Blacks are at fault for racist portrayals

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 3:07 p.m.
'It's always something," intoned the zany but sage Roseanne Roseannadanna on "Saturday Night Live" during the 1970s.
Roseannadanna, played by Gilda Radner, who died in 1989, should be around now to teach African Americans how to navigate the nettlesome world of satire and caricature, when, alas, "it's always something" about race.
Roseannadanna, a self-aware Italian nerd, could teach blacks this vital lesson: Minority groups - especially those who are disliked or who are feared - must define themselves and shape the way they want to be portrayed.
Because of our behavior, we're perfect targets for racially motivated satire and caricature, and satire and caricature will never go away. Almost every month now, I read or hear about yet another controversy involving whites portraying African Americans in a negative light.
In 2003, for example, entrepreneur David T. Chang created Ghettopoly, a takeoff on Monopoly. Unlike the Monopoly gent who sports a top hat, cane and mustache, the Ghettopoly bruh is a thug wearing a bandana. His bug-eyes glare over dark glasses, and he clenches a joint between his teeth. The gangsta homey holds an Uzi in one hand and a bottle of malt liquor in the other.
Charles Thomas, an announcer for WLS-TV in Chicago, describes Ghettopoly best: "The game is played like Monopoly, but the object is to put crack houses or project buildings in some of the worst neighborhoods in America while trying to avoid being carjacked, shot, or addicted. There are ghetto stash and hustle cards, and the seven game pieces include a pimp, a prostitute, a machine gun, malt liquor bottle, basketball, marijuana leaf, and a rock of cocaine crack."
The ultimate irony is that Chang got the idea for his game from us - blacks. He bought rap videos, studied them, listened to the trash talk and viewed the naked female flesh. He made images of gold teeth, gold chains, flashy cars, guns and the other mélange of rap.
Predictably, black leaders went crazy and painted Chang as a racist, ignoring that this businessman simply showed us images that we create and perpetuate.
Andy Marlette's cartoon in a September issue of the Independent Florida Alligator still angers many blacks. It depicted the cultural divide between rapper Kanye West and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Commenting on the White House's failed response to Hurricane Katrina, West said that President Bush "doesn't care about black people." Marlette's cartoon showed West holding a playing card that read, "The Race Card." Rice responded with "Nigga Please!"
The caricature angers blacks because Marlette dared to use "Nigga." Yo! He got the racist epithet from us. We toss it around like so much confetti. As long as we use "Nigga" so freely, others will happily mimic us.
Now comes a group of Stetson University students who had fun at the expense of the school's black basketball players. Several days before Halloween, some of the women on Stetson's all-white softball team went to a local bar wearing black paint on their faces, fake gold teeth, cornrows and practice jerseys to impersonate members of the basketball team. Eight of the 14 players are black. The usual umbrage followed, with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery even weighing in.
The white students got the idea for their tasteless costumes from observing their college's black basketball players. Even more, the black players gave their practice jerseys to the white pranksters to wear. The whole scene at the bar was in the spirit of Halloween, but it smacked of racism.
Again, whites were imitating African Americans. Sure, the prank may have been insensitive, even stupid. But as long as we continue to portray ourselves as clowns and buffoons, we make matters easy for our critics.
We need to stop giving our critics, especially the hateful ones, so much ammunition to attack us with. As long as we provide ammunition, Roseanna Roseannadanna's warning -- "It's always something" -- will be reality.
Bill Maxwell is an associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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