The n-word rant by Michael Richards (“Kramer” in the Seinfeld show) was freaky enough in its own way, but it is the reporting and commenting on it that is more revealing of our current collective state of mind. I just note in passing the following two points:
(1) The language in which we discuss these things is as ritual and formulaic as a Papal anathema**. Richards didn’t say, speak, or utter the offending words, he spewed them. Those words weren’t insults or crudities, they were epithets. (I discovered by chance a year or so ago that my son believed “epithet” to be a synonym for the n-word.) People didn’t find them obnoxious, annoying, outrageous, or insulting, but repugnant … Etc., etc. You could program a computer to come up with commentary on events like this.
(2) There is much discussion about Richards’ essential nature–is he or isn’t he a racist? This is supposed to be a binary attribute, like being Armenian, homosexual, or club-footed: you either are, or you aren’t, a racist. That seems to me all wrong. Every normal person harbors some identification with his race, as he does with his family, his nation, his mother-language group, his bowling league, etc. Group identification is a perfectly ordinary facet of human nature–though, like others, more intensely felt in some, less so in others, and possibly absent in a very few.
Of course, as with other innate qualities–the urge to help oneself to other people’s property, or to be intimate with attractive members of the opposite sex–this one is, among civilized people, circumscribed with rules and restraints. Under the system of manners prevailing in current American society, white people may express feelings about their whiteness, or about other folks’ non-whiteness, only under a few extremely restricted circumstances, and are in fact taught from an early age to feel that white group identity is an unsavory and antisocial matter. (Non-white people have considerably more latitude in expressing their group identities. Try googling “association of black…” and see how many hits you get. Now change “black” to “white.”)
Michael Richards committed a gross breach of those customary rules and restraints–a severe etiquette malfunction, just as much as it he’d started fondling a female audience member. The inner Kramer–the one kept in rein by all those internalized restraints that make civilized life tolerable–just broke out for a moment. To assert that this proves him to be different from you and me in some fundamental, essential way–he is a “racist” and I am not–is just an absurd kind of moral preening. Richards may be a bit shorter on self-control than you or me (and that’s deplorable enough, in a highly-paid stage performer)… but that’s a continuous variable, too, not a binary quality.
**All right, I admit I have never heard a Pope pronounce an anathema. I just assume, on general grounds, that the thing is pretty ritual and formulaic.