has made recent attempts by American Indian activists in Colorado to turn the tables on white racists so ineffective. Indian students at Northern Colorado University, fed up by the unwillingness of white school district administrators in Greeley to change the name and grotesque Indian caricature of the Eaton High School “Reds,” recently set out to flip the script on the common practice of mascot-oriented racism. Thinking they would show white folks what it’s like to be in their shoes and experience the objectification of being a team icon, indigenous members of an intramural basketball team renamed themselves the “Fightin’ Whiteys,” and donned T-shirts with the team mascot: a 1950s-style caricature of a suburban, middle class white guy, next to the phrase “every thang’s gonna be all white.”
Funny though the effort was, it has not only failed to make the point intended, but has been met with laughter and even outright support by white folks. Rush Limbaugh actually advertised for the team’s T-shirts on his radio program, and whites from coast to coast have been requesting team gear, thinking it funny, rather than demeaning, to be turned into a mascot. The difference, of course, is that it’s tough to negatively objectify a group whose power and position allows them to define or redefine the meaning of another group’s attempts at humor: in this case the attempt by Indian peoples to teach them a lesson. It’s tough to school the headmaster, in other words. Objectification works against the disempowered because they are disempowered. The process doesn’t work in reverse, or at least, making it work is a lot tougher than one might think. Turning Indians into mascots has been offensive because it perpetuates the dehumanization of such persons over many centuries, and the mentality of colonization and conquest. It is not as if one group (whites) merely chose to turn another group (Indians) into mascots as if by chance. Rather, it is that whites have consistently viewed Indians as less than human — as savage and “wild” — and have been able to not merely portray such imagery on athletic banners and uniforms, but in history books and literature more crucially.
In the case of the students at Northern, they would need to be far more acerbic in their appraisal of whites in order for their attempts at “reverse racism” to make the point intended. After all, “fightin” is not a negative trait in the eyes of most, and the 1950s iconography chosen for the uniforms was unlikely to be seen as that big a deal. Perhaps if they had settled on “slave-owning whiteys,” or “land-stealing whiteys,” or “smallpox-giving-on-purpose whiteys,” the point would have been made; and instead of a smiling “company man” logo, perhaps a Klansman, or skinhead as representative of the white race–now that would have been a nice functional equivalent of the screaming Indian warrior. Bottom line: you gotta go strong to turn the tables on the man, and irony won’t get it nine times out of ten. Without the power to define another’s reality, Indian activists are simply incapable of turning the tables with well-placed humor.
Simply put, what separates white racism from any other form and makes anti-black and brown humor more dangerous than its anti-white equivalent is the ability of the former to become lodged in the minds and perceptions of the citizenry. White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, be they “noble” or vicious, they’ll be seen in that light. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell’s going to care? If anything, whites will simply turn it into a marketing opportunity. When you have the power, you can afford to be self-deprecating.
The day that someone produces a newspaper ad that reads: “Twenty honkies for sale today: good condition, best offer accepted,” or “Cracker to be lynched tonight: whistled at black woman,” then perhaps I’ll see the equivalence of these slurs with the more common type to which we’ve grown accustomed. When white churches start getting burned down by militant blacks who spray paint “Kill the honkies” on the sidewalks outside, then maybe I’ll take seriously these concerns over “reverse racism.”
Until then, I guess I’ll find myself laughing at another old Saturday Night Live skit: this time with Garrett Morris as a convict in the prison talent show who sings:
Gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see
Gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see.
And once I kill all the whiteys I see
Then whitey he won’t bother me
Gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see.
See, it just isn’t the same.