Here are three stories.
I’m nine or 10 and my mother and I are on a cross-country road trip when we decide to stop for breakfast at a small roadside diner in Mississippi. I’m too young to be aware of the charged atmosphere of racial tension, but something feels odd. It feels odd when the people in the diner—most of whom are white—turn to look at my white mother and me, her brown son, as we enter and make our way to a table. It feels odd when my mom asks if there are raisins to put in her oatmeal and the waitress irritatedly spits, “No!” It feels so odd, in fact, that my mother asks our server if something is wrong: “No!” she barks again. It feels odd when the woman throws down the bill when we’re done eating. No one calls us names. No one threatens us. The surly waitress has even specifically told us nothing is wrong. But when we return to the car my visibly shaken mom pulls a canister of pepper spray out of the glove compartment and tests it on the ground to make certain it’s functioning properly.
Years later, in high school, I’m headed to a party in my friend Spencer’s convertible. It’s a warm Arizona evening, and the hot wind is blowing through our hair; we’re laughing and listening to rap music. A gum wrapper from somewhere in the car catches a gust of air and takes flight. I’m sure it hasn’t even landed before a police car pulls us over, and soon my two black friends and I have flashlights in our faces.
“You think you can litter around here?” one white officer asks.
“You mean that gum wrapper?” I ask back. “I’m very sorry that happened, sir, but this is a convertible. It was a mistake.” He writes me a ticket.
A month ago, I’m at a dive bar in Brooklyn. My white friend tells me on the way over that the last time he’d been at this particular bar, a week or two before, he was so drunk he’d danced wildly in the middle of place and belted out songs along with the jukebox—his wife and young son were out of town and he was cutting loose. I order a round of beers for our party. We drink them and another friend, a Middle Eastern man with a mop of curly black hair, goes to order another round. When I see it’s taking him longer to order than it should, I walk up to the bar and ask what’s wrong.
“Your friend here’s too drunk,” the bartender says. “I’m cutting him off.” My friend—having spent years in Germany, no stranger to beer—has had less to drink than anyone else in our party.
“Then I’ll buy a round,” I tell the bartender.
“You’re too drunk, too,” he says. “You’re both cut off.”
I survey the room. “I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that you’re cutting off the only two brown people in the whole bar,” I say.
“I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that you’re cutting off the only two brown people in the whole bar,” I say.
“I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body,” the bartender says.
We walk back and tell our friends what’s happened. Two of them—a white woman and a white man who’s had a comparable amount to drink as me—order two beers apiece, no questions asked. Despite the fact that we’ve now got four new beers, nobody much feels like drinking them, and so we leave. I’m served at two more bars that night, and at both I wonder to myself if these bartenders are being unscrupulously generous with an obviously inebriated man. Are my brown friend and I really drunker than all of our friends? Are we shameful? Are we the wasted minorities in a bar full of unprejudiced white people who want us out of there?
I think one of the most damaging effects America’s omnipresent racism has on a person’s psyche isn’t the brief pang of hurt that comes from being called a slur, or seeing a picture of Barack Obama portrayed by a chimpanzee. Those things are common and old-fashioned, and when they happen I tend to feel sadder than angry, because I’m seeing someone who engages with the world like a wall instead of a human being. Rather, I think what’s far more corrosive and insidious, the thing that lingers in the back of my mind the most, is the framework of plausible deniability built up around racism, and how insane that plausible deniability can make a person feel when wielded. How unsure of oneself. How worried that you might be overreacting, oversensitive, irrational.
What’s far more corrosive and insidious, the thing that lingers in the back of my mind the most, is the framework of plausible deniability built up around racism, and how insane that plausible deniability can make a person feel.
There are more famous examples of this sort of thing than my own experiences with waitresses and cops and bartenders, of course. There was the intense blowback from the right when blacks tried to view the murder of Trayvon Martin from a historical perspective, one that acknowledged the long list of young black men killed without cause in America due to racism. “George Zimmerman’s great-grandfather was an Afro-Peruvian!” they screamed. “How could someone with a dark-skinned great-grandfather be racist?” The FBI had documents saying Zimmerman wasn’t racist, as if bigotry can be accurately measured, like height and weight. Slate published a sober-minded accounting of the Zimmerman trial in which Will Saletan wrote, “The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated.”
“Unsubstantiated.” Without evidence. Plausibly deniable. The undercurrent of these and so many other readings was the same: If you think race was a contributing factor in the death of a black boy and the subsequent acquittal of his killer then you are thinking about things the wrong way. You are hysterical. Crazy.
Similarly, the billionaire white mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has a hard time understanding how his police force’s notorious stop-and-frisk program might come off as racist. The vast majority of citizens accosted and belittled by stop-and-frisk are black and Latino men, and nearly 90 percent of the people being stopped are found to be innocent of any crime at all. Yet Bloomberg has said time and again that “nobody racially profiles” when conducting stop-and-frisk searches.
