Power99 Controversy: The Question of "Racism"

In college (and even in grad school, as I recall), we used to have debates about whether you could be "racist" if you happened to be black. Most of my African American friends at the time said no, it doesn't make sense to use that term. The argument goes something like this: the systematic victims of oppression can instigate it themselves, but when they do it it's something less severe than when members of a majority community do it. To describe that species of behavior, my friends tended to use the term "ignorant" (or the more vernacular "ign'ant"), which is also derogatory, but nowhere near as strong.

I used to be sympathetic to that argument, but I'm less so now. Does the language a Power99 DJ used (listen to the MP3 of it here -- it's recently been pulled off the station's website) reflect systematic anger and hostility that "racism" requires? I tend to think so. Does it reflect unequal relations of power? Yes -- a call-center worker in India is not likely to have any legal standing to take action in response. Is it therefore "racism"? Is it a "hate crime"? I tend to think so, but I also think it doesn't matter much whether we use the race/hate idiom or not. It may not be "racism," but it is a racial insult, as it singles out a group behavior. It may not be a "hate" crime, but it is a crime in our current legal system. Libel and slander are crimes (they always have been) even though they are "just speech."

The term the DJ repeatedly used is "rat-eater." (He also used a misogynist term [B---], which is no better.) But "rat-eater" -- where does that come from? Like a lot of racial codes, it's a strange insult, something ugly that seems to have more to do with the DJ's own twisted imagination than with the person -- people, really -- he was trying to insult. It seems to be tied to anti-Chinese and anti-Phillipino insults (Dog-eater, etc.), which stand-up comedians still often throw around, especially when cracking jokes about Chinese restaurants. At the least, the insult is misapplied (similar to when Sikhs are hit with "Bin Laden" insults). But it seems more correct to say in this case that the insult makes no sense whatsoever; it's incoherent.

That too doesn't lessen its offensiveness. Contrary to the commonly held belief that racial insults are based on some kernel of truth, I believe it doesn't matter whether the attribute he's referring to has any basis in anthropological reality. Indeed, the specific content of racial insults (or any insults) doesn't matter; it's the relationship of power between the parties involved, and the the motive and form of the delivery that count. DJ Star meant to insult, and if you listen to the hurt in "Steena's" voice on the MP3, you can tell that it worked. The association of the insultee with a group behavior, however poorly defined or understood by the insulter, does give it its racial edge. Also, he knows that he won't be held accountable for what he's said, and that she isn't in a position to return the insult with one of her own.

I try and keep a thick skin about most things, but this hits home, partly because for two years I listened to that radio station all the time on my way to and from work (that and NPR). It's virtually an institution in Philly; everyone knows Power99. It has the biggest audience, and huge influence over the Philadelphia music scene. People who've grown up there have likely listened to the station for their whole lives.

Well, from now on it's all Terry Gross, all the time for me. And following Anna's lead, I'm sending in a letter of protest to the station, requesting an apology from the DJ.


suitablegirl said...

awesome post, amardeep. great exploration of a difficult and delicate topic. i'm glad you sent a letter.

Rob Breymaier said...

In a similar way, American discrimination law addresses this concern. It is not necessary to prove that a certain action was INTENDED to be discriminatory. The offense is judged based on its IMPACT. While in many cases (such as this one) both are easy to prove. The intention isn't a legal matter because (paraphrasing a Supreme Court decision) "clever men will always be able to mask their intentions."

Ennis said...

I've never bought into the argument that oppressed groups are incapable of racism / bigotry themselves. African-Americans are capable of sexism, classism and homophobia - that much should be clear at the start. As for racism, there have been some nasty race riots in FL between Caribbean and American blacks.

If you do buy the victim card, how far will you take it? Jews can't be racist b/c of the Holocaust? Arabs can't be racist b/c of colonialism? It's absurd. Much of overt bigotry is conducted by people who themselves, at one point or another, have been the target of institutionalized bigotry as well.

