An Obvious Question

The most obvious question of the day: Is cartoonist Chip Bok racist, or just stupid?

Chip Bok, "Al Sharpton America"The overtly conservative cartoonist is notorious for his stinging critiques of Democratic and liberal political fantasies spun of his own delusion, and his latest low blow against Reverend Al Sharpton is no different.

Perhaps the poignancy of the frame comes from its timing. Not so long ago, liberals chuckled—or else fumed with appropriate disgust—at a phenomenon in public discussions about women’s health civil rights issues widely reviled as, “Hush, girl. The men are talking.”

Just think about that for a moment.

In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Leonard Pitts Jr. noted:

For many of us as African-Americans, that night was a recurring nightmare driven to a horrific conclusion. It was the driving-while-black traffic stops, the “born suspect” joke that isn’t, the cost of being black in a nation that considers black the natural color of criminality.

Some people — most of them white and on the furthest right of the political spectrum — will disagree. For them, Zimmerman is the victim here, a man who acted justifiably to defend himself. Race, they will say, did not enter the picture except afterward, when he was thrown to the mob because of it.

And you wonder: What color is the sky on their world?

A few years ago, What Would You Do?, an ABC-TV hidden-camera show, set up a situation where two actors posed as bike thieves in a public park, using bolt cutters and hack saws to cut a bike chain. The results were instructive. Over the course of an hour, a hundred people passed the white “thief” by with barely a glance. The black one had hardly gotten to work before a crowd of whites gathered around him, interrogating him, lecturing him, calling 911, even shooting cell phone video.

Did race explain the disparity? “Not at all,” a white man who had harassed the black actor assured the cameras. “He could’ve been any color, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.” He doubtless believed what he said. For some of us, though, it has a tired, heard-before quality.

Or perhaps as President Obama noted:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

Chip BokNow, maybe I’m just a racist, but when it comes to what it looks, sounds, and feels like to live in dark skin, I tend to trust the descriptions that come from people who actually live in that skin a bit more than some white guy telling black people what to think.

And, see, that’s part of it, too. Every once in a while, people tell each other what they think. And that’s fine. Every once in a while, it’s appropriate to do so. Like when certain Republicans decided to revive old superstitions about rape, people called out the lie and many asserted it another example of why these conservative-sponsored laws are about nothing more than putting women back in their place.

Or when a Weld County, Colorado prosecutor refused to file rape charges when he had a confession in hand. His public excuse was that he didn’t think he could win a conviction. Of course, if you read through the record, what we find is that Mr. Buck thought the rape victim deserved it. Either way, though, did Ken Buck really try to tell us that people in Weld County think rape is acceptable? No, really, think about it. He won’t even file charges and allow the confessed rapist an opportunity to plead guilty. And he certainly does not seem to think that if the case went to trial, the people of Weld County are capable of convicting a confessed rapist. Now, of course, none of this is explicitly what he said, but this is not exactly hard to figure out. To the other, he might have a point; despite the seemingly horrific nature of his explanation, Colorado Republicans sent him to the ballot as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2010. Conservatives in Colorado, for instance, would seem to think rape is just dandy.

Just like men who will never be pregnant think they know better about a woman’s body than the woman does, though, there are some thoughts we shouldn’t try to assign. I think of the rhyming duo of Fenton and Denton, when I was a child, in the early eighties. Pete Fenton was a teacher in my elementary school. One one occasion I was literally held down and beaten for being a gook. Mr. Fenton’s lovely response was to hold me in detention for being in a fight. Jim Denton was the school’s principal, who once lectured me on Detlef Schrempf. Just like Detlef Schrempf, all I needed to do was act more like everyone else. Of course, he, like so many others of the time, missed the point. When local news in Portland, Oregon, reported in the nineties on Asians having their skin lightened, cheeks sculpted, and eyelids surgically altered in order to appear more Caucasian, the white Euro-Americans around me were, regardless of how they felt about Asians and Asian-Americans, shocked.

I, on the other hand, was simply sad: So it finally comes to this.

I know why this trend emerged, and I really do hope it’s passed. But I did notice at the time that while white people were mostly shocked at the notion, nonwhites in general took it for what it was—something that was bound to happen sooner or later.

After all, that was common advice in my day. Just act more white. Plastic surgery as part of passing? Inevitable.

Now, I’m not black. Despite my run-ins with racists over the years, I would not dare compare my experiences directly to what black Americans have endured. However, I can also say that I’ve been harassed or assaulted over the years for being Mexican, Puerto Rican, various general Hispanic appearances, Japanese (which is my Asian part), Chinese, Vietnamese, and yes, I’ve even been beaten once for being a nigger. Of course, that was in third grade, so take it for whatever the hell it’s worth.

And it is certainly true that white people can be victims of racism. But here’s the thing: When that happens, they’re still white. They still have the empowered majority. The instutitions that judge what happened still favor whites according to their statistical outcomes. Yeah, we get it, no goddamn nigger is gonna call you a honky.

But you really think it’s the same? There’s a reason the people you hate think you’re a racist.

In the end, though, none of this really matters, does it? Because just like men know better than women what it means to live as a woman, the white voices in the public discourse seem to think they know better than nonwhites what it means to live in nonwhite skin.

Or, as Chip Bok would have it: Hush, Darkies. Th’White folk is talkin’.

Because Chip Bok obviously knows better what it’s like to live in dark skin than Reverend Sharpton, President Obama, Leonard Pitts Jr., Questlove, or any uppity black man who dares think his own life experience is legitimate.

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