Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Oprah and the Southern racist

Way back in 1987, early in her show's run, Oprah Winfrey had a man named Dennis in the town-hall meeting in Forsyth County, Georgia. Dennis expressed some jaw-droppingly racist thoughts: "You have blacks and you have niggers. Black people don't want to cause any trouble. … A nigger … wants to come up here and cause trouble all the time. That's the difference."

Not long ago, Dennis e-mailed her, asking for the opportunity to address the topic. On yesterday's show, she brought the man back to tell his thoughts on their earlier conversation and the 18 years since then.

Oprah: Well, tell me, are you still a racist?

Dennis: I've never been a racist.

Oprah: That [1987 quote] sounded pretty racist to us.

Dennis: Let me say this: nigger has no color to it. Black, white, green, yellow, pink, or purple. You have those that don't care about nothin', they have not taken care of their families...

Oprah: Well, I have other words for what that is.

Dennis: I'm Southern-born.

Oprah: Let me give you an education, Southern Boy. The truth of the matter is that the word nigger was created to dehumanize and disgrace an entire race of people, so it does have color connotations.

Dennis: Not to me.

Oprah: Well, it does to me and it does to every other black person. It really does. So let me just give you an education, because I think that so much of racism is ignorance, and I think that when you say, "Oh, it doesn't matter to me, black, white, green, or purple," first of all, there are no green or purple people. When people say that, I immediately think, well, you're just trying to create a façade for how you really feel.

Dennis: Let me say this, honest to God, in front of God and everybody: I was not insinuating the n-word towards you. I want to apologize for that. If you took it that way, I'm sorry.

Oprah: No, I didn't really take it that way. I want you to know, I never thought you were calling me a nigger, because I'm not one. So there's no way ...

Dennis: But now I've got myself straight on that and clear on that.

Oprah: Do you still use the word nigger?

Dennis: No.

Oprah: You don't use the word nigger?

Dennis: No.

Oprah: That's a good thing.

Dennis: It's still hard to explain how it was felt then. I don't care who it is, if you're under martial law, and you've got 26,000 people walking down your street ...

Oprah: You felt challenged or threatened?

Dennis: Oh, yes, most definitely. Obscene gestures were all in that crowd that was marching.

Oprah: Yeah, but so was the Klan marching.

Dennis: I didn't do it.

Oprah: Nor did I!

Dennis: They weren't unzippin' their pants! They wear robes! I mean, you know, give me a break. That's what I saw; it's like, if you weren't there, you don't know how it was, and the story is built up most of the time.

Oprah: I was there, the Klan was walkin' down the street, and you know, the Klan is the Klan, my God, whether they unzip ...

Dennis: Well, I'm not a member of anything.

Oprah: My thing is, that comment you made, I don't even know how to react to that, "They weren't unzippin' their pants." The Klan has historically tried to destroy black people in this country. I don't care if their pants are down or not when they're hanging people.
Wow. It's astonishing to see how thoroughly one man can just not get it.

I'm a Southern boy, too, and I've seen some racism in my day. When my mother was in school, her small, rural county had three separate school districts: one for white folks, one for black folks, and one for the Mexicans. Even when I got to school, the class roll sheets were coded for the student's race: W for Caucasian, N for Black, M for Hispanic, and C for Asian. My next-door neighbor moved to an outer suburb in high school, and was the only kid on the block who did not attend the Klan rally downtown. Of course, in north Texas in the late 1970's, the Klan was distracted from lynching niggers by the necessity to throw eggs at Vietnamese immigrant children waiting for the bus to take them to elementary school. After all, what did those damned gooks do for us anyway — well, aside from coming in after a huge tornado to help a city rebuild, I mean. [Twenty years later, there's hardly a suburban strip mall that doesn't have a Phỏ restaurant.]

Further, I think we need to work on a replacement term that adequately expresses the negative personal qualities embodied by the word nigger without the racial dimension. In particular, I feel the sparseness of my vocabulary in describing people like Dennis.

A friend once told me that he considered it his duty to produce offspring to continue the white race; I told him that I prefer to think of myself as a member of the human race. Having said that, I can't deny that I have experienced "white privilege" throughout my life. Rather than feeling an obligation to pass along that privilege to more white people, though, I feel the obligation to buck the system that awards it.