Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Our Post-Racial Society

"One cool thing about saying something bigoted is you can always deny it was your intention, and thus preserve some amount of face—at least in your own mind," Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote today.  Seems another nominally white golfer made a racist joke about Tiger Woods.  (I say "nominally" because Sergio Garcia is a Spaniard, which is only white under certain interpretations of race.  In the 19th century, Spaniards were among the dusky Mediterranean races that white American nativists were trying to keep away from our hallowed shores.  I wonder how Garcia would react if someone were to make a joke, say, about flamenco and castanets, or that confused Spaniards with Mexicans, that sort of thing.)  And now another white golfer, one Fuzzy Zoeller (why do white parents give names like these to their kids?) has been quoted about his own racist remarks about Woods from 1997: he says he's "paid his dues," and it's all in the past.  Which, I guess, is why he's being quoted now, sixteen years later, about a similar imbroglio.  Obviously, racism is still in the present.  It's amazing how quickly a foreigner like Garcia picked up ancient American racist tropes like "We'll have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken."  Do they teach it in classes for incoming PGA contestants?

Reactions in the sports press have been revealing.  Some see it as just about a "feud" between Woods and Garcia that goes back to the 90s.  It's all personal, see.  This writer says that Zoeller was "thrown under the racist label", even though he "had previously made nothing but positive headlines at Augusta, especially in 1979, when he won the Masters on his very first try."  "Zoeller became a pariah. Once things died down, Zoeller was no longer sought after for comedic remarks, and had to be more careful with what he said."

Rhetoric like this seems to imply that whites, or at least white athletes, are naturally full of racist remarks that will pop out through no fault of their own if they aren't "careful."  And besides, those remarks aren't really racist, and it's so unfair to throw a promising golfer "under the racist bus" just because of a few words.  This is also the tenor of the "apologies" bigots usually make: I'm sorry if I offended anybody, but it's your own fault for being offended!  I didn't say it, I didn't mean to say it, but it wasn't racist anyway, and I'm being persecuted like the Christian martyrs and thrown to the Politically Correct Lions!   Or as RWA1 declared recently about a case of racist social science, "Nothing should be taboo."  Nothing, that is, except what he disapproves of.

As Coates says, "One reason the comment will dog Garcia is because he will never cop to what he actually did."  It doesn't have to be this way: Coates quotes the story of an athlete who made some antigay remarks a couple of years ago,
But unlike some athletes who do only what they have to in order to save what they can of their careers, his was not just the compulsory apology. He went on to work with gay-rights groups, to learn why what he said was wrong and to make a real effort to atone for it.
This is going too far in many white people's eyes, of course.  (And in the eyes of many bigots of any color.)  It's a kick in the nuts of privilege to have to hold in all those witty remarks about fried chicken or dropped soap in the showers or slanty eyes or women crying because they can't throw a ball.  What I notice most forcefully, though, about the remarks these guys get in trouble for is that they aren't even funny.  They're assertions of status, uttered for bonding purposes with like-minded bigots.  I mean, fried chicken?  Maybe it's that they're athletes, not comedians; shoemaker, stick to your last.

I'm also sure that it isn't because too little time has elapsed for these guys to have learned that racism or other forms of bigotry are wrong, or even that they're impolite.  They're just fine with bigotry, they're fiercely attached to it, and they won't let go until you pry it from their cold, dead fingers.  The injustice in their eyes is more that there are fewer venues where they can say such things without being criticized for them.  In the good old days when golf was a "gentleman's game," and men of color were caddies, not players, the days so many of my age mates recall fondly, you could say them almost anywhere, and it was objecting to them that was the breach of etiquette.  Many white sports fans clearly wish we still lived in those days; but we don't.  Not thanks to any god, but to the determined efforts of courageous people who decided things were going to change.