Here's some raw footage of the shoe-throwing incident that's been making the rounds today. I'm especially struck by George Bush's reaction afterward.
Bush's reaction seems to me like an intentional effort to show, for whatever reason, that the incident didn't faze him. Wagging his jaw around in that odd way he often has, he laughs it off, and then as his assailant is being muffled and wrestled to the ground, he jokes about the size of the shoes.
According to the New York Times, the protester shouted in Arabic, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” The shoe-throwing journalist was performing an act of political protest, and one implication of Bush's reaction is his total disregard for this protester's message.
I don't mean to suggest that throwing anything at a public figure is a valid form of dissent (unless, perhaps, the object is a pie). Nevertheless, this protester was expressing the disgusted sentiments of many other people, and Bush's cavalier attitude is painfully reminiscent of the disdain that he and his administration have always displayed for popular protest, especially that of the tens of millions who tried to stop an impending attack on Iraq.
Bush may have been trying to diffuse tension in the room, and he obviously does not understand Arabic. Still, his lack of interest in the motives and message of the shoe-thrower are a reminder of how wide the gap is between those in power and those who want to send a message to them. When asked about the incident later in the press conference, Bush said he “didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it,” and then turned it into a demonstration of American success in Iraq. “I don’t know what the guy’s cause is,” Bush said, adding that it’s the sort of thing that “happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves.”
The incident has already provided a bit of cultural education for non-Arabic people. Many of us now know that shoe-throwing, and other gestures involving shoes, are used to convey deeply hateful insults. I don’t know how much Bush’s status as a white American has to do with his apparent failure to feel the sting of this insult. However, his laughing response and his disregard for the intentions of the deliverer do bring to mind common white reactions to non-white forms of protest, such as anti-white racial slurs.
Like Bush in this incident, white people rarely feel all that stung or insulted by anti-white epithets. Instead, words like “honky” or “cracker” usually strike white people as more humorous than insulting. The impact of such words can of course vary, depending on the context and the attitude of the speaker, and on what kind of white person is hearing them. Generally, though, anti-white slurs just don't have the impact of the racist ones that get flung at people of color by white people.
Why is it that such words as “honky” and “cracker” lack the bite of “nigger,” or “wetback,” or “gook”? Why is it that as I typed that last sentence, I was tempted to censor the latter words (with such euphemisms as “the n-word” or “the g-word”), but not the former? We never say “the h-word” for “honky,” and if we ever do say or write “the c-word,” the word we’re referring to is not “cracker.”
This difference brings to mind an old “Saturday Night Live” skit, with Richard Pryor playing a job applicant being interviewed by Chevy Chase. As Chase's character conducts a word association test that quickly veers into racial slurs, notice the different connotations for anti-white versus anti-black slurs. Notice also the different reactions each man has to the racial slurs about himself.
I don’t think this skit is merely provocative or controversial. Instead, it’s an effective example of satire, with important points to make about the differences in power between the white race and others.
For one thing, American English contains far more negative words for non-white people than it does for white people (notice how, by the end of the skit, Richard Pryor’s character runs out of anti-white slurs). More importantly, non-white people tend to have a stronger memory of the legally sanctioned abuse and violence that used to accompany non-white slurs, and sometimes still do.
That white people remain relatively more empowered by that history can be seen in the greater insult and hurt delivered by slurs for non-white people, and in the relative ease with which white people can usually brush off, and even laugh at, anti-white insults. As for George Bush, his careless, joking arrogance makes him resemble other white Americans, more than most would probably care to realize.