“Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

[TW: discussions of insensitivity, slut-shaming, racism, sexism/misogyny, rape, slavery, over-sexualization of black bodies, HIV/AIDS]

UPDATE on 6/25: I’ve been getting a lot of hits to the blog over the last few days from people searching “Kelly Oxford rape joke.” In searching this myself, I see that she made a series of rape jokes following Sandusky’s conviction:

I’ll just say that I’m not surprised at all about this.

_________________________

UPDATE: I have more to say. How is that possible, you may ask. Well…

I remembered this morning that Oxford had originally tweeted, “Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from the Bahamas.” She erased that and then wrote the one that is pictured below.

What this indicates is that Oxford has an idea about “The Caribbean.” Rihanna apparently is a black woman from the slutty Caribbean.

The specific place was unimportant to Oxford because her tweet was playing on very big stereotypes that are not tied to a single island but rather our ideas about the Caribbean generally. While my original arguments about why picking on a black woman from Barbados is particularly problematic still remain valid (I think), the general ideas about black sexuality and about the Caribbean were most certainly in play for Oxford when she crafted this sentence.

_________________________

On Saturday evening, Kelly Oxford tweeted the following:

“Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

I don’t follow Oxford on Twitter. I don’t know why she is so popular (she has 349K followers on Twitter). Google searches basically reveal her to be Twitter famous. From what I gather, it’s her supposed caustic wit and biting one-liners on her Twitter account that garner her the attention she receives.

Enough about her, though. I’d like, rather, to talk about what she wrote about Rihanna and Barbados.

On Saturday, after Oxford tweeted this, I responded saying that her tweet was racist and sexist. I also mentioned that Oxford had attacked someone else on Twitter (@Farrensquare) because Farren Square had also called her out. In that tweet, I mentioned Oxford’s specific brand of attack: let her rabid followers know the Twitter handle of her critics and then immediately delete the tweets that did so (as she wrote and then deleted that night: “To me a conversation @ is not worth permanent talk for my feed. Keep jokes.”). It is impossible to go back through Oxford’s feed and see the bullying she does via Twitter.

When Oxford decided to respond to me, she did NOT respond to my claims that her tweet was racist or sexist. Instead, she leapt on the opportunity instead to respond to me about her deletion of tweets. And then, from that, I received a shit storm of hate from her followers, something for which Oxford herself did not want to take responsibility. She also claimed later (in another now-deleted tweet) to hate singling people out (“there are a billion people trying to get my attention everyday. I hate singling people out. It was a random pick.”). Uh-huh.

In thinking about this post, I have decided not to go into anymore detail about the bullying and derailing techniques that Oxford uses. Nor am I going to highlight or address specifically most of the hate tweets I received. I may save that for another post. It is always interesting the response one gets for calling out racist ideas as opposed to, you know, actually saying racist things.

Instead, I’m going now do what Oxford clearly didn’t want me to do. She did not want to discuss how her tweet was inappropriate, demeaning, and, yes, racist and sexist. It’s much easier if people are talking about you deleting tweets than whether the people criticizing you have any validity to their claims of racism and sexism and if, perhaps, just maybe, what you said was actually wrong and in poor taste. And, worst of all, NOT FUNNY.

Here goes…

Well, Andy Cuthbert, since you ask with such exasperation, I’d love to explain the “racism” angle. (side note: not sure why you need the scare quotes. Racism is an actual thing.)

I’m also going to spend some time rebutting this ridiculous statement:

Yes, Greg Ogan, Oxford was just joking! The magic blanket excuse that apparently makes it okay to say whatever you want without having to answer for what you’ve said.

First things first.

“Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

Let’s translate this: “Rihanna is a slut, as are all people from Barbados.” 

To be fair, someone on Twitter did try to argue that Oxford wasn’t saying people from Barbados are sluts, just that when people go to Barbados on vacation they have lots of sex. Even if that is what Oxford meant (I don’t at all for one minute believe it was), her tweet was still racist and sexist out of ignorance.

We’ll go at it from this angle: What makes this statement funny?

First, for you to find this statement funny, you must find calling any woman a slut funny.

That is why this is a sexist statement. And I refuse to laugh along as we call another woman a slut.

