Confused about race? `Ask a Black Man'

December 05, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A column called "Ask a Mexican" began as a one-time feature, written tongue-partly-in-cheek by staff writer Gustavo Arellano in the OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif. It became a surprise hit. Judging by some of my own mail, I'm not surprised. In fact, I have long wanted to write a similar column and call it "Ask a Black Man."

Now is as good a time as any. Reactions to recent racial eruptions seem to have left some of my readers with questions, comments and confusion. Some will even turn to a newspaper columnist for answers.

For example:

"Why is it when blacks use the word `nigger,' there is no outcry? If you're offended by Michael Richards' use of this word, how do you feel when you are sitting in your car waiting for the light to change, and the car [radio] next to you is blaring this word, and worse, the guy's kids are in the car? I guess it's only wrong if a nonblack uses the word. ... Both parties are wrong, but like we would say when we were kids, `Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt.'"

Ed L., Honolulu

Good points. But be careful about what you say to that guy in the car or you might get your own bones broken.

But seriously, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is trying to extend the legs of the controversy stirred up when Michael "Kramer" Richards of Seinfeld fame hurled the "N-word" at hecklers. Mr. Jackson has called on all entertainers and everyone else to stop using the word. Frankly, I don't expect much. Richard Pryor turned against the word quite convincingly after using it so liberally in the 1970s. His turnaround didn't work. I don't expect Mr. Jackson's new crusade will work, either, although I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised.

"Black-on-black crime [especially murder] is such a huge and rampant reality in this country, but God forbid a policeman might make a mistake and hurt or kill a black thug, and they're ready to loot and riot at the drop of a hat. The question is, can you make sense of this African-American hypocrisy?"

M.D., Chicago

I'll try. For starters, picketing black criminals doesn't appear to do much good.

On the other hand, I am often asked why so many black Americans still support Mr. Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton, even though their tactics seem mostly to be stuck in the 1960s. I find my answer in wire stories like this recent dispatch from New York City: "The morning 23-year-old Sean Bell was shot to death by police, his grieving relatives did something that has become almost routine in such cases: They called Rev. Al Sharpton. Within hours, the longtime civil rights activist had consoled relatives, held two news conferences and begun organizing a community rally for the next day."

Now, just ask yourself: If police shot your son to death before his wedding and wounded two friends after firing 50 shots into their car and there was no gun found in their car, whom would you call?

"It may very well be that Mr. Richards is not a racist, if you consider a racist to be someone who harbors negative perceptions about and feelings toward anyone and everyone from a certain race. ... A likely scenario is that Mr. Richards realized from the lack of audience response that his act was not going over well, was thus already uptight and flew into a rage when heckled. ... I can't help thinking that if his hecklers had been two overweight white folks, that he would have burst into an expletive-laden monologue about Moby Dick, etc."

Phil, Libertyville

True, but I don't think being called a big fat whale carries quite the same sting.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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