Announcing Birdman as best picture of the year at Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, Sean Penn quipped about award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, "Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?" A racist punch line about immigration based entirely on his ethnicity? Many viewers thought so. But according to Young Conservatives contributor Hannah Bleau, who brushed off the backlash against the comment, "the PC police just like to be perpetually offended."
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was just as quick to dismiss allegations that his recent assertion that Barack Obama didn't love America were rooted in racism against the first black president. "It has nothing to do with race," he said. The proof: "[Obama] was brought up, by the way, by a white mother and white grandparents."
These are just two examples of the way elected officials, cable news anchors, and celebrities have vehemently and consistently defended bigoted statements and offenses, leaving us with one major question: what can we agree deserves the dreaded r-word?
A small sampling of incidents that have been dubbed "not racist" (this ones on this list is all occurred just in the year 2014 alone) offers an answer: not much at all.
Horror over a black Annie
Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis is starring in the Annie remake, which hit theaters on December 25. Cute! Except to people who were deeply upset that she was black. The casting inspired an overwhelming number of "I'm not racist but" comments, which Mic's Derrick Clifton explained are all-too-common in this type of scenario. The Daily Banter's Virginia Pelley attributed the the overwhelming backlash to "moronic racists," in a piece rounding up a sampling of angry tweets on the topic. Here's just one representative example:
But, of course, this person resents being called a racist:
Anyway, we can't say nobody predicted this:
Naming a football team after a racial slur
The name of the Washington, DC, NFL team, the Redskins, is a dictionary-defined racial slur for American Indians. Case closed, right? Nope! Despite a recent increase in scrutiny over the name, there are still plenty of defenders who argue that it's not racist. Reasons include: it's historic ("nothing more, nothing less," Virginia state Sen. Chap Peterson insisted, as if old things are somehow non-racist), fans like it, people are too sensitive, and the team's owner, Dan Snyder made donations to Native Americans. In a letter announcing that move, he used his own informal polling on "heritage" and "values" to let his critics know what's up:
[O]ur team name captures the best of who we are and who we can be, by staying true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents ... I've been encouraged by the thousands of fans across the country who support keeping the Redskins tradition alive. Most — by overwhelming majorities — find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values.
Humor about brown, mustached immigrants ruining everything for white people
In the wake of President Obama's November 2014 immigration action, the Indianapolis Star published, altered, and then deleted a widely criticized cartoon featuring an immigrant family climbing through a white family's window, led by a mustached man, as Thanksgiving dinner was being served.
The paper's executive editor apologized, writing:
"On Friday, we posted a GaryVarvel cartoon at indystar.com that offended a wide group of readers.Many of them labeled it as racist. Gary did not intend to be racially insensitive in his attempt to express his strong views about President Barack Obama'sdecision to temporarily prevent the deportation of millions of immigrants living and working illegally in the United States."
Although he addressed the fact that many readers "labeled it" racist, not that it actually was.
Meanwhile, 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain published on his website a defense of the cartoon, written by columnist Dan Calabrese. Calabrese asked incredulously, "Are Mexicans harmed in any way because a cartoonist portrays the climbing in a window, and puts a mustache on one of them?" He added, " Let's be really honest here. Ethnic stereotypes can be pretty funny."
The fact that police disproportionately kill black people
Yes, it's a fact. And yet, 52 percent of white Americans in a December 2014 NBC News/Marist College poll said that they had had a "great deal" of confidence that police officers in their community treated blacks and whites equally.
Perhaps many of them get this idea from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the National Review's Heather MacDonald, and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly —to name a few — who seem to believe that any racial disparities in policing is canceled out by the fact that black people — like all people — have committed violence against each other.
It's been explained in great detail why this thinking is wrong. But maybe the idea is that if Guiliani says it enough it will become true?
In October of 2014, I wrote a detailed piece explaining the racist history and current implications of blackface, because I understand that it can seem innocent to people who don't know the context.