In a remarkable post that I return to often, Melissa McEwan talks about the terrible bargain that women in our society have struck: “Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution.” In this piece, as she details the many ways that women are supposed to be quiet and let male privilege go unquestioned even when it actively hurts the woman who remains silent, McEwan discusses the idea of women as sluts a couple of times. The most relevant for this post:

There are the insidious assumptions guiding our interactions—the supposition that I will regard being exceptionalized as a compliment (“you’re not like those other women”), and the presumption that I am an ally against certain kinds of women. Surely, we’re all in agreement that Britney Spears is a dirty slut who deserves nothing but a steady stream of misogynist vitriol whenever her name is mentioned, right? Always the subtle pressure to abandon my principles to trash this woman or that woman, as if I’ll never twig to the reality that there’s always a justification for unleashing the misogyny, for hating a woman in ways reserved only for women. I am exhorted to join in the cruel revelry, and when I refuse, suddenly the target is on my back. And so it goes.

While Oxford is not a man, she is, in this instance, banking on the power of male privilege and patriarchal ideas about women and their engrained slutiness (and our absolute right to tell those women we deem slutty that they are, in fact, slutty) to protect her statement. See:

Eric Kaufman is right, y’all. To be fair, Rihanna may or may not be a slut, but she definitely walks around in a slut’s uniform. It doesn’t matter if Rihanna is actually a slut, just that we, as a society, have decided to call her that. And because she happens to make money doing things that society deems slutty, Oxford is totes in the right for calling her a slut. Of course, is it that Rihanna is slutty because she does certain things or are certain things considered slutty because Rihanna does them?

And even if – EVEN IF – we were to all agree that the things Rihanna does are objectively slutty, I still wouldn’t laugh when you call her a slut. Because those slutty things she does: sometimes wears provocative clothing, singing about and seeming to enjoy sex, doing drugs, not giving a fuck when you criticize her behavior…I sometimes do them. And plenty of famous men do them all the time and are not scrutinized and criticized and asked to answer for those choices. As a woman, I get NOTHING out of calling Rihanna a slut, except the warm, fuzzy feeling that I am participating in the safe male privilege zone that let’s me trash on other women without having to worry about criticism.

But Rihanna is not simply a woman. She is a black woman. And she is from Barbados, an island that is 166 sq miles in size, has a population of 281,000 people, roughly 252,000 of whom are black (90%).

“Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

So, again I ask, what makes this statement funny?

For you to find this statement funny, you have to find funny the idea that an entire black population is slutty. You have to be willing to laugh at the slutiness of a black woman and black women more generally.

Whether you are aware of it or not, a large reason why that is funny to you is part of a long historical tradition of over-sexualizing black people. One of the main reasons you can so easily laugh at the idea that Barbados is a place full of sluts is that you know that Barbados is a land of black people. Part of how you know that is that their most famous celebrity is Rihanna, a black woman. You also know that Barbados is part of the Caribbean and that other islands in the Caribbean, like Jamaica (which appears much more often in the US cultural imagination than Barbados does), are overwhelmingly populated by black people.

The reason that black people have been oversexualized in our culture and the reason that Barbados is today 90% black is the same reason: the history of slavery. (yeah, shit just got heavy)

Since I’m writing my dissertation on 17th-century Barbados, slavery, and the history of the body, I have discussed the history of island before:

England founded the colony of Barbados in the mid 1620s.  There was no one on the island (the Spanish had been there in the previous century so it is possible that their diseases wiped out whatever native population existed on Barbados at that time).  In the late 1630s, the Dutch brought sugar from Brazil to the island and taught the English planters how to grow it.  In the 1640s, the English in Barbados started to buy African slaves in huge numbers, unseen anywhere in the English empire up to that point.  Within mere decades, the demographic population of the island had shifted so that whites were the minority.  By the 1680s, the African/black population greatly outnumbered the English/white population.  The closest any colony in America got to such a disparity in numbers between free and slave was South Carolina (which was settled by Barbadians, no less).  And the numbers there don’t even compare.

My point here is twofold.  First, the embrace of slavery by the English was fast and it was enormous.  Second, that it was in Barbados where the English learned to be slave owners, learned how to physically control huge populations of enslaved peoples, and learned how to grow and harvest sugar on a nearly industrial level (the first such industrial production in the English empire).  All other English colonies that had slaves looked to Barbados and the Englishmen who settled there to teach them how to run their plantations.

And, of course, Barbados was a cruel place.  I think that is a given.  But one thing that always strikes me is the fact that once sugar took off as an incredibly lucrative crop, the English learned that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to sustain the lives of the enslaved and promote reproduction.  Clearly, this was a space that was all about profit (and there was a lot of it).  The causality of that thinking was the lives of Africans, and the implementation of a new, terrible institution of slavery.

