Unspinning Biden — narratives, not epithets

by guest contributor Kai Chang, originally published at Zuky

Every time we go through one of these high-profile “racial gaffes”, the corporate media ridiculously blathers and clunks its way through the same hollow-suited charade, probingly asking for an up-or-down yea-or-nay one-dimensional vote on whether or not a particular word or phrase is “a slur”, presumably to definitively determine, yea-or-nay, whether the person who uttered that word or phrase is “a racist”. Once fuzzy mass media judgment has been rendered, the unpleasant matter is thankfully resolved, white folks try to remember not to use certain words around people of color, and the subject of race (not to mention a broadly anti-racist agenda) can return to the back of the national-political-priorities bus until the next blow-up. [ Artwork courtesy of The Unapologetic Mexican]

Impatient dismissals from Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone (“hyper-PC hyperventilation … is what’s wrong with American politics”) and Bob Felton at BlogCritics (“Biden got it right”) are, I think, pretty representative. But here’s what escapes the grasp of the sagacious corporate-media deciders-of-racism: most people of color don’t necessarily have a problem with any isolated word (well okay, “articulate” is getting a little old, but anyway) that Biden used in his little riff on the shining virtues of Barack Obama (cue tooth-sparkle, ding!). Here’s the thing: it’s not about epithets, it’s about narratives.

The problem with what Biden said lies not in any one of the words that oozed out of him, but in the narratives about African Americans that the whole combination of words invokes.

I have no desire to talk about Joe Biden and his doomed presidential run; but I wouldn’t mind taking Biden’s words and using them to explore and explode some of the false narratives that dominate the national discourse on race. I wouldn’t mind talking about how certain stylized ideas and images — not mere slurs or epithets — rather, entire psychic complexes of associative ideas and images, conspire to inform a normative racist worldview, which perpetuates itself through the repetitive mass-hypnotic invocation and reinforcement of those very ideas and images.

So here’s what Biden said: “I mean, you’ve got the first sort of mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a story-book, man.”

As far as I could tell, here’s the subtext he was invoking:

Blacks aren’t mainstream like you and me, man. I mean, most Blacks have trouble speaking proper English and seem kind of yucky and not very bright, and you just can’t trust a lot of those inner city types. But I mean, this Obama guy seems So Safe To White America that he possibly even has a shot at winning, though I doubt it, man.

It’s not any one word, but taken as a whole, the overall effect of Biden’s words is to indirectly trigger a set of widespread racist narrative frames, to which the speaker in fact appears to be responding in his train of thought. And if you don’t believe in the power of narrative suggestion, go talk to the folks on Madison Avenue. This isn’t about Biden or DC politics; for me, it’s about examining how various facets of racism work and what can be done to undermine those workings.