Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do we act differently when we think white folks are watching?: Toward a Definition of Coonery

So, this past Sunday a good friend sent over the above photo and a link to several photos like it with Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele clowning around with some of his interns. The text of the email read, “Have you ever seen such coonery in your life!?”.

I was preparing to type back my assent when my wife came into the room, so I decided to share the photo with her. “Hey, look at this, baby. Have you ever seen such coonery in your life!?”

So, she takes a peek of my shoulder, and then she reminds me that I have many similar pictures that I have taken throughout the years with students and/or assistants. But she doesn’t stop there; she throws in a clincher just before she walks off: “Were you cooning when you did it?”

Darn her for throwing in truth and reality where it does not belong. But I had to admit that she had a point. I have taken similar photos with students and/or assistants throughout the years, and coonery was never my aim; I meant only to have a little fun and/or bond with those young people under my tutelage. Perhaps my judgment of Chairman Steele was colored by my assessment of him which is right there along with foot fungus.

However, just to be sure, I shared the photo and link to my Facebook page with the question, “Is this coonery or a man simply having a light moment with his interns?”, and several people commented. The vast majority labeled his actions outright and abject coonery. However, more than one person just saw a nerdy black man having fun with his interns.

But the comment that caught my attention asked the question, “Why it is always labeled coonery every time a black man acts a little silly or smiles a bit too broadly?” I had to take a step back and figure this one out.

If it were a high-ranking African American Democrat, would we still have come to the same conclusion? Would we have called it coonery if it was President Obama in the photo clowning around with his White House interns? Would we have called it coonery if it was anyone but Chairman Steele in this photo clowning around?

Or do we simply seem embarrassed for ourselves and for Chairman Steele because we believe he is showing his black behind, and white folk might be watching?

I remember when I was growing up, and I could judge the race of the person on the other end of the phone by the manner in which my mother spoke. My mother was an English teacher, so her grammar was always impeccable; however, when she spoke to white people, she added a special tone and timbre to her voice. She seemed to believe that her already pristine speaking voice was not good enough for white people.

And recently during a discussion of culture and stereotypes with one of my classes, a young white male who works as a waiter admitted that he favored serving African Americans because we tend to grossly over tip in an effort to overcompensate for the stereotype that blacks don’t tip. But we don't want to risk being uncouth do we, especially when white people are around.

While I am at it, let me admit my own complicity in this matter. When I am with my own, I gets buck from time to time; however, when I find myself surrounded by those of a certain hue, I tone it way down. I am careful that I am not too loud or too intimidating; big, loud, bald black guys scare white people sometimes.

I remember when in high school the gospel choir advisors took us to a chorale competition at which we were the only all black choir. Before they would even let us off the bus, they gave us the long speech on how to conduct ourselves. They concluded this speech with the admonishment, Don’t you dare get in there and act black on us!”.

And as we waited to perform, we watched the other choirs laughing and joking and being teenagers while we set as straight as possible, quietly and demurely in a corner. Any attempt to smile or laugh or even talk to our neighbor was meet with a stern look of rebuke. And though we were considered one of the best choirs in the region, we performed poorly on that day; it was though our spirit was crushed. But everyone complimented us on how well-behaved we were.

However, I do know and concede to the notion that there are standards of public conduct that should and must be followed, and I am not talking about these. I am talking about those moments when we seem afraid to be ourselves, when we cannot laugh out loud or even smile, when we alter our conduct to the detriment of our selves simply because we believe white folk is watching. Perhaps, we will only be free when we can get past the notion that we must conduct ourselves a certain way simply because certain eyes are upon us.

Do we act differently when we think white people are watching? Can someone give me a definition of coonery?


Qwami Ade said...

