A small town white boy looks back at pop culture's impact on his concept of race while growing up, and how racism and homophobia are expressed and addressed in today's pop climate.
I took it pretty easy on my folks, where shopping for school clothes was concerned. I was content with a few pairs of denim jeans and a week's worth of rock 'n' roll-themed T-shirts, preferably as satanic and provocative as possible. Indeed, my Dead Kennedys "Too Drunk to Fuck" shirt got me suspended for a day from the continuation high school that later expelled me for, they say, "attempting to incite a race riot".
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The lone exception to my wardrobe's "Yay, Satan!" theme was a shirt emblazoned with the simultaneously bored and challenging visage of one Homey D. Clown, Damon Wayans' seminal, take-no-shit-from-the-man icon from Fox's early '90s skit hit In Living Color. I happened to be wearing my Homey D. Clown shirt after school one day when I paid a visit to my friend Poptart, whose roommate one year later would be a mixed-race lad who had to contend with such unflattering nicknames as "Halfrican" and, worse still, "Nigger Mike". (I kid you not. Welcome to Oroville, California.)
Poptart had formed a swastika on his ceiling using Budweiser bottle caps, and old Mike slept under that swastika every night and, aside from a joking threat to replace the swastika with a large bottle cap 'X' (immediately retracted because, and I quote, "That Malcolm X was a racist motherfucker!"), he never once complained.
But the day I wore my Homey shirt to Poptart's house was a year before Mike's arrival, back when Jim Carrey was just "that white guy from In Living Color". On this day, Poptart's roommate was a white dude named Tripper.
Tripper liked swastikas, too. He had even used a tattoo gun to carve a few of them into the skin of his arms and legs. And so, when I dropped in on him and Poptart after school, Tripper didn't hesitate to ask me, "Why do you have a nigger on your shirt?"
Poptart, in a rare stab at diplomacy, offered a simple but effective reply: "Because Monte's not a racist, dude." And neither, really, was Poptart. Not deep down. (He once confided to me that, "The swastika is bullshit. It's about killing people like Mike.") Nonetheless, he wasn't above dismissing rap songs as "nigger music" (and sadly, not knowing any better in my ignorance, neither was I), and he surprised me one day by launching into an embittered rant in response to what had struck me as a fairly innocuous trailer for White Men Can't Jump.
"Ten years ago, there would never have been a movie making fun of white people!" he said. He seemed genuinely threatened. I could only shrug.
Soon after, I purchased a VHS copy of Perry Farrell's The Gift (and I may have been the only person to ever do so), which ends with a live Farrell / Ice T cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey." I was performing my own a capella rendition during break at a park near the continuation high school the next day, when a new kid interrupted me to quietly say, "I don't like that word." (I had just finished Farrell's "Don't call me whitey, nigger!" refrain.)
While I would have denied being racist, even I'd have admitted that I was an asshole of the highest order, and so naturally I couldn't resist replying, "Which word? 'Whitey' or 'nigger'?"
New Kid glared at me while my idiot friends chuckled, and then the bell rang, summoning us back to class. I forgot about the incident immediately, and so the next day, when I was returning to class yet again, this time from having smoked a few bowls with the same idiot friends who giggled at my ostensibly witty response to New Kid's reasonable protest, it came as something of a surprise to me to see New Kid suddenly blocking my path back to class. More surprising still was the extent to which I had to crane my neck in order to make eye contact with New Kid. Nonetheless, I tried to conduct a feeble, tough guy bluff through my crippling marijuana high and, more oppressive still, my overwhelming cowardice.
The pot would prove to be a convenient scapegoat for a quick and comical defeat that would likely have gone down in exactly the same fashion had I been sober. It was the proverbial two-hit fight (he hit me, my ass hit the ground), and we were both suspended.
Within the span of a mere two weeks, our respective friends had escalated the tension until the whole campus seemed to be involved, and when New Kid's buddy attacked my buddy during class one morning, I threw a table at him. I didn't come close to hitting him; I did, however, come close to nailing a student, who was eight months pregnant and not even remotely involved in our big fit of cockwagging.
New Kid and I were expelled, and I went on to become one of the distinguished graduates of Oroville Adult Education. I never sang "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" again. Alas, I do not know what became of the Homey D. Clown shirt.
Still, when it comes to race, today's television and cinema and music barely resemble the cultural landscape of the '80s, or even the early '90s. We like to think that our pop culture hasn't served as thinly-disguised racist propaganda for at least a century or so (Enid's discovery of Seymour's antique "Coon's Chicken" restaurant sign in Ghost World comes to mind; my favorite real world example is a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon from 1942 entitled "Japoteurs", which can be found on cheap bootleg anthologies in discount retail outlets all across America even today).
