Monday, July 4, 2011

The racial politics of imitating someone's accent

FOX News reported - or concocted - a controversy last week when it accused Jon Stewart of racism for imitating Herman Cain, a black Republican presidential candidate.

Now I'm obviously a fan of Stewart and The Daily Show, so perhaps I'm biased here. But it's hard to see the racism in the segment about Cain. As Stewart points out, he routinely imitates the accents of all kinds of people, and it never previously caused an uproar at FOX. The issue smacks of right-wing resentment that liberals so frequently play the race card, so the Right don't want to miss their chance to play it too.

FOX contributor Bernie Goldberg has this to say.

Let's say a white guy goes on television, puts on an exaggerated "Amos 'n Andy" "black voice" and proceeds to make fun of a black man whose politics the white guy doesn't like. Actually, let's say he goes beyond merely making fun of the black man. Let's say he tries to make the black man sound downright stupid. Does that make the white guy a racist?
The correct answer is ... it depends.
If the white guy is Rush Limbaugh and the black man is Barack Obama, then of course the white guy is a racist - according to liberals.
But if the white guy is Jon Stewart and the black man is Herman Cain, the conservative businessman seeking the Republican nomination for president, well, then, that's another story.
The other night Jon Stewart went on his show, and while he didn't put on blackface makeup and start tap dancing he did put on a "black voice" and proceeded to mock Mr. Cain in a way that would never be tolerated if a conservative had done it.
Yet liberals didn't scream "racist" the way they do when they see a tea party rally or when a conservative so much as looks askance at Barack Obama. Instead, they laughed. They thought it was a regular riot that a genius like Jon Stewart made that conservative black guy sound like a dumb character in a minstrel show.
But why isn't Jon Stewart a bigot, when Limbaugh and Hannity and O'Reilly would be tagged as racists if they had done the very same thing? That's easy. Because Jon Stewart is a liberal and liberals aren't racists. Only conservatives are.

Now, surprisingly I actually think there's a lot of truth in what Goldberg says regarding the liberal-Left being way too quick on the trigger to cry racism. It is an annoying tendency of the Left which is often counter-productive in a "boy who cried wolf" kind of way. When someone somewhere is ready to accuse someone of racism over something that is only racist at a real stretch, then it allows the Right to decry political correctness yet again. Then when someone does actually say something racist, the Right find it easier to rebuff criticism by claiming to be victims of PC hegemony.

But Goldberg displays another classic trait of the American Right, which is to be completely ignorant of context when deciding what's racist or not. When he claims "Jon Stewart made that conservative black guy sound like a dumb character in a minstrel show"... did Stewart really do that? Did Stewart really put on "an exaggerated Amos 'n Andy 'black voice'", or did he imitate the way Cain speaks reasonably accurately? Does Herman Cain speak with an exaggerated Amos 'n Andy "black voice"? Where he says "Let's say he tries to make the black man sound downright stupid"... could it not be that Stewart tries to make politicians sound downright stupid every night on his show, and this one just happened to be black. So while Goldberg's broader point is a fair one, he has chosen a dumb example for his example of "liberals making racist comments".

Goldberg is not really saying that Stewart is racist, only that conservatives should cry racism about it in the way that liberals cry racism when Rush Limbaugh and his ilk make comments disrespectful of blacks and other minorities. Of course, in a racism-crying competition, conservatives would be blown out of the water, and it's not just because liberals are so much better and more practised at it. Primarily it's because most black people probably wouldn't find Stewart's dig at Cain to be racist; yet they'd more likely take greater umbrage at the comments of right-wingers like Limbaugh, Malkin and Hannity. Because Limbaugh, Malkin and Hannity are, if not racists, at least doing a good job of sounding racist from time to time. So if conservatives want to make out that they are less racist than liberals, surely the first step would be to, you know, stop conservatives from saying racist things.

Here's another conservative, James Hirsen, commenting on "liberal racial hypocrisy" who shows that knack for missing the point of jokes, not once but twice.
After showing the footage, the Comedy Central star displayed a billboard that read: “Herman Cain 2012 — I Don’t Like to Read.”
The racist threads woven into this comedic sketch are that the black man has difficulty reading and lacks intelligence. Neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton saw fit to call a press conference.
See, no. The "I Don't Like to Read" thing comes straight from Cain's statements of not wanting to read long bills. It's nothing to do with the idea that black people lack intelligence - that exists only in the mind of some viewing who would already think that. The implication of what Hirsen is saying is that no one can ever mock anything an individual black person says as being stupid without it being a de facto attack on the intelligence of black people as a whole. To be fair, had a right-winger made a similar comment, I'm sure liberals would probably use the same faulty logic to accuse him of racism too. Hirsen continues:
Bill Maher also used Cain as comedy fodder for the “New Rules” segment of his HBO show. While giving mock advice to GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, Maher said, “Let me put your unpopularity in context for you — you're a Republican and you're polling behind a black guy.”
The not-so-coded racism in Maher’s skit is that Republicans are hated, but if the Republican individual is also black, he or she deserves even more scorn because of his or her skin color.
.. and again, totally misses the joke. What Maher seems to be implying is that Republican voters don't like black people, and thus for Gingrich to be less popular than a black candidate (Cain) with Republicans must be a grave indictment.

So, to one of the main issues of this whole business: Is it racist to imitate the accent of someone of a different nationality or ethnicity?

My answer: Hell no. Or at least, not necessarily. Depends how you do it.

I tend to think that if you can pull off the accent of a particular person or ethnicity properly, it's probably OK. If instead you resort to a dumb, uber-stereotypical accent, then you're starting to tread on more dangerous ground. Stewart gets away with his "Amos 'n Andy" "black voice" because Herman Cain actually sounds like that. On the other hand, when you hear people mocking accents in the most stupid and disrespectful ways - like Rush Limbaugh has done in the past - it's much more likely to be racist.

It's all about context, but unfortunately context is one of those things that a lot of stupid people don't really understand.


  1. I'm probably biased too, because I think Stewart is a genius, and his bit on Cain made me howl out loud with laughter. It was so... so... so on point! And I'd say that the conservatives who thought it was racist are pretty much in a race to the bottom in order to appeal to SOMEBODY who'll want to vote for them in 2012. You can tell because they play what they like to call "the race card" on Stewart after YEARS of ignoring their darling base of Bachmann, Rush, Coulter, and others who've pretty much set all-time new lows in American politics.

    But that aside. It kinda proves how racist they actually are that they think, "Oh, Stewart said something about a Black man not liking to read. That's racist, because he said it out loud!" That they miss the joke makes me cringe with pity, because stupidity is something that's kind of hard to fix.

  2. @ Zek:
    yeah, I'd have sympathy with their complaint about liberals constantly playing the race card, if they weren't so enthusiastic about playing it themselves when it suits them.