These are things that my work revolves around.  Barbados as a space of slavery, violence, intimidation, but also intimacy, close quarters, and cultural fusion.

The population on Barbados today is a direct result of the fact that the British brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the island and enslaved them in grueling, body-breaking, hard labor, all to the benefit of the white British man.

The sexuality of black people was an important part of the history of slavery because white slave owners made it an important part of the story.

Black enslaved women were over-sexualized because their bodies were not just producers of labor (in fields, domestically, etc.) but re-producers of the enslaved population. Simultaneously, slave owners exploited the availability and their ownership over these women’s bodies by raping them (or constantly threatening to rape them). When you create a narrative that black women are just naturally more promiscuous or more sexual than their white counterparts, you can much more easily justify how terribly you treat their bodies. It also functioned nicely to better circumscribe what behavior was appropriate for white women: the negation of what was “normal” for enslaved women. This would throw into even greater relief the sexualization of black women against the backdrop of the supposedly priggish, prudish, and not-sexual white women.

The idea that white women were so delicate in their sexuality, should be sheltered from it, and necessarily so, is a large part of why black men were often portrayed as being sexual predators (an idea that has held on quite forcefully). It was easy to justify punishing a black man for supposedly making sexual advances toward a white woman. Almost from the very beginning of slavery, there was deep anxiety about black men having sex with white women, even in places like the Caribbean where relatively few white women were. This lone predator idea about black men was reinforced by beliefs about black men not wanting to participate in family life. In the US, especially after the Revolution, when Southern slave owners were met with having to defend the system of slavery, they turned to a narrative of paternalism, which essentially said that slave owners were the fathers of their large plantation families and that they treated the enslaved as they did their children (of course, the reality was that plenty of enslaved people were actually their children because the system of slavery allowed for the full exploitation of black women’s bodies by their white slave owners). As slave owners came to paint themselves as fathers, as people who cared for families, they defined black men as men who were uninterested in participating in families, as people who did not want to be heads of household (I think we can see how powerful an idea that has been). Again, it was the system of slavery that made it very, very difficult for enslaved men to actually be the head of a household so whites could justify this idea by simply looking at broken enslaved families, which the slave owners themselves broke. And so we arrive at this narrative: black men, left to their own devices, would fuck whomever (clearly they are not committed to monogamy) and that included the vulnerable population of white women.

These ideas, then, manifested in terrible ways such as enslaved men and women being forced to have sex under duress from slave owners, sometimes at gun point with their lives on the line, in order to breed the next generation of slaves. The so-called father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, who has a statue today in Central Park, did surgical experiments sans anesthesia on three Alabama slave women to learn how to surgically repair vesicovaginal fistulas. One woman he operated on more than 30 times. Black women, like Saarjite Baartman (The Hottentot Venus), would be put on display for white Englishmen to consume. Baartman “became the object of popular fascination when [she] was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England” and, even after her death, “Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating “primitive sexuality” dissected and cast her genitals in wax” (via).

Okay. So, when Oxford wrote, “Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados,” which translates to “Rihanna is a slut and so are all Bajans,” Oxford is participating in a long, long history of going after black people for their sexuality. The joke is funny for her and her followers because inherent in the joke is the idea that black people are slutty. This is a centuries old idea, one born directly from the institution of slavery, which needed to see black women as sexually available and black men as potential sexual predators in order for white slave owners to justify the absolutely horrific, terrible, hard-to-speak of things they did to black people and their bodies. 

Black people, especially black women, suffer the consequences of these dehumanizing beliefs and this over-sexualization of their bodies on a daily basis still. That is why this “joke” is still relevant to people who want to see it as funny. It simultaneously acknowledges these racist ideas about black sexuality and laughs at them as if they are unimportant. Above all, it reinforces these ideas about black sexuality. Why would someone WANT to participate in all of that?

Some final thoughts before I address the idea that this is “just a joke.”

1) Rihanna is not just a black woman from Barbados (the joke would be bad enough if that was all). She is also a very public domestic abuse victim. And her abuser, quite famously, has trashed her credibility and his rabid fans have gone after her sexuality on many many occasions. Oxford’s joke doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Even Oxford’s own Twitter feed from today reveals the extremely vicious way that Chris Brown’s fans will attack anyone who says something remotely negative about him.