In response to that piece, many people informed me that blackface is not, in fact, racist — because it's just a fun thing to do on Halloween. And also because of the movie White Chicks, in which two black men pose as white women. (Even though exactly zero of the things that make blackface problematic apply to the Wayans' brother's makeup in that film.)
This year's egregious (on several levels) blackface Halloween costumes included a getup inspired by Ray Rice, the NFL player who was caught on tape knocking out his wife in an Atlantic City elevator. The Examiner, on its Facebook page, asked if followers thought the costume was inappropriate. Many of the respondents delivered a resounding "no."
Black president + black movies = hilarious
One of the many mini-controversies to arise out of the recent Sony hack was the leaked, jokey email exchange between Sony executives about what President Obama's favorite movie might be. Their guesses: Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Think Like a Man. Get it?He's a Harvard Law School grad and the President of the United States, but nothing is funnier than the idea that his race determines his entire outlook on life.
The people responsible apologized. (Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal went so far as to call Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.) But before you think the joke had anything to do with race, read columnist Allan Ripp's explanation that the humor was "lame, not racist." Jokes can't be both?
Assuming black people who gesture with their hands are making gang signs
In November 2014, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and a man named Navell Gordon, a volunteer from the nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, posed for a picture together.
In a grave misjudgment that would eventually be dubbed #pointergate, KSTP-TV, a local ABC news affiliate, decided that the two were flashing a "gang sign." Why? Well, if you look at the long list of erroneous news reports of black men and women doing things with their hands that have been construed as "gang signs" or something even more nefarious, you can take a guess. The whole thing was widely mocked for being racist.
But KSTP owner Stanley Hubbard insists that the story was sound journalism and has called the allegation of racism "totally nonsense." He'd probably appreciate the sentiments of people like this commenter at the Blaze, who felt the real problem was not racism, but rather criticism of the news outlet that declared the harmless gesture criminal in the first place.
The assumption that black men work in service roles
In a December 2014 interview about the way everyday racial bias affected his life before he was president, Obama talked about having trouble catching cabs, and being mistaken for a valet and a waiter— something he said most professional black men his age had likely experienced (no doubt as the result of implicit bias and stereotypes, which are their own forms of racism).
After the Obamas' story came out, Whoopi Goldberg was quick to dismiss it on The View, saying that it is not "real racism," while what happened to Obama is just "stupid."
Rush Limbaugh was similarly dismissive of Michelle Obama's claim that stereotyping played a role in her being mistaken for a Target employee when she visited the store as the first lady. He attributed her suggestion of racial bias to "this spreading of guilt, making things up, structuring them as you go to achieve the desired result that you want," because she'd once told the story without mentioning racism, years before. Keep in mind going forward: If you want something to qualify as racist, it must pass the Limbaugh Consistency Test.
Using black people as props
"I don't give a shit. I'm not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct, and, like, everyone has bright-colored T-shirts. You know, it's like, I'm not making any kind of statement. Anyone that hates on you is always below you, because they're just jealous of what you have."
Note to Cyrus: "You're just jealous" typically works better as a response to playground insults than serious critiques about cultural appropriation.
The Army basically banning black hair
In August 2014, the Pentagon reversed a decision that banned certain hairstyles that just happened to be the ones that worked for hair that just happened to belong to African-American women. That was widely welcomed as a just result. After all, even the Congressional Black Caucus had called the regulation discriminatory and pushed for a change.
But try telling that to some people, like commenters on this military forum, who said, "Oh come on...there's nothing wrong with these new regulations. I just hate how some people use racism to whine about things they don't like," and reasoned like this: "No white dudes get high fades unless they are in the military either. It's not racist."
Being flat-out disgusted by having black people around
Here are some highlights of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling in his remarks chastising his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, for bringing black people to games:
- "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?"
- "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that ... and not to bring them to my games."
- "I'm just saying, in your lousy f******* Instagrams, you don't have to have yourself with, walking with black people."
