On the John
Originally completed November 28, 2006
I do not know Michael Richards.
As far as I know, Kyle Doss and Frank McBride don’t know Michael Richards. Nor do Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
It’s more than likely that you don’t know Michael Richards either.
Because of that, it will be rather difficult for any of us to draw a definitive conclusion as to the full nature of Michael Richards and what he truly believes about black people. How can we know? How can we ever know? The tirade or the apology? What to believe?
Let’s consider the possibilities. On one end, we have a popular, rather beloved performer with a well-defined image who exposes his “real” personality during a hate-filled rage. He then goes on the Late Show to apologize in an effort to restore his image and marketability. On the other end, we have the same performer losing his temper and, in a once-in-a-lifetime mistake, making statements which are completely uncharacteristic of his “true” self. He then goes on the Late Show to apologize because he truly does feel awful about it, and since his friend presented him with an opportunity to apologize on national television, he took it.
Those are our possibilities. The truth lies somewhere in that range.
But how much does The Truth really matter? How much do Michael Richards’ true feelings towards blacks really affect our everyday lives? Beyond one’s decision as to whether or not to continue laughing at Kramer, how does this really affect us?
In the specifics, it doesn’t. After all, I do not know Michael Richards, and in all likelihood, neither do you. But in the general sense, this affects us because if the truth about Michael Richards is anywhere near the second possibility, everyone needs to pay attention and take a strong look at the elements at work here.
Let’s assume that Michael Richards is not a hateful man, one who does not actually wish to have blacks “hanging upside down with a [freaking] fork up [their asses].” Who knows what was actually going on in his head; perhaps he was following some kind of twisted comedic shock logic that turned viciously on itself. What I do know is that those words came out of him repeatedly. It was no accident. Not every frustrated person would respond that way.
But if you believe Michael Richards, he doesn’t normally respond that way either. Look at the apology. Letterman has just asked him if he would have responded similarly to a non-black heckler. Richards says that “the rage did go all over the place; it went to everybody in the room.” He then stumbles, looking for the right words, searching…struggling…and then, rather suddenly, the phrase that we’ve heard so often in these situations comes tumbling out of him: “I’m not a racist! That’s what’s so insane about this.”
And that’s the part that really interests me. Richards seems legitimately confounded by the possibility that those words could appear in his mouth. Look at him. He’s mystified. “I’m not a racist!” He’s almost pleading.
Racist. Now there’s a tricky word. I’d argue that it’s downright the single most important word of our society. (Not now. Another time.) Is Michael Richards a racist? What does that mean? Does he actively and publicly denounce blacks in America, or go out on shooting-sprees? Of course not. But he is an American, and let’s face it: when it comes to race, America is twisted. Whatever it is or means, race in our country’s past and present has been so manipulated that nobody can think about it objectively. You don’t have to be a “racist” to take a second look at a group of black kids in baggy jeans walking towards you, or to note to yourself that a certain bad driver is an Asian woman, or to feel uncomfortable in a cab driven by a bearded-Arab. These feelings may be fleeting, but they are in us, all the same. It’s nearly impossible to live in America and not develop some kind of racial bias; our country has made bigots and victims of us all.
And yet, most people do not wish to sympathize with Michael Richards. Could you forgive him if he were your brother, friend, or father? Of course you could. We do it all the time. Grandma comments that “I think the Polish girl is stealing from me,” and we shake our heads. That’s Grandma. Sure, Richards went much farther along than most tend to go, but the path was the same. He just ran it longer.
Am I surprised that Doss, McBride, Sharpton, Jackson, Paul Rodriguez, and others have spurned Richards’ apology? No. Do I blame them? Not at all. But we’ve reached a point where we’d rather be insulted and In The Right than grab hold of an opportunity for forgiveness. Better to go on the air, hurt and superior, than to be the silent, “bigger man.”
So no, the Michael Richards incident does not matter much to me, at least not as it pertains to Michael Richards. At worst, it’s just a few horrible words spoken by an insecure man whom I will never meet. But if you’re trying to figure out what it means about Michael Richards, you’re missing the point. You should be trying to figure out what it means about you.
Copyright 2006, jm silverstein
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