Interesting take on the photos. Before reading your post I was full throttle on beatin' this fool upside the head with the proverbial buck dancing/coonish negro allegations. I think much of the angst that black folk have about these photos have to do with the chairmans overall image or should I say a continuation of scratchin and smiling that has become the "Conservative" norm. After further review I can't believe I'm saying this but I kinda like the pics. Yeahyeah we all know bruthas like this(usually conservative reps.) that seem to go out of there way to piss other black folk off with there high steppin' high falutin' high yellowish high...ok ok I think you get the point. That all said I think the pics are harmless and down right funny, not bafoonish in the least. I'm guessing these pics fall in line with his burgeoning(a little to late) campaign to give the Rep. party some hip hop "SWAGGA". Interesting post,Max

rhythm said...

i hate to simply "co-sign" without adding anything of substance to the conversation, but i think you summed it up pretty well on this one, max. the definition of "coonery" does tend to depend upon who's watching. c'est la vie.

Anna Renee said...

I think Im old school on this but that fool look like a @#$% fool!! Like a @@#$% %$@# *(%$ @@*& !!!!
Ya feel me? That's the only way that he can look to "those" who are looking that kind of way! It's unfortunate, but we do have to watch ourselves depending on what type of eyes are watching us, friendly or unfriendly! I cant even picture Obama doing this, not that he doesnt in the right company! Stepping off my soapbox now.

RiPPa said...

You hit on it correctly: it's only "coonery" because it's Michael Steele.

I have a problem with the term "coonery" which would be that it is an oft used and overused word within our collective.

In many instances I think it is indeed our internalized oppression. The need to point out the differences of others within the collective easily facilitates this label.

In effect we have become what "they" (non-minorities) are and have always done. Why should we validate ourselves by "their" perceptions and stereotypes?

Forget Michael Steele in the pic and focus on white dude. What are our perceptions of him? How come we (not saying you directly Max) tend to focus on our own and not when a non-minority does what this kid did?

I ask because to me it is more damaging. You see the "coonery" performed by people of color back in the day was not as damaging as the white men who did minstrel shows in black face.

It was damaging then as it is now because white men in black face has matured into a multi-million dollar industry that is run, owned and operated by those very same men who laughed at us when THEY performed in blackface as the source of humor for their crowd.

I don't see the big deal with the pic, but I do have a problem with how we internalize what we see. I think your wife did well in shifting your perspective, and at the end of the day I just wished more people would just be themselves and not afraid to do so.

That's how I live

P.S. Internalized oppression is a bitch. It's the one thing that hurts us more now than ever because it keeps us apart.

Max Reddick said...

@Qwami Ade & @rhythm

Yeah, you are right. Perhaps our perception of Chairman Steele is tempered by our perception of him as the right's lawn jockey. As much as I would like to say that this photo is not coonery, I am reminded by his past remarks and actions. Perhaps whether it is coonery or not has to do with his motivations in taking these photos.

@Anna Renee

Glad to see you were able to get it off your chest, Anna. LOL. But the truth is that you are right. Maybe I'm wrong but black peoples' actions usually seem to be blown out of proportion. Let's take for instance the actions by young black men. When a young white male does it, it is called boys being boys, but the same action by a young black male might even result in jail time.


And I agree. Often in trying to conduct ourselves by what we believe to be the standards of whiteness, we become mere caricatures.

A.Smith said...

Do we act differently when we think white people are watching? Yes we do.

Can someone give me a definition of coonery?

I think you hit it on the head already, Max. We seem to only think someone is cooning when we feel like they're showing their black behind in front of the white people.

How many times have we heard "don't you embarrass me in front of these white people"? Or how many times have black folks we don't even know embarrassed us because they were too loud in front of the white people. They could be just as loud in an all black environment and we wouldn't bat an eye.

I think of my high school graduation. I was one of 15 black folks in a class of 166. After the graduation we all talked about how embarrassed we were when our family and friends shouted and clapped and jumped (a la church on a extra exciting Sunday morning) when our names were called. They embarrassed us in front of the white people. A few weeks later, I attended my cousin's graduation. He went to a predominantly black school and I wasn't the least bit embarrassed by all the noise -- irritated that it extended the already too long ceremony -- but I wasn't embarrassed that these folks were happy to see their loved-ones succeed.

Chris Rock recently was on Oprah and he said, "I think black people of a certain age care a little too much what white people think." It's something that's been passed down generation to generation "Don't you embarrass me in front of these white people..."

Eddie said...

You have the hardest reply button to find! LOL

With all due respect, my friend, YOU are not part of the so-called black leadership of the GOP. So I think the comparison is off a bit.

