If You Have To Ask If It's Racist, It Probably Is
CELESTE HEADLEE: A lot of Americans might think they need an interpreter or maybe a referee in discussions about race, especially in the aftermath of racially charged events like the George Zimmerman trial. And leaders, including our president, say that what's called for is a sober, tolerant, patient conversation. But writer Andrew Ti doesn't necessarily see it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "YO, IS THIS RACIST?)
ANDREW TI: You know what, if you don't like hip-hop, [bleep] keep it to yourself.
TED LANGE IV: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
TI: So anyone who says...
LANGE: I see what you're saying.
TI: ...They don't like hip hop...
LANGE: I see what you're saying. Yeah. Yeah.
TI: ...Is racist.
LANGE: Oh, big time.
HEADLEE: That's Andrew Ti and a guest speaking on his "Yo, Is This Racist?" podcast. He's also been writing a Tumblr blog of the same name since late 2011. Andrew Ti joins us now. Andrew, welcome.
TI: Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: We're going to talk about the blog in just a minute, but let me go back to that clip of tape that we just heard. What exactly is the connection between saying you don't like hip-hop and being racist?
TI: Well, so that was one of those moments where it's not necessarily racist to not like hip-hop, but it's one of those things where you notice that the people who most vociferously talk about it tend to ultimately be doing it for maybe coded, and maybe not sort of overtly hateful reasons, but it tends to always be for racist reasons.
HEADLEE: Oh, I see.
TI: In my experience.
HEADLEE: So the difference here isn't whether you like hip-hop or not, it's...
HEADLEE: ...whether you don't like it and don't feel the need to talk about, and those who need to really, really talk about how much they hate it.
TI: Exactly, yeah. Harping about it is, to me, a big red flag.
HEADLEE: OK. But, you know, as we mentioned, a lot of American leaders, including our president, have called for a very quiet, sober discussion about race. And I'm sure you respect that, but you respectfully disagree in some way. Explain your philosophy on racial discussions to me.
TI: Well, to me, I feel like there's no particular need to be polite in this discussion. When someone confronts you with sort of like a racist viewpoint, I just feel like, you know, they're not being censored. It's not a place where those viewpoints aren't being aired in our popular culture and people clearly, on the Internet and Twitter and Tumblr, feel very comfortable airing racist notions. And I think that reacting to them with sort of a small amount of anger or profanity, in my case, is warranted and, in my opinion, acceptable.
HEADLEE: But, you know, they say to a hammer everything looks like a nail. Do you feel like you may be too ready to label things as racist?
TI: You know, I do a little bit, but what I do on my blog and podcast, to some degree, is I am, you know, curating and having a discussion that is not a two-way street. And so in the face of a lot of accepting and a lot of equivocating on whether things are racist, you know, I'm just one voice saying, yes, this is racist. And I feel like my track record is pretty good.
HEADLEE: Well, I mean, obviously something must've really compelled you. I mean, at some point you got so frustrated with the level of discourse that you started this blog in 2011. What was that that kind of pushed you over the edge?
TI: Surprisingly, it was a moment of, you know, relatively fun. It was more - not so much a pushed-me-over-the-edge in anger moment, but it was a eureka moment where I was actually at work talking about Looney Tunes - because that's what you do when you're bored out of your mind at work. And someone brought up the idea that, or just mentioned when Yosemite Sam is engaging in his litany of cartoon swears, "cotton pickin'" is among them.
And it was just one of those moments where I had the eureka moment of, that is a racist thing to say. And it's so sort of sanitized and part of our culture that it isn't even commented upon. And that is the first entry on my blog, if you go back and look. And it is just one of those things where there's so many moments, and so many accepted parts of our culture, that either have a racist origin or have become code words for racism, sort of the hip-hop thing, calling people thugs - that it's so easy to point out. And I thought I could lend my, if not talent for analysis, talent for rhetoric and swearing at the issue.
HEADLEE: So tell me about some of the questions that you get. I mean, with your tone, you must get a certain number of them which are sarcastic...
HEADLEE: ...Maybe joking around. But do you actually get people who seriously want to know if something is racist?
TI: You know, I feel like there's a lot of joking around and there're a lot of combative people, but I feel like people know. I think people mostly know. And if they don't know - oftentimes you can tell, sort of by the way the questions are phrased, that these people have an answer that may not be sort of widely socially acceptable or something that puts them in a difficult situation. One of my favorite recurring questions is, why isn't there White Entertainment Television? To which, by the way, my answer is twofold. One is, what exactly would you put on White Entertainment Television, and two, all television is...
TI: ...Pretty much white television. We used to call it CBS.
HEADLEE: It's the same answer for...
TI: You know.
HEADLEE: ...Why isn't there White History Month, right?
TI: Actually, yeah. On every March, I like to wish my readers happy White History 11 Months, 'cause it's back. But, you know, I think that people mostly know. People mostly know. And, for me, the line between whether someone is sort of redeemable or whether someone is not immediately redeemable and probably will take some work, it's how they react to being told that something, you know - the way I say it is, you're racist, which is really shorthand for, the thing you're doing is racist or unacceptable. And that, I feel like, is a moment that people really show their character.
People either react incredibly badly and defensively, and that's sort of always an interesting moment, because someone who thinks they aren't racist in that situation invariably starts down a line of argument that gets more and more and more racist-sounding, which is telling. Or there are people who, when confronted with this, will apologize, try to learn some more about the situation, think about it, and try to think empathetically. And really, that's the line. And really that's, I think, sort of the litmus test for the people who read my blog is if you feel like, you know, these swears are more of an affront to you than your racist behavior or...
HEADLEE: You're talking about the language that you use, 'cause you're insulting...
TI: I'm quite insulting...
TI: ...And I'm quite profane. I think we can both agree.
TI: But, you know, for me, it's really just, how do you take that? If you don't take it in a spirit of, oh, man, this is something I should look into, then there isn't much of a discussion that we can have.
HEADLEE: So one more for you, and that is that, how do you respond to somebody who might say, yo, you're part of the problem? That when a conversation becomes insulting or profane, that it keeps us from having a real connection from one race to the other.
TI: Well, you know, I feel like there's certainly a possibility of being part of the problem. But if you want to have a discussion with someone who's sort of very nice and going to be very accepting of your racism, frankly, it's possible to have that conversation with all manner of people.
There are people who, you know, sort of the stereotypical NPR listening audience, that is their forte. And I just feel like I'm another option, you know. If you're a young person of color, if you're a young person who is oppressed for any reason, I just want to point out that there's other options, that you don't have to sort of take it.
HEADLEE: We didn't mention you're Chinese-American. But I think that's racist, so I'm not going to.
TI: Well, you know, the idea obviously that the race discussion is something that you need to be personally offended or affected by, I think is something that divides people. I think it's just one of those things where it shouldn't matter who you are. You know, that's how the man keeps everyone apart.
HEADLEE: Andrew Ti is the creator of "Yo, Is This Racist?," both the Tumblr and the podcast. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks so much, Andrew.
TI: Thanks. It was fun.