It’s Not Racism, It’s Oversensitivity to a Racist Past

Like when the New Yorker debacle broke, the liberal press is now making excuses for images for which there is no excuse.

The Associated Press’ Jesse Washington just used a famous Latino satirist to jump into a discussion that largely excuses the NY Post, and in so doing also makes sure to excuse the New Yorker. His argument is that:

  1. satirist are on their best behavior for fear of being called racist  –
  2. that while we have to be careful of racism in the past, that cartoonists are just doing their job

Both of these arguments are rooted in the idea that satirists cannot also be racist, that we are a post-racial nation, and that ultimately while satirist need to remember the past the general population needs a bit of schooling on what satire actual is b/c we are obviously confused. Washington gives us examples of what satire is, quoting art historians to back him up:

  1. exaggerating of features and foibles
  2. deform[ing] someone facially in order to make a larger point about their character

He then proceeds to give us examples of recent reactions to caricatures and cartoons referencing Obama, implying they are all satire. On his list are both the New Yorker and the NY Post images.

Washington explains:

Editorial cartoonists are bending over backwards a lot these days, as they try to satirize the nation’s first black president. And when they don’t, the result is the kind of outcry that erupted this week after a New York Post cartoon featured a bloody chimpanzee — intentionally or unintentionally evoking racist images of the past.

The problem is, cartoonists make their living by making fun of people — especially presidents — and exaggerating their features and foibles.

As the “apology” from the NY Post in the previous blog post, and the New Yorker, show, there is no bending going on. Despite Washington’s decision to quote several media insiders reiterating the same self-censorship, one needs only walk through the newspaper section of the local chain bookstore to see how few people are curbing their artistic license. One of the magazines I picked up in the last few months, for instance, had an image of John McCain and Barack Obama kissing on the cover and another one had a drawing of a mock front page with the caption “Why everyone hates Michelle” clearly satirizing the moment in which people’s attention focused in on her every move. Both images were satire. Both contained essays inside the magazine that explained the point of the images, not in a point by point analysis of the image but rather through content. Neither resulted in an uproar. And though these are only two examples, I am sure that if I go through the stack of mainstream and alternative press magazines I have been collecting on the depiction of the president for the past 2 years, I can find a whole bevy of examples of people doing what they do best. You can do the same by searching a site like (You can also find the racist images by doing this.)

Both papers approved images that were not an “exaggerati[on] of features and foibles” but were in fact a recreation of previous and oft-repeated stereotypes of blackness illustrating long held mainstream anxieties about blackness and black leadership. The New Yorker gave Michelle Obama a Black Panther Afro despite her relaxed hair and Jackie O makeover, gave her a rifle, which Cheney may own but she does not, and put her and a turban wearing Obama in the oval office next to a burning flag and a picture of Osama Bin Laden. It was only after the uproar and the failed attempts to dismiss them, that some at the New Yorker settled on saying they were satirizing the right wing depiction of Obama, a depiction that had not yet crystalized amongst the masses and was equally unsupported by more critical material inside the magazine. Also as if in a supreme act of irony that proves how terribly off base Washington actually is, the New Yorker cartoonist didn’t even bother to reference the actual turban wearing picture of Obama that was circulating at the time – that would be what we call exaggeration. Instead the image is wholly fabricated from the race paranoia that permeates this country as evidenced by the images juxtaposed below:

The New Yorker’s Oval Office

obama new yorker cover 150708

The Obama’s Oval Office



As if someone was making a point, this was one of the first images released from the White House in Obama’s first days as President. At the time, I was so caught up in the fact of the historic image that I missed the connection. I do not however doubt that either the photographer or some of the editors who chose to make this image their front cover that day knew exactly how they were engaging in counterprogramming. (Note how the image makes sure to capture the fire place, nothing burning but wood and the picture of George Washington still hanging proudly above it.)

The New York Post’s image does not “exaggerat[e] their features and foibles” either, unless we are to believe as race “scientists” like Camper, Agassiz, Bufon, and the like did, that black features are ape-like. The only things in the picture being two cops and a dead monkey.

Deftly avoiding the issue of the monkey however, Washington focuses on the issue of Obama’s lips. Obama’s lips have been exaggerated in many cartoons according to Washington and even Lalo has faced criticism for it (all be it from a high school kid in the back of a classroom). Despite the fact that there has been no national level outcry about this particular issue b/c after all, satire does include exaggerating features and Obama is known for his long and eloquent speeches so it would require more than satire to make one see such an exaggeration as racist, like . . . hmm . . . racism.

Drawings of President Barack Obama, however, must contend with America’s history of degrading racial imagery, from ape comparisons to enormous “Sambo” lips. (Caricatures of the president’s admittedly large ears have so far escaped scrutiny.)

Washington’s piece is replete with this kind of faulty journalism. He makes comparisons that cannot be made: exaggerated lips have a racial history and therefore can be used to mask racist content, while they can also be used to make ironic points about Obama and his long and eloquent speeches, ears have no similar racial history for African-Americans and therefore are not racist. He focuses on an issue that has largely been one of local or isolated concern rather than the issue that caused him to write in the first place and b/c these local issues are with lips rather than monkeys and militants he appears on safe ground precisely because there are multiple interpretations available. Finally he avoids quoting offensive and dismissive responses to accusations of racism from both the New Yorker and the New York Post while highlighting a bevy of race sensitive media insiders.

Trying to be both sensitive and excuse racism at the same time is a hard thing to do but the media seems to be perfecting it as we go. Their own anxieties about being found to be racist, especially when they pride themselves on not being so, has created a situation in which liberals are defending racism in order to protect their own self-image. In so doing, they are helping build upon a pre-existing cognitive dissonance that allows dominant culture to look at a bullet ridden monkey with a caption claiming someone else will have to be in charge of the nation’s recovery plan and see a humorous cartoon. Having these critiques written by a black man, who is the new race consultant for the AP, does not change this.

The New York Post is right on one thing, sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon. When the media trusts us enough to know that, then maybe we can have an honest conversation about race and racism and the images that support it in this country. Until then, I fear that most racially provileged people are thinking along the lines of Mike Lester of the Rome News Tribune, also quoted in Washington’s piece:

Perhaps race relations would improve, Lester said, if black people lightened up a bit: “They’re not too good (at being) made fun of. We can all take a joke.”

Actually, what the black people I know are not good at is having people tell us something offensive and/or threatening is a joke. This sentiment seems to be echoed by those currently protesting as well as those calling for larger structural change beyond the sole protest. Perhaps Lester hangs out with different black folk than I. But let’s be clear, a dead monkey at the feet of two police officers just weeks after the protests for Oscar Grant is only funny if you are not the target of state sanctioned violence. A dead monkey likened to the president b/c a real monkey attacked a white woman is only funny if you live in fear of King Kong coming for your wife.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Racism, It’s Oversensitivity to a Racist Past

  1. Pingback: Hunting Dodo with Blunderbuss « Dead Voles

  2. Pingback: » Blog Archive » easyVegan Link Sanctuary, 2009-02-21

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