Shutting Down Conversations About Race: Humour and Music


Talking about race is often more difficult than joking about it, singing about it, or making offhand remarks about racism – though of course such jokes or remarks about race can precipitate discussion around race. On my facebook newsfeed today, a link a friend had been tagged in caught my eye. We’ll just call her “Red” for now. Another girl (Grey) had tagged Red, and indeed, in the video, Red was singing a couple of lines from the musical Avenue Q – specifically, from the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”. I haven’t included the link to her video here, because my purpose in writing this blog post isn’t to ream out Red or Grey for making it – it’s to actually look at another point: the way in which racism, race, hostility, discussion, and openness are sometimes presented on public forums.

Red’s a pretty chill lady – we’ve talked before, have had some excellent fun solving crossword puzzles and solving this poster. I’ve cat-sat her cat in the past, and we’ve had lovely outings (complete with soda, sun, and cat!) in Montreal. She introduced me to Fun Home, an excellent novel, if it can be called that, written by Alison Bechdel who is also the creator of the Bechdel Test, which is a loose rule of thumb to sort of see how well women are represented in popular media. I value her perspective about relationships, ethics, and while I may not always agree with her, I generally get on with her and consider her a friend. I’m giving you all this background because this post is about addressing complex issues of race (not even racism necessarily, but just race) in our own lives.

Grey had tagged Red in this video and put it up on facebook. The lines Red was singing were “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes/doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes”, in a fairly jovial fashion, complete with elbow swinging.  The caption for the video was as follows: “LMAO we’re not racist!!!!/We’ve had some wine. Thank you vine. J/ #winevine.” Vine refers to, I think, the application used to create the video, and the caption was a play on words between wine and Vine.

Of course the caption was more than that – it was also a disclaimer. It was a pre-emptive claim to an anti-racist stance – pre-emptive in that it was designed for people like me who might be uncomfortable with the song. I won’t deny that the song itself is one that does make me uncomfortable – but the disclaimer also immediately made me uncomfortable. Now, my discomfort isn’t some alarm system for racism – though it often has been – but it was something for me to acknowledge: the creators of this felt some need to add that disclaimer. No details about the song – no details that it’s an excerpt from Avenue Q, no details about anything other than the context of drinking wine. I’ll admit it, my initial ‘real’ read on it, once I moved past the discomfort, was “oh I see, you feel the need to defend yourself from potential attacks by laying claim to your non-racist stance, and by excusing the existence of this video with wine. Gotcha.” I didn’t tell this to either of them though, because again Red’s a friend and because I wanted a conversation rather than condemnation. After all, those two lines aren’t necessarily things I disagree with: everyone IS a little bit racist sometimes – and it’s good to admit that, to talk about race, to really engage with that and what it can mean, and how we can move past the, perhaps implicit, ways in which we can all be racist.

But I know that my sense of discomfort was deeper than just those two lines: when we both attended McGill University, this very same song and my discomfort with it had come up as an issue when Red and a mutual friend of ours started singing along to it, using Red’s laptop just outside the Tim Horton’s. (McGillians will recognize this as the one beside the FishBowl – you know, the inaptly named “Oasis” for its constant odour of stale bodies slowly withering under exam pressure). I remember quietly fuming at the rest of the song lyrics, which strongly insinuated that racism will go away if we all stopped being “PC” (hint: it won’t), and that everyone should be as offensive as they please. When Red left with her laptop, so many years ago, I remember our mutual friend trying to use my laptop to play it. Two of them I couldn’t take at once, at that time, but one? “Shut that shit off” I said.

“Woah, relax”

“Woah, it’s my laptop, my rules. Turn it off.” I responded without missing a beat, and stared at her in the eye until she was embarrassed enough to comply with my request. Sometimes awkward silences are delicious.

Since that incident though, there are times when I don’t feel so helpless, and when I genuinely want some conversation about the issues. First of all though, a bit of background to Avenue Q and especially the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is relevant to contextualizing what was off-putting to me about the video, the accompanying caption, and even the resulting (lack of) conversation that the thread turned into. The song itself is basically a defense of one of the characters being called out on his own bigotry. As FictionFriday writes:

Kate, a monster (a race in Avenue Q), tells Princeton…that she wants to open a school just for monsters. As I mentioned earlier, Trekkie Monster faced racism during his school years for being a monster, and now has a therapist to get past it, so it’s very possible that monsters need, if not a separate school, schools that are more aware of this and actually do something to stop it.  Princeton then asks if she and Trekkie Monster are related because they’re both monsters, and Kate says she finds that racist, it’s clear she was very upset by him asking this. Princeton “defends” himself by pointing out she’s a racist, too (even though your accuser being a bigot doesn’t deny your bigotry). Why? Because she wants to start a school only for monsters, and it’s racist because she wouldn’t accept people into her school based on race.

