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by Emma Nash, December 2013
Two months ago the website Gizoogle, which translates other sites into Snoop Dogg-speak (here meaning plenty of gang references, profanities and “-izzles”), became a phenomenon among many students in the senior class.
Everyone got the joke: Gizoogle replaces the formal language of authority with a language inherently opposed to authority.
But by evoking African-American Vernacular English (in distorted, inauthentic fashion) and Snoop Dogg’s gangsta rap image to ironic effect, Gizoogle arguably grounds itself in implicit assumptions about race and class.
When the Gizoogled school homepage led to cracks about “hood English” and the translation of “African-American and Latino Scholars” to “Ghetto Studies,” some, myself included, took offense.
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh: This staple of social justice workshops is a quick but indispensable read.
Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva: Influential study in sociology that examines the state of racist rhetoric in contemporary America. Worth skimming.
“The Discomfort Zone” by Tressie McMillan Cottom on Slate.com: The case of the professor fired for teaching about structural racism.
“A Historical Guide to Hipster Racism” by Thea Lim on Racialicious.com: A valuable perspective for people who have ever asked, “Is racism okay when it’s ironic?”
Full disclosure: I was among those who called racism.
I don’t mean to drag those students who disagreed with me through the mud or revive the points of a two-month old argument.
I think the Gizoogle debacle speaks to larger problems in our racial discourse.
The students who disagreed with me denied that race and class had anything at all to do with Gizoogle. They granted that it poked fun at hip-hop culture, but they were loathe to admit that this had anything to do with race.
My criticisms of their cracks at “hood English” and “Ghetto Studies” went largely unaddressed. Instead, I was continually reminded that the site referenced Snoop Dogg specifically, even though I had already acknowledged this multiple times.
When I provided articles by people of color to explain my points, they called the articles “biased.”
The site, they said, was just a joke, and I was reading into it too deeply.
Not everyone has to agree with me about Gizoogle. But from my perspective, these flippant responses showed that the students never took me seriously at all.
In fact, another student had already labeled the phrase “hood English” racist ironically—an acknowledgement of the phrase’s racially-charged nature and mockery of anyone who would dare take issue with it.
This is what I consider a larger issue: the many people who consider critics of casual racism “oversensitive” and take a perverse pleasure in discrediting their claims.
Not everyone has to agree on every question of racism. But every person should be open to considering the influence of systemic racism on their unconscious thought, as well as to the idea that they can perpetuate systemic racism without racist intent.
Most importantly, people should be open to considering the limitations of their perspectives.
Given the ambiguous nature of many racial issues, they must consider the perspectives of the primary stakeholders in those issues, regardless of “bias.”
It’s one thing when I, a white person, complain. But to immediately dismiss the perspectives of people of color as “biased” is to further an ideological tradition that has silenced people of color and marginalized their concerns.
People should realize that different racial groups must ask different questions of their friends, media and institutions. Instead of rushing to call people on “bias,” we should consider how their perspective has sensitized them to issues that might escape our own notice.
White people, in particular, should realize that their perspective is no more objective than a person of color’s, and that whiteness has biases of its own.
Sometimes people do overreact. But jokes, like books, film, television and music, have power, regardless of intent.
More importantly, to operate from the assumption that a claim of racism is more likely unfounded than not is to operate from the assumption that we live in a post-racial society.
Addressing systemic racism forces us to think about social forces abstractly, to abandon the pretense of color blindness and consider ourselves not as individuals but as members of a larger system.
But if we refuse to address it, how should we teach students to think outside their own perspectives and consider the nuances of racial issues?
How do we teach the value of a joke, the limits of intent and the importance of engaging with diverse perspectives? How do we teach students to view their actions and experiences within a larger context?
If talking about race takes us to uncomfortable places, so be it. The best lessons I ever got in anti-racism were the lessons that kept me awake at night.
Emma Nash can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.