A bigot is a person who is partial to their own group or way of thinking and intolerant of others. A racist is someone who believes that a person’s race is the primary deciding factor in their character, capabilities, and worth.
Sounds simple, yet it’s not.
Musicians and recent White House guests Jill Scott and Common have come under harsh criticism for comments they made in past interviews and songs. Both artists were personally invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to perform at the White House’s Poetry Night in early May 2011. And both artists have been called racists and bigots for their comments about interracial dating and marriage, particularly those involving black men and white women in the United States.
The criticisms of their comments, while well-meant, offer a perfect opportunity to show how racism and bigotry can be easily and boldly misunderstood when a person lacks proper background knowledge and experience.
First, the comments. Jill Scott comments in the April 2010 issue of Essence Magazine:
‘My new friend is handsome, African-American, intelligent and seemingly wealthy…I admit when I saw his wedding ring, I privately hoped. But something in me just knew he didn’t marry a sister. Although my guess hit the mark, when my friend told me his wife was indeed Caucasian, I felt my spirit…wince. I didn’t immediately understand it.’
And Common’s comments in an interview with Touch Magazine in 2005:
“I don’t think there’s anything the matter with somebody loving somebody from another race but it’s almost like a stereotype that if you’ve got dreadlocks you go out with a white girl. I just feel like, as black men, we do have to be aware that every time we step out with some woman it’s setting an example for our daughters and it’s also representing something for our mothers. If you can’t really love your own, how can you really love others?”
“My whole thing is that black women have been so put down – whether it’s due to the oppression of a white government or we [black men] putting our own women down. When dudes say they only gonna focus on white girls, to me, it’s like a slap in a black girl’s face. I still feel like because I’m an artist and I say certain things, I have a responsibility to let people know what I mean.”
Then, the criticism. Conservative blogger and journalist Patrick Courrielche’s response is typical:
“If [Jill Scott’s] words were put in the mouth of a Caucasian, the viewpoint would reek of bigotry.
Should Jill Scott and Common be uninvited to the White House Poetry event? At this point, probably not… But the First Lady should ask that Common and Jill Scott renounce their statements, and use the opportunity to help the black community see that many of their icons are big contributors to the racial divide that they so obviously abhor.”
What is wrong with the response of Patrick Courrielche and others? They assume that black Americans and white Americans are in equal positions in American society. That similar statements made by black and white people somehow have the same basic meaning and origin.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jill Scott and Common’s responses can not simply be dismissed as bigotry. Their feelings are a reaction to a larger truth about American society. In the United States, as in many other societies, women are judged primarily on their appearances. And as in many other societies, there is an unspoken beauty ideal concerning women.
This ideal largely favors a white –or whiter– appearance, in popular culture and greater society. Black American communities are affected by the greater American standard — the lightest and whitest women are preferred by men and in general. This doesn’t escape the attention of black women who tend to be the furthest from this perpetuated standard.
Jill Scott’s wince wasn’t caused by bigotry or racism. It was caused by a reminder that even her “own” do not favor her, as a black woman. It was caused by a reminder that, whenever possible, someone else will be chosen.
This dynamic can not simply be reversed — the same can not be said by a white woman. A white American woman doesn’t live in a society where the women who are considered the most beautiful and marriageable are those who seem to be the furthest from white. Her wince (if she winced) would come from a completely different place.
Jill Scott and Common may or may not be correct in their views and their feelings aren’t reflective of all black Americans’ views on interracial marriage. But calling their views bigoted and racist is missing the point, and America’s unique brand of discrimination, entirely.