I have a few friends who love The Ellen Degeneres Show. Though I don’t watch the show, I’ve watched clips online when I was interested in seeing a particular guest. She seems like the kind of person who’d make you so comfortable in her home. Her quirkiness and ability to pull off the most awkward of jokes with ease make it almost impossible not to like her.
Yet, even with all the qualities I described, Ellen Degeneres is still the dreaded white racist. No, I don’t mean that she actively discriminates against black people in hiring or service. No, I don’t mean that she walks around calling black people niggers. No, I don’t mean she’s rude to black guests on her show. No, I don’t mean that she is a card-carrying member of the White Knights of America. No, I don’t mean that she actively campaigns to keep discriminatory and oppressive anti-black policies on the books.
Last week on her show, Ellen played a skit parodying what the new sitcom Nicki Minaj is working on (based on her childhood) might look like. In the parody, a little black girl portraying young Nicki appears on screen with huge butt pads. The actors playing her parents also have on the huge butt pads. From her entrance, every joke thereafter centers around how difficult having a huge butt makes things. The audience and Ellen (the nice white woman) clearly thought it was hilarious.
Though Nicki herself has turned her butt into a prop, the idea of black women having gargantuan rear ends is not simply about a rapper twerking to call attention to her inflatable rear end. Common as ample butts may be in black women, the stereotype is far from universal and rooted in medical experimentation, exploitation and slavery. This stereotype is deadly and viscious.
Ellen inserting herself into a parody of Nicki’s Anaconda video may be funny. Ellen using a black child to further a stereotype about black women and trivialize black pain is most certainly not. It proves that black people and our experiences, no matter how traumatic or damaging, are always fodder for the amusement of white people. It proves that likeable does not equate to sensitive and conscious. It proves that a nice white person is not by default an anti-racist white person.
Because so many believe racism is an attitude instead of a violently oppressive system, unless a white person is dressed in a hooded robe burning crosses on the lawn of a black family, they aren’t racist. We focus on the symptoms not the disease. We see absolute rageful hatred as the only mark of a true racist.
The average white person doesn’t walk around calling black people racial slurs, at least not to our faces, but the average white person might cross the street to avoid a black man. The average white person will smile at a black baby and compliment the mom on how beautiful the baby is, but that same white person will make assumptions about the mother being dependent on welfare and living off the public dole. The average white parent won’t flat out tell their child not to play with black children, but whenever the white child and the black child have a fight, the same average white parent will automatically assume that their child’s black friend is the aggressor.
We have to stop looking at racism as overt, simple and angry. Most racism is covert, layered and nice. It’s a white coworker offering to buy you lunch for helping with a big project then going home and nodding his head in agreement with Bill O’Reilly and Elisabeth Hasslebeck. It’s a white teacher at a public school with 100% black student population feeling like she’s a savior. It’s a white woman with millions of dollars and her own national talk show being endearing and fun with her black guests, then turning around and mocking them with hurtful stereotypes. It’s that same white woman with a national platform and massive influence dancing happily with the black POTUS, then tweeting about how she couldn’t find Ghana on a map.
Quite frankly, I think most white people are nice to black people to avoid the label of racist. They, like many of us, have been conditioned to believe that if you’re nice to black people, you can’t be called racist. They, like many of us, have been taught that racism and being racist are horrible, but they haven’t been taught what racism truly is. They, like so many of us, believe that differing political and economic ideologies are only differences of opinion and that we can all be kind to each other in spite of those differences, ignoring that maintaining slavery was a political and economic ideology.
Much like Ellen, racist white people can make you laugh, cry and feel good. But too like Ellen, racist white people will betray that trust you put into their attitude instead of their action. And we can file these racist actions under “privilege” to make them products of conditioning rather than malice, but then what does that say about the idea of being pleasant and friendly in the first place? It tells me that being nice is as much a product of conditioning as is being racist. So then, the two can coexist without conflict.
Nice white people take us off guard. We overlook their microagressions because we assume that Sally would never intentionally offend us. We ignore the smart comments they make about a black acquaintance being ghetto because we know Brody would probably say the same about a loud white girl. We humor their neck-rolling impersonations of black women because not to laugh would be rude and we don’t want to offend Kathy even as we’re offended by her racist caricaturing of black women. We let nice white people off the hook because we assume being nice means you’re a good person and a good person could never be racist.
And then the nice, good white woman crosses the line with a “joke,” and we move the line up a little. Then that nice, good white woman crosses the new line with another “joke,” and we move the line again. If we keep moving the line because we’re assuming that nice and racist are not mutually exclusive, eventually we’ll go over the ledge as we’re backing up to move the line. So, yes, it’s quite possible for a nice person to oppress you based on race. It happens often. Reevaluate your definition of racism because in the words of the brilliant Ta-nehisi Coates:
“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others…”