Friday, January 11, 2008

If only we could take it back...

People make dumb comments a lot. We all do it--things we say and the minute it comes out of our mouths we realize that we sound like an ass or can be misconstrued to sound like an ass. Or we say things in the heat of the moment or in our younger, wilder, more ignorant days. Or, in some cases, we are coldly calculating and we mean to sound like an ass to be manipulative.

I start in this more humanist, universal way to remind myself that when I get righteous about the dumb things that people say, particularly about the racist (or racially coded and therefore implicated in a racial and racist hierarchy) things that people say, that I, too, have said things that have offended and hurt and shamed others.

But then again, I'm not a public figure (or I suppose as a professor, even an anonymous professor of Southern U I'm semi-public).

Recently there was a really IDIOTIC thing that got said about Tiger Woods by Kelly Tilghman (Golf Network anchor). Tilghman was bantering with another ex-pro golfer, Nick Faldo, at a golf tournament about Tiger Woods' dominance on the PGA tour and what younger golfers would need to do to beat Tiger (who has been for all intents and purposes, unbeatable, indominatable, untouchable). Faldo said that the young golfers would have to gang up on Tiger, and Tilghman made a remark that I'm sure she (and the rest of us) is regretting ever crossed her lips:

"Yeah, lynch him in a back alley"

Yes, a white female former pro-golfer, born and raised in South Carolina, who attended Duke University on a golf scholarship, and who has been on friendly terms with Tiger for a dozen years, made a stupid racist remark. On the face of it, some are saying it isn't racist because there wasn't malicious intent. In other words, Tilghman clearly wasn't suggesting that anyone should seriously try to string Woods up from a tree. Others are trying to claim that the word "lynch" doesn't really carry a particular racial connotation--that one can lynch people of any race.

But I mean, c'mon...really? A young woman born and raised in the South, whose parents owned a golf course in South Carolina, who attended Duke University in Durham, NC, she wouldn't be aware of how charged that word is, and she wouldn't be aware that making that comment about Woods, whom almost everyone sees as an African American golfer (the exceptions being those who try to recognize Tiger's bi-raciality or "cablinasian-ness" and the even fewer people who claim him as a member of the Asian American tribe), would be seen as violent and racist and just NOT FUNNY (some people are saying that because she was laughing when she made the remark it proves she didn't mean any harm). So making the suggestion, even in jest, even about a friend, that he should be "lynched," of course seems like a racist remark, because the whole act of lynching is steeped in racism. And even if we regard it as a thing of the "past," it's still not funny. And really, it's not a thing of the past. Lets look at some contemporaneous examples of lynching, and here it does cross racial lines because in 1982 there was a Chinese American girl in Chapel Hill, NC who was strung up to a tree and in 1998 Matthew Shepard, a gay white man, was tied to fence posts and left for dead and also in 1998 James Byrd, an African American man, was dragged behind a pick-up truck to his death (yes, technically both Shepard and Byrd were not tied to a tree, but I think their deaths--a result of extreme hatred due to their minoritized status (gay in one instance, black in another) are in the same vein as lynching.

So does that make Tilghman a racist and are her remarks just as damaging as Don Imus'? I bring up Imus because Al Sharpton used him as an example, claiming that Tilghman's remarks were just as bad as Imus and that like Imus she should be fired.

I don't know if Tilghman is more or less of a racist than Imus or more or less of a racist than anyone else. But I don't think that Tilghman's comments are the same as Imus'. Imus made racist and sexist comments about a group of college women. Tilghman made a racist remark about a multimillionaire golf champion. And Tilghman had a much smaller audience--the world of people who pay attention to golf is much smaller than Imus's audience. And Tilghman is a young woman, and I believe this is her first gaff, whereas Imus had been known for making regularly racist and offensive remarks.

