It’s interesting that the mass media has suddenly become fascinated by “incivility”—i.e. the rudeness of some people in public, or rather public people in public.
All those angry mostly older white folks carrying signs depicting Obama as Hitler or the devil or accusing him of lying and wanting to brainwash their children etc. etc. etc., including the public figures on the right and in the Republican Party, and most of the focus has been on their anger and allowing them to voice it as if it’s righteous instead of self-righteous and either completely ignorant or totally misinformed (as I noticed last night on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN when some rightwing apologist was given what seemed like hours but was probably fifteen or twenty minutes to justify exactly that behavior, no apologies requested or given).
But now that we have three incidents that involve African-Americans, suddenly it’s all about “civility” which reminds me too much of old racist ideas about how African-Americans are less “civilized” than whites and therefore can be either treated like they’re “less civilized” (i.e. Congressman Wilson’s rude outburst during Obama’s speech the other night shouting “You lie!”) or are expected to behave “less civilized” i.e. reactions to Serena Williams’ outburst against the line judge who made a bad call and cost her the game and championship, or Kanye West’s rude grabbing of the microphone away from Taylor Swift when she was trying to give her acceptance speech for winning best female video for the MTV awards.
Many people I’m hearing in the media and reading on the net disagree that these incidents can be linked by “race” or racial issues, but how can you avoid it?
John MacEnroe himself, as a TV commentator for the match, criticized Serena Williams’ outburst! MacEnroe, who has made a living—since being a tennis champ who was constantly “uncivil”—as a character in commercials with the reputation of being capable of blowing up at any minute over any thing!
I remember when MacEnroe and Jimmy Connors were winning matches and mesmerizing but also confusing tennis fans with their rude outbursts against officials at their matches. It was embarrassing for many Irish-Americans at the time, because the WASP tennis champions of old (and even the rare non-WASPs and single African-American, Arthur Ashe) never exploded with vocal venom at their tennis matches.
So what gave MacEnroe the right to criticize Serena Williams for her outburst at what turned out to be a bad call (MacEnroe and Connors didn’t have the advantage of instant replay to verify their claims), she cursed, and threatened to shove the tennis ball down the judge’s throat.
Interestingly, the line judge was a diminutive Asian-American, who Williams towered over and who behaved as if she were genuinely frightened that Williams was going to physically attack her. Would she have felt the same way if a petite blond white tennis player had verbally attacked her or even threatened her? Did she really think Serena was going to physically attack her in front of an arena full of tennis fans and various tennis officials as well as police and guards all over the area? She acted as if she did.
Serena was wrong to lose control in such an obviously vitriolic way, but was it really worse than what MacEnroe and others have done in the past? I’ve certainly had outbursts like hers, though I’ve worked hard not to have them over the years.
If she were a Spanish or Russian or French player and had cursed in her native tongue would people be reacting as harshly against what she did? Isn’t part of the problem that it could be said that she swore in her own native tongue, i.e. “African-American”?
Or will I be accused of being a racist for saying that? I certainly have used the language she used and I’m not African-American. And plenty of white people I’ve known over the years have cursed in the same ways. But it’s usually not at tennis matches on national TV.
Joe Wilson cursed at President Obama (and I’m really getting tired of the media constantly referring to him as “Mister Obama”—how long do you think the right would let the media get away with that if it were Reagan or Bush?) in the language of white Southerners or macho white male culture in general in this country.
What was the worst thing a cowboy could call another cowboy in the old Westerns, or a man could call a Southern gentleman in the Hollywood fantasies of the old South—a liar. It meant there had to be a shootout or a duel. The honor of the one called a liar had to be defended to the death.
Wilson, a congressman from South Carolina—the last state to do away with segregation laws in my experience (when James Meredith was marching on Ole Miss and lunch counters were being forcefully integrated in Georgia, I was stationed in Greenville, South Carolina, where African-Americans were not allowed to even go to the local drive-in in their own cars or walk in the local park, which the city closed down rather than integrate, etc.), the state with the most fundamentalist Christian cults, the state where the right almost always triumphs— knows that “You lie” would be the same as yelling “You are a coward, a dog, an ingrate” and all the other insults famous from Hollywood’s version of Southern men with honor.
