Two-and-half weeks ago, actor Kirstie Alley, famed of ’80s TV sitcom Cheers, Jenny Craig weight loss ads, and sashaying in her hosiery on Oprah, told me, on Twitter, that African-Americans and Italians are “more free and fun and light hearted” than, I guess, people who aren’t African-American or Italian.
When she said this, I was actually dumbfounded. Twice, it turned out. Figuring out what to say, however, became my own mini-education in talking about race.
I follow Kirstie Alley, right, on Twitter, the popular new social messaging site, and am one of over 65,000 people who do. For those of you who don’t use the service, following someone means you instantly receive the 140-character messages, or tweets, that they send out, these being the essential communicative tool of Twitter.
Any way, irony of ironies, it appears the star of Showtime’s Fat Actress is a big fan, and now a follower, of the obese rap group, the Fat Boys…
…and, when she saw their tweet, immediately followed them….
This is where I came into the story, because I looked at TweetDeck right at that moment. TweetDeck is the application I use for accessing Twitter. When it’s running, messages are continuously going through it, from any of the over 840 people I follow who are sending them.
It’s akin to, say, a Quotron, on the stock exchange: I receive new tweets from people I follow, and, as new ones come in, the older ones scroll down. So, it’s a constantly shifting flow of information. As I write this post, though I’m not looking at it, Tweetdeck is receiving new messages in the background, putting up a little flag that says how many and what kind of messages—friends (people I follow), mentions with my Twitter address—@harryallen—in them, or direct messages (private ones). The software is, actually, chirping, to let me know it’s updating the feed.
Anyway, I saw Kirstie’s tweet, and retweeted it, meaning that, since I thought it was interesting, I forwarded it to the over 2,800 people who, at that time, were following me on Twitter. (It’s over 3,600 now.):
Kirstie Alley doesn’t follow me. However, the way Twitter works, whenever someone retweets something you’ve posted, or even just writes something with your Twitter name/address in it, Twitter captures it as a mention, and you can see you’ve been spoken about. So, when I sent her tweet to my followers, presumably, she saw it, and responded to me directly.
That’s when things got interesting.
Alley sent this message to me:
I stared at the screen, not quite believing what I was seeing. (This was the first time I was dumbfounded in this episode.)
Stating “I wish I was Black,” or variations thereof, is one of the most common ways white people directly offend Black people, even as, apparently, trying to endear themselves to us. I’ve observed that they usually make these statements after a Black person displays some high or unusual flair, style, or gracefulness, in a way that is popularly associated with Black prowess; e.g., dancing, or making music.
White people, however, typically don’t say this when Black people are being stopped by police, having their job applications turned down, or when they don’t have the money to pay their bills (thanks, in part, to the 10:1 white/Black wealth gap). That sedimentary layer of aggravation, disruption, and exasperation is the dominant one in Black life, but it’s the one from which white people least want to harvest, or whose existence they apparently don’t wish to ponder or acknowledge.
In other words, when it comes to being Black, they just want the fun part.
There’s a word for this. It’s called slumming. My colleague and mentor, writer Greg Tate, even alluded to the phenomenon in the title/subtitle of his 2003 book, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture, right. Though his book is about white people “co-opting Black styles of music, dance, dress, and slang,” that’s merely another aspect of the same construct. (It’s also one I’ve also posted about here, on MEDIA ASSASSIN, and in other places. For example, I spoke about it in my much-commented upon post about Asher Roth, “Fight the White Rap History Rewrite; in “White People and Hip-Hop,” for the “Addicted to Race” podcast; and in “The Unbearable Whiteness of Emceeing: What The Eminence of Eminem Says About Race,” which I wrote for The Source, the latter two of which were also cited in the Roth piece.)
I didn’t even later recall retweeting Alley’s comment, but must have, because tweets started coming in from people who follow me. The first, from a funny, cool sister I mutually follow called kokupuff, seemed to arrive almost instantaneously, her response so elemental it annoyed me.
“what is your reaction to that statement?”
It was like a little pin prick. It didn’t briefly annoy me because she was being intrusive or rude in any way. It annoyed me because I didn’t know what to say. I was, again, dumbfounded.
But, in fact, kokupuff had done what I say non-white people should mostly do when speaking, particularly in racial situations: Ask questions.
So, I told her what my reaction would be:
I wrote back to Alley:
And Alley wrote back the tweet that opened this post, above:
Right away, people started to respond:
Also, because my Facebook account receives my Twitter feed, I later learned people were reading parts of the exchange there, too.