2) There is a huge, ongoing campaign on the island of Barbados today because HIV/AIDS is a major issue there, as it is throughout the Caribbean:

The Caribbean region has the highest HIV prevalence among adults outside Sub-Saharan Africa. Barbados has achieved significant results in the prevention and control of the epidemic, and new AIDS cases and AIDS mortality have significantly declined (46 percent and 72 percent, respectively) since the introduction of anti-retroviral treatment in 2001, however, estimated HIV prevalence continues to increase. It is projected that the HIV prevalence rate in Barbados increased from 1.3 percent in 2001 to 1.5 percent in 2005. This is due in part to the increasing survival rate of people receiving treatment, but also to inadequate adoption of safer sexual practices. [via]

Please tell me all about those sluts in Barbados. Your words mean nothing. History means nothing. The suffering of the present means nothing. Because you are so hahahahhaahha funny. 

“Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados” is sexist. It’s racist. And it’s lazy.

In a series of now-deleted tweets, Oxford made the following statements: “I get @’s like this every single day [by which she means my critiques] and I usually ignore. not sure why I bothered today. this is not permanent. Just sick of having to read misconstrued @’s like this ‘wow slut shaming and racism…super cool.’ to get to the nice @’s, which I love. People who follow me have a sense of my POV and know I’m not racist. People who walk in looking for a fight, do. That’s life.” I imagine she meant me, the person walking in looking for a fight, doesn’t know her POV.

I can find almost no information out about her at all. I do know she’s a thin white lady from Canada who got famous by making “jokes” like this. If Oxford wants to explain her POV beyond me having to read her entire Twitter feed (which I did spend plenty of time doing and do not see how anything from her Twitter feed is supposed to lead me to see her Rihanna/Barbados tweet as anything but normal for her brand of “humor”), I’d love to hear it. I won’t hold my breath. [UPDATE: Kim provides context to, what she feels is, my erroneous claim about this not being an anomaly on Oxford’s Twitter feed – though Kim and I do disagree on what the “joke” was supposed to mean in the first place]

I do have a piece of advice for Oxford. If you don’t want people to walk into your Twitter feed (which is, actually, how Twitter works, by the way) and call your tweets racist, don’t write racist shit on your Twitter feed. Again, no breath holding going on over here.

Finally, this isn’t about me being offended. What Oxford wrote is offensive. But beyond that, as Scott Madin writes:

I actually don’t care whether anyone is offendedOffense is a vague, amorphous concept, and it is completely subjective, as my friend pointed out.  Anyone can claim to be deeply, mortally offended by anything, and it may very well be true; even if it’s not, there’s no way to dispute it.  “You don’t really feel what you claim you feel,” is a line of argumentation that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

What I care about is harm. What I ultimately said in this other argument was:

The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just “offense.”

Rihanna does not need me to stick up for her. I didn’t respond to Oxford because she picked on Rihanna, even if I think that the part of joke that targets her is sexist.

I was defending all black women who are harmed by such “jokes.” I was defending Bajans, who live with consequences of slavery every day. It is not that these people even need me to defend them. I want to. Because what Oxford wrote was harmful in that it reinforced the narratives I talked about above and, in doing so, made those narratives stronger and, in turn, strengthened the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated. As Scott says, THAT’S REAL HARM.

______________________________

On to the other point of this post…

So, to Lina Capova (who is here responding to a thread of tweets that included @belle_vous telling me to “Kill Yourself”) there is no point to my criticism because Oxford is a “comedy writer.”

As Brian Stuart wrote me on Twitter:

It puzzles me when comics insist on the importance of saying offensive things, but then righteously scold people who are offended. I have some sympathy for “offensive” humor, but it makes no sense artistically if you get bent out of shape when ppl are offended. I’m vastly more troubled by attempts to silence ppl for being offended than these supposed threats to the “freedom to offend”.

I would say this also applies to the comedian’s fans.

Lots of smart people have said lots of brilliant things about why “jokes” about marginalized people told by not-marginalized people are often not okay, especially when they are playing on stereotypes about the marginalized.

Melissa McEwan:

A racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a transphobe, a disablist, a fat-hater, a xenophobe, a privileged jerk of any stripe who belligerently wields hir privilege like a weapon. They don’t like being the butt of the joke.

And so “edgy” comedians tell “edgy” jokes that play to their sensibilities, lampooning the marginalized and the disempowered, crushing the underdog for the entertainment of the big dogs. (And hope that no one will heckle them.) But that’s not really edginess at all; it’s cowardice.

What’s edgy is mustering the fortitude to walk a line that refuses to pander to bullies. What’s edgy is finding the joke that says something new about an old topic; that challenges convention, not entrenches it; that risks something.

