Bossypants’s racial blunders slipping under the radar

Photo from Michelle Wright at Flickr

Enthusiastic reviews–both cynical and laudatory–of Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, have come to feminist blogs in droves these past couple months. Many feminist bloggers have been hard at work, criticizing Fey for not committing to any one stance surrounding feminism, defending Fey’s covert, easy-to-swallow brand of feminism, and celebrating Fey’s discussion of gender discrimination in comedy and her comfort with the word “feminist.”

I finally got around to checking out Bossypants for myself, and I really liked Fey’s disclosure of the blatant cases of sexism she’s encountered in the field of comedy, sharing with readers ugly-but-humorous comments from colleagues and anonymous hate mail writers. The stance she gradually establishes as a mild-to-medium feminist throughout the book is what I had expected from someone who feels passionately about fighting gender inequality, but also wants to keep her mainstream fan base.

Overall, I have no reason to complain about Fey’s views on sexism and her relationship to feminism. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, and several chapters in, I was finding Tina Fey’s memoir to be a funny, feminist book.

This made it all the more disconcerting when I found that inappropriate little one-liners about race kept popping up as I read on.

The first comes when Fey is documenting the fierce, wise, old school character that is her father, Don Fey, whom she admired through her childhood. She recalls that Don Fey used to warn her to put her bicycle in the garage whenever she saw two black kids riding one bike in their Philadelphia neighborhood, and then justifies his assumption: “This wasn’t racism; it was experience. Those kids were coming from West Philly to steal bikes.” She also shares with us this gem of an anecdote:

Don Fey, who is never late for anything, got to the airport just before dawn. As he popped on his sweet lid and walked across the deserted parking lot toward the airport terminal, he saw two black gentlemen approaching from far away. He played it cool to hide his apprehension. He was in New York after all, one of the world’s most dangerous cities if you’re from any other city, and from far away in the dark he couldn’t tell if these guys were airport employees or loiterers.

As they got closer, he noticed they were staring him down. He continued to play it cool. Don Fey had grown up in West Philly, where he lived comfortably as a Caucasian minority. Of course these guys couldn’t know that.

Photo from Charleston's TheDigitel at Flickr

I particularly enjoy that Tina Fey attempts to soften the racist blow by referring to these black men as “gentlemen,” to detract attention from her and her father’s assumption that these men are either working or loitering (couldn’t possibly be that they were picking up a passenger like Don Fey was, or that they were getting on a plane themselves; how in the world could a brother afford a plane ticket?!).

One can see, from the context of these quotes, the vein of racism (yes, racism, NOT “experience”) from which Fey’s thinking originates. She aims to convince us that Don Fey is a wary, street-smart realist, and that his racial profiling of black people is necessary when one lives “comfortably as a Caucasian minority” in a big city. It’s functional racism. Totally excusable, right? Not so much.

Personally, I don’t care if 30 different pairs of black kids rode through the Feys’ neighborhood and stole bikes. This kind of crap contributes to our cultural tendency of associating black people with crime more often than any other race in this country. It’s the 21st century, and I still read and hear people ranting about the “stupid shit the local black people do” all the time, everywhere. White people are not held accountable as a race for the crimes commonly committed by them the way that black people are (statistics considered, it’s likely that the Feys had a white, middle-aged neighborhood pedophile; perhaps if Don Fey were truly wary and not just racist, he would have issued some warnings about getting too close to the extra-friendly, child-loving white guys around town).

Fey makes sure to mention that her father had a fair share of black friends, in some feeble attempt to counterbalance the sweaty palms he got around unfamiliar black people, a tactic that reminded me of my high school girl friends who would say, “I’m not racist or anything–I have loads of black friends–but I wouldn’t date a black guy. I’m just not attracted to them.” Regardless of one’s experiences with people of certain races or ethnicities in the past, these fears, dismissals, and generalizations of black people represent textbook racism.

Does Fey ever redeem herself for her presentation of black people through such a narrow lens? Does she ever attempt to balance it out? No. Actually, Fey goes on to echo my high school gal pals, who thought that they could blame biology for their lack of attraction to people of color. In later chapters, she makes weird comments like that she discovered in college her preference for white guys and that “Being skinny for a while (provided you actually eat food and don’t take pills or smoke to get there) is a perfectly fine pastime. Everyone should try it once, like a super-short haircut or dating a white guy” (and let’s not pretend that the way she addresses skinniness here isn’t horribly problematic, too).

Yikes. Am I missing something here? Because I’m finding this business of trying to convince people to date white guys for a change a little absurd. As if there aren’t plenty of white people in this country who shun the thought of dating outside their race. I would even venture to bet that most of the white people in my life–whether they’re willing to admit it or not–would not date outside their race. Of course, Fey could be aware of this and aiming to make fun of it, but the way she celebrates the white guy above all others in other parts of the book suggests otherwise. People will claim what they will when it comes to rationalizing special racial preferences in their love lives, but I steadfastly believe that the only things that shape racial preferences are the social mores people have accepted or refuted.

Fey’s failures at addressing race in a thoughtful way ultimately drove me to put down the book before finishing it. Not that Fey’s comedic memoir owes us a full assessment of modern racial attitudes, but it justifiably angered me that she put so much energy into condemning forms of social oppression from which she has personally suffered (I use “suffered” in a mostly sarcastic sense, because while she has faced serious sexism, she’s enjoyed the luxuries of being white, thin, conventionally attractive and middle/upper class every day of her life), and then snubbed the issue of racial discrimination in the U.S., as it does not affect her in the same intimate way. She even mentions that she has felt like a second-class citizen before because of her brown hair (!), since blonde hair tends to be worshiped by our culture. She’s got no compassion for those bike-thieving blacks, though, since they clearly earn their position as second-class citizens. Tsk-tsk.

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One Response to Bossypants’s racial blunders slipping under the radar

  1. Thank you for writing this! I thought I was the only one who felt that way. As a black woman, it never ceases to amaze me how many white feminists discuss and lament male privilege, all the while ignoring (or maybe they’re oblivious) white privilege. I didn’t expect any radical notions concerning feminism or race when I picked up the book. I expected an entertaining book sharing Fey’s life experiences and maybe a few life lessons. Unfortunately Fey mentioned race often and it showed me a side of her I would have preferred not to see. I put down the book and never finished it.

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