The Nature of the Racist Conversation


This is Melisa Riviere. White People sometimes do hip hop.
I have a reading suggestion for you. First a little background.

I’ve gotten into a few arguments on race and racism in my time, some on this blog. Racist thinking is all around us. Why just a few hours ago, a neighbor complained that his car had been robbed by the black kids that pass down our street now and then. How did he know it was the black kids? Because the people who robbed his car like hip-hop. How did he know that? Because they didn’t take his rock cds. Oh, did they take his hip hop cd’s? Well no, he doesn’t have hip hop cds. He’s not black. Why would he have hip hop cd’s?


This is a rewritten repost, part of the celebration of Repost your Political Snark Week (which is an event held every two years offset from the US Congressional Elections).

I had to laugh, for so many reasons. Never mind the inanity of it all. Just consider the pragmatics. The person that I know best who also is the person I know who is most into hip hop is depicted in the photo. White girl. Its not like I don’t know any African American Musicians. Hey, my nephew is an African American Musician. He’s just not into hip hop much. Well, everybody’s into hip hop, right? He just does not produce a lot of it. (Do check out his stuff, it is quite good.) Oh, and I have a good friend who is “black” who writes hip hop and studies the role of music and social change. In truth, she is South Asian adopted as in infant into a mixed-race family. I’m not going to say which races. Oh, and the white girl in the picture is Hispanic. So maybe that makes her not white. Maybe it would make sense for her to steal the radio out of Bubba’s car, but leave the Rock.


Every day I walk or drive by a pickup with a decal like this one. I wonder if this particular neighbor is an anti-Semite, a white supremacist, or just a socially inept ahistorical moron. I’m not taking any bets on this one.
Me? I’d take the rock and leave the radio. I don’t think the radio from Bubba’s “American” car would fit in my “Foreign” car (the latter made in the USA, 100%). The thing is, I suspect its not rock. I suspect it’s country. Ick. Way too white for this white boy.

Foreign cars made in America, American cars made in Wherever. People failing to live up to their skin color-determined roles all around us … the whole world turned topsy turvy. What is a good ol’ racist to do these days?

Well, my friend Stephanie Zvan has written an insightful and interesting post on her blog about what racists actually do when confronted with challenges to their thinking.


Almost Diamonds
This is not just about their arguments, but about the process they engage in (unconsciously, I assume). Stephanie writes about things I’ve noticed before, but never formalized as she has. The racist repository of replies to the usual anti-racist arguments is fairly limited, and usually has the same sequence. The same lyrics, the same melody. Nonsensical and out of tune. Here, Stephanie analyzes the process with two or three racist commenters on a recent post that I wrote on the currently traveling Science Museum of Minnesota’s exhibit on race and racism.

A bunch of white people talking about race. Typical. But Stephanie’s post is well worth a read. Here:

What Is Race Good For?

Huh. Absolutely nothin’ …

That makes me laugh.

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0 thoughts on “The Nature of the Racist Conversation

  1. …or just a socially inept ahistorical moron.

    Moron? Your spellchecker misfired. The correct word is “moran”.

  2. Every day I walk or drive by a pickup with a decal like this one. I wonder if this particular neighbor is an anti-Semite, a white supremacist, or just a socially inept ahistorical moron. I’m not taking any bets on this one.

    A sufficiently optimistic person might be able to read the image as a subtly commentary on the futility and pointlessness of war (two identical-looking dead people facing each other and snarling). I’m guessing the third of the above, though…

  3. So, they didn’t take any CD’s at all? What bastards! Have they no taste? They couldn’t have been black, because, well, blacks have rhythm and need music, even rock, to be able to walk. It’s just the way it is.

    I am also curious about the whole fried chicken, ribs and watermelon because I really like all those foods and I don’t get where that stereotype even comes from. Any clues?

  4. Dammit, you repost, then I gotta go read Stephanie’s post, then I follow the link to the review that inspired it, and the original version of this post with the mind-breaking comments, and there goes my evening.

