I laughed at Ellen’s tweet with Usain Bolt. I found it funny.It seems that even Usain Bolt found it funny, as he retweeted it. Does that necessarily mean that the tweet wasn’t racist? No, it just means Usain Bolt and I didn’t find it to be.
See, this is the thing: there is not a Dictionary of All Things Racist. There also isn’t an authority on all things racist. There are obvious vile phrases, but most remarks that cause offense are subjective in nature, in that what upsets some will not upset others (because surprise: not all women are alike, not all Black people are alike, not all homosexuals are alike, and so on). So, instead of having these irrational, hateful social media brawls, I just think we need to establish a few things:
Again, accept that most things are subjective. That means that there is no wrong and no right. What some deem racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, etc. will vary from person to person dependent on that person’s life experiences. When some saw Ellen’s tweet, they immediately saw or referenced this
When you consider that someone may be working from that reference point, you can understand why they may be offended by Ellen’s joke. They aren’t wrong for being offended by it; just as you are not wrong for not being offended. People have different experiences, different levels of tolerance, are open to different types of humor.
But, if the joke offended many within an identity group, it is at a minimum, racially insensitive. You have to respect another’s pain: sympathize even if you can’t empathize. Additionally, you should avoid using any insensitive language at work (if you are interested in keeping your job).
Saying that you said something insensitive or racist does not always make you a racist (or sexist, or bigot, or homophobic, etc.). A lot of healing conversations fail to happen because people are afraid of being permanently labeled or our characters being smeared, so they immediately shut down and begin defending themselves. We need to allow room for people to make mistakes, to grow, to learn, we make room for healing. A rapper can make a song that has sexist lyrics and own a company with an extremely pro-female benefit package and be a wonderfully supportive husband. If we tag him a sexist–the conversation ends. If we explain how his lyrics are sexist, we start a conversation and begin change.
We must remember that Ellen is a comedian. Entertainers live on the edge of appropriateness. Music, jokes, art, etc. should be somewhat provocative.
We also must consider intention. Do I think Ellen is racist? No. Do I think that she had the slightest idea that this tweet would offend some-absolutely not. What I would love to see happen is a conversation. Her mistake should be used as an opportunity to learn. To show true caring, she should try to understand how and why the meme was offensive. When you offend someone, don’t put so much energy in defending who you are; but spend time in learning who the offended is and why they are hurt. Through that process, the offended person feels heard, seen and respected; and you grow. That’s how global healing happens–one incident at a time.