Racism Insurance Promo for Dear White People: A Critique
Racist speech is lampooned, sexism gets a pass, in "Racism Insurance" spot
Posted Oct 23, 2014
There is so much to like about the new Dear White People promo, Racism Insurance (see clip below).
For starters, the skits are laugh-out-loud funny, and most of us can use more laughter in our lives.
But they are not just funny. They also shed some light on real-world racial dynamics. There is content in these clips worth examining more closely.
1. Some racist acts are unintentional, but intention is not all that matters. A lack of intent to cause harm doesn't mean that one's actions don't cause any. Perhaps the first clip does not make this point as explicitly as necessary, but it does suggest that some harmful statements are not so much a product of bad intentions as a lack of sophistication in regard to both racial dynamics and language usage, with perhaps a little social awkwardness thrown in. This lack of harmful intent shouldn't get the speaker off the hook, but it does open up the possibility of a different kind of response. After all, we generally react differently to someone who pushes us on purpose compared to someone who bumped into us on accident, especially if that someone is a friend. None of this is to suggest that it is the responsibility of either those targeted by unintentional racism to educate the speaker or the speaker's Black friends to smooth things over (more on that later). Whether that kind of support is offered or not depends on a host of other considerations, including the nature of the relationship, the emotional resources of those who might offer support, and the specific context in which the unintentional micro-aggression occurred. The point, rather, is that all racist comments are not the same, and it is helpful to have different schemas and different language to talk about the different types.
3. Having a Black friend can work like "racism insurance" but we shouldn't count on it. Perhaps the most clever part of the promos is what is not explicitly stated - that having a Black friend is not unlike "racism insurance" in that it can get White people out of some (though not all!) jams. It works as humor, but part of the reason the concept is funny is because we instantly (perhaps unconsciously) recognize the kernel of truth -- that it is not that uncommon for White folks to rely on their Black friends to bail them out. Indeed, it is not uncommon for White folks accused of racial insensitivity to invoke their relationship to some person of color, sometimes even explicitly suggesting that, because they have such a friend, they should receive the benefit of the doubt. In the skits, this is funny. In the real world, it's more complicated. Relationships do matter and sometimes a friend stepping in can indeed save a lot of needless aggravation for all involved. Consider, as just one example, how, Mookie vouches for Vito in front of Buggin Out, in Do The Right Thing. On the other hand, having non-White friends (or significant others) no more protects us from saying (or doing) hurtful things to people of color than having female friends protects us from saying (or doing) hurtful things to women. And any insinuation to the contrary is itself a micro-aggression.
4. The reminder at the end about white privilege is worth heeding. I've written about this previously so won't elaborate other than to underscore the take home point of the final scene -- that the most appropriate and productive response to having someone point out your indiscretions or racial micro-aggressions is neither to cower in shame nor to deny culpability but to try to better understand one's own privilege and how one's comments or actions might have (often inadvertently) come across to others.
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