    I just finished reading Segu, a novel following several generations of an East African family in the 1800s. The author makes much of the fine distinctions that the Africans draw between their groups. It’s obvious to them that they look and act nothing like the people just a hundred miles away. Part of the subtext is that the Europeans and Muslims from the North and East are bringing other systems of distinguishing people, which some of the characters use to their advantage. Typical colonial narrative, but it worked.

    As for the skullies. Got a junkshop in my neighborhood and I stopped in once. More Nazi shit than I have ever seen gathered in one place. I hung around while my father-in-law browsed and overheard people in the store laughing about how a bunch of Nazi jackets they were selling were fake. Unless you’re a re-enactor, reproduction Nazi crap is worse than the real thing.

  5. Mike: curious about the whole fried chicken, ribs and watermelon

    Those specific foods are part of a panoply of the cuisine that had emerge by the mid 19th century (with many elements being quite old) in southern plantation life as African-American cuisine, which would eventually become “soul food.”

    Why the specifics … those you mention … are more commonly tossed out as part of the racist trope (all there are depicted on the racist Obama Bucks for instance) is a bit of a question, but I have a theory.

    First let me note that there is considerable overlap in both what the elements of the cuisine are and in who eats this cuisine between African American and Southern. Also, there is a similar overlap between soul food and poor cuisine (in the US South).

    Anyway, there are probably three reasons why certain elements of soul food have become racist icons. First, understand that the modern racist icons (icons of blackness used by racists) are pulled out of a Jim Crow style graphic style that emerged in the 19th century and developed in the early 20th century. So the proximate answer to the question “why these three things” is because these are three common and primary elements in the Jim Crow style depictions. But why are these three foods in this depiction to begin with?

    First, not all foods are graphically sensible or otherwise interesting. A depiction of a young African American (Jim Crow style) boy with a huge tooth grin, silly eyes, and so on, munching on a fork full of greens or a plate of okra is not as visually striking as the same young boy munching on a giant green and red slice of watermelon.

    Second, there is a huge overlap between these three dietary items and the broader categories I mentioned above. Fried chicken, ribs, and water melon are part of the total American picnic cuisine. So everybody knows about and eats these foods.

    Third, is the ironic appreciation syndrome. This happens a lot where you have heavily stratified cultures. Fried foods generally speaking were brought to the colonial US by slaves. We have fried chicken because of Africans. And we eat fried chicken, and we like fried chicken, so there is a picture of fried chicken. Same with the watermelon. The watermelon probably found its way into our cuisine from slave-grown produce and it is in face an African crop.

    I’m not entirely sure how ribs work in this regard, but ribs certainly are a part of soul food.

    Out east where I’m from, a decade or so ago, there were far more rib shacks than here in the US upper Midwest, and they are concentrated in African American areas and one form of “slumming it” among the HNWMC was to go to selected ribs joints where one would still feel safe. While I was living in Cambridge/Somerville a ribs explosion occurred, and all these rib restaurants that were totally yuppified opened up, but they were white-southern. I always wondered if that would classify as cultural rip-off.

  6. Well, stealing someone’s radio really has very little to do with race. Just like stealing a computer or tv it’s all about the free market. You can’t give away used CDs…

    I think quite a bit about race and culture. My daughter and son are both international adopted from Kazakhstan and China (respectively). Teaching them as much as we can about their culture and doing what we can to insulate them from and vaccinate them against rascist assumption is part of our job. Like many things in parenting, you just never know if you’re doing it right.

    Some people seem to think that if they have a positive view of a race then that’s okay. (It’s okay to assume that Asians are good at math). Unfortunately, I saw some of the more rascist assumptions from Early Intervention personal when I was seeking help for my son’s speech issues due to a craniofacial birth difference. I had one literacy advocate who told me, ‘sure your son is smart and into things like legos and machines because he’s Chinese, my husband is Chinese and they are all like that.’ We did not see her again.