“There is this business, there’s one newspaper and one news service, they just keep saying, ‘Oh it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder,” Bloomberg said in June, two months before stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional. “In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
The key statistic Bloomberg forgot to mention there is that only 13 percent of recorded stops in the stop-and-frisk program were due to a suspect description. The other 87 percent were just cops stopping mostly black and Latino kids at will. But, again, this isn’t racist. The mayor says so, and his white police commissioner, Ray Kelly, agrees. If you think this kind of thing is indicative of the presence of racial bias, maybe the problem lies with you.
The undercurrent of these and so many other readings was the same: If you think race was a contributing factor in the death of a black boy and the subsequent acquittal of his killer then you are thinking about things the wrong way. You are hysterical. Crazy.
There’s a form of mental torture called “gaslighting,” its name taken from a play in which a man convinces his wife that the gas lights in their home she sees brightening and dimming are, in fact, maintaining a steady glow. His ultimate goal is to drive her into a mental institution and take all her money, and soon the woman ends up in an argument with herself about whether she’s losing her mind. American race relations have a similar narrative: An entire set of minorities confident that the everyday slights they’re seeing are real and hurtful, and an entire set of other people assuring them that they’re wrong.
Gaslighting is what I thought of when I watched the Kanye West appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live last Wednesday. Late last month, Kimmel and West fell into a feud after Kimmel mocked an interview West had done with BBC’s Radio 1. In the interview, with Zane Lowe, West spoke openly about his sense that brands have attempted to manipulate him, and that the fashion industry and others have excluded him for classist and racist reasons. West said that “I Am a God,” a song on his latest album, Yeezus, rattled people because they’re not used to seeing black rappers proclaiming themselves deities. “When someone comes up and says, ‘I am a God,’ everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?’ I just told you who I thought I was: a god,” said West. “Would have it been better if I had a song that said, ‘I am a nigger’?”
The BBC interview was personal and honest and heartfelt, but it was also frenetic and boastful and rambling at times—perfect fodder for late night TV, in other words. Kimmel mocked it by reproducing the interview with a black kid in place of West. When West took offense, and let loose a series of furious tweets, Kimmel gave the smirk of a comedian who couldn’t see the big deal. You know the one; it climbs up only one side of the face, its meaning being: It was just a joke. That Kanye West didn’t take it as a joke isn’t really a surprise, even if we ignore the fact that he’s famously self-serious. Here he’d done an interview explaining how hurtful it is to have proved one’s ability and still be seen as inferior by rich white people, and a rich white person responded by infantilizing him.
Was Jimmy Kimmel intentionally trying to humiliate Kanye West by treating him, literally, as a boy, a slur that still holds a lot of power in the black community? Probably not. And some of West’s stream-of-conscious speech—complaints about paparazzi talking to him, complaints that Kim Kardashian isn’t recognized as a reality star on the Walk of Fame—seem unrelated compared to his broader concerns about race and class as it pertained to Kimmel’s sketch. Having paparazzi ask you questions when you’re a celebrity is not an oppression at all comparable to police harassment or getting shot near your father’s house. But it was direct, serious, and entirely pertinent when West said the following during the Kimmel interview (emphasis mine):
The way the fashion world works—there’s no black guy at the end of the runway in Paris, in all honesty. When I’m in Paris and I’m sitting in fashion week for nine years and ‘South Park’ makes fun of our outfits or people don’t understand why we’re there—I’m getting called names, stuff you can’t even say on TV—and I still can’t break that wall down. … To have a meeting with [every big name fashion designer], and everyone just kinda looks at you like you’re crazy, like you don’t crash the internet. And you’re just like, ‘How can you get a shot?’ And you try to do it on your own and no real designers will work for a rapper. You just cannot overcome it.
Kimmel may have just thought he was roasting another arrogant celebrity with his spoof; he almost certainly did, in fact. But looking at a black man’s assertion he’s been ignored because of his race and social class, and then recasting that man as a child for laughs, is always going to be an affront to many people of color in America, people who have long said, “something’s wrong here,” and been told: no, you’re just sensitive. You’re crazy. You’re acting like a baby.
I believe there are numerous valid reasons to criticize Kanye West, but his rant on Jimmy Kimmel Live is not one of them. You may think he sounded crazy, but it wasn’t a kind of crazy that was foreign to me—or, I’d assume, millions of other Americans. It was the crazy that comes from being stared at for daring to look different while eating breakfast with your mom. It was the crazy that comes from never knowing if you deserved to be kicked out of that bar. It was the crazy that comes from being the one person stopped by a cop amidst a sea of white people. “This is racist,” you might say to the cop. “Prove it,” he might say back. And at that moment, you can’t.