I am contextualizing all of this, not because I'm trying to give Tilghman a "pass" or to say her remark was OK--it wasn't. And the Golf Channel has suspended her for two weeks as a result. She has apologized to her audience and apologized to Tiger Woods in person. And Tigers' "people" (his agent) has said that he holds no ill feelings towards Tilghman and has put the matter past him. And I don't think that just because Tiger is not upset that means other people shouldn't be upset. But I think I'm making all of these qualifications for this simple reason:

I wasn't even going to blog about this--mostly because I felt like other blogs had taken care of this issue (most notably Angry Asian Man). It wasn't until a reader of this blog emailed me and told me to check it out that I started to dig into the story. And when I read that people thought Tilghman should be fired for the same reason Imus was fired, I just felt like it wasn't the same--it didn't feel the same to me.

None of us wants to rank oppression--or rather, I don't. I don't want to say that one racist incident was worse than another or that one group experiences racism in a worse way than another. On the other hand, I have to say that in my experience, I do not have racist things said to me in, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the same way as my African American peers. I simply don't know what it's like to experience racism as an African American person. And I will go out on a limb and say that the instances of "Orientalizing" that I do experience (people asking me where I'm from or what language I speak) is minor in comparison to incidents that my African American friends have shared with me (for instance, to the best of my knowledge I've never been pulled over for driving for any random reason, I don't have people follow me in a department store, people don't assume I got into college through affirmative action, etc...).

But I don't know...I had this whole response typed out and then started talking to my white Southern boyfriend about all of this and he is OUTRAGED that Tilghman said this (and believes that with her background, she must have a fair degree of racism since he believes many white Southerners have internalized a fair amount of racism against black Americans and I guess he should know) and according to him "there's an undercurrent of racism in the South" that people just know about--and that especially someone like Tilghman should know better and should NEVER joke about lynching because it's extremely pointed, extremely racist, and should never be joked about, ever.

So I guess now I'm curious, should Tilghman be fired for what she said and is it as bad as/worse than Don Imus's remarks? Because I guess I'm contextualizing--looking at Tilghman's career versus Imus's career, and to me, there's no excuse for Imus and no real desire on his part to learn and be truly sorry and to educate himself. Whereas with Tilghman, well maybe there's hope. Maybe she will realize how wrong and how potentially damaging her remarks are. But am I also justifying her comments because I think it was a "first offense," because she's friendly with Tiger, because golf seems like such a smaller sphere, because I don't know what it's like to experience racism as an African American and didn't grow up in the South? How blind am I being to my own internalized racism and prejudices (which I hate to admit, and part of me was thinking of even deleting this whole post, because it's hard to admit your own blind spots, but I figure I should lay it all out here because if I can't be honest with myself about my internalized stuff, who can I be honest with? And I should let my blog readers call me on my bs as well).

I suppose I'll just end by asking anyone out there in the blogosphere to chime in with your thoughts and opinions, and perhaps the greater question: why does this all matter? I think it does, and I have my own opinions on this, but I'd like to know what anyone else has to say (and I may pick up this thread when I start to talk about "benign Orientalism," so be on the lookout.

13 comments:

The Constructivist said...

Thanks for your thoughtful take--it's good to read someone thinking aloud over this rather than just spinning talking points. I decided a few days ago to just bypass the debates you enter into and offer some unsolicited advice to Tilghman and Woods.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Constructivist--I checked out your post (and your blog) and I found it also very thoughtful (and appreciated the long reading list you gave not only for Tilghman and Woods but for all of us).

I also appreciate that you blog about golf from time to time--as someone who loves the game/sport, I am always looking for thoughtful people who write about golf through a critical perspective but also with an appreciation for it (and I'm also hoping to teach an American Studies course about golf one day--I figure it'd be a great way to talk about some key issues in American culture, like environmentalism, Title 9, and of course race.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I'm not sure people should be fired for saying racist things, but I think they should be publicly shamed, and they should apologize, and then people should just be suspicious of them for a really long time and wonder what rock they crawled out from under.