Bigotry is defined by the act, not the actor. Nobody gets a free pass.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

At my last job, I knew Native American students who made the same argument - Native Americans couldn't be "racist" because that implied a specific position in a system of power relations; they weren't operating from a position of power in that system, so they couldn't be racist (though they could be "prejudiced"). I have to confess that I don't quite buy it either, since it seems entirely to elide the whole set of problems arising when non-whites denigrate another group of non-whites based on their racial/ethnic identity (non-whites isn't a good term, but I hope you know what I mean). For instance, a number of Native Americans I knew had run into pervasive anti-Native American sentiment from African Americans. In many of those cases neither group (or individual involved) enjoyed a particularly powerful position in society, but hate directed toward a member of another group b/c they're different from you is wrong, regardless, and splitting hairs about whether one is better or worse seems counterproductive.

Loretta said...

black people can't be racist=wackest argument ever

MsWorld said...

As an African American woman, I believe that Black people can be as prejudice and racist as any other group of people. I do think that some Black people, including myself, see a big difference between being prejudice and racist. The term "racist" has a connotation of being the power welder in a situation. I believe some Black people can't see themselves as power welders (but I know better). When I meet people who are hostile towards me because of the color of my skin, I view those persons as being prejudice. If I don't have access to opportunities or jobs that my education and skill-set are well-suited for, I view that situation as racism.

I do think the Power99 incident was racist but I also know that some Black people in America aren't going to ever acknowledge it because they don't have a broader understanding of their place in the world. I'm a Black woman and sometimes that can be great disadvantage in my homeland, but away from the U.S.A. being a Black American woman is a great advantage. Since I currently live abroad and have traveled widely, I have a great understanding of my position in the world as an American citizen. I have an understanding of the power that my passport wields. I recently traveled to several developing nations this past holiday. I grew up working class in the ghetto of a midwestern city and I thought I had it rough grewing up with limited economic means. But after visiting Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, I have a totally different perspective on growing up Black and working class in the U.S.A. I am very blessed to know this but many of my brothers and sisters don't have an international worldview. I believe that a person's reality is their truth. If your reality is that you are the low person on the totem pole in your corner of the world, then that informs your truth and your view of the world.

Basically, I do believe that Black Americans can be racist but I understand that they may never acknowledge it (unless they come from wealthy backgrounds or have an international worldview). Some Black Americans don't know anything about the world outside their borders. I don't like this quality in some of my people but I also know that they are struggling to make it in America which can be a big mind F*ck for some Black people. After saying all of that, it doesn't excuse the actions of Power99 because they displayed, as we say in the Black community, bad home training.

I must add that as an African American woman who is very interested in learning about India, I feel their is a huge gulf of misinformation being exchanged between African Americans and South Asians (in the U.S. and on the Indian continent). I have read and heard some crazy arse shit about Black people coming from South Asians.

commonbeauty said...

Hi Armadeep, this is elck here (vernacularbody.typepad.com). I hadn't heard about this nasty little incident until now, and I listened to it with a sick feeling in my stomach. Simply awful stuff. How humiliating for the poor lady.

Can black people be racist? Yes, and we needn't have an example as extreme as the DJ to prove that. This horrid phone call was about power, no mistake about it. "I'm American, you're not. I'm (presumably) rich, you're (presumably) not. I'm male, you're female. You're tactful, I don't give a damn." It's the American Imperium actualised.

Ms World's illuminating comments are actually connected to my most recent broodings on my webpage, in which I recount my experiences as an African man travelling in India. Do take a look at it.

Thanks for bringing this incident to my attention, and for your excellent pages which I've been enjoying for a while.


electrostani said...

Thanks everyone for the very thoughtful comments.

The one thing that has really come out for me in this is the point (mentioned here by Ms. World, and underlined by Elck) that there is something here about the blind spot some black folks have about their role in the broader world as Americans. The "ugly American" syndrome potentially applies to everyone...

MadMan said...

Amardeep, I must point out that defamation is a tort - a civil action - and not a criminal one.


Rob Breymaier said...

One of the problems with theories of racism and race politics is that racism in the US has traditionally been about black and white. Today though, this opposition is no longer satisfactory. Two distinct issues come to mind explaining why they are unsatisfactory.