Apples and oranges...

You probably won't find similar photos of Obama because I'm willing to bet he's more conscious of the implications of such photos.

and that's the difference for me. "Coonery" isn't just a behavior, or a moment of lightheartedness, it's a WAY OF BEING. Sorry, but Steele coons for white conservatives -- that's who and what he is. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be in a GOP "leadership" role.

Finally, yes, we do act differently, at least those of us with some sense and personal integrity. As unfair as it is, I will be held to a different standard than my white peers simply because I identify as a Puerto Rican. the moment my identity becomes clear, the standards for me and my actions morph.

I speak and dress impeccably because I feel I am representing my people at public events -- when I'm addressing a conference, for example. Is it right or even correct? Hell no! there are PRs out there who would say I am NOT the Spokesperson for All Puerto Ricans, but whites will hold me to that standard.

Do I cut loose when I am not in the public eye? Yes. I say and do shit that would be deemed TOTALLY inappropriate.

(I will say that though my grammar and language is beyond reproach, my inflection is clearly "black urban" LOL)

Publicly, I try my best not to be caught cooning like Steele does, but Steele can't help himself because his default state of being IS coonery.

underOvr (aka The U) said...

Brother Max,

One of the ills that continues to plague African Americans is this concept of labeling one another. Who empowers whom to define and characterize another? When I think about it, it's pretty pathetic that we go through these exercises that validate who we are and what someone else is. It's like divide and conquer.

I don't agree with the political philosophy of Richard Steele but that's my choice. Perhaps if I knew him personally, I might like the man, politics aside that is. It can't be very easy for those around him (wife, children, family and friends) to deal with the shots he takes for his political beliefs.

We don't all look alike, talk alike or walk alike; why should we all think alike? We will all be better off when shit like this doesn't bother us. When we can just be ourself around anyone. And if there are those who need to label you, does what they say change you?


Anna Renee said...

@Rippa, like your icon! But concerning the white dude in the picture: I probably got some issues but remember those t-shirts that said "I'm with stupid -->"
Thats how I see that dude. He's cooning with the head coon!

@UnderOvr Its not just black folks who label one another. All people do it based on those first impressions. It becomes wrong when we try to hold others down in order to oppress them based on those stereotypes. This coonery stuff is still too fresh in our collective memory that we can make light of it with white folks. That's why the "N" word is still so hot for so many!

@Eddie Daedalus: "his default state of being is coonery" I agree! No way he could get that gig in the GOP without those qualifications! Peace

FreeMan said...

A lot of folks change when around white folks because they set the standard for acceptable behavior out of their sheer population. Many of our folk knowingly act two different ways so whether they admit it or not they are ashamed.

I don't fault Steele at all or call him a coon. The reason why we are disappointed is because he is a High Ranking Black man acting like a Jack Ass. We are ashamed whenever any of us do not represent strength and intelligence in all situations.

Coonery is something of the past that isn't around anymore. It's now mixed up with being passive. We still have a problem of implying things when we just see a picture of it. Often there is a valid and simple reason. But, no one is doing any real coonery anymore it's just we don't want to have that picture of us.

Cheri Paris Edwards said...

I enjoyed your take on this. I agree that sometimes we do act different when we think "white folks" are watching, because many of us have been trained to put on our "good face" around them. However, it's something I consciously began to NOT do anymore. I live and work around lots of "white folks" and felt that to some extent not being "me" was not allowing them to view me as real person. Additionally, it long ago grew tiresome trying to hold up the reputation of the entire black race on my back. So, I strive to just "do" me and let the chips fall where they may. Finally, I have to agree with brother "U" that we need to stop labeling one another and just let folks "be.." As someone reminded me about themselves, "I AM black. I'll be black in the morning when I wake up and I'm black when I go to sleep everynight." Me, too.

River Glorious said...

I don't quite understand what the post is about, and a coon for me is a mammal. I haven't lived in the States since 1973. I suppose that being over here in the tropics, with contact only through the internet and cable TV imparts a degree of ignorance. Being ignorant is okay, though, it has a cure: information.

