Ellen’s Innocuous Racism

After Usain Bolt won his first gold medal of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, an iconic photo of the track & field superstar surfaced and the meme games began. Ellen (DeGeneres) jumped on the bandwagon and photoshopped a picture of herself on Usain’s back along with the comment “This is how I’m running errands from now on”. She has since apologized, and many people are lamenting at how overly sensitive we’ve become; pulling the race card every chance that we get.

Popular opinion seems to side with Ellen. Also many Jamaicans, including Usain Bolt himself (who reportedly retweeted Ellen’s original tweet) were not offended. However we shouldn’t sweep this under the rug just yet. I bristle at the idea of crying wolf when it comes to racism (God knows that happens enough as it is). But there are many different angles to this. All which deserve a trial perspective.

Ellen Has Walked This Line Before

In October of 2015, Ellen had a skit on her show parodying Nicki Minaj‘s Anaconda video. After that stunt, the Kinfolk Kollective published this piece in response. Apparently though, it was deemed harmless. Fair game for a comedienne where the expectation is that you utilize humor to make fun of yourself and everyone else. But as Ellen and company donned the butt pads, it makes you wonder if she has ever heard of Sara/Saartje Baartman, who was exploited horribly for her big, exotic, African butt. Probably not…since Ellen has casually admitted to not being able to find Ghana on a map.

Saartje Baartman

A sketch of Saartje Baartman; who was exploited and exhibited as a freakshow in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Among my Facebook friends are some of those “overly sensitive liberals” who found Ellen’s latest faux pas to be offensive. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll let their words speak for themselves:

Looking at these vintage pictures compared to Ellen’s recent one sheds a whole new light on the situation. It still doesn’t mean that Ellen was trying to be malicious or even insensitive. But rather shows that the Black American experience is still not fully understood by the larger American majority.

American Racism Is Unique

Many of the people coming to Ellen’s defense are Jamaicans themselves. I’ve also seen on my Facebook feed the opposite sentiment; stating the Black Americans are too touchy and just need to get over themselves.

There is a point to be had here too. If the subject of the joke is not offended, then who are we to be offended? In fact, if Ellen were Jamaican, this would most likely be a non-issue. For Jamaicans, race is more of a physical descriptor. They do not really define your persona by your race. However Jamaica is also a country where 95% of the population is Black (or partially Black). So everywhere you turn, that notion of race being a non-issue in society is reinforced. Powerful Jamaican figures are or have been Black…in government, business and education. It’s not like here in the US, where most of the power players are not Black.

But what about our dear president, he’s Black, right? Well, is he? He has one Black (African more specifically) parent, and one White parent (the one that raised him). Yes, he has embraced and molded his family into a Black American one. But it is interesting how in the US, if you are partially Black…1/2 Black especially, then you get defaulted over into the “Black” category; both racially and culturally.

This would be ok if being Black in America didn’t come with a whole lot of negative baggage. Unlike Jamaicans, Black Americans initially were robbed of any remnants of pride in being of African stock. Everything from Africa was deemed to be inferior. There is a reason why the first publicly pro-Black/African in America was started by a man who was born in Jamaica (Marcus Garvey). The buildup of pride in African heritage is a recent, 20th & 21st century phenomena for Black Americans.

So Who’s Right?

In my opinion, no one. Was I offended by Ellen’s antics? Not really. But then again, I don’t care for Ellen for other reasons besides actions like this. If I had to make a comparison of this situation to others…it would be that of surgery. You can take one surgical procedure, done by the same doctor, and different people will have a different experience with it. Nothing exists or functions in a vacuum. You have a history and different situations that effect the final impact.

What I wish Ellen would have done is something that we all should do. Take a pause and consider your actions; especially when involving other people. If it is not possible to get a good idea of what that other person’s take would be, just run it by someone else. See what their reaction is. As a celebrity, I’m sure that she has no shortage of people around who could have advised her. And hopefully…some of those people are Black.