The 1999 film Magnolia is an ambitious story about an ensemble cast of characters, each having a very bad day of their own without knowing their trials are all interconnected. One line weaves ominously throughout: “we might be through with the past, but it ain’t through with us.” William Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun is the source of this famed quote: “The past is never dead. It is not even the past.”
I open with these because I often hear men complain that we women have memories like a steel trap and are always unforgivingly bringing up the past. Because something happened in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over.
Last month marked the one year anniversary of the shot heard literally ‘round the world when a white morning show radio jock compared the attractiveness of black women to desirable or not so desirable settings on his toaster. He named actress Halle Berry as ideal for her acceptable proximity to whiteness. Yeah it was a year ago. And yeah, I’m still simmering about it. No–I’m full out mad, if I’m really being honest with you!
You see this happened where I live, in Buffalo, NY. The same town that made national news exactly one year prior when a white junior hockey team openly made monkey noises at the only black player on the opposing team. (It was caught on tape, but only given attention months later when the black player’s dad called the media.) In everyone’s haste to get “toast-gate” off the front pages, we never even skimmed what this incident was really about, and could have turned into instead.
The team of three white morning show jocks were talking about their preferred toaster settings at home. Rob Lederman said “I may get into trouble for this… I have [my toaster settings] to the attractiveness of women that I find to be attractive…. I will never go to a Serena Williams level, but I’m very comfortable with, like, a Halle Berry level. I need a little mulatto still coming through.” When asked about CBS News correspondent Gayle King he replied “Gayle King is not even on my toaster level.”
The offending station, 97 Rock, is a powerhouse legacy rock station in this market. I grew up listening to it. It was an exciting time to have just discovered rock music, having listened to only black musicians up until then. It was around the time MTV was a newborn calf just steadying its legs. I was the lone black girl snapping up the halls at Bennett High School singing Van Halen lyrics as loud as I dared. (“Hey man, that suit is YOU!”). If I had a dime for every time a friend said they were “revoking my black card,” I’d have graduated a very rich girl. It was my idea to have our yearbook crew take our group photos at their studio. 97 Rock introduced me to Weird Al Yankovich through the syndicated Dr. Demento Show when Al was just some barefoot guy with an accordion recording on cassettes. This incident was personal for me in many ways.
Today I do a three hour workshop for white audiences based on Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times best selling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Race. I also grew up in the middle of school busing in the 70’s. Instead of being incensed, I saw this as an unprecedented opening for Buffalo to start having a serious, no holds barred discussion about race instead of the polite “talking circles” we have everywhere that let white people feel like they’ve accomplished something without actually anteing up anything on the table. I saw the possibility for a whole new ball game on a grand scale led by Lederman and the station’s behemoth parent company, Cumulus Media.
I immediately sought out Lederman. We finally met some weeks later at a diner over coffee and pancakes. Lederman is as far from some confederate flag waving, “whites at the front of the bus” guy as you could imagine. The day of the fiasco, he’d run the toaster bit by the appropriate powers-that-be who voiced no concerns. He and his cohorts did the bit live on air that morning with no push back. The bit played again as part of a podcast. It was only when a black sports reporter from another station mentioned it with disgust in a personal tweet late that afternoon that the whole thing caught fire. 97 Rock waited several hours to gauge the temperature of the market and confer with big wigs at the home office. By day’s end, once advertisers started dropping, Lederman was fired. The station put out some cheap, hollow statement about how the remarks made don’t reflect their policies and blah, blah, blah.
When we met, Lederman was genuinely sorrowful. His main concern though was how harshly and unfairly he’d been dealt with. Can’t anybody take a joke anymore? Certainly anyone acquainted with him knew he had a good heart and “not a racist bone in his body”–all exactly in accord with the white fragility script DiAngelo’s book identifies so clearly. It was what I expected.
What was lost on him was all the history leading up to his joke. In early colonial America, enslaved blacks and white indentured servants lived on equal social parity. They ate, slept, and worked together, and commonly intermarried. The law of the time was such that a child’s lineage and birthright was traced through its father.
“An Act Concerning Servants And Slaves” was passed in 1705. The law changed the status of children born of enslaved women to reflect the status of the mother, and made marriage illegal between free whites and enslaved blacks. (Put a pin in that word marriage for now.) The law called children of such unions “that abominable mixture and spurious issue,” and set a sentence for a white would-be spouse to no less than six months in jail. It removed from crime status a white man killing his slave, and made it illegal for slaves to bear arms or even so much as lift their hand against a white man for any reason.