That said, I have nothing further to say, but, apparently, much to learn. A wise person once said, when you have nothing to say, say nothing.

Keith said...

Great post. I think Michael Steele in these photos is just a man having a good time. If it was a white man doing the same thing, I don't think people would say much. Is he acting crazy and all? Sure thing. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that.

I do think people, both on the right and left, tend to judge the actions of the other side harsher than they do their own side. That's probably just human nature.

I think many people, no matter what their race, act differently when they are around people of other races. We aren't always sure how we are to act. That's another part of human nature.

ProfGeo said...

Max, interesting conundrum. You say in the comments: "Often in trying to conduct ourselves by what we believe to be the standards of whiteness, we become mere caricatures." It is obvious that this doesn't work (or, frankly, we aren't as good at it as we imagine we are). Acting in "certain bland ways" doesn't get you a job or keep you in it. Comportment didn't help that choir perform better either.

I think the conundrum (which is universal, but let's stick with black folk here) is how to be authentic and at the same time appropriate to the occasion. Acting like some imagined ideal of what will please a stereotypical white person will doom you to failure, or at least stress and ill health. Acting without regard to your environment won't get you very far either.

Marbles said...

Man, I just don't get this stuff.

I'm white. I understand the sordid history that led to the "don't embarrass me in front of those white people" mindset, but come the heck ON! If a guy can't just act like a clown for the hell of it like any normal hooman can without getting blasted, the situation has gotten even more unhealthy than it ever could have been in the days of legalized oppression. I mean, look at those interns he's with. You think those dorks are clowning around with Steele just to set him up as a fool so they can laugh at him behind his back? Of course not. (Well, some people ARE paranoid enough to think that, but they're beyond help, LOL)
I'm able to see the double standard that whites often apply to blacks in terms of behavior, so it's just extra weird when blacks start doing it to themselves....

So much of this seems to be rooted in the old images of "black man dancing for the white man", a la Stephin Fetchit, etc. But I ask you, who's actually doing more to keep that very antiquated meme alive---whites through a desire to humiliate the black man, or blacks out of deep, generations-old fears that the world has largely passed by? (Leaving aside for now the PRESENT-DAY fears that have taken their place.) I don't imagine that whole "dancing coon" thing even reasonates with many whites under age 50 anymore.

I dunno. My grandmother always said that when she was a girl, you did NOT eat a bagel in public. You just did not do it. That was like holding up a big flashing sign that said "Hey! I'm Jewish!" And this was not something about yourself you would have the world know if you could help it.
Obviously, things are a bit different now. Regular WASP folk eat bagels all the time in freakin' Nowheresville, Idaho.
Same idea.

A.Smith said...

@Marbles -- Too far, dude. Too far.
Your attempts at showing us "you get it" fall flat and almost discredit you altogether.

You don't get it. It'd be nice if black folks could relax a little bit, and we shouldn't care what white people think, but the reality is, white people -- white people like you who probably mean well, even -- see black folks doing stuff and start assigning their antics to all of us.

It happens regularly, it happens faithfully, it happens. You can suggest that we're the wrong ones, that we're holding ourselves back, and throw your hands up like we're stupid, but the truth is that the fear is rooted in reality.

Do you know an angry black woman? You probably thought of one immediately. Odds are, she's not angry at all. Odds are you heard her raise her voice once and she fir the presupposition too many white people have of black women once, and it stuck.

You ever noticed a woman clutch her purse when a black man gets on an elevator? Probably not, but watch for it. It happens all.the.time and it's not because he looks suspicious, it's because he's bigger and blacker and that's all.

Marbles, you'd learn more if you asked questions instead of assuming you know everything

Marbles said...

@ A. Smith:

"It happens regularly, it happens faithfully, it happens. You can suggest that we're the wrong ones, that we're holding ourselves back, and throw your hands up like we're stupid, but the truth is that the fear is rooted in reality."

You misinterpreted me somewhat. I know what you're talking about happens all the time. But what compelled me to say something was that Steele's actions were SO meaningless, SO trivial that it indicated to me just how tight a neckhold the self-checking has some people in.

