Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Tawana-Ryan 2012

In the nearly two years since I’ve been back in Louisiana, I’ve become reacquainted with an unfortunate phenomenon that’s long past its freshness date.

Tawana.

That’s the name of a character on the KSMB morning radio show in Lafayette. As the name suggests, Tawana is a stereotype of a black woman — all sass, hand-talking and ebonics. She’s been around at least since I was a teenager, most notably on KSMB but also briefly on at least one other station as “Golden.” Back then, I tolerated her but didn’t think she was especially funny; I listened because I liked the station and the other personalities.

When I was 19, I was told that Tawana was a white guy and was, in fact, the father of a friend of a friend. That snuffed the last vestige of humor out of it for me. There’s a difference between self-parody and meanness; Tawana as a real black woman is an entirely different statement than Tawana as a white man.

Nevertheless, the character remains popular around here. I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised by that as I was when I moved back from the Midwest, heard Tawana’s voice and nearly ran off the road after my jaw hit the steering wheel.

Many a Facebook feed is regrettably pockmarked with “ain’t black people funny hurr hurr” posts. And they’re not talking about the musings of Chris Rock, the exploded stereotypes of Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes or the dorky, culture-clash appeal of Donald Glover or Key & Peele — they’re laughing at faces, illiteracy and face-value stereotypes.

But of course, few of them would consider themselves racist, either openly or deep down; many get angry at the slightest implication thereof. In their daily dealings, they are accommodating to minorities. They have a few, or many, black friends. Some even believe in equality under the law and abhor hate crimes. Still, on some visceral level, they find Tawana-level humor acceptable.

In the couple of days I’ve been back in Lafayette, I’ve spotted more Romney-Ryan signs than I’ve seen anywhere else combined. And I’ve spent the last 14 months living in Baton Rouge, so that’s saying something. It’s depressing, yet reassuring; south Louisiana, and Lafayette especially, is beet red. It exists in a bubble that answers the question, “Who in the world could not just muster support for Mitt Romney, but be enthusiastic about him?”

The Romney campaign has invested much of its efforts on what has been termed “dog-whistle racism” — implying in numerous ways that Barack Obama is an “other” without blatantly expressing such. Indeed, as long as Obama has been a national figure, opposing campaigns, political movements and right-wing media have exploited his history and personal associations to suggest that he is less of an American. And thus “real” Americans need to “take their country back” from “freeloaders” and “Chicago thugs.”

The latest example of this is the so-called “bombshell” video that Fox News released — sorry, shared from the Daily Caller archives — that shows Obama addressing a mostly black crowd in 2007. Despite what Fox now claims is disgust over the substance of the speech, its real purpose is to say, “Listen to how black Obama sounds!” Period. No one has to say it out loud. They can debate the merits of the argument all they want, but that is not why they brought out this video at this time. (My friend Lamar has a brilliant takedown of this strategy and how Fox News wasn’t even that coy about it.) Their audience also knows what’s up, and that’s the point.

So it’s not difficult to imagine that a region that finds Tawana funny would also go for Romney, Fox News, the tea party and their collective, heavily implied racism.

The silver lining is that many, many more people don’t.

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