You can view a portion of the incident on CNN here. The Huffington Post also published an article detailing what had happened and some of the reactions to it:
As some people at the Missouri State Fair see it, the rodeo incident last weekend in which a ringleader taunted a clown wearing a mask of President Obama and played with his lips as a bull charged after him was neither racist nor disrespectful. It was a joke, they said, overblown by a news media that’s hypersensitive to any possible slight against the nation’s first black president.
The rodeo incident and the clown at the center of it have become the latest illustration of racial divisions that continue to surface nearly five years into Obama’s presidency. . . Democratic and Republican elected officials in Missouri quickly condemned the incident, saying it was offensive and inappropriate. . . .
But there has also been a backlash on the right, with conservative radio talk show hosts and writers dismissing the act as a joke no different from jabs aimed at other presidents. Moreover, they said, the president’s supporters ought to learn how to take a joke rather than seeing everything as racially motivated.
There is a long history of mocking politicians at rodeos, and clowns have donned masks of other presidents as part of their acts. But James Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri, said last week’s incident “goes beyond the pale — they’re talking about physical injury and racial stereotypes.”To be fair, there is naturally going to be a difference in the way a rodeo clown dressed as a Democratic President is treated by the conservative, rodeo-going crowd of Missouri, compared to the way they would treat a rodeo clown dressed as a Republican and fellow Southerner like George H. W. Bush. It's not surprising that the crowd demonstrated more verbal animosity towards the Democrat, and race may or may not have been a factor in that. But that's not really what the problem is with the Facebook meme.
I also don't think it's all that helpful to focus on whether the Obama clown depiction was "racially motivated," as the Huffington Post puts it. It's difficult and often unproductive to try to determine what people's motives are in a situation like this. But there is an issue. And the issue, as far as I can see, is not so much about what motivated the incident, but about what actually happened.
You see, I'm not talking about racial motivations, but about racism. I think these are actually two things that overlap, but are really not the same.
I do think the Obama mask is racist, even though there was a similar mask of Bush that obviously wasn't. One reason I think so is the simple fact that the Obama mask overemphasizes certain stereotypical characteristics associated with black people, such as large white teeth, in a way that simply doesn't apply to the Bush mask. Another reason is that depicting African-Americans as clownlike and stupid is a historical practice of the dominant white culture in the U.S., and as such, it isn't funny when we do it today. Based on our history as a nation, there are ways you can lampoon a white man that you can't lampoon a black one-- because the scars are still there, and this sort of thing isn't going to help heal any of them.
But there's more to it even than that.
I want to talk about institutional, systemic racism-- the kind that isn't about "motivation." The kind that people participate in without intention, and often without even consciousness of doing so. The fact is, that it's quite possible-- even easy-- to participate in systemic, institutional racism without in the least intending to be racist. All you have to do is go along with the status quo.
That's not to say that there is never any actual, deliberate, racially motivated animosity towards our current President. I'm sure sometimes there is. But when it comes to racism, it's quite possible to participate in it without deliberate racial motivation at all.
Back in 2009, blogger Rod at Political Jesus identified a particular characteristic of conservative evangelicalism, which he spoke of in terms of sexism, but which easily apply to racism as well. He said that conservative evangelicalism has
a highly individualistic view of sin–an idea that individuals alone are judged according to their sins and actions. . .
[Thus they] discredit any theological notion of corporate sin, and therefore discredit the claims of [persons experiencing systemic injustice] since institutional sin does not exist. If institutional sins such as institutional sexism does not exist, then [such] claims cannot be explained except for anything but a “conspiracy theory.”But this is not about a secret plot that a few people claim exists. This is about real events that happen, real ways that people get treated, which are not part of any conspiracy, but just a factor of our ongoing social structures. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as institutional, corporate sin, and systemic racism is one of them. If sins were only individual, why would Jesus speak as He did in Matthew 11:20-24?
Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. . . And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day."An article in Watchman Magazine Online by Marc Smith explains a little bit about what might have been the corporate sin of Capernaum:
Capernaum was located in a very advantageous place (Matthew 11:23, "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven..." This reference the Lord makes might have had to do with the attitude of its inhabitants more than any other factor.) in that it was on a crossroads of primary importance, being along the Beth-shan, Damascus highway. The presence of Roman soldiers at Capernaum (Mark 8:5-13) illustrates the importance of Capernaum's location. (Emphasis in original)If Capernaum as a city could have been considered guilty of corporate pride by Christ, how can we say there is no such thing as corporate sin? As long as we look at sin as only an individual thing, we will probably fail to see that we may be participating in systemic societal sin, simply by remaining blind to it and thus just going along with the way things are.
So what does systemic racism look like? How does it relate to the way the Obama mask is perceived, versus the way the Bush mask is perceived?
This article on white privilege details several differences between being a white person and a person of color in America. I think one aspect in particular applies here: that in ways a white person will never experience, a person of color is viewed less as an individual and more as a representative of his or her entire race. Here are some examples from the article, detailing conditions which people of color cannot count on, but which white people often take for granted:
I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.White people in our culture (and particularly white men) are usually looked at as individuals. White is normative; white is the default. You don't get noticed for being white in our society. You aren't considered primarily as a member of a group known as "whites."
What this means for the rodeo clown mask incident (as my husband so pithily pointed out the other evening), people in general aren't going to look at the Bush mask and say, "Oh, look at the funny white man."
But that's not the case with the Obama mask. When people look at the Obama mask, the tendency, learned from our culture and passed down generationally, is to see a mask of a black man first, and of a man named Barack Obama second.
What this means is that we can't put a rodeo clown in an Obama mask without its being seen as a mockery, not just of our President, but of the entire black race. Even if we don't intend it to be seen that way. Even if that's the last thing on our minds.
Is this fair? No. But it's the way things are. So to get offended when people say, "That's racist!" is to continue to walk in the privilege of not having to notice that it's not the same to be black in our country as it is to be white.
I think it's important as a white person not to take this too personally. To have someone point out that something we're participating in is racist, isn't necessarily an indictment on our character. Instead, we can see it humbly, as a time to learn to let go of privilege. It's time to learn to see through the eyes of those our race has traditionally and repeatedly othered. We need to understand why the Bush rodeo mask and the Obama rodeo mask really aren't the same thing-- and why it's not hypocrisy to say so.
As white people, we tend to want to ask, "Then is the only way to not be perceived as racist, to treat people of color with more consideration than we treat ourselves?
Because we can't clean up a mess by pretending it's not there. We can't just say, "As long as I'm not making a new mess, it's ok." We can't just say, "I wasn't the one who made that old mess, and it's not my fault or my responsibility." That doesn't matter. We inherited this mess of systemic racism that's been here all these years, and we have to roll up our sleeves and bend down to work on cleaning it up. To pretend it isn't there ends up just being a way to leave it in place.
And that means that, until black and brown people are really free from institutional and generational racism, there has to be a double standard.
It's the least we can do. Isn't it?