Archive - Jan 16, 2012

Racism In The New Media Era

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Memo to various and sundry racists: YOU ARE DUMB.

Look, I realize it's redundant during a Republican presidential primary, but it's traditional. For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I pop into Google News, enter the search term "racism", and see what pops up. So where do we stand on racism this year?

Apparently we stand on English soccer fields. And in line at fast food joints.

In England, there's been a huge pontifigurd over Liverpool soccer dude Luis Suarez, who was suspended for eight games for yelling at a black Manchester United player and using the word "negro" seven times in two minutes. Suarez had an interesting explanation for his behavior, one that I might, under certain circumstances, be mildly sympathetic for. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"In my country, 'negro' is a word we use commonly, a word which doesn't show any lack of respect and is even less so a form of racist abuse. Based on this, everything which has been said so far is totally false." - Suarez, in a statement following his suspension.

Now, Suarez is from Uruguay, and "negro" is Spanish for "black", so you can sort of, kind of see where he's going with that. But I've got two problems buying into that. First, as far as I can tell, Suarez wasn't actually yelling in Spanish at the guy from Man U. I'm basing this on the fact that said player, Patrice Evra, is (a) French, (b) playing soccer in England, and (c) understood what Suarez was saying to him. If you're yelling at someone in English, then "negro" isn't "black", it's "negro". And second, Suarez has been playing in Europe for five years. Five years is long enough to learn that some of the allegedly common, harmless words in your native Uruguay will get you in trouble in the broader world.

This would have been a much smaller incident, except that Suarez' Liverpool teammates rallied around him, in a misguided show of support not seen since Penn State. Which led to arguments about whether the team was racist, which led to arguments about whether soccer is racist, which led to me tuning out and moving on to a story about soccer in Australia and accusations of racism there.

Which started out great, by the way. A Fox Sports commentator down under, Robbie Slater, accused his former colleague, Craig Foster, of a racist rant in a column. And in Foster's column, he did appear to be criticizing Melbourne for hiring a coach of a certain ethnicity. Unfortunately, upon further investigation, that ethnicity? British.

And I'm sorry, but as someone who lives in a country with one of the world-leading records in racism, from slavery to Jim Crow to fire hoses and dogs, to disenfranchisement, chronic inequality, wildly disparate imprisonment rates, and voter ID laws that persist to this day, Australian white people do not get to call other Australian white people "racist" for saying mean things about British white people. I realize "remnants of empire-based bitterness" takes longer to say, and has a lot more syllables, but I demand a certain minimal effort toward semantic accuracy.

I mean, you know how racist we are here? We've got fast food employees typing slurs onto RECEIPTS. A few weeks ago, a Chik Fil-A employee got fired for putting the names "CHING" and "CHONG" on the receipts of two Asian customers instead of their actual names. And then, more recently, in what was either a horrible coincidence or an even worse copycat incident, a Papa John's customer walked away with a receipt that referred to her as, I shit you not, "LADY CHINKY EYES".

And this was in America's noted hotbed of racism, HARLEM. For fuck's sake. Again, this would normally be just a singular incident that cost one teenage girl her job, but while Papa John's corporate wing is understandably apologetic, the store's employees have been going to the press and defending it.

""We're all of different races here in this store. So she didn't mean any harm, didn't mean to stereotype against her, to discriminate against her, but that's how she took it." - one anonymous assistant manager. I understand that language has nuance, but goddammit, people, there are a really, really small number of situations where someone gets called "LADY CHINKY EYES" and shouldn't "take it" as a stereotype.

"It’s a busy place, and it was a way to identify her and her order. You know, we do stuff like that sometimes. We’ll write ‘the lady with the blue eyes’ or ‘the guy in the green shirt.’ ” - a manager named Jerome, to the New York Post.

Now, I freely admit that I only eat from Papa John's when they bring the food to me. And because they're bringing food to me, they not only know my name, and where I live, but they have no idea how chinky my eyes may or may not be. But I've been to restaurants. I've been to fast food restaurants, I've been to fast casual restaurants. Lots of restaurants where they need to identify me in some way so that I get my food. And you know what? If you add up the percentage of restaurants that use my name, and the percentage that give me a number, and the percentage that use a vaguely racist characteristic? 100%. And if you take away the ones that use the vaguely racist characteristic? STILL 100%. You know why? Because the number system works, and the name system works, and "LADY CHINKY EYES" gets people pissed off and other people fired.

Oh, and just so you know, Ohio just this year reaffirmed that you can't put a "WHITES ONLY" sign on your pool. So I guess we really are living out King's dream.