--a commenter at BoingBoing
Why do a lot of white people shy away from using the word "racist" to describe something that is, indeed, racist? What's up with the preference that many have for euphemisms like "politically incorrect"?
These questions arose for me again as I read one of my favorite down-time sites, BoingBoing. In a brief post entitled "Vintage Sambo's restaurant photos," Mark Frauenfelder linked to a photographer's web site containing such photos. He also wrote the following:
Sambo's is a politically incorrect name for a business, but these vintage photos of the chain restaurant are wonderful.
Before going on to look at the photos, I had to pause and wonder, why did Frauenfelder write "politically incorrect" instead of "racist"? After all, as I'll explain in a moment, what's wrong with the name of that restaurant -- the only reason to call it anything like "politically incorrect" -- is that it's just that, racist.
Here's one of the restaurant photos, which also appears in the BoingBoing post; notice the painting on the wall, an image of a tiger chasing a boy (for a larger image, click here):
The Sambo's restaurant chain began in 1957, and it flourished into 1200 establishments during the Sixties and Seventies; apparently only one remains, in Santa Barbara, California (here's there, um, interesting site). The chain was started by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett, whom everyone called Bo -- thus the name, Sambo's. Which certainly doesn't seem like a racist beginning for the restaurant chain's name, buuuuuuut . . .
As Sam and Bo decided how to distinguish the look of their restaurants from others, they also decided to play up the echoes in the name "Sambo" of a famous children's story, The Story of Little Black Sambo. This was a book published in 1899 by a Scottish woman, Helen Bannerman, who lived for many years in Southern India.
The story is familiar to many people, even today -- basically, a very dark, or "black," Indian boy named Sambo goes into a wooded area, loses his clothing to some tigers, who then jealously chase each other around a tree until they turn into butter. Sambo then enjoys this butter on some pancakes made by his mother.
So, if you did look closely at the photo above, Sambo is depicted in the restaurant's paintings in some sort of "traditional Indian" garb, and he's not dark enough that most people would call him "black." The restaurant's decorators lightened the skin of "Little Black Sambo" -- perhaps in deference to the Civil Rights era? -- though I'm not sure if they did so at the outset.
Aside from the stereotypical representation of mildly exotic "Indian-ness," a bigger problem for the restaurant chain is that when Bannerman's book was published in America, various versions depicted the protagonist with features that echoed other stereotypes about African American children, all of which have been summed up as the "picaninny caricature." By 1932, the writer Langston Hughes was pointing out that Little Black Sambo was "amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at."
(McLoughlin Bros., 1938)
This 1935 American cartoon, also entitled "Little Black Sambo," retells the story in a way that shows the American transmogrification of Bannerman's Indian boy into a bumbling, grinning, idiotic and racist caricature, whose mother is also another American caricature -- the mammy figure.
When I was a (white) boy, my parents adopted a black dog. We ended up choosing the name that my mother came up with, Sam. She explained that the dog reminded her of a childhood story, and I remember her using that phrase, "little black Sambo." Come to think of it, that was actually the dog's full name, Sambo; we just called him Sam because it was shorter and easier.
The idea in America that a "Sambo" is a certain image of a black child, or sometimes a child-like adult, lives on. In the movie The Green Mile, for instance, the character Wild Bill calls a prison guard "Little Black Sambo," right after blackening his face by spitting an entire chewed-up Moon Pie on him.
All of which is to say that the name of Sambo's restaurant is thus not "politically incorrect," it's "racist." That's because in its particular cultural and societal context, the name "Sambo's" evokes and perpetuates the Sambo/picaninny stereotype -- no matter how the restaurant owners originally meant that name.
According to a CNN story from 1998, on efforts to revive the faded restaurant chain,
"The cultural understanding of 'Little Black Sambo' is a negative," says Professor Frank Gilliam of UCLA. "It's meant to suggest that people of African descent are childlike, that they're irresponsible, that they're not fully developed human beings."
Carol Codrington of Loyola Law School said the character was used to stereotype African Americans as shiftless and lazy.
So why, as in the case of Frauenfelder's BoingBoing post, and in so many others, do white people use "politically incorrect" to describe that which is actually racist (or sexist, or classist, or heterosexist), and so on?
They often do it, of course, because they just don't agree that this or that action or thing is racist. However, I think they sometimes do it instead because they don't like having their buzz harshed. Or their squee. Or they don't like having their parade rained on, or however you want to put it.
In my experience, saying that something is politically incorrect instead of racist is often a way of avoiding racism, instead of denying it. It can be a way of saying in effect, "Yes, some would say that's bad, or 'racist,' but pausing to really consider that, and all of its implications, isn't something I want to be bothered with right now, because it's really just too much trouble, thank you very much."
In the case of the BoingBoing post, Mark Frauenfelder may well have used "politically correct" instead of "racist" to describe the Sambo's decor because the latter term might have interrupted his reader's ability to, as one commenter puts it, "GROOVE AWAY on the orange/purple/yellow schemes!"
The concept of political correctness, or PC, has of course been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam, and I'm not sure that I'm adding anything new to the discussion here. I do think, though, that Frauenfelder is using the concept in a different way than it's usually used. As with other posters at BoingBoing, I don't detect a reactionary streak in this post by him, nor in his other ones; he doesn't seem like the sort who would complain about "not being able" to use racial or sexist slurs, because he thinks being asked to use less hurtful terms is an infringement on his free speech, and so on. I actually suspect that if Frauenfelder were asked whether Sambo's restaurants are "racist," he would agree.
So, again, I think the use of "politically incorrect" in that post to describe the racism perpetuated by Sambo's restaurants is a way of keeping the taint of that racism out of an otherwise fun and pleasant post about groovy vintage retro restaurant decor. It's almost as if directly acknowledging racism would be like acknowledging a bad smell in the room -- as if that would be a rather rude way of spoiling all the fun.
I've actually noticed this tendency many times among middle-class, college-educated white people. If I bring up or point out something racist, it's often like I burped or farted. In many situations, it's just not a welcome subject for conversation. And if such a subject does come up, describing it as "politically incorrect," or in some other vague, euphemistic terms, and then quickly dismissing it, is much more common than directly describing and discussing it as "racist."
That said, I do think this use of "politically incorrect" as a euphemism for "racist" is similar to other, more reactionary or "conservative" complaints about PC in terms of race in one significant way -- they're both expressions of white privilege. And maybe class privilege as well. People who bear the brunt of oppression usually don't have the luxury of just waving it away like that.
Have you seen or heard "politically incorrect" used as a way of avoiding more direct or blunt terms like "racist"? And have you been in situations where even bringing up racism is considered inappropriate or impolite? If so, do you go along with that, or do you get blunt and impolite?