Of course, one of the things that comes to mind -- being a white person who was raised in an elite atmosphere myself -- is that a lot of white people are really appalling when left to themselves (for example, the People With Balls and Sticks down the Road). They think certain kinds of language and behavior is funny when they use it privately among other white people who will protect them, and then they forget when they are out in public. So maybe this is who this broad really is, and she should be fired after all.

Jennifer said...

I think one of the things I find most interesting is the comments that are left on CNN.com or Fox News about this--from people who are golfers or who follow golf as well as people who are outraged over Tilghman. There's some pretty AWFUL racist comments on the Fox News comment section (which follows news of Tilghman's apology) and more measured comments on CNN's comment page (which has been closed) and I guess I mention all of this because I do suspect that some pretty awfully racist things get said when people believe they are in private or that they can say when it's anonymous.

I also think that, perhaps apropos of The Constructivist's post, that there can possibly be real education that comes out of this--and that firing Tilghman wouldn't lead to either her education/edification about race or Tiger's for that matter, or the rest of the golf community. And so rather than firing her, and beyond a 2 week suspension and acts of contrition, I think that having her or even better, having the Golf Channel start to really interogate the history of race in golf and the assumptions that get made about race and golf could do a lot to healing and educating.

But the cynic in me is not going to hold my breath about this happening. After all, what I really want is for Tiger to be the next messiah and lead us all out of the desert of racism and into the new future of anti-racist praxis, all while still dominating the golf course...it's late, I'm clearly delusional.

Genepool said...

As much as I detest racism and narrow-mindedness in general, I wonder about the demands I keep seeing for outrage.

"They should be outraged!" "They should be fired!" "They should kiss some major heiny and apologize whether they mean it or not because my outrage demands it!"

Now I don't know much about Tiger Woods beyond the fact that he is probably going to be known for a hundred years as the greatest golfer in the world.

I know less about the poor woman who had the bad timing to say something so careless on the heels of the famous Imus remarks. From the original post we know that she and Tiger had known each other for some time. They might just be comfortable enough around each other to make offhand remarks like that to each other. I have indulged in this sort of banter with friends of mine without undue stress because we know each other well enough that the comments become ironic.

I think this poor woman simply made a bad joke. I say poor woman because that one comment will cement her forever into the "racist" category. It doesn't matter if she was simply being ironic, trusting that people out there have a sense of humor and would understand she would never say anything to suggest Tiger Woods should actually be lynched. No, she will be EXPECTED to be contrite and remorseful and to feel very, very ashamed.

What worries me is the marketing of racism. Experts telling us what is and isn't appropriate to say and how we should feel about it if it is. Confusion is evident on every front as to who can say what without it being racist. Can blacks make comments about blacks that white people would be called to task for? Is that an ok thing? Should people simply not acknowledge race at all?
Are we that fearful of our differences?

I don't know. I see no resolution, only endless debate and none of us any closer to understanding each other.

Jennifer said...

Genepool,
Thanks for stopping by--I think you raise concerns that a lot of people have--I know they are questions that I have found when I talk about race with my students. And it's partly why I wanted to create this blog. To try to create spaces where people could talk about race, even if it's not so comfortable to do so.

I think you are right when you say that in the privacy of our circle of friends, we say things we would never say in public or with acquaintances (and certainly not with co-workers). I think part of the difficulty is figuring out where that line is and where people's comfort zones are, and also how people change.

One minor example: I tolerated a lot of anti-Southern jokes about dumb Southerners and racist Southeners and backward Southerners and in-bred Southerners before I moved South. I am sure I made these jokes from time to time. But now that I live in the South, now that I know Southeners and am getting to know the culture and history, they aren't so funny. And I have found myself in the position of explaining to friends how I've changed my thinking. The scenario is typically something like this: I'm in Boston for a conference. A friend or acquaintance finding out I'm at Southern U. starts to ask me about life there and then makes some remark about being in the South that's pejorative. And I smile and confess that while once upon a time I may have thought that or agreed, my thinking about the South has changed my attitude about it and that it's far more complex than I had realized while living in New England.