I, like countless others, find the insinuation absurd due to the recognition that having safe spaces built for oppressed groups/centering these groups and their needs in certain spaces is not at all the same as restricting access to elite institutions based on race. Racism = prejudice+power. So this entire song really hinges on this idea that yes, minorities are racist too – not to each other, but to a dominant group. In this regard, I strongly disagree that Kate Monster’s (and by extension, any minority’s defense of self and desire for solidarity along racial lines) somehow constitutes racism. But I agree with bloggers Abagond and FictionFriday that certainly minorities can and do turn inward with the racism they face, applying the hatred we receive from others and from institutions and writing them into our own social practices with one another. Most interesting is that Avenue Q positions a black character as being “the most racist”, as though his race acts as a cover for the things that are said by him. Most problematically, the lyrics go: “Ethnic jokes may be uncouth/But you laugh because they’re based on truth/Don’t take them as personal attacks/Everyone enjoys them, so relax”. Let’s think about that a bit: who is defining truth here? What truths are the subject matter of racist jokes? Are all races equally represented or treated in such jokes? And if everyone already finds them so funny, why ask anyone at all to relax?  Aren’t we all laughing anyway? The negation and dismissal and trauma experienced by minorities in the song is further problematic because, as FictionFriday writes, “ethnic” jokes are very rarely about white ethnicities and, even when they are, there are so many other positive examples of white people in every single media and most professions to counter a negative portrayal, unlike most non-white ethnicities.”

Yet, the song does have moments of progressive attitudes in calling out the “my best friend is black” trope and asserts that a starting point to talk about racism would be “If we all could just admit/That we are racist a little bit”. The start of the song also has a moment where Princeton insinuates that “all Monsters look the same” – an insinuation that many POC often have to deal with in our personal lives – and is quickly called out for it by Kate Monster. But it quickly slips into a defense of “benevolent ignorance” on part of white people when they say racist things, and the assertion that somehow, unrestricted speech is the way to progressive attitudes. As FictionFriday writes, “That, by the way, is not the way to achieve “harmony” for anyone but the people who are least likely to be hurt by bigotry.”

So that’s the context for this song. And hearing that song, the flippant way in which is treats racism, and the flippant way in which Red chose to sing along to it and Grey posted a video about it did make me uncomfortable. But as I said, Red sang only two lines of the song – and they’re not lines I really have a huge problem with: “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes/Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes”. Like, ok – true enough. This is a good starting point, right? The two young white women were at least peripherally cognizant of the kind of way the video could be read and had posted “LMAO we’re not racist!!!!” as part of the caption. I really wanted to know why they felt the need to attach that disclaimer – so I asked them. I’ve linked the full transcripts here and here to see – all names and identifying details have been changed, because again: my goal isn’t to actually to discuss the people, but the actions involved. In case you can’t see it, here’s a verbatim transcript of the non-conversation that followed. Everyone’s white in this exchange except me, and I use colours rather than names to identify people. Words in parantheses indicate actions rather than anything people said.

(Yellow liked the video.)

Green: What the eff!! (1 like)

Grey: What

Green: Lol ppl are strange (1 like, me)

Grey: Mhm you jelly

Red: Lighten up brah

Blue (me): just curious – why bother with the “LMAO we’re not racist!!!!” disclaimer?

Red: Just to offend you, [purple/my name].

Blue (me): ^since Grey doesn’t know me, and I’m going to assume your lives don’t revolve around me, I find it interesting that the disclaimer is on there to begin with. Surely the strength of your opinions/intent would have carried through in the content of your video, no? 😉 For the record, it doesn’t offend me to hear someone say they’re not racist. 😛

Purple: you’re so weird (1 like, Red)

Red: dude who cares just laugh

Blue (me): ^I guess I generally laugh when I find things funny, and not otherwise.

Red: Then you must be cracking up

Purple: ^Burn. Red, admit you needed a disclaimer because you are racist.

Purple: My arrow wasn’t supposed to point to you, dammit!

Blue: ^I’m just wondering what the need for the disclaimer was at all, if it’s so clear the video isn’t. (1 like, Purple)

Grey: Lol what’s this chicks problem? Yuh bored?

Blue: (also, I’m not necessarily saying the video is racist. And I personally don’t think it was, if that’s why everyone’s getting defensive on here. I’m just curious as to why a disclaimer was necessary)

Grey: I’m just curious why this person cares.

Purple: Oh, white people. (2 likes, Red and Blue/me)

Blue (me): ^generally, I invest my time in conversations about race, etc – just as that original song does – in my daily life amongst friends.

Grey: Yuh poops

Blue (me): I’ll take that as a “uh I’m not really sure why I added that disclaimer and any discussion about race is something I’m sort of defensive about and don’t want to engage in” since that seems to be the vibe here. (1 like, purple)

Red: The vibe is chill the fuck out it’s just a video caption

Blue (me): J yo I’m totally chill. Just looking for answers, ideas, and a discussion about race – it’s not “just” a video caption – it’s one that specifically positions the creators in a specific way, even if the creators themselves don’t really speak to the reason behind the positioning. (1 like, purple)

Red: You have successfully killed the buzz. (2 likes, Grey and Blue/me)

Blue: Well I’m definitely cracking up now 😉 (unable to post comment.)

