May I Be Offended on Your Behalf?

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

All of us who suffer inequalities related to race hope that one day the mainstream will “get it.” We want them to get institutional bias. We want them to get the nuances between funny and offensive. We want them to get their own privilege. We want them to get our cultural differences, while also getting that we are individuals apart from cultural markers.We want them to understand these things, but there is a fine line between developing an awareness of bias and arrogantly believing that you are so enlightened that you “get” all there is to know about being a person of color. If I am honest, I want white people to “get it,” but I don’t want them thinking they “get it” better than me–a black woman who actually lives with race bias.

A little over a year ago, I was discussing with a white woman a portrait of a famous black figure, painted by a black artist. Now, this woman is a vocal progressive who views herself as a champion of equality. She sniffed at the image, which I was quite fond of. She said she found the artist’s portrayal stereotypical, that the subject’s features were exaggerated and–this is the part that really got me–that any black person who saw it would be offended. Except that I am a black person and saw nothing offensive. I bristled at the woman’s privileged arrogance–that she would presume to lecture me on what black people think.

I was even more annoyed recently when, on “The View,” Elizabeth Hasselbeck started blubbering over the “N word” as two black women looked on in consternation. I thought: “How dare you co-opt the pain of black people? How dare you make this issue about your feelings and not those of the people who have been demeaned by racism? How dare you attempt to “school” two people of color on the perils of racism?”

But am I being fair? As white people learn to recognize racial prejudice, don’t we want them to call out these injustices when they see them? I mean, that’s the point, right? And what about me? As a black woman who understands how race affects my people, what latitude do I have to speak on what is or isn’t offensive to Japanese or Native American or Puerto Rican people?

Late last year, when I was writing more pop culture/race stuff, I was tempted to write a post about the Korean American comedian Bobby Lee, who is a cast member on Fox’s “MADTV.” I have long found Lee’s shtick on the show offensive. The way he consistently plays female characters…the running gag that has him pining for his white, female co-stars (never the lone black woman) who treat him with disgust…it seems like the actor is participating in the typical Western emasculation of Asian males (All this aside from his cavalcade of other stereotypical Asian characters). I never wrote that post, though.

See, I don’t know how Lee is received in the Korean or larger Asian community. I may be missing some cultural nuance that makes the comedian’s work satirical or brave or something. I mean, as much as I am not a fan of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” plays and films, it bothers me that white film critics review Perry’s work through the lens of majority culture, not understanding the cultural touches that attract so many African Americans to the work. I may agree with the critics that, say, “Madea Goes to Jail,” is an abysmal film, but they get the cultural reasons why it is crap all wrong. And that offends me as much as Perry’s poor portrayals of black women. With this in mind, I don’t even know if I am right to be offended by Bobby Lee.

There is also maybe a less rational reason I have avoided pontificating too much on offenses against other people of color. I recall a middle-aged white guy, who in an attempt to make conversation with me, brought up how he hates that “the black movies” always portray African Americans as loud and ghetto…and fat. WTF? Actually, once he went on to name some recent movies of the time (“Norbit” and some other stuff), I sort of understood and agreed with his point, but coming from this guy (Who, by the way, isn’t known for his racial tact.), the message felt icky. (Never mind that this conversation had fuck all to do with anything. It was one of those “Hey, you’re a black person. Let me search for something ‘black’ to talk about” things.) I felt instinctively on some level that I, as a black person, have the right to critique these things, but his criticism made me want to defend…my people…black actors…something.

It’s complicated, no?

I recall every time a non-black editor has changed my use of “black” to African American, “because ‘black’ is offensive”…I recall every time I have been challenged, overruled and lectured about the feelings of my own community in particular and people of color in general…and I don’t want to be the person who does that. About the Bobby Lee post: In the end, I decided that I don’t have enough information to dissect Asian stereotypes in popular culture, and I certainly have no right to discuss how a Korean man’s acting choices affect his cultural community. I left the topic alone.

It’s just too easy to move from being aware to being offensively presumptuous. And, I have to say, as someone who runs in liberal circles, progressives do offensively presumptuous like no one else. There has been a rash of the problem of late. In discussions of sexism vs. racism, the Michelle Obama lynching illustration on Daily Kos and the scandalous New Yorker cover, a lot of progressives have been eager to explain to black people why they should or should not be offended about a thing. My most jaw-clinching encounters have been with white liberals who have done anti-racist work or academic work on a group of non-white people. (African studies, Asian studies, Native American studies, etc.) Sometimes I want to shake these folks–allies who generally mean well–and explain that studying a people, visiting message boards or really admiring a cultural group, isn’t the same as being a member of that group.

I guess what we all want is that allies will be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but that they will keep their privilege in check and remember that the voices of the marginalized should be the loudest ones. The victims of an “ism” must take the lead.

Am I right? Or, can I be offended on someone else’s behalf?