What can I say? What gets lost in all this is that there's no such thing as a monolithic white reaction. I know you "know" that, but there's a difference between knowing something and internalizing it, which is essentially what you pointed out about "even white people who probably mean well."

Take some completely harmless, inconsequential habit of yours, and imagine some other culture constantly checking themselves on it for fear that YOU'RE judging them about it. The more trivial the action, the harder it is to understand the idea. They're busy tying themselves up in knots over this action, while the idea that it's something to judge other people on never even occurred to you in the first place.

I can only imagine you've run into so many unthinking generalizations that something as bizarre as Rush Limbaugh's recently appointing himself the Dr. Ruth of black community barely registers as even remarkable. I can't know. All I can say is that "all generalizations are not created equal."

It's difficult to imagine anyone pointing to Steele's photos and saying "See?!" (Well, that is, the kind of "see" you guys are talking about. There are other "see's" that have nothing to do with race.) The only people who would are YouTube troglodytes and their like. And though this really IS presumptious of me, I would say that those people don't count, because to assume they base their "opinions" on anything is to give them too much credit.

Maybe you specifically disagree that no white people (that count) would find any racial point that Steele's photos "prove." If so, what do you think those photos would "prove" for them?

I'm sorry that it came across like I assume I know everything. Don't think that's where I'm coming from.

uglyblackjohn said...

It's seen as coonery because Steele is seen as fakin' da funk.

If Obama were in the same photo with the same pose - he'd be praised as being cool, and the intern would be seen as trying to be as cool as Obama.

Steele comes across as an immitation of what he's read about how Blacks act.

Anna Renee said...

@Marbles: it's impossible for whites and blacks to have the same viewpoint in this country about issues of race. Even when we agree about any point it's for different reasons! For example: a well meaning white man agrees that racism against black folks is wrong. And a black man agrees that racism against black folks is wrong. The white man doesn't experience the racism personally but sees it. The black man actually experiences it! There's the difference! So in these instances of how blacks in "power" ought to comport themselves, we are watching them carefully! Black folks have experienced what it means to be viewed by a racist society and being labelled. It's in our collective memory! We know it because our parents experienced it because our grandparents experienced it. It HAS shaped us emotionally, mentally, spiritually. It's in our DNA this racism stuff. We know what we know about it. We are VERY sensitive to it (as you can see by the reactions) On the other hand, you haven't experienced racism against blacks. Your parents didn't nor your grandparents. You mention that your grandmom was told never to eat bagels in public. There was a REASON for that! Now I eat and love bagels!! That has changed! But racism against blacks have not! There are still more images of "that dark black menace" on TV than of the college educated black man or woman doing good. This is what all people who watch TV see concerning black folks, and draw the reasonable conclusions. We know it, Chairman Steele knows it. I'm not bashing you Marbles but what you know about racism against blacks, you know intellectually, theoretically. What we black folks know, we know from experience! Our parents, grandparents, great grandparents. Bob Marley once said, Who feels it knows it!! Now I say all of this (sorry Max R.) not to say that black folks are not learning and have not learned how to work around all of this--our own issues about it all and others reactions to us in general. We have learned how to deal with it. Some more successfully than others. And we're watching each other to see just how well we all are dealing!!! Peace, love and understanding. Stepping down from the soapbox once again!

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Wonderful post.

Lyn Marie said...

@ Anna Renee & Marbles
May I suggest a site:

This is one person (White man) that understands racism and articulates the issue of race clearly.

Racism can be understood by people from many walks of life. Perhaps not experienced but empathized. Empathy is a powerful and positive emotion expressed by others who are truly trying to understand and agree. Judgment doesn't look good on anyone nor will it bring us closer together as a race, the human race.

Try the site and check out a video or two. It may bring a different perspective.

Marbles said...

@ Anna Renne:

And a soapbox well used is a thankful soapbox.
(Glen Beck's soapbox is a particularly UNthankful one, but at least it's not lonely in that regard.)

@ Lyn Marie:

Thing about empathy is, it seems to be even more hated than disco. People will do anything, it seems, to not be caught dead with the stuff. One can hope that most of them carry around a secret stash in their back pockets, but that seems like wishful thinking.

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