At that point, Grey prevented me from accessing the thread and/or deleted it entirely. So it was a short exchange really, and about something that seems overall innocuous or inconsequential. But there’s definitely a hostility in terms of not wanting to engage with the subject matter that they ostensibly had opened up, presented to the world. When you sing a song about racism, and that song happens to be problematic on some levels, and the you’re aware of this – and when a buddy of yours puts that up with an interesting caption that itself shows cognizance of the potential ramifications, it indeed opens a door for conversation – or at least it could have. I don’t think I was as harsh as I could have been – I myself was trying to articulate my discomfort with the video or the caption – of what it means for two white women to record a brief, incomplete rendition of a problematic song. And of course –of what it means to call one of those women a friend – a good friend even.

I wasn’t too shocked by the response I got, though – the overall message was that my question was TOO discomfiting for them. They wanted to enjoy their video, enjoy the song, and I had ruined it in my usual role of buzzkill. I think my new motto is: If you can’t beat ‘em or talk to ‘em… kill their buzz. I found it surprising though that it wasn’t from accusing them or going on a rant… but from simply asking them a question about choices they themselves had made. Certainly I found nothing funny about the video, and it’s “ok” on some level that they did. But it’s also very ok, by my standards of ethical responsibility, for them to feel exasperated, or irritated, or uncomfortable with my really quite simple question.

I’m going to link to another post – from a while ago – that discusses the widespread trend of young white women in North America making racist and “off-colour” videos. I’m not saying Grey’s video, with Red in it, was anywhere close to the level of violence in these other videos. But I will say that disengagement with issues of race, pretending we’re living in a post-racial society, and acting as though conversations around race are not worthwhile are something I do find problematic, particularly when the door is opened to that conversation by people making videos about it. If you’re going to stick a video of yourself – or a friend – on the internet and it involves some sort of commentary on race, how is that not a call for public discussion around it? I make no apologies for knocking on a door already opened – though I’m not surprised it was slammed in my face.

I genuinely believe the reason this happened is many-fold: 1) some people can afford to be unaffected by issues of race and ‘just laugh along’. I’m not saying Red or Grey are thus unaffected, but I imagine it’s much easier on average for white people TO be unaffected. That being said, I’ve had good discussions with Red about it in the past.  But 2) this was a post on Grey’s wall, and she is someone I do not know. She is not a friend of Red’s who happens to be a friend of mine. She is no one in my life, and I am no one in hers – and she might have been perturbed with a stranger asking her questions about her choices on her own wall. (Hint: this is a perfect reason to carefully monitor and change your privacy settings, people!) 3) People are more afraid of sounding racist than actually being racist or having conversations about it: What do I mean by this? We’re living in a world that values the discomfort of white people called out on racism MORE THAN the actual harm done by racism in the world – that is why there is such an immediate backlash to accusations of racism, or even questions about choices people make that are related to discussions about race. I did not accuse – I didn’t have to. There is fear and suspicion and a desire to not be construed as racist – and this desire outweighs any serious discussion of race. This is why “LMAO we’re not racist!!!! We’ve had some wine” was necessary to them: as both disclaimer and justification – but any real conversation around race is not acceptable to them, even when I explicitly said I don’t necessarily find the video they posted, racist.  This is particularly ironic considering the lyrics of the song they were quoting include ““If we all could just admit/That we are racist a little bit” – is it fun to sing along to but not actually that fun to acknowledge? It didn’t matter what I or anyone else really thought  – they wanted to laugh in a particular way – since it involved race, they felt adding a disclaimer was a good idea to justify their video. The end result? They wanted to shut a conversation about race down… even while taking pleasure in a recording of a song that was, of course, about race.

This is how you make invisible the ways in which racism actually functions – by undermining potentially serious discussion about it, while still maintaining the existence of problematic songs, problematic disclaimers, and problematic justifications. Now, this example wasn’t that big of a deal in my books. But it is a marker, a small marker, of just how conversations about race are perceived and shut down out of fear of being perceived as racist, even while there is a perverse insistence to keep “off-colour” jokes around as a way to exercise humour.

I can fully believe their immediate and defensive attitudes asking me to chill – they perceived my question as a threat and/or just wanted to laugh. Obviously, with the kinds of issues around race that exist, I definitely wasn’t perturbed – and their only way to preserve the narrative was to boot me out of that conversation. If we lived in a society that could actually openly discuss race and so on and so forth, such a question would have been welcomed as an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and potential growth without necessarily taking away from the humour they perceived. Maybe it would have though, had they reassessed how they felt about the song. As it stands though, we’re not living in a wider cultural environment that encourages such introspection. Jokes are jokes, we’re told – and laughter and all its justifications cannot be questioned.  Similarly, art is held as unquestionable – and with it, music.

I wasn’t necessarily questioning their laughter or choice to sing it though. I was questioning their justification and claim to anti-racism, the need for it, the context of it – alas, it was a question they were unwilling to engage with at a time when I tried.

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