What this act did, in effect, was give white men free run sexually over black women who were subject to the punishment of immedeate death for attempting to defend themselves or resist their advances in any way.
The law discharged white men of any responsibility for the offspring of this violence and, in fact, increased the value of their holdings with these children’s births, making white men America’s original “baby daddies.”
People are always asking me if I’ve been to see the latest movie chronicling the harrowing ordeal of another long suffering black in American history. I have not seen Selma, Harriet, and especially not the Oscar phenom 12 Years A Slave. A particular clip released to the public wrenched me so to my gut that I couldn’t even consider it. The white male slaver creeps into the slave quarters in the dark. He gruffly sets himself upon a young enslaved girl while she bears through the entire ordeal without a scream or so much as a wince knowing that either reaction would only make this even more insufferable for her. The man, frustrated with his own dissatisfaction and guilt, chokes her and slaps her with an open hand, leaving her body lying like a rag doll that fell out of someone’s luggage at the airport. Others in the quarters hear but dare not come to her rescue. Relieved the ordeal is over, she can only reset the clock waiting until the time this will surely happen again. I can barely breathe as I write this, thinking over how many generations this very scene played out to produce me, sitting at this desk today.
This is how the beauties such as Halle Berry and Paula Patton came to be, the black women that white America is “very comfortable with.” That four hundred and some years later, a white man is entitled to joke to a radio audience of thousands of white listeners that this once “spurious issue” is what he needs in order to find a black woman worthy is a foul, shuddersome paradox.
My mother used to say with a sigh on her way out the door to work every morning, “Lord, I gotta’ get myself ready to be in these white folx’s faces.” Black women have been straightening our hair, lightening our skin, toning down our voices, averting our eyes, and smiling until our lips crack around white people for so long knowing that our very survival depends on your comfort. Now we even have laws in some states that say we could lose our jobs if we dare speak a word of truth that is not first smoothed over for your white children’s comfort.
And I declare you hypocrites all, America, if you are willing to stone one radio jock to death and walk away feeling purged clean. Study after study shows that darker skinned defendants are found guilty more frequently in court and are even subject to longer or shorter sentences based on skin color. Vanessa Williams, with green eyes and indiscernible skin under the right light, was crowned Miss America in 1984 because the promoters knew the first black queen would “need a little bit of mulatto still coming through” in order to be palatable to the public. An actress as dark as Viola Davis could only be taken seriously as a leading lady on the small screen once a black writer the likes of Shonda Rhimes rose through the ranks. Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones, with her big lips and broad nose, tears up when she speaks of seeing Whoopi Goldberg on HBO in 1985. It was the first time Jones believed there might be a place on tv for her talent too.
Ibram X. Kendi wrote in his book How To Be An Antiracist that “internalized racism is the true Black on Black crime” and I couldn’t agree more. It makes me reckon with an incident from high school that I wish I could go back and change. I too grew up surrounded by the message that darker equals lesser. A very dark skinned girl in my class was wrestling with her place in the beauty and value hierarchy. She told me she’d decided to take on the moniker “Dark ‘n Lovely,” after a popular line of black hair care products we all knew and used. I looked her in the face and laughed so loud you’d have sworn Eddie Murphy just told us a joke. I’d give anything for a chance to take back that intentional assault on her self esteem. That loud, “mean girls” laugh I gave her is the equivalent of Lederman’s devaluation of Serena Williams and Gayle King. With that laugh I devalued myself, and gave Lederman’s toaster scale integrity.
The irony here was that in his desperate insistence to center his own white pain and impress upon me and everyone else that he was the misunderstood victim in all this, he couldn’t fully appreciate the scenario so contrary to reason that was playing out at that diner table. Across from him sat a woman the color of Serena Williams trying to help him fully understand what he’d just done such that he could craft an apology the public would believe, salvage his reputation, and maybe start something genuine and bigger than all of us.
And so, a great opportunity to move the needle forward was lost here in my hometown. If we don’t do something different than what we’ve been doing, I guess I’ll be back in March of 2023 to tell you about the latest racially motivated scandal.