It occurs all the time with all sorts of people. This week it happened to be Steven Tyler.
In one of those celebrity tiffs that serve to get us from Monday to Friday as painlessly and entertainingly as possible, the Aerosmith front man and former American Idol judge suggested in an interview with MTV that Nicki Minaj, a judge-in-waiting for the competition’s upcoming season, is ill-suited for the job. Tyler proffered that, were Bob Dylan a contestant on the program, “Minaj would have had him sent to the cornfield.”
Minaj interpreted this comment as possessing racial undertones, unleashing a blizzard of tweets castigating Tyler for pre-judging her judging abilities, writing, “You assume that I wouldn’t have liked Bob Dylan??? why? black? rapper? what?”
To this, Tyler offered an apology of sorts, “Maybe I spoke out of turn,” before proceeding with the famous last words, “I am the last thing on this planet as far as being a racist.”
As we well know, Tyler is not the first white man in America to be accused of racial insensitivity and compelled to argue to the contrary.
That paragon of class Donald Trump, amidst his flirtation with a presidential bid last year, responded to charges of racial undertones in his obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate by asserting, “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
Less recently—but no less memorably—Seinfeld alumnus Michael Richards was videotaped shouting “nigger” in a crowded theater, compelling him to plead on The Late Show with David Letterman, “I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this.”
In all of these cases—and plenty more besides—we have folks asserting things that ought to be self-evident from their actions, and thus need not be asserted in the first place.
One is reminded of the truism coined by Margaret Thatcher, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Christopher Hitchens expressed like sentiment in saying that patriotism “is something to be proved rather than stated.”
So is being (or not being) racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever else one might be. As they stress in every creative writing class: Show, don’t tell.
The most insufferable linguistic formulation of all, of course, is the qualifier, “I’m not racist, but…” It is an irritating turn of phrase because it effectively seeks to license the speaker to make a racist comment while simultaneously indemnifying him from the charge of being a racist person.
The question is inevitably begged: Can a non-racist person make a racist comment? If you can make yourself believe the answer is “yes,” I offer my congratulations.
Otherwise, the perpetrator of this linguistic sleight-of-hand is guilty of a particular pet peeve of mine: Attempting to evade responsibility for one’s actions. Either words have meaning or they do not, and I would prefer the former.
Admittedly, I have thus far treated the whole matter of racism, etc., as if it is a black and white issue, which we all know is not true. Prejudice takes many forms—most of them subtle rather than overt—and it is often unfair to judge a person on the basis of a single remark.
The best I can do, in the context of this column, is to insist that people say precisely what they mean, and allow the rest of us to judge whether it constitutes racism or the like. If a person’s opinions can be accurately characterized as racially insensitive, then the person in question possesses opinions that are racially insensitive. Some things are less complicated than they appear.
I don’t think Steven Tyler is racist—not because he insists upon it, but rather because there is nothing in the substance of his comments that strikes me as carrying a racial tinge of any sort. The offender in this case (if there is one) is Nicki Minaj, who inferred racism where it did not exist, which is no small problem in itself.
Regardless, it is for neither of them to say what their prejudices are or are not. Their statements ought to be judged (as they now are) by their peers.
In brief: If one is to talk this way, one really ought to walk this way as well.