Ultimately, television and movies have a lot more to say about race when they are not actually intending to address the topic. As such, it might be difficult for me to gauge how racist today's media is (not least because I haven't had cable since 2000.) I can, however, spot glaring examples that are more recent than I find comfortable. My wife and I were recently startled by the following exchange from the opening scene of 1984's Sixteen Candles:
Samantha: Since I was about twelve, I've been looking forward to my Sweet 16. You know, a big party, and a band, and tons of people.
Randy: And a big Trans-Am in the driveway with a ribbon around it, and some incredibly gorgeous guy that you met, like, in France. And you do it on a cloud without getting pregnant or herpes.
Samantha: I don't need the cloud.
Randy: Just the pink Trans-Am and the guy, right?
Samantha: A black one.
Randy: A black guy?!?
Samantha: A black Trans-Am. A pink guy.
Watching Sixteen Candles today, the disapproving horror in Randy's voice is disorienting, to say the least. Within the context of such a scene, one cannot help but wonder: would Michael Richards' recent infamous racist tirade have had nearly the same impact in '84, or even a few years later, say in 1988? I would suggest not; Axl Rose's racist (and homophobic) verses in "One In A Million" are decidedly more abrasive today than they were when the song was released on the Lies EP back in 1988:
Police and niggers
Get outta my way
Don't need to buy none of your
Gold chains today
Apparently, even a reclusive nutjob like Axl is attuned to the cultural shift; he recently ordered "One In A Million" removed from all future printings of Lies.
Another venom-spewing small town white boy, Eminem is nothing if not the Axl Rose of the late '90s and today, and yet while he is all too comfortable hissing "faggot!" on every other track, Eminem has announced in interviews that he refuses to use "the n-word." Meanwhile, much has been said of reality TV's success at increasing America's "tolerance" of homosexuality, but Eminem's contradictory stance shows that we have a long way to go, as exemplified by the tiresome tendency on the part of my students to describe any disliked person, place or thing as "gay", my fellow Idahoans' habit of noting the race of the perpetrator of any offense or slight or crime, ("Then this black guy showed up…") My wife and I have taken to calling attention to this latter tendency by only noting a person's race when he happens to be white: "You wouldn't believe what this white dude said to me the other day."
Even so, with reality television supposedly "normalizing" homosexuality for the general public (as Entertainment Weekly recently claimed), perhaps Poptart was onto something; can something as seemingly trivial or irrelevant as White Men Can't Jump (or "Pretty Fly For A White Guy" or "White and Nerdy" or "White Kids Love Hip-Hop") help to subvert or even outright undo the sense of entitlement (or even the dominance) of a dominant race?
To what extent can we expect pop culture to change our perspectives? More to the point: does our various media do more for progress through well-intended propaganda, or as a result of offensive snafus? In other words, were we more stirred when Dana Plato wore blackface on Diff'rent Strokes to protest racism…or did we rally more strongly in our shock and disapproval at Mel Gibson's drunken, paranoid rant about Jews?
Speaking for myself, I credit two unlikely sources with helping keep me from drowning in the small-minded bigotry of the town where I was raised: Jane's Addiction and Suicidal Tendencies. Perry Farrell's inclusive lyrics in Jane's Addiction songs like "No One's Leaving" ("I wish I knew everyone's nickname, all their slang and all their sayings / Every way to show affection, how to dress to fit the occasion / And I wish we all waved!" and "Sister and her boyfriend slept in the park / She had to leave home because he was dark / Now they parade around New York with a baby boy / He's gorgeous") did more to sway me from a hateful path than any stern lecture could have done. Likewise, when Mike Muir sang "I don't care about the clothes you wear / It's the size of your heart, not the length of your hair / Don't make no difference to me what color that you be / Black, white or brown, it's all the same to me" in the Suicidal Tendencies anthem "Join the Army", I was far more inspired than I'd have been had a parent or teacher or even a peer (that's you, New Kid) expressed the sentiment.
In light of the personal impact of these two songs alone, I have no choice but to believe that pop culture can indeed do its part to promote open-mindedness. Unfortunately, a good majority of people consume their chosen media on nothing but the most surface level, and without taking a deeper look. For example, how could one know that "Girl Power!" was a bunch of sexist, Barbie doll bullshit, while a true feminist anthem from the same era boasts the unlikely title "Just a Girl"?
And what to make of the late '90s Hollywood hit A Time to Kill, with Matthew McConaughey as an attorney determined to promote racial unity, but who is only able to rally a jury to his cause after asking them to envision the young, black victim of physical and sexual abuse thusly: "Now imagine she's white"?
I know what the pissed off clown from my long lost T-shirt would have to say on the subject: Homey don't play dat.