Of isms, schisms, colloquialisms

by the Night Writer

There was a classic Saturday Night Live sketch where Chevy Chase was interviewing Richard Pryor for a job (transcript here, blurry video here). The last step was for Pryor to take a word association test where he’d say the first word that came to his mind after Chase read a word from a list. The test is innocent enough at first, but soon the words — initially ambiguous — start to take on racial overtones: “black” = “white”, “tar baby” = “ofay”, “jungle bunny” = “cracker” as each man gets a little angrier and more confrontational. Ultimately Chase drops the “n” word, not even looking at his list, and Pryor responds menacingly with “Dead Honky.” This was way back in the 70s when SNL was a startling new phenomenon, pushing the edge of satire and taste. To dare to use the “n” word in a humorous context to satirize the volatility of the race issue and the absurdity of the language was to also push the nuance envelope. The skit confronted the words rather than running from them and drew them out into the light so their bulbous ugliness could be punctured and deflated by the sharp needle. It was ground-breaking, it was liberating, it was as if it were prophesying a new day where we could at last talk.

That glimmer of hope appears long gone. I doubt that skit could run today. In fact, many of the links I originally found to the video now have messages about “video removed for content violation.” Whether it was for language or copyright violations I don’t know, but it makes me wonder. Yesterday’s satire is now reality, as any racially-tinged language provokes instant word association-type reflex responses of reaction unfettered by reason. “Racism” has become such a loaded word that no one can pick it up without getting a hernia. It even occurred to me after I posted the Tom Lehrer video earlier that some might watch that and fail to see the irony and would instead react with, “That’s mean” or something worse, missing the satire completely. No emails like that yet, fortunately.

Ultimately, racism can’t be changed by talking about it, but by living without it. I know, that sounds impossible, especially since I concur with what Mitch Berg had to say earlier his week:

I’m going to start out with a very broad statement: “Isms” are part of the human condition. All people are conditioned to favor people who are like them, and to suspect people who are different from them, whether tangibly (skin color, language, accent, smell, dress) or subtly (class, education, geography). Many white people get uneasy around many black people, sure, but that’s an easy one. Middle-class white people get uneasy around mullet-headed bikers; New Yorkers sneer down their noses at Arklahoma accents; light-skinned blacks disdain darker blacks (or so said Spike Lee); farmers roll their eyes at people in suits and ties and clipped city accents and manners.

This is true across every culture on this planet.

In many of those cultures, that suspicion is codified in the language. In many languages, the word for “Human” varies, depending on how closely-related or situated the subject is to the speaker; for “humans” whose tribe is closer to that of the speaker, it’s a fairly benign or amiable term; the farther afield the subject, the less-benign and more derogatory the term will get.

To say “everyone’s a racist” is itself simplistic; it would be fairer and more accurate to say “we are all we-ists”; all of us, black or female or suburban or mentally ill or urban or atheist, are more comfortable around people who are like us. And every single one of us practices “profiling”, whether you’re a black couple “profiling” some agressive drunk rednecks, or a Xhosa turning on a Bantu in anger, or Molly Priesmeyer “profiling” white males, or even the stereotypical white middle-class guy sizing up…anyone else.

We separate ourselves in countless ways, not just by skin color. I was just back in my rural hometown the other day, a small community of about 3,000 people, almost all caucasian. I saw a list of the churches serving this small community. There were 13. Among that 13, there were seven varieties of Baptists. We all pretty much use the same Bible, know that we’re called to join and knit in the Body of Christ, and yet even in a small community that would appear to have so much in common, we can’t help but separate ourselves.

We are all “We-ists” by nature. As a Christian, however, I know that that our basic nature is essentially base and sinful. It is natural to identify with “our” group, to get beyond that we need to begin seeing ourselves as a member of wider and wider groups.

I fellowship regularly with, and minister occasionally to, a group of men overcoming addictions in their lives. The group is roughly 50/50 blacks and whites, and range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Some are from the south, some from the north, some are from the country and some have lived in the city all their lives. There are any number of reasons for individuals in this group to stand apart from other members and perhaps some do. Greater, however, is the overall sense of what we have in common, including our purpose. One of our preachers is a fiery black man who knows first hand what it means to beat up on someone, and to be beat down. If anyone could righteously spout the things that Rev. Jeremiah Wright says, it would be this man, yet he preaches that our enemy isn’t some person or some group – our enemy is ourselves.

About 10 years ago part of this group went on a weekend fishing trip. One of the young black men who came along was just out of prison, and he didn’t have a very favorable opinion of white folks. Early Saturday morning I went down to help out in the kitchen and found this man working by himself on the bacon and eggs. He was large and imposing, the size of an NFL linebacker. I asked him I could help him by turning the bacon.

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “No.”

I tried again. “How about I stir up the eggs then?”

“Nope. I got it.” We could have been ice-fishing for the chill in that cabin.

“Oooh-kaay,” I said, looking around and spying about a dozen loaves of bread on the counter, waiting to be toasted. “I think I’ll just hang out over here with all this white bread.”

It was very quiet, except for the sound of the bacon sizzling. “I am about to die,” I thought to myself.


Ever since then we’ve been buds. My friend still comes often to the Saturday meetings, and I ran into him last week as the meeting was ending. The message had been about discipleship, and about whether you are a follower or an imitator of someone else (imitator is better). I hadn’t seen him come in earlier so I gave him a big hug, which he returned. He then turned to introduce me to the man he had brought with him, who turned out to be his brother.

“This is John,” he said as I shook the other man’s hand. “He’s somebody I’ve been trying to imitate.”

I couldn’t make out the look in his brother’s eyes, because my own eyes suddenly got kind of misty.

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