April 24, 2016

POOR | The Caucasian Double Standard

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Two weeks ago, Bomani Jones filled in on ESPN’s morning talk show Mike & Mike. Jones, an ESPN host (as well as an evocative Twitter commentator), snuck the opportunity to steer the morning conversation with a pointed political outfit. His navy t-shirt, emblazoned with a near mirror of the Cleveland Indians’ logo, spelled out “Caucasians,” and replaced the controversial Chief Wahoo’s face with a leering white man, adorned by a beryl dollar sign in place of the typical feather. The closely copied imagery and typography on Jones’ shirt — contorted only to displace the customary racial objectification in the logo — drove a clear point: if we’re destabilized by the deployment of a miserly white man as a logo, but comfortable with the grossly stereotyped depiction of Chief Wahoo, we’re overlooking some racist hypocrisy.

A mellow media trickle covered the eddy of social media feedback, much of which applauded Jones for his overt indictment of the commercialization of racist tropes within U.S. athletics. Journalists reported that sales of the “Caucasian” t-shirts spiked after Jones’ appearance on Mike & Mike, evidencing a popular puddle of support for tackling bigoted logos and mascots. However, a divergent wave of reportage and social media respondents implied that Jones’ “prank” fell flat; white people weren’t offended, the anticipated affect flopped and thus, they reasoned, no double standard exists. A pool of Twitter exchanges argued that if Caucasian folks feel no offense over Jones’ t-shirt, then a reductive, crimson-faced Chief Wahoo does not infringe on any Native Americans’ sense of dignity, inclusion or personhood. White commentators suggested that Jones’ political move was a waste of time, and that anyone who bothered with it ought to “get a life.”

Taking the precarious gamble of illuminating my predilection to ignore conservative commentators’ counsel and, generally, to heat up when Twitter trolls say turn down, I’ll make the abundantly evident proposition that a national tradition of white supremacy does not induce anyone to cry over a mockery of whiteness. Centuries of deep reinforcement of the myth of white superiority, from which a swarm of colonists punctured preexisting nations, established a slave-based economy and concentrated control in a limited-access “democracy,” has generated a socially, legally and politically safeguarded acceptance of whiteness. The comfy, unchallenged and normalized security of whiteness does not predispose anyone to prickle at a derisive portrayal of profiteering white men, because a momentary slap from an ESPN commentator does not stab a leaky wound of racial suppression, nor does it threaten to topple the safely fastened racial dynamics in the U.S.

So while white commentators implored Jones’ to recognize that his jig was futile because he failed to insult them, race-based stereotypes clearly do not elicit equivalent responses to populations with differing histories of racial violence. How could white people feel as sensitively about a reductive representation of whiteness as people of color — who have undergone centuries’ of distinct, corrosive and perpetual dehumanization — might feel when bombarded with monolithic diminutions of their race?

Furthermore, the effort that Twitter users exhausted to evidence the ineffectiveness of Jones’ political satire seems to signal some wound to the white ego. Why did so many people feel obliged to ensure that Jones knew his prank didn’t touch them? Why did ESPN tell Jones that he “had made his point” and should cover the shirt up half-way through the show?  In overstating the absence of any affected discomfort, white commentators undermined their own assertion of impervious self-esteem. As Jones explained, “So to have a problem with the logo of this [Caucasian shirt], would be to have a problem with the Indians, but if you’re quiet about the Indians, and you got something to say about my shirt, I think it’s time for introspection.”

The swell of people who had something to say about the white man logo — even if it was just to defend the fortitude of their feelings — but who have nothing to say about Native American mascots implicates the double standard of critical thought regarding racism in sports imagery. Therefore, as Jones affirms in his pointed commentary, what we need is an affective, mobilized and wide-ranging response to profit-mongering racism in athletics — a reaction that transcends intercessions at the jabs made at white people. Where is the Twitter storm of angry white folks agitating against the Redskins’ persistent attachment to a derogatory name and mascot? How many sports commentators are offering a platform to the indigenous resistance against imagery like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo? And why did ESPN discourage one of their hosts from prompting a conversation about racism in professional sports uniforms? In light of the continual displacement, economic depression and violence inflicted on Native populations, compounded by hackneyed stereotypes in the media and Hollywood, empathy for and accountability to the indigenous people, who have been urging teams to concede that red-faced, feather-wearing caricatures are degrading, is the very least we, as sports fans, can start with.

Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ksp57@cornell.edu. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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