Monday, November 27, 2006

A place of humiliation

I saw the video of Michael Richards losing his mind in that comedy club last week, and I can't think of anything that didn't involve actual violence that was as jarring. It's disturbing for the language, but more than that, he seems completely unhinged. I can imagine that the audience was frightened as well as just plain horrified.

It's an unbelievable sight. Apparently, there's more that didn't make the video. According to reports, Richards first called out members of audience by calling them "dumb Mexicans and blacks" who were interrupting his show. Then commenced the rant that you've undoubtedly seen. (If not, you can see it here.) There was more that wasn't captured on video. According to one report, lines not seen on the video include "I have enough money I could have you put in jail," and "When I wake up tomorrow, I'll be rich, and you'll still be a nigger!"

So now he's hitting the airwaves to defend himself. And proclaim his deepest sorrows for "this thing" - not for screaming racist insults and threatening people, but just for "this thing," which apparently rose up and spat out of his mouth like something out of an "Alien" movie. He sputtered out an apology on Letterman, but never seemed remorseful so much as tongue-tied. Then he went on Jesse Jackson's show and proclaimed not only that he had never used such language and images before. (Let's try and remember how well that defense worked for George Allen.) In fact, says the shocked Richards, he's not a racist at all! Why, he grew up in a black neighborhood! His best friend was a ni ... a black person!

But he was humiliated. Or rather, he was in "a place of humiliation." (Sorry, I had to stop for a minute. I was in a place of laughter.)

Let's talk about this for a second. He's saying that he was lashing out because he was humiliated. But he pulled out the worst possible thing he could say to a black patron - the one word for which there is no response. He pulled out the n-word as a weapon to defend himself from humiliation, even though (he says) he had NEVER used that word before. NEVER used it before. Never. I'm going to call bullshit on that. He had the word in his vocabulary - whether he said it every day or once a year, it was there. And when he need something big, he reached into his bag of weapons and pulled it out. People do instinctive things when they feel threatened, as a comic does when he's bombing on stage. They don't think, they just act. Somehow, the word was enough of an ingrained part of him that it came out in his most vulnerable moment. That says to me that the word wasn't new to him, it was something that was used regularly.

Look, I grew up in a suburb of Detroit with black friends and classmates. I used that word, when I was younger, when I didn't realize the impact it had. I knew the word was bad, but white kids used it pretty regularly. I haven't used it in twenty years, but I know that word exists somewhere, back in the recesses of my mind. I can't imagine any circumstance - any - where I would pull that word out and throw it at someone. Can't even fathom it. It's the atom bomb of slurs. So in my opinion, something was going on in Richard's head for him to start calling out "black people" and then escalate it to the N-word. Somehow, that insult was prepared in his mind and was waiting for use. Is he a racist? Who knows? But for him to say that it was about anger, that's only part true.

I'd like for him to come clean and say that, sure, he might have some racist tendencies, maybe some racist beliefs. Like large portions of America. And that, unlike the people whose racism lies dormant, his inner racist came spilling out in anger, and then got splattered all over the internets. Instead, what I've heard is him trying to change the subject. More than once, his apologies have turned into social critiques on use of "that word" in the entertainment industry (read: "Soul Plane" and rap music).

"I fear that young whites will think it's cool to go around and use that word because they see very cool people in the show business using that word so freely. Perhaps that's what came through in that ... the vernacular is so accessible."

He's not looking inside. He's trying to find an enemy, a scapegoat, something else he can blame. I could really give a damn about Michael Richards' soul being saved, or his conscience being mollified. What I care about is his attempt to change the subject by turning it into a discussion on how other people (read: black folks) use the n-word with each other. That's not the issue. The issue is a 57-year-old man who makes his living (or not) in the public eye. He should have known better. For someone in the entertainment industry, he should have known, better than most, the power of words as weapons. This was about power, this was about an arrogant celebrity, and this was about a tv comedian outing himself as having some kind of racist thoughts in his head. Nobody knows how much of this was racism and how much was anger, but both were undeniably present in that room.

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