He also knew that he was yelling it at the president in a public forum and on television. He knew what he was doing and what impact he wanted it to have. That he would be seen as the champion of those who are having a difficult time accepting Obama as president, which obviously has a lot to do with Obama’s being partly African-American, because as much as the right hated Bill Clinton—the supposed “first black president”—they never questioned his legitimacy as having been elected president and they didn’t shout “You lie” when he addressed both houses of Congress with his own push for healthcare for all, they just tried everything they could to get him removed from office.
Can you imagine what the right would be doing if Obama were caught with a young white female intern in the oval office?! It’s obviously racial.
And Kanye West? My little guy wanted to watch some of the MTV awards before he went to bed so we actually caught West’s rude intrusion on Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech and both reacted critically to it. It was obviously rude and self-centered and self-indulgent etc. even if his point was that Beyonce deserved the award instead of Swift and he obviously thought he was standing up for Beyonce and that Swift could finish her speech after he gave back the mic, but she was either too distraught (the way the media is playing it) or, as my son and I saw, the director of the show got confused and interrupted her attempt to continue her acceptance speech with music (ala the Academy Awards when someone’s speech goes over the allotted time) and then with repeated starts, as though the reel was skipping, of a filmed interlude with Tracy Morgan and Eminem (a series of supposedly comic vignettes that also played on some racial stereotyping interestingly).
But would West’s behavior have garnered the same level of attention if it had been a fellow African-American performer he interrupted during their acceptance speech? Oh, wait a minute, he did that a few years ago and, hmmmmmm, it didn’t get almost any attention in the mass media.
My little guy has a crush on Taylor Swift, so that was part of his negative reaction to West’s rude behavior, but probably a lot of people have crushes on her—she’s a lovely looking blond young woman who comes across as super sweet and talented as a singer/songwriter—and the visual impact of the interruption was hard to miss, a very dark African-American male with patterns shaved into his very shortly cropped hair, dressed in black if I remember correctly with the stance and verbal thrust of a rapper, i.e. “gangsta” style (even though West is famous for being the more cerebral version of that stance) grabbing the microphone from this slim, pale-as-virgin-snow, teenage looking (I’m not sure if she’s finally twenty or not, my little guy says she is), blonde, wisp of a girl looking like a virginal prom queen of old, as opposed to the other female music stars at the awards who were mostly dressed like classy hookers or strip joint female crotch grabbing dancers, or drag queen ghouls (Lady Ga Ga) etc.
Though Beyonce looked pretty classy as usual and interestingly was exceptionally classy in turning over her later award (in another category) acceptance speech time to Swift, calling her out with an introduction in which Beyonce spoke about how she remembered being a seventeen (which is what I thought Swift’s age is) year old first time award winner and how much it meant to her. Interestingly (and I believe for racial reasons) Beyonce’s classy move did not seem to make the evening news or most of the mass media shows I checked in on. Hmmmmm.
I also watched Kanye West apologize on the new Jay Leno show last night and he seemed not only truthfully contrite but totally confused by the reaction to and by his own behavior, genuinely disturbed by it all. And why shouldn’t he be? This kind of behavior has been rewarded by audiences and CD buyers (predominantly white) since long before he started his career as a clean-cut young man who rapped to convince his fellow African-American young men, in particular, to take the higher road but then got off it himself to increase his street cred and sell more CDs, because that works.
It’s the trap of wanting the cake and eating it too. We can’t have a culture that glorifies old stereotypes (Southern gentlemen and their “honor” and their white virginal women—young urban black gangsters turning rudeness into millions—black athletes overcoming great odds to succeed in previously white dominated sports but not allowed to act out in the stereotypical supposed “black” manner, i.e. cursing and threatening to do mythical damage that is obviously meant to intimidate but is not really a threat, anymore than the fingers many of us flash in traffic when cut off by others is etc.) and gets past them at the same time.
Having Obama in the oval office seems to have allowed a lot of “Americans” to on the one hand believe we’ve crossed some barrier that will lead to racial harmony while others take it as an excuse to be openly racial without having to actually talk about race. But ain’t no way these three incidents didn’t pivot on racially based conceptions of accepted behavior in the arenas where they occurred.