What Is Racist?

The English language has its peculiarities. Two English words that appear to be opposites to one another can instead be synonyms. If someone is telling you something you don’t want to hear, you may find his “blunt” and his “pointed” comments equally galling. Conversely, a single word can have two opposite meanings. “Sensitive,” for example. A sensitive person can be someone who is careful of the feelings of others, going out of his way to avoid giving offense. Or he can be someone who is careful only of his own feelings, eager to take offense and utterly ruthless in dealing with those at whom he is offended.

The defenestration of Megyn Kelly from NBC News brings those thoughts to mind. Kelly lost her job for uttering these words:

But what is racist? You truly do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as like a character.

An outrage mob assembled immediately. Megyn’s abject apology the next day was to no avail. As she should have known, no amount of groveling is enough to appease an outrage mob. Only her summary dismissal would do. She had created a “toxic environment,” one insider said, and it “needs to be wiped clean from NBC news forever.” Some of her colleagues even kicked her on her way out the door, by lecturing her on her “white privilege.” One of them—being in no danger of ever getting a similar bum’s rush—begrudged her receiving the millions owed to her under her contract:

If she truly had remorse and felt like she was wrong she should take no money and go into hiding. But she’s greedy and entitled. What the hell does she have to fight for? She’s been fired for being racist on national television. She’s not coming back and she needs to accept that.

Who in the world would want to come back to such a workplace? Kelly’s apology mentioned “the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race.” She meant “sensitive” in the former sense cited above, but she was dealing with people who are “sensitive” only in the latter sense—the sinister, ruthless sense. When she left Fox News for NBC, she no doubt knew she was entering the world of politically correct media. Perhaps she understood it might be like a lion’s den for her. It turned out to be more like a nest of vipers. The Lord protected Daniel from the lions. Kelly’s star power could not save her from the snakes.

Mountain, Meet Minstrel Show
At the risk of giving further offense to those darling, “sensitive” souls, let’s explore the question that got Megyn Kelly into so much trouble. What is racist?

Consider America’s era of racially motivated lynchings. I remember reading of an especially horrific case: A white mob, enraged by a crime committed by a black man who got away, marched to the home of another man, a prominent black citizen whom nobody supposed had anything to do with it. The old man stepped out on his porch, said “Can I help you gentlemen?”—and was hanged from a tree in his own front yard.

That’s racist. And any one of us can cite a whole array of lesser examples of racism, going all the way down to the Southwest Airlines stewardess who got in trouble for saying “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, pick a seat, we gotta go.” But where on the spectrum of racist offenses does a Halloween blackface costume belong?

Blackface in America derives from the minstrel show, a form of musical entertainment that was extremely popular from its beginnings before the Civil War until well into the 20th century. Minstrelsy involved white performers (and often black performers as well) using charcoal or boot polish to darken their faces, sometimes adding a clownish white oval around the mouth. Though civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass on hated minstrel shows, audiences of all colors loved them. People loved them for their corny jokes, loud costumes, catchy tunes, and peppy dancing. As we became more sensitive (former sense) to racial issues, the blackface part was dropped from the shows, but the jokes, music and dancing lived on. Amateur troupes were still putting on minstrel shows in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia, minstrelsy “was featured in a television series as recently as the late 1970s.” That, incidentally, is when Megyn Kelly was a little girl.

The most famous composer of minstrel tunes was Stephen Foster. His output consisted mostly of sentimental parlor ballads (“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Hard Times,” “Beautiful Dreamer”), but songs such as “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Ring de Banjo” have earned Foster the hatred of today’s Social Justice Warriors. His statue accordingly was removed last April from its place of honor in his own hometown of Pittsburgh.

The most famous blackface performer was Al Jolson, whose act, while corny, exudes warm affection, not racial hostility. Other even more incontestably non-racist minstrels include black vaudevillians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who performed in blackface. Their act was featured in the all-black musical “Stormy Weather” (1943), starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lena Horne. A version of Miller’s act, with Scatman Crothers substituting for Lyles, is accessible online here.

Other Hollywood stars who followed suit include:

  • Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, whose 1941 hit “Babes on Broadway” goes the minstrel route for its finale. Mickey was never more clownish, nor Judy more fetching, than when they went high-stepping to the tune of “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”

However much offense the race-obsessed SJWs may take from such performances, it seems obvious that none was intended. Racial hatred was simply not involved. Believe it or not, people tend to imitate what they like, not what they hate.

That’s especially true when it comes to music. Exceptions abound, of course—consider the wartime tune “Der Fuehrer’s Face”—but for the most part, musical imitation is an expression of fondness more than of mockery. Even when it’s played for laughs, the laughter may be affectionate. Consider how these two postwar films, “An American in Paris” (1951) and “The Band Wagon” (1953) each contain a humorous German-themed song (“By Strauss” in the one, “I Love Louisa” in the other), almost as if to welcome the late Fuehrer’s volk back into the human family.

Other ethnic groups—Irish, Italians, Swedes, Brits, Japanese, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Canadians, and, in the United States, virtually everyone from Brooklyn to the Ozarks to Beverly Hills—have received the same ribbing, with or without music, but generally without ill effect. To pick one more musical example, humor and affection mix completely in “My One and Only Highland Fling,” a Scottish-themed Fred-and-Ginger duet from “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949).