- "...Don't put him [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don't bring him to my games."
Sterling's explanation: when the public heard (and was horrified by) his comments: "I'm not a racist." What? Then what does he think he was? Answer: "a little jealous."
Stiviano, who taped the remarks agreed. When Barbara Walters asked her in a 20/20 interview whether Sterling was a racist, she said, "No, I don't believe that in my heart."
"Don't these things sound racist to you?" Walters pressed. Stiviano replied, "I think the things he says are not what he feels."
Making business decisions around stereotypes and the idea that black people scare white people
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, who'd been a vocal critic of Sterling's, issued an apology for his own "inappropriate and offensive" (but not racist, of course) comments in September when his stereotype-laden email about the crisis of having too many black fans (they scare the more desirable white fans away) leaked.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar later wrote in a piece for Time magazine that "the assumptions he makes are cringeworthy, but the questions about how to attract more white fans were entirely reasonable." It's business, he claims. Not racism.
Refusing to cast "Muhammed from such and such"
Responding to criticism of the apparent lack of ethnic diversity in the upcoming biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott said it would be impossible to finance films if his lead was an unknown actor called "Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such".
This was a two-for: he was both dismissive of the idea that people might like to see someone other than a white actor get chance to play the part of a character from Egypt, and he deployed a huge stereotype related to what such an actor's name might be.
But you can always count on someone in the comments section for a weak, sarcastic, analogy designed to make the point that this couldn't possibly be racist:
Wondering if black people would be better off as slaves
Here are some thoughts on African-Americans from Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy: "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton," he told reporters in April 2014, adding, "and I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?"
Fantasizing about putting a group of people back into slavery is hard to defend ... unless you're someone like former Congressman Joe Walsh, who said Bundy was "historically inaccurate" but definitely not racist.
Niger Innis, who was a Republican candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Nevada's 4th congressional district at the time, put a twist on the infamous "I have a black friend" defense to racism, deploying "I am the black friend" instead in comments delivered at a political event: "Having eaten with them and broken bread with them, and I don't consider Cliven or his wonderful family racist at all. Period, end of story," he said.
Telling jokes about non-white people being illiterate
Here's the email Norwalk, Ohio, city council member Bob Carleton sent to a dozen or two friends in December 2014:
After his colleagues publicly shunned him, he told the Sandusky Register, "In hindsight, I can see how it can be interpreted as racist ... but that wasn't my intent when I sent it. I thought it was humorous."
"Interpreted as"? If that's the best Carleton can do, he should probably be more worried more about his own reading comprehension than the test scores of a fictional "African-Hispanic-American-Girl."
Digging up ancient racial slurs
In July 2014, Fox News host Bob Beckel inexplicably referred to Chinese people as "Chinamen," in a rant against them ("There's billions of them, and all they do is they hack into our stuff, they send us cheap toys all of which got lead in them and are killing kids," he told viewers.) Turns out he'd previously said. "I went swimming, [and] what'd I get? My eyes blew up, it made me look Oriental."
After the offense was brought to his attention, this was his weak non-apology: "I made some comments last week about Chinese people last week which apparently upset some people, for which I apologize." His ruling: not racist — or particularly offensive.
Saying black people should wear "don't get pregnant at 14" shirts
Yep, Bill O'Reilly really said that. To Martin Luther King Jr.'s son, no less. To be fair, plenty of people pointed out how racist and simple-minded the comment was (Read some of the comments on this piece). But people on Reddit actually had an entire debate over whether the fact that teen pregnancy is a "serious issue" made the mocking remark an appropriate response to a story about racially biased policing. And then, of course, there are always those who think like this guy, who announced in a comment at Salon that racism didn't exist, in O'Reilly's commentary, or anywhere in life, writing, "Good interview. I always like Martin Luther King III Jr. In the end, what it comes down to is this: There is no such thing as racism."
Guess that's the final word.