This example is pretty small stakes and is easy to talk about. Race isn't. We've been trained to think about race or rather, let me be specific, we've been trained to think about racism along the same axis as cancer, except worse because we're holding people accountable, both in the past and the present. So it's uncomfortable.

And it's why I started the post as I did--I've said dumb awful things before, consciously and not. I've said racist things before. And I will probably continue to say racially insensitive things because no matter how many books I read, how many classes I teach, how many people of color and white allies I surround myself, I'm human and I make mistakes.

So I guess that's one of the reasons I'm willing to give Tilghman the benefit of the doubt and why I see her case as different from Imus. She made a mistake, most primarily in her choice of a single word--because "lynch," or any variation, particularly post Jena 6 and post-noose incidents has a really charged tone. And I'm willing to say it was subconscious on her part, her use of word. But I'm also certain, especially after talking to my white Southern boyfriend, that she has some internalized ideas about race and racism that she probably hasn't thought about or recogized.

And so that's why I think rather than firing for her and for the GOlf Channel (because c'mon yes she should be publicly shamed, but it's all about the institution too--the way in which Golf, in particular, has served to uphold systems of racial hierachies and gender as well) who should take a hard look at the field and systems of inequity. And it would be great, as the Constructivist post suggests, if Tilghman and Tiger could take this moment and decide to find out why people are so upset.

In other words, Tilghman, rather than turning herself into a victim of "political correctness" (which people are starting to think she is) could say, 'Huh, some people are really upset about what I said and about the charge of the word "lynch"--let me find out why it's so charged and steeped in racism.'

And while I do understand how daunting this work is and how divisive people seem over issues of race, I have to have faith. I have to believe that we can get there. It won't be comfortable and it will be hard and there will be bad feelings from time to time. But I've seen it in my classes. I've seen it with friends. We can talk and I can have my mind changed and I can have my friends' minds changed.

And I really think the place to do this is around racism--because I believe, at heart, we ALL (OK, maybe not the extreme skinheads or neo-Nazis or black Nationaists or Asian nationalists) agree the race is a construction and ranking races is folly. And if we can at least start there, I think we can try to move ahead on the smaller stuff and to realize that the particular history of how various "racial" groups were treated in the U.S. has created different sensitivities and understandings of race.

Sorry for such a long post--I'm taking off my profssor hat and waiting for other wiser voices to chime in.

CVT said...

Just a quick comment - but, in some ways, Tilghman may be even more dangerous than Imus, depending on some variables that I am going to make assumptions on (and am definitely willing to eat crow on if somebody has facts about it).

My guess is that - as a Southern white woman whose line of work is in the realm of professional golf - she spends her time in a largely white (male) crowd. Tiger Woods could very well be her "exception" - that "I am friendly with Tiger Woods, so I CAN'T be racist" argument that people cling to when it is absolutely irrelevant. People are really good (especially in the realm of race, but in other instances, as well) at coming up "exceptions" to the "Us vs. Them" categories of life.

For example, turning the one or two African-American person someone knows and respects into "exceptions" to the rule that "all black people are thugs" or something like that. In a way, that almost reinforces the stereotype that the person had, originally, because they can emphasize the exceptional quality of those that they know.

And the people doing this are more dangerous than out-and-out racists like Don Imus, because they are in a position to justify. They tell people (and themselves) that they "can't be racist" because of their two black friends. Or because they are on "friendly terms with Tiger Woods" (whatever that really means). So they may be even less likely to watch their mouth or really LEARN from an event like this because they do not believe they did anything wrong - they say the right words because they have to, but deep down they justify because "Tiger is a friend."

I don't know if this makes sense the way I just wrote it. But it's a danger I always worry about. It's the reason I distrust white "hippie" liberals here in Portland more than Southern white folks - because of that ridiculous notion that liberal white people "get it" in some way that others don't. I'd rather have the racism I can see, than the naive blindness kept behind a poker face.