    In the area we’ve moved to, prejudice against Middle Eastern, Indian and Hispanic folks seems to be quite common (definitely more common than I thought when we moved here). The people of my daughter’s ethnicity, Kazakh,are almost entirely Islamic. I do not want her getting the negative message about Islam that is so prevalent today. I struggle to find a persuasive way to communicate to some neighbors, school personal, etc what I was taught as a child by my mom. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover. You need to take the time to get to know a person, before you, well, know them. Most of these people I’m talking about are not mean people or nazis, but they are fearful and aren’t thinking about how their unrealistic fearfulness negatively effects the world around them.

    Some people think that the answer is to just call people racist or reprimand them. When you are talking about the media or having public discussions that might help. In private one on one conversaions, it might make you feel you have “done something” but, I don’t know that it actually changes any minds.

    In regards to whether race or ethnicity labels are useful when it comes to medicine. I can see some good or bad. If a doctor ignores symptoms because the patient is the “wrong race” that is a problem. But, with my children it is helpful to know for instance that Asian skin tends to scar more (or show scars). It is helpful to know about Mongolian spots, which are common in Asian infants/toddlers. It’s helpful to know about more common dietary issues (lactose intolerance, alcohol flush, etc). They are not the be all and end all, but sometimes a little bit helps.

    Quite a ramble, I know.

  7. (Greg, I know this is not directly relevant to your comments).

    Just one more “what is race good for” thought. Because of my son’s cleft lip and palate we regularly see a plastic surgeon. One visit we were discussing the shape of his nose and the usefulness/advisability of a second corrective surgery to that area. The PS was very well versed in facial ethnic differences and his examination and thoughts were based on how my son’s nose varied from the norm of other Asian noses (amount of protuberance, orientation of nostils, width, etc) While it might make people uncomfortable talking about typical ethnic features, these observations are essential and much appreciated in the realm of plastic surgery.

  8. micheleinmichigan: All very interesting thoughts about race. Yes, I insist on calling all race-based presumptions “racist” and allow for the possibility that there is good “racism” even though there isn’t any, over the medium to long term, as you suggest.

    Regarding the nose. I hope all the surgery goes well. But I have to admit that what came to my mind is a hypothetical scene from a Robert Altman film with people standing around discussing nose shape in relation to ethnicity.

    Looking at the book of example noses:

    “Here, look at this one. It’ sort of Highland Pakastan meets Tibetan Monk…”

    “No, I was thinking more of a Hmong with a touch of Cantonese…”

    and so on.

  9. Sadly, I don’t know Robert Altman’s work enough to visualize the scene. My imagination keeps playing John Cleese instead.

    Thanks for the kind words regarding my son’s surgery and thanks for an interesting discussion.

  10. The Producer (Altman): A great film.

    The reference is to writers pitching their screenplays to producers who really don’t like writers, and lower level producers pitching their ideas to each other and higher level producers.

    “This film will be an epic love story with an animal lover’s twist … like King Kong meets Sleepless in Seattle”


    “We need something with action but meaning… kinda like Lethal Weapon meets Ghandi….”

  11. Ahhh, I get it now. 🙂

    That was the movie with Tim Robbins. Brilliant film. Makes much more sense than John Cleese.

    I have to say, there’s not a lot of pitching in a Pediatric Plastic Surgery appointment. But it’s funny to think of.

  12. Ahhh, I get it now. 🙂

    That was the movie with Tim Robbins. Brilliant film.

    I have to say, there’s not a lot of artistic pitching in a Pediatric Plastic Surgery appointment. It’s more like a meeting with a building contractor. “Well, we can close this bit here and take a little bit from there and move it over there and then it might not be so drafty in here” (just depends whether you’re talking about a living room or nasal passage). They just want the new structure to fit in with the existing landscape. 🙂

    But it’s funny to think of. Particularly since my son was saying the other day that he wanted a nose like my husband’s very italian one.

  13. whoops sorry for the trigger happy post button twitch.

    Also the word “artistic” was poorly chose, should have been more pseudo-creative or some such.

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