Pop Culture

How to Love a Racist: Notes on Whitewater Tubing and Miley Cyrus

I have this friend, Henry, and I love him. We have a lot in common. We both like food and commercial aviation, and we both know that the greatest movie villain of the 20th century was Lupe Ontiveros as Yolanda Saldívar in Selena. It’s a friendship based on pop culture minutiae, braised meats, and Delta SkyMiles. And it works—lovingly, supportively, and easily—except when it doesn’t. Henry has many talents, but his strongest is his ability to make me see red, to infuriate me in a way that few people can.

Here’s how it usually goes: Henry and I will be with a bunch of friends. We’ll be doing something totally awesome like whitewater tubing. (Side note: go whitewater tubing). And we’ll have a blast. And as soon as we climb out of the river, we’ll talk about how we have to go tubing again. And everything will be great. And then, soggy and sunburned, we’ll have lunch at a place with big Caesar salads and even bigger nachos. And we’ll be stuffing our faces because whitewater tubing is a strenuous activity that makes you hungry, especially when you’ve eaten half your body weight in pot brownies. (Side note: do not do drugs and go whitewater tubing.) And then, while I’m shoving beef nachos down my throat, our friend Gordon will quote Pitch Perfect, and then Henry will say, “Derek [me] hates Pitch Perfect because he thinks it’s racist.” (Side note: Pitch Perfect is a musical comedy about the college a cappella group circuit; think Glee set at a university. It’s a bad movie, and not because it’s racist, though it is.) And then Gordon, unable to comprehend how anyone could dislike Pitch Perfect, will quote the movie again and say, “A ca’ ‘scuse me?!” (Side note: everyone in this story is gay.) And then I’ll say, Yes, yes it is racist. And then Henry will say three short words that send me over the wall: “IT’S NOT RACIST.” To which I’ll respond with increasing angriness, The movie IS fucking racist, and you don’t get to tell me what’s racist and what’s not racist. THAT RIVER JUST KICKED MY ASS AND I DON’T NEED ANY MORE SHIT FROM YOU! And then everyone will be quiet because I ruined our perfect day in Upstate New York, or maybe because we had one too many pot brownies, or both.

Admittedly, I’m quick to identify something (anything) as racist, and people know this. My mother knows this; my dentist knows this; you know this. One time, when I told my brother that Diet Coke was racist, he did not realize I was joking. This is my cross to bear as a brown, gay dude who majored in anthropology and has a graduate degree in critical studies. I just can’t help myself. So when I’m in mixed company and I label something as racist, I do so not only as a bearer of truth, but also as a provocateur. Americans can’t talk about race unless Oprah is holding their hands: it’s easier to accept America as a racist country when a black woman coddles you through that realization. My issue with Henry, therefore, is twofold: I’m not a black woman, and Henry can be an antagonistic prick just like me. Sure, he’ll listen to what I have to say, but only to form a rebuttal, which, conversely, is the only reason I listen to him. Even if I’m listening simply to rebut, my fights with Henry reinforce the fact that racism in America doesn’t prejudge or freely discriminate. Rather, it’s a racism that ignores racial politics because capitalism and the rule of law provide an empty promise of equality and opportunity.

If these facts don’t trouble you, then congratulations: you have a lot of money and/or white privilege. If they do trouble you, here are two ways to ease your pain:

Option 1: Limit your discussions about racism to spirited, strong-headed individuals. Henry is one of those people. This is the easiest way to love someone who fails to acknowledge the pervasive ways in which racism fuels popular culture. It gives you something to love (strong character and confidence) in lieu of good racial politics (my #1 turn on).

Option 2: If you’re unfortunate enough to be surrounded by witless idiots, take solace in the fact that you’re now living in a post-Miley Cyrus world. Finally, we’ve hit rock bottom.

Her appearance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards is notable not for what she did on stage, but for the reception of her performance. Many reactions highlighted the raunchiness of Cyrus’s act, but the performance itself didn’t push many boundaries at all. This is hardly the first time MTV has shown a woman in a two-piece, hardly the first time two people have dry humped on TV, hardly the first time women of color have been objectified by white people (*cough* Gwen Stefani *cough*). What is new is that criticism of the racial politics on display actually gained traction in the mainstream media, the blogosphere, and social media. If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that discussions of racial politics are no longer tucked away in university lecture halls and dark, unread corners of the internet. It’d be nice if Miley-Gate were a product of the Trayvon Martin murder trial and films like Fruitvale Station, but that’s probably not true; instead, it’s likely the product of a wildly misguided attempt to appropriate artifacts of perceived blackness. The fact that Henry agrees with me feels like a victory, but it didn’t stop him from purchasing Pitch Perfect on my Apple TV.

Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.