Kramer, Please!

If you follow pop culture, it's been almost impossible to miss Michael Richards' astounding racist flame-out and subsequent requisite soul-searching televised mea culpa.

If you're a long-time reader of my site, you can probably guess my take: This is another example of the impedance mismatch between white and black culture in regard to social standards in public settings. Put more succinctly, Michael Richards lost his shit for the same reason white people always get mad when black people talk at the movies. It's about control, and who sets the standards, and clearly Richards is someone who gets filled with rage when he's not in control.

Now, to those of us who aren't black or white, this stuff is usually just an academic argument. It's a source of amusement, or maybe even a source of hope that someday while everyone else is arguing over this, we'll get some hispanic and asian people on TV or even into the White House.

But the fundamental issue here is that there's a significant tradition in many African American communities to see entertainment venues as a forum for interaction, as a place for dialogue and conversation inspired by, or even directly in response to the performance. Whether it's call-and-response in church or at a hip hop show, it's not merely acceptable to be talking or reacing, it's expected. Would showtime at the Apollo be as fraught without that expectation?

Conversely, a lot of white culture places an expectation on respect for the performance. There's a standard of reverence for the person on stage, or the film being screened. And there's an underlying sense of value: Hey, we all paid to be here, so be quiet!

Both positions are completely understandable, completely defensible, and valuable in their context. Hell, I usually feel both motivations at once when I go to events. But they're largely incompatible, and are especially hard to reconcile in a context that's weighted by the history and tension of race.

So, when a white comedian is heckled by a black audience member? It's a threat to Richards' values, and he reverts to the worst, most violent response possible: Lynching. I like to think of myself as jaded, but I was still astounded that Richards literally referenced lynching as his very first response to the challenge from the audience. For those arguing (probably correctly) that there are racist tendencies buried in us all, I'd like to offer a correction: This shit was not buried in Richards, it was sitting right there at the top of mind.

The eye of pop culture will move on to something more scandalous, or something more comfortable than confronting racism. But there is still a desperate need for people in America to understand the various cultural norms that inform their expectations of behavior, and to start embracing that variety.

Still curious about this? I wrote about white and black folks at the movies over four years ago:

My experience has been that white people at a movie see black patrons' interaction with the screen as being rude or inappropriate, and that black audiences see the white objectors as mostly frustrated by the fact that a black person has control over their ability to enjoy a movie in the manner to which they're accustomed. They're both right, of course.

Shortly after that, more movie stuff:

America, wake up... not everyone acts the way you do, and not everyone has the same expectations, wants, and desires that you do. If it's an orchestral performance, then shut the fuck up. If it's a funk concert, then get off your ass and jam. Somewhere in between? Then figure it out. But don't expect that everyone around you will arrive at the same conclusion.

Some other relevant links:

The construct for “Seinfeld,” like so many other comic teleplays and films, is a monochromatic world where White People are central, and people of color — if they appear at all — are simply used as accessories, as added “color” for a scene.

  • I recycled the same snowclone in this post's title in my earlier ruminations on Digg, for no reason at all.

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