Furthermore, Alley then sent me an innocuous direct message, visible only to the two of us. I won’t repost it, of course. But, I’ll note it, as part of the timeline, and say that, in a friendly way, she indicated that she wanted to hear my thoughts.
This, though, was the second time I didn’t know what to say. What should I do?
I talk a fair amount about race, and feel I have a range when speaking about it. I could go really soft, be nice, and perhaps not make my point. I’d go out like a chump, which would be embarassing.
Or, I could go really hard, drop some counter-racist science, and squash Alley, rhetorically, like a bug. If I did this too hard, though, I probably would not be understood by Alley.
Also, because many Black people often feel a need to protect white people when white people are made uncomfortable by a Black person, many Black people would come to her aid, and possibly turn against me.
Neither route was acceptable to me. I wanted to explain to Kirstie Alley why the statement was offensive to many people, in a way that she would comprehend, or at least that I thought she would. At the same time, and even more, I also wanted to demonstrate, for Black people who might be watching the exchange, and that I’ve realized are often looking for examples on how to handle these situations, what to do in these situations.
So, I got my head clear, and wrote this, first:
There are a few reasons I wrote what I did, this way:
First, I wanted to clear a discussion about Italians from the table, because I’m not credible on the subject. So, I told her I couldn’t address that part of her tweet.
Then, I especially wanted to use the word “stereotype” because I think it’s a word that regular white people not only understand, but can hear without feeling that they are being judged, personally.
This is not to say that white people do not deserve judgement, both personally and collectively. It merely means that, in my experience, judgement, or the appearance of it, merely ends the conversation. After all, the white people who benefit, directly or indirectly, from white supremacy hold the power, and don’t have to discuss this issue if they don’t want to do so, and they typically don’t. Ending the conversation is cool, if that’s what you want to do. However, I didn’t want to do so, here.
As well, I didn’t just want to say it was a stereotype. I also wanted something to modify the word, to heavily weight it. The words “300-year-old” were easy, because, for at least that long, white people have been imagining us, generally, this way.
For example, in 1998, the NAACP was faced with the question of “whether to file a formal complaint with a college over a course that asserts that most slaves were happy in captivity,” as the NY Times reported.
“Crusty” was actually my last call. I wanted to more than say it was an old way of looking at people. I wanted to say it was rotted, with a word that was tactile; that you could feel in your mind as you said it.
That done, I then said this:
Kirstie Alley has a very nice house that she often uses for entertaining. (I know this, because I saw it on Oprah. That’s her manse, right.) I felt that if I spoke about a situation that any person who opens their home has experienced—dealing with the guests who doggone won’t leave, while having to remain genial—I could let her know that much of what she detects in Black people is also as strategic and false.
Like saying “crusty,” I wanted words that would convey a sensory impression, when reading them, and felt “smiling through their teeth” would do that.
“Navigating” is a word to which many Black people, I think, connect, because being immersed in race means that you often have to plot, in advance, so much of what you’re going to do, say, and how you will react.
Saying “extreme discomfort we suffer under white people” is the only place in the response I mention white people as a generalized group. So, when I did, I wanted it to be connected to something harsh; to what Black people typically will not admit, and what, I believe, white people cannot believe they often cause or engender, just being themselves—extreme discomfort.
To me, this argument lies, literally, on the psychic obverse of Al Sharpton’s statement to Michael Jackson’s children at yesterday’s memorial: “Wa’nt nothin’ strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”
It was strange what your daddy had to deal with. It’s so strange, that, when Black people complain, white people typically say that we’re either a) making it up, b) bellyaching, or c) causing racism ourselves.
Finally, saying “But I can’t speak for Italians” was a nice non-sequitr that echoed the opening, and tied the whole thing up.
For a while, after I sent the tweets, there was no direct response. Then, bit by bit, people started writing to say that they’d appreciated what I’d written to Alley’s comments, which they’d not liked at all.
It’s unfortunate that one of the sad effects of race is that many white people do not get to hear what Black people really think. I don’t always say what I really think. This directness is something of which I think we need more.
Having so clearly offended, many people would apologize for their words. Alley, however, did not apologize, or even respond. The last comment I saw her make on the issue appeared several hours later, after a fellow Twitterer, tweetmeblack, called her out on her statements:
Sigh. Wrong answer, Kirstie.
UPDATE!: Kirstie Alley responds here, as do I.