I just completely lost track of where I was going with this. Basically, BECAUSE Tilghman is friends with Woods, there may be LESS hope that she figures it out. It's no coincidence she used the term "lynching," considering her background. It may be subconscious, but it was there for a reason, and sweeping it under the rug with the excuse that it "was a joke" or "was a slip" changes nothing.

courtgolf said...

Jennifer - don't ever apologize for using common sense to analyze a silly situation like this. The people who get bent out of shape over a slip of the tongue are, at least at the top, doing so to line their pockets by fueling racial tensions. That filters down to the dumb-masses who take whatever the people at the top say as gospel and run with it.

Since you brought up Imus, the only correct comparison between his words and Tilghmans's is this. There was a period of several days before anyone decided they were supposed to be angry over either comment...most notably the REVEREND Al Sharpton. (what he is a reverend of is beyond me - aside from the church of CNN and the church of wherever his money is banked) Sharpton waited several days, then checked his schedule to see if he needed to make a public appearance, before running to CNN to get his face in the news. The girls on the team didn't even know that Imus had mentioned them. (and for good reason - his show is attrocious)

I would like to know how you are defining the word "racism". In your piece, you assume that all people in the south are at least partially racist simply because they are from the south. That leads to the logical conclusion that people in the north are not racist because they are from the north. Both assumptions are incredibly wrong.

If you are defining racism as anything white people say or do against blacks...or asians, or latin, or whoever - then you deny the racially charged language that comes from other races towards caucasians or between any racial groups. Listen to any "gansta" rap cd and you'll see the point.

Other than those two points, I really enjoyed your words and I wish more people would be a little more forgiving about the words of others.

Jennifer said...

Courtgolf & CVT,

First of all, thanks again for chiming in because, as my "Rules" state, I don't want to just preach to the choir. But I have to be really honest and say that I had to take a deep breath when I read your comments Courtgolf because I think I'm reading the situation from a different perspective and, I know tone is so hard to judge on email, but am I wrong in feeling like there was an accusation you were making about my post or an accusatory tone? Perhaps I'm being oversensitive...and was I apologizing for myself? Perhaps in my attempt to acknowledge many of my own human foibles I am coming across like an apologist, but that wasn't my intent--I believe Tilghman's remarks were racist and that she deserved censure. I just don't believe she deserves to be fired, and beyond whether or not she should be fired, I think she should be allowed to be forgiven and to learn from her mistake--to acknowledge it, move on, and in an ideal world, to really show us that she has learned and understands just WHY there was so much hurt and anger over her remark. Al Sharpton aside (and to be honest, I'm fairly neutral about Reverand Sharpton--I think he serves a purpose but I understand that many see him as divisive), her remark was painful for people. It was painful for me and as I said in my post, I'm not someone who experiences racism and discrimination and has my very existence questioned in the way that many of my African American peers do. So to be a black American hearing that remark, I can only imagine what that stirred, and it stirred something because of a very specific history which is not so much past as present.

At any rate, I think your question about how I define racism deserves more space than I'll want to use in the comment section, so I'm about to post about it and would really love to hear your perspective on this because I have a sneaking suspicion that you are exactly the kind of person I want to have conversations with race about--someone who will really challenge me to think through my beliefs and that perhaps we will have to agree to disagree at the end of the day. So really, thank you for reading the blog and for leaving a post--I do appreciate the conversation and I especially appreciate you saying that you like my words. For any professor that's gold, so thank you.

I also have to admit (am I being overly self-disclosing now?) that it is also exhausting--I forgot that this can be emotionally difficult work. And that may be one difference between what it's like to be a person of color and talk about race and racism and to be a non-person of color and talk about the same topics. Not being not a person of color (ie: white), I can't speak to this so perhaps our Caucasian/European American readers can chime in about this either here or in the above post.