1. The question of "Blackness" - there are internal questions of blackness within the African American community. For example, one can site skin tone, class, and ancestry as ways that African Americans differentiate internally. This brings up questions that can be personified by Halle Berry: is she less black, does she face less discrimination, is her race less of an obstacle, and/or is she more acceptable to whites because she is a lighter skinned, famous/rich person form an inter-racial family?

2. The US is no longer only about black and white. This is frustrating because other minorities are definitely discrimiated against and scapegoated. But, these groups are also the "acceptable alternative" to diversity. For instance, in housing many communities are welcoming to Asian Americans and Latino Americans because they can then claim that their community is diverse. Meanwhile, the community is still closed off to African Americans.

In addition, many of these other minorities can be the most racist toward African Americans. Sometimes this is due to the imagery in the mainstream (white) media. Other times, it is because the minority populations see alliance with African Americans as negative. This hardly ever happens in reverse.

Thus, African Americans could argue that they are the "most" marginalized minority.

Of course, Native Americans could also argue that they are the most marginalized minority. There are very few places in the US where Native Americans have any base of power for social change and/or for their voices to be heard. And, hey, they did live here before we Europeans, Africans, and Asians did. Oh yeah, and our European ancestors constantly lied to them, broke treaties, and committed genocide against them.

Another way that this gets confused is that African Americans hold a number of public offices (especially locally), own large companies or sit on boards of major corporations, have representation in the news media, etc. Indeed, one is much morelikely to see an African American in an advertisement than a South Asian American. For some reason, Asian in this country is almost exclusively East Asian when one looks to the media. Thus, the perception to whites and other minorities is that African Americans are better off that the reality.

P.S. Tavis Smiley recently had a panel of guests talking about race in America. I haven't heard it but my wife thought it was good.

Anonymous said...

Hi Amardeep,

The excerpt from Power99 was indeed troubling but to be honest, is nothing new. Americans (and I speak in general and not absolute terms) do not have a particularly deep understanding of what goes on outside their borders. The impression is that things within the United States are peachy and perfect, whilst everyone else abroad (with the exception of Europe, perhaps) are wilting away in terrible conditions.

A lot has to do with a lot of misrepresentation by the media, and poor literature in school. Nothing is done to educate Americans enough on what happens abroad, beyond the scope of what is advantageous to the Administration at any given moment.

I watched Bill O'Reilly of Fox (not a particularly esteemed journalist) claim that Malaysian women are flogged and beaten publicly, forced to submission over dress standards or something absurd as such. It came as a shock to me, a woman who has grown up in Malaysia, faced no discrimination, sexual, religious, or otherwise. I have never been flogged or seen anyone flogged, and we adhere very strictly to the rule of law on such matters. He was just preying on general ignorance and the anti-Islamic sentiment post-September 11th to put a bad word in, especially since Malaysia happens to be a Muslim country. What he ignored was the fact that we are multi-racial and freedom of religion and belief is protected by the Constitution.

I have been in numerous conversations with Americans who are astounded by the fact that as a Malaysian, I live in a house that is bigger than theirs, with automatic flush toilets and two German cars in the driveway. No, I am not uber rich, and my education happened to be free, provided courtesy of the government, and included compulsory subjects such as English, several other languages, Mathematics and Science, World History, etc. I live comfortably as do many of my countrymen, and for those who are not able, the State provides a modicum of services and facilities, subsidies and programs to help chip in.

For some odd reason an immense number of Americans I spoke to were perplexed as to the fact that these things do happen abroad. When I persist in my argument that equality, racially, religiously and otherwise can happen in a Muslim country like my own, I am forced to justify that my stand is an accurate one as it comes from that of a non-Muslim woman who has lived abroad and seen the world. If Americans were better read I would not have to do this, and there would not be incidents such as that of the Power99 DJ.

However even though Americans may be ignorant, there is still no excuse for finding humour in someone's ill plight. I could not bring myself to call starving children or poor people abroad and make fun of the fact that they happen to live under destitute conditions. That kind of humour is unthinkable, shallow, poor, and pathetic.

Thank you for highlighting it.