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It's Called 'Africa.' Of Course It's About Race, Right?
Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 8:26 am
The email arrived with the kind of snarky tone reserved for a moment when the author is sure he — and it's usually a he — thinks he's hoisted you with your own petard.
A bit of back story: Last week, I tweeted a question wondering why CBS This Morning used a clip of Toto's hit song "Africa" under a montage of photos from Nelson Mandela's funeral. The tweet went viral, sparking stories on several websites and agreement from a co-founder of the band.
Responding to that outpouring, a reader emailed, in part: "Isn't it wrong to put a black/white label on choice of song, especially when its [sic] linked to Mandela? I thought he was fighting exactly against this stereotypical behavior. Your pathetic observation really cheapens the spirit of the day."
But I never mentioned race. Instead, I had written: "couldn't you end a segment on Mandela's funeral with real African music instead of Toto's Africa?"
My emphasis was on the idea of Americans' de-emphasizing African culture (which includes white Africans). But the email writer apparently saw the phrase "real African music" — perhaps realizing the writer was a black man who often writes on race and media — and assumed the argument was about race. And then blamed me for bringing up the subject.
This issue comes up all the time when you write about race and culture in America. One of the reasons white culture has remained so dominant here is that by pretending it doesn't exist as a racial culture, racial issues can then be presented as concerns for nonwhite races almost exclusively.
Defining when an issue is about race and when it isn't can be a tricky dance. And too many people see slapping a racial category on an issue as a way of dismissing it from general consideration — placing the conversation in the realm of unjustified grousing about a marginal idea.
The invisibility of white racial culture for white people came up in a different way last week when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly decided to talk about a Slate article in which Aisha Harris, a black female blogger, suggested — somewhat tongue-in-cheek — that Santa Claus be re-imagined as a penguin to end the way he is always presented as a white man to the world. Kelly began by telling any children watching her show (perhaps to forestall any complaints from adult viewers, too), that Santa Claus is white. "Santa just is white. ... Santa is what he is and just so you know, we're just debating this because someone wrote about it."
The anchor also insisted Jesus was white, despite evidence that the real man might not have been. The panel of pundits discussing this with Kelly seemed to be all white people and did not include the author of the Slate story.
In a later broadcast, Kelly said she was joking, even though she appeared deadly serious when making the statements about Santa's race. The anchor also said she was victimized by "race baiting" critics, lamenting that "Fox News and yours truly are big targets for some people." (She did acknowledge learning in the past two days that there's still debate over the race of Jesus.)
But Kelly ignored an important point that Harris tried to make in her original piece: It's not just that Santa Claus is a fictional character loosely based on a religious figure; it's that making him white is a specific cultural choice.
In today's increasingly diverse society, white should not be the de facto ethnicity for figures of note in American/European pop culture. That's not a choice that happens by accident. And, as Harris noted in her Slate piece, those choices often affect people of color, who see their identity and heritage constantly pushed to the side.
The invisibility of white culture means that for Kelly, it's just a fact that a beloved fictional character is white (or, as she said in her later commentary, "We continually see St. Nick as a white man in modern-day America."). She never really asks why this character is depicted as white, because she still doesn't seem to see Santa Claus' race as a deliberate choice.
This is a point that those of us who write about race and pop culture are constantly trying to drive home. For people of color, there are thousands of instances where white culture asserts itself invisibly, without acknowledgment and without understanding.
Choices are made because they "feel right" and "everybody knows it" and "that's just the way it is" — all euphemisms for selections made without thinking and without accountability.
Kelly said she learned two things from the dust-up over her Santa comments: that race is still a hot-button issue and that critics are gunning for her and her employer.
I wish she had learned more: that talking about race without doing some real thinking and research is a fool's errand.
And trying to talk about race in America without acknowledging the power of whiteness is like trying to talk about fire without acknowledging that it burns.