I let out a sigh of relief when poli-sci/pop culture guru, Melissa Harris-Perry, and guest commentators on her MSNBC show finale pointed out the obvious. An already “racy show,” in the most literal sense, many people were outraged in response to how she joked about this year’s Romney family christmas card. If you haven’t already seen this photo, let me direct your attention to the front and center. As you may notice, Mitt’s adopted grandson, Kieran James Romney, does not share his family’s pale complexion.
“One of these things is not like the other…“, actress Pia Glenn sang. “It sums up the diversity of the Republican Party… where they have the whole convention and they find the one black person,” another panelist, Dean Obeidallah, added.
This minute-long segment almost cost Melissa Harris-Perry her career. Up against a backlash of angry Internet commenters, mostly who self-identified as members of the GOP, Harris-Perry did what any noble person would do. She apologized. Not only for any pain she may have caused the Romney family, but also for “suggest[ing] that interracial families are in any way funny, or deserving of ridicule,” said Harris-Perry. Recognizing that she probably suffered enough backlash for a lifetime, Romney eventually publicly accepted her apology. And so the show goes on… (but not without a tasteless retort from Alec Baldwin).
As it turns out, Obeidallah’s comment about the demographics of the GOP is not far from the truth. Data shows that in 2012, an overwhelming 88% of Romney’s voters were white. Romney’s inability to speak to/or about people of color scripted a campaign catered towards white folks, resulting in an election that The Washington Post called “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988.”
Harris-Perry she spends a lot of time thinking and speaking critically about race. She makes a living by unpacking and re-packing ideas with nuance in books and television. As a result, she’s become a comfortable navigator of subject matter who keeps her viewers (and panelists) engaged through occasional jokes and sarcasm.
Comedy tactics are a double-edged sword; an easy way to call attention to discomfort without appearing sensitive can be at the expense of engaging in productive dialogue. It can be a powerful rhetorical tool, especially to discuss oppression, a topic that has the ability to cut deep very quickly. However, as Melissa Harris-Perry learned the hard way, humor directed at the expense of another individual rarely occurs without consequences.
I agree that a child shouldn’t ever be on the receiving end of a joke on national television. However, I am not convinced that it is the root of the strong-armed backlash the Melissa Harris-Perry show received. Perhaps the greatest alleged offense was not making light of a sensitive situation, but rather the fact that they drew any attention at all to the race of Mitt Romney’s grandson.
Melissa Harris-Perry’s career was called into question for seeing color. Critics purported that she, and anyone else who took a double-take when they saw Romney’s family picture, were insensitive (rather than aware). In a mythical post-racial world, to bring up race is an offense in itself. Based on the critical response the comments received, it seems that important conversations of inter-racial family relations are not in store for little Romney nor are they apparently suitable for American television.
In the United States, children belong to their parents. When children are seen as private property, we risk overlooking the larger communities to which children belong. This idea is something else that Melissa Harris-Perry has expressed, and received backlash for, last spring when she appeared on television commercials saying “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or… families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”
While Romney’s adopted child does not live with a family of color, it would be wrong to say that the child is not part of a larger community that includes people of color. For me, his position evokes my memories of receiving a shoddy whitewashed history the way I did.
I’m the only person of color born to my mother’s side of the family for at least two hundred years. The only time I can remember anyone in my extended family acknowledging my status as a person of color was this past Christmas. In an escalating conversation about the cultural tradition of wearing blackface to celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands, my uncle-in-law became increasingly dodgy about the legitimacy of its racism, given the country’s history of colonialism in both South America and Africa. His 12-year-old son came to his defense, chiming in, “but that was like 300 years ago. the world is color-blind now.” And then, probably because his father shot him a testing glance, he added: “no offense.”
The conversation was quickly diverted and I walked away feeling less than certain about this “color-blind” world we live in where children are still being taught that talking about race necessitates an apology. As someone whose pigment stands out in family portraits, I was relieved that somebody finally pointed it out.
I cannot speak to the experience of trans-racial adoptees. But as a multiracial person raised by one of my parents, I find that family events on either side of my family can sometimes feel like a “cross-cultural” experience. We do not share the same viewpoints on the world, as the world views us differently. This is not only due to race, but it is certainly a factor compounded with age and class differences.
When I see myself in this image of a patriotic white-American family portrait, I’ve always wondered why none of my relatives ask what it must be like to be me or what the country looks like through my eyes. As we continue to silence these conversations, we bury underlying tensions deeper in ourselves. I have begun to have fantasies about “coming out” to my family as a person of color. But how do I shine light onto colors that many spend their whole lives pretending to ignore?
Featured Image via Google Images