Monday, December 15, 2008

brush off and laugh at anti-white slurs

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.


  1. excellent post.
    is there a link to the video you're discussing on youtube or something, though? as a non-US viewer, I can't see that one.

  2. Hi erika, I'm glad you like the post. I'm not sure which video you mean, so here are the links to both on their original sites--hope they work for you:

  3. I just read a Bill Richardson interview in the Jan 2009 Esquire. He recounted a meeting with Saddam Hussein in which he (Richardson) crossed his legs. That exposed the bottom of his shoe to Saddam, who took it as an insult and left the room. Someone explained to Richardson about the shoe thing and said he needed to apologize. So he decided that when Saddam came back in, he'd just pretend nothing happened and skip the apology. Worked like a charm.

    (Richardson also told of going to the Sudan to seek the release of American journalist Paul Salopek. Bashir was willing to release Salopek, but not two other prisoners from Chad. I think those guys had been traveling with Salopek. So Richardson tells President Bashir, "Listen, I can't go home with one white guy and no black guys!" Bashir laughed his head off, and agreed to release the Africans as well. Bill Richardson has good stories.)

  4. very interesting post. you do a great, pretty persuasive analysis here. i always look forward to reading your posts, even if i don't always comment. i think you do a great job of trying to understand those who might be termed "the other." you have an earnest, academic voice that makes me feel you really do want to understand -- and trust me, i've found that to be rare.


  5. Very good post, Macon. It has always fascinated me as to how anti-white words and phrases are never nearly as stinging as anti-non white epithets. Not once have I thought the words "honky", "Cracker" or even "peckerwood" has any sort of power, because they really don't.

    If you have never been on the receiving end of oppression, it's easy to have the thickest skin (or a thick sense of obliviousness).

  6. Us folks at Charlie´s Bar in Lanzarote think that it would be fantastic to post as many pairs of shoes as possible to George W. Bush.

    Wasn´t it a great idea and a lovely gesture from the reporter who gave his shoes to Mr Bush?

    We feel we should all follow his example.

    Simply post a pair of shoes to:

    Mr George W. Bush
    c/o The Whitehouse
    1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
    Washington DC 2500
    United States of America

    We hope Mr Bush will receive at least ONE MILLION PAIRS OF SHOES for his retirement, so..... MAKE IT HAPPEN!!!!

    It will not cost much in postage! So go on and take just take 10 minutes to go to your local post office and send him a pair of shoes!

    Go on, go on! Just do it! You know you want to! ;)

    The website:

  7. I agree with you that anti-white slurs do not affect their intended targets as much as other racial slurs would affect their targets. Indeed, I doubt Bush understood (or even cared to understand what the journalist was saying), but I do feel that Bush's nonchalant shrugging off of the incident was a mask of sorts. Of course he could care less about the journalist and why the guy felt the need to throw both his shoes at him, but I refuse to believe that this is what his legacy comes to doesn't trouble our current POTUS.

    Being the lame duck that he is, legacy is really all he has left and I believe that (despite all of his bravado) he has a sinking suspicion that history will not be kind to him. His approval ratings are abysmal, he is a pariah to his own party, and now..NOW some random no name Arab dude (this is from his point of view of course) throws shoes at him on live television. I don't care who you are, that's got to hurt your feelings on some level.

    So perhaps the journalist did not effectuate any deep response from Bush with his slurs, but several million replays of the video (in which the leader of the most powerful nation in the world gets two shoes thrown at him) on news channels and video sites can't be that easy for the President to shrug off, right?!

  8. Well Mr. Noface, let's not forget what an extraordinary individual Bush is in this regard. Remember what he said when Bob Woodward asked how he thought history would judge the attack on Iraq: "He kind of shrugged in the Oval Office and put his hands out and said, 'We won't know, we'll all be dead.'" And given what I've gathered about Bush's character (or lack thereof), and how much he seems to be walled off inside a cocoon of power, I can easily imagine him shrugging off what the whole world thinks of him. I can easily imagine that he'll always think that the world is wrong, and that he did a heckuva job as president.

  9. Maybe you're right Macon. Perhaps I'm trying to give the man certain emotions when he is simply incapable of having them. If he truly doesn't care about what the world thinks and will think of his administration, then I feel that much more pity for the man (and I am tempted to worry about a country that was wlling to let such a man come into and stay in power for eight years).

  10. I think the relative stinging power of slurs you observe is a result of the power disparity between whites and people of color.

    When a person of color uses a slur to a white person, it's more of a protest, an expression of resentment against someone who has the lion's share of acceptance and privilege.

    The other way around, though, and the racial slur is a way to put the person of color in his/her place. It's a reminder of who has the lion's share of acceptance, privilege, access, and safety--and knows it.

    Obviously, this is a simplified view. But it's the core of the matter, I think. When it comes to matters of class, things can get more complicated. But it's hard to deny that poor whites tend to place more importance on white privilege. That's probably because it grants them a world view in which they have higher status than people of color, even when "those people" have achieved greater wealth.

    It was apt to bring this up in the context of Dubya and the shoe-throwing incident. Because that's a clear example of the intersection of relative power and insults. Dubya shrugs off the insult (even if you don't know about the cultural significance of shoes, it's clear that throwing one's shoes at a head of state is a terrible insult) because, in his mind, he's the President of the Goddamn U. S. of A. So what if some random Iraqi insults him? He thinks he's being magnanimous by "letting" the guy blow off some steam.

    I doubt that Iraqis who are slapped or called "sand niggers" and "ragheads" by American soldiers can afford that same magnanimity. They are often in fear for their lives, or at best, they are being reminded how little power they have in their own country.

  11. That's what white supremacy means: POWER. When you have power, what do you care about a cry-baby with no power. When you are supreme, words don't bother you, because at the end of the day, those with power know that when they say jump others will jump. The system of racism (white supremacy) is the most awesome social system that was thought up, with regard to the mistreatment of people.

  12. There is definitely an inequity in the epithets. Only "cracker" gets anywhere near really being hurtful, and then it's primarily a class insinuation (redneck white trash).

    We laugh them off because we know we're still the empowered group. The words don't matter as long as we are still at an advantage.


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