I will say that I don't think I made the assumption that all people from the South are racist--my white Southern boyfriend said that--so I'll leave it to him to counter that. Although I think I can safely say that while he may believe all white Southerners are racist or are implicated in a racist system, I think he wouldn't excuse any other Americans and any other region of America from being racist. But again, I don't want to speak for him.

As for myself, I basically think we're all implicated in a system of racism, but I'll save that for the above post.

CVT, as always I appreciate your perspective and I tend to share your point of view in the sense that I am always a little suspicious of anyone who claims total freedom from racism or who starts to quote the "I can't be racist because I have an Asian American boyfriend and a black step-mother and a Latino best friend." Like I said, I think we're all implicated in this system, but perhaps, to use a MATRIX analogy, some of us are more ready for the red pill than others...

Tami said...

Oh, it's all so complicated, Jennifer.

Do I think Tilghman is racist, as in, she hates and seeks to exclude black people? Probably not. Is she likely prejudiced with biased views of people of color? I think yes. Of course, everyone in this country, no matter their race, has racial prejudices. It's the American way. But I suspect Tilghman may have more than most. Maybe you can chalk it up to her Southern upbringing, but I honestly have never heard anyone casually bring up lynching in conversation.

I went to college in Iowa and was one of few black students at my school. I met a lot of nice, well-meaning white classmates who, while friendly towards me, would say the most appalling things about race. Like CVT suggested, I often was viewed as an exception not a reason to rethink racial views. Something about Tilghman reminds me of some of my dorm mates. Willing to have black friends, but hard pressed to let go of old beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs bubble to the surface.

On one hand, I wish we would just move on from incidents like this. They distract us from the real issues of race that are more complicated. Last year, I wrote a post about how stuff like this is just racial theater: http://whattamisaid.blogspot.com/2007/11/racism-as-theater-how-media-encourages.html

But the weary part of me, the part that has heard far too many comments like this in my 30-some years on this planet(at school, at work, on TV, etc.), wonders when as a black American I get to exhale and stop being marginalized.

Jennifer said...

Tami,
It is complicated and it IS exhausting. I really hear you about wanting to exhale. And I must confess that as much as I empathize and seriously sympathize with your experiences, I don't know them--that's why I tried to contextualize my racist experiences with those of my African American peers. Quite frankly, while I had my share of stupid things said to me in college, I think my friends and acquaintances were both more and less open to talking to me about race and hearing me and not making me into an exception, because I think people see Asian Americans in a different light than African Americans and hold different racist assumptions (that's why progressive Asian Americans fight against the model minority tag--because not only is it inaccurate, it's completely divisive in terms of pitting us "good" Asians against the "bad" browner/blacker minorities).

Anyway, all I really want to say is I really HEAR you and I think the problem of fatigue is very real for people who want to talk about race in nuanced ways, which is probably something for another post--how can we get energized and not be fatigued--and I really am curious about whether it's just people of color who feel tired but whether other white allies also feel the racial exhaustion (and whether it's similar/different).

Finally (gosh I tend to write too much!) thanks for the link to the "racial theater"--I love that expression!

John said...

Who is willing to argue that racism is no longer pervasive throughout the daily experience of every person alive in the US (and Canada-where i live)? If that's an exageration, I believe it's only slightly so. There has been significant changes historically and we've yet a long way to go- this is undeniable. There are many people drawing conclusions about Kelly Tilghman, the person that are simply unfair. Like it or not there is a relative nature to racism, and it is not possible to determine that she "may have more than most" by the single remark. It's simply not enough. There has been plenty of folks who know her on a personal level who suggest, that the comment was atypical for her. I'm glad she was held accountable for her mistake... but at this point, it's been blown way out of proportion.

I know (and am glad) that discussions about race will continue, and believe positive change will also continue (albeit at a painstakingly slow pace) but i think it's now time to leave Tilghman out of the discussions.

Jennifer said...

John,
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment--I tend to be a glass-half-full type of gal myself, so I also try to have faith that this work, while slow, will progress and needs to progress.