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Racism Insurance Promo for Dear White People: A Critique

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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.

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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.

2. It's possible to talk about sensitive topics with sensitivity. The first clip especially shows how racist comments can be translated into non-racist, racially sensitive speech. The idea of racism insurance is funny, but the truth is that, instead of leaning on our imaginary (or real!) Black friends to translate on our behalf, we can all learn how to express ourselves in a way that is both honest and not harmful. If the White fellow in the first skit did mean all that, then wouldn't it have been nice for him to have said it all himself? There is no reason why we cannot all learn to do so. Having insurance is nice. Not needing it is priceless.

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.

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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.

5. Unpacking, critiquing, and making fun of racism does not excuse or even minimize blatant sexist behavior. The third clip, which appropriately shows that there are some lines that cannot be crossed, no matter how much street cred (or racism insurance) one might have, also winks at (and therefore subtly supports) in-group sexism. "You can't trust these hoes," complain the two Black men in the clip who then take issue when their White companion repeats the same statement: "You can't say that" they tell him. "Why not?" he asks. Their answer is "Because we're talking about Black hoes." And then, in case it's not obvious, they explain: "Now, we can call Black women 'hoes', but you can't". In a way, they are, of course, right. Those who are part of a group have much more license to criticize in-group members than those who are not part of the group. It's the difference between hearing an insult from a sibling and hearing the same thing from an unrelated classmate or work colleague. There are, in fact, different "rules" for those in the ingroup and those in the outgroup. There are good reasons for that, and we should all get on board. But the reality of this "double standard" does not excuse or legitimize in-group sexism. Yes, it's worse for White men to refer to Black women as "hoes" but that doesn't make it ok for Black men to do so. The writers of these promo clips have created content that challenges harmful racial dynamics. Too bad they gave themselves permission to condone in-group sexism in the process. Too bad this isn't an isolated case of this sort.


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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