Why We Worry About Seeming Racist

Dear fellow journalists (especially the ones on TV): can I offer you a bit of unsolicited advice? Be brave. Listening to you talk (and talk and talk) around the subject of Barack Obama and race has been downright painful. Yes, our new president is black, and most of you are white, and judging by the way you excruciatingly measure every word you say about him, it's pretty clear that you are worried that you'll inadvertently say something insensitive and you'll wind up being accused of racism and it will ruin your career. I understand your fear. But seriously, it makes for some pretty painful watching.

An example: presidents dance at inaugural balls; that's what they do. Yes, it's a racial stereotype that all black people have rhythm. It is not racist to say that Barack and Michelle Obama looked good dancing together. Trust me on this.

I know there are plenty of Internet sheriffs trolling the airwaves for the next Imus-style outrage. Ignore them. Of course, if you send an e-mail cartoon depicting the front lawn of the White House as a watermelon patch, as the mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif., did last week, you're on your own. But there is simply nothing racist about saying that adorable little Sasha Obama is "sassy." The Huffington Post got clobbered for pointing out a "sassy" pair of sunglasses the president's daughter was sporting. You know, cute, sporty, fresh. If we're all sounding the alarm for that kind of thing, it's going to be a long four (possibly eight) years. I don't remember any indignation when the Huffington Post ran a story about Sarah Palin's daughter called "Piper's Sassiest Moments."

And I hate to pick on the company that pays my bills, but The Washington Post's preemptive act of contrition for using an illustration of a monkey for a humor column by Gene Weingarten about monkeys was completely nonsensical. What next, mea culpas on the op-ed page for thought crimes? Just because the New York Post got into hot water for an editorial cartoon depicting cops shooting a chimp identified as the writer of the stimulus plan does not mean that all pictures of monkeys "inadvertently … conjure racial stereotypes," as The Washington Post wrote in its apology to readers. Will The Washington Post now forgo pictures of chickens and basketballs in case it brings to mind unbidden racial stereotypes?

This is what can be so unbelievably frustrating to African-Americans. We get apologies for things no reasonable person would be offended by, nonapology apologies when we are offended. (Really? Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grouse didn't know black people were offended by watermelon jokes?) Meanwhile, nobody's having the kinds of discussions African-Americans would like to have—like whether increased diversity in the newsroom can prevent the negative racial stereotyping we saw during Hurricane Katrina, when black people were reported as "looting" while white people were said to be "foraging." Why can't we debate why, according to "The Black Image in the White Mind" written by Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki, a mug shot of a black defendant is four times more likely to appear in a local television news report than one of a white defendant? No offense to MSNBC, but stories about white supremacists who are mad because the president is black don't contribute much to our national conversation about race other than "duh."

Attorney General Eric Holder got into trouble when he said that "we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards … We average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race." But he's right. We spend hours debating when we can say "monkey," but fall into awkward silence if substantive issues like affirmative action or crime rates in the inner city come up.

But perhaps cowardice is the only solution in a country where the definition of racism seems to change all the time. When Connecticut's first black female judge, E. Curtissa Cofield, called a black state trooper a "negro" after he arrested her for drunken driving in October of last year, the Hartford NAACP said her words were a satire, not racist. That's as lame an excuse as the watermelon defense. If you use language to make another person feel inferior based on the color of his skin, you're being racist. And no, it doesn't matter if you're black or white.

Seeing how our president has about a 70 percent approval rating, can we maybe, at this late date in our country's long and rocky racial history, allow ourselves a little sense of humor and some common sense when it comes to race? Jon Stewart didn't get fired when he asked Barack Obama if he planned to enslave white people. Why? Because he was obviously kidding. Context is key. I accuse my white husband of racism if he won't bring me a Diet Coke while I'm watching "Stealing Lincoln's Body"; no one takes offense. And my co-workers get that when I accuse them of racism for never giving their BlackBerrys a rest that I'm pulling their leg. Come to think of it, some of them get a little uncomfortable when I do that. I should never mention BlackBerrys again.