Not only do minstrel shows not always involve blackface, blackface doesn’t always involve music. Laurence Olivier wore blackface for his roles as the ferocious Mahdi in “Khartoum” (1966) and as the tragic hero in “Othello” (1965). That last choice raised some SJW hackles at the time, but political correctness hadn’t yet come into its own, so Sir Laurence survived what Foster’s statue and Megyn’s career did not.

Eddie Murphy, among others, has returned the blackface favors. He was robbed, in my opinion, of an Oscar for his convincing performance as the portly, kindly, gentlemanly Sherman Klump in “The Nutty Professor” (1996), but at least he got no P.C. guff for his hilarious whiteface turn as a Richard Simmons look-alike in that film, nor for his whiteface portrayal of an elderly Jewish barbershop customer in “Coming to America” (1988). Murphy is probably who Megyn was thinking of when she included “a black person who puts on whiteface” in her ill-fated foray into that National Discussion of Race that Eric Holder insisted we are too cowardly to conduct.

Listen Here, My Kraut-Mick Friend
Minstrelsy may be in the lower range of the racism spectrum, but what about racial slurs? That’s a bigger minefield, one considerably more fraught with malice and danger than the topic that cost Megyn her job. When Dr. Laura Schlessinger questioned the exclusive license black rappers possess to use “the N-word”—and had the nerve to pronounce its horrid syllables herself—she was run out of radio almost as quickly as Megyn was ejected from NBC. Yet even with racial slurs, the situation is not all black and white.

To begin with, what constitutes a slur? Some people think “Chinaman” is one, but it’s no more a slur than “Frenchman” or “Englishman” is. “Jew” is definitely not a slur, but some people feel more comfortable saying “Jewish person” instead. There are slurs for Jews, Chinese, and virtually every ethnic group on Earth. I don’t use them, but not everyone goes into cardiac arrest upon hearing them. My ancestry is mostly German and Irish, yet my favorite scene in “The Godfather” is when the Hollywood big shot tells off the Corleones’ German-Irish lawyer, calling him “my Kraut-Mick friend.” I love it!

“Uncle Tom” is intended as a slur by almost everyone who uses the phrase today, but such usage does the title character of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a great injury. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Tom is hardly the servile sellout people who spy and decry “Uncle Toms” have in mind. As Wikipedia relates the story, Tom, having been sold by more kindly masters to the brutal villain Simon Legree,

refuses Legree’s order to whip his fellow slave. Legree beats Tom viciously and resolves to crush his new slave’s faith in God. Despite Legree’s cruelty, however, Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting the other slaves as best he can. . . . Uncle Tom almost succumbs to hopelessness as his faith in God is tested by the hardships of the plantation. However, [religious visions] renew his resolve to remain a faithful Christian, even unto death. He encourages [another fellow slave] Cassy to escape, which she does, taking Emmeline with her. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy and Emmeline have gone, Legree orders his overseers to kill Tom. As Tom is dying, he forgives the overseers who savagely beat him. Humbled by the character of the man they have killed, both men become Christians.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation throughout the English-speaking world. Mohandas Gandhi, who used nonviolent resistance to overthrow British rule in India, may well have been inspired by Tom’s example; his methods certainly suggest as much. That, however, would not impress the un-Christian radicals who sneered at Gandhi’s emulator Martin Luther King as an “Uncle Tom.” More’s the pity. “Uncle Tom” is no true slur, and those who despise Tom’s Christian refusal to hate his enemies are saying more about themselves than those they hate.

The Big Kahuna of racial slurs remains the N-word. Other than among black Americans, it is almost always an expression of hatred. In one case, however, the word was spoken in all innocence, without any intention or consciousness of giving offense. The case involves a black Labrador retriever who was the mascot of the Royal Air Force’s No. 617 Squadron. We know about this lovable pooch because he was included, embarrassing name and all, in “The Dam Busters,” a 1955 British film about the squadron’s bombing of Germany’s Ruhr Valley dams during World War II. A remake of that movie has been in the works since 2008, but it’s been hanging fire, no doubt because no one can figure out how to render the dog’s name in a historically accurate yet currently respectable way.

Enough Kowtowing to the Grudge-Bearers
So, what’s the point of all this? What, in the end, is racist?

The point is that any definition of “racist” which includes Megyn Kelly, Stephen Foster, Al Jolson, Miller and Lyles, Scatman Crothers, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Irving Berlin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Laurence Olivier, Eddie Murphy, Laura Schlessinger, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the RAF is so broad as to be worthless. It may be an article of faith to liberals that American society is and always has been racist to the core, but for the sake of our future peace, we need to push back on that slander as hard as we can.

I don’t propose that Megyn’s victimizers be served as they served her. But their writ should no longer run with us. Let the P.C. enforcers understand that we’ll do no more cringing and kowtowing to them, no more bowing and scraping, and if they don’t like it, they can pound sand. The sooner those grudge-bearers realize the world is not going to humor them anymore, the sooner they’ll straighten up and adopt a better frame of mind—and the better off we all will be.

Photo Credit: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Fortune

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.