As Carrie Patrick has written, for people who wrote me on Saturday and said, “What Oxford wrote wasn’t racist!” or “Relax!” or “CALM THE FUCK DOWN”:

This sort of response creates a perfect 10 on the blinding insane berserker rageometer. Best of all, it shuts down all possible further rebuttal. The women who weren’t particularly upset or angry when they posted their original comments are now completely unable to express their further annoyance at being told to shut up and go away, because if they do, they’re just going to prove they Can’t Take A Joke.

So, here we are. By expressing an opinion that a joke about me was perhaps a little insulting to me, I have become that worst of all creatures, a woman with an opinion on the internet, otherwise known as a humorless bitch who needs to get a grip. I have a total lack of irony. I should settle down. I should relax. I should realize that people who were not the target of the joke have a much better right than me to decide whether I should be annoyed by it, and in fact, that they were the ones who should be offended, if anyone.

And they weren’t! So that’s all right, then.

From the Gender Blender Blog:

Joking about a type of oppression or a marginalized group gives people the false impression that we are beyond that oppression and that everything is okay.  But no, sexism isn’t over.  Racism isn’t over.  Ableism isn’t over.  Heterosexism isn’t over.  All forms of oppression are intertwined and function in conjunction to maintain the status quo.  Therefore we can never be “beyond racism” unless we are “beyond sexism” or any of the other forms of oppression.

These oh-so-humorous offensive jokes are so deeply institutionalized and embedded in our society as harmless things that we need not worry or make a big deal about.  But they are really just mechanisms to silence people from protesting these offensive “jokes” and shame those who do object as un-funny, un-fun losers.  Because yes, you’re just an overly sensitive girl who can’t take a goddamn joke for not laughing at a rape joke and refusing to let such triggering comments slip by as humor when it’s not funny to begin with.

Zee (this entire post is golden):

The kyriarchy gives members of privileged and non-privileged groups thousands of scripts with which to navigate its hierarchical social structure, but for this particular instance it gives us a script that slightly changes the normal joke-telling one. Instead of needing to gauge the audience for knowledge of the subject and if they’re likely to find it funny or not, the kyriarchy gives the offensive-joke-teller the knowledge that their audience will be fully aware of the subject at hand and that they will be well versed in the context that creates the joke’s implications or juxtapositions. It also gives the offensive-joke-teller assurances that privileged members of the audience will find the joke hilarious and that non-privileged members will at best find the joke funny because they’ve internalized the hateful messages of the kyriarchy or at worst laugh nervously to appease the privileged among them or stay silent. It is rarely expected that the butt of the jokes in these cases will call out the joke-teller for the joke’s offensiveness, and it’s definitely not expected that privileged members will defend the non-privileged. This is where the flamewars start. The joke-tellers kyriarchy granted script has been shattered, what they thought was true of the world is being forcefully shown to be wrong. They’ve been told their whole lives that cracking jokes that uphold the ideals of the kyriarchy will get them nothing but praise and forward momentum through the social rungs. Being met with opposition is the last thing they expect and can call into question their entire worldview, creating a lot of cognitive dissonance and anger.

It is amazing how often comedians (and those who defend them) turn to the “it’s just a joke” defense. This type of defense is similar to charges of “you’re just too sensitive” or “why do you care when there are real issues to be upset about?”, as if being sensitive is a bad thing or caring about this particular issue is a waste of time. [I owe Hubbit Ducreux, Zoie, and Heidi Swindell thanks for pointing this out to me today]

The sad thing is that Oxford would probably rather be in this pantheon than be sensitive to the harm her “jokes” do.

I agree with Brian Stuart. The issue is not necessarily that Oxford said something bad. It’s that she shut down all criticism of her “joke” by bullying those who tried to address the problem. We have to allow some space for pushing boundaries but people wanting to push the boundaries MUST allow others to draw them back when they cross a line. Being “edgy” doesn’t mean that you no longer have to be a concerned and compassionate citizen of the world. If that is your definition of “edgy,” I don’t want anything to do with you.

______________________________

Bottom line: Oxford’s joke was not funny. I’m tired of even referring to it as a joke. Her sentence was racist, sexist, and out of line.

Actually, Vanessa North should have the final say on this analysis:

North: “privilege is being able to say something offensive, call it a joke, and get mad when people don’t find it funny.” BOOM. That could have been my entire blog post, in less than 140 characters. Thank you, Ms. North.

I’ll leave you all with this video from comedian Stewart Lee. Props to Lauren G for sending it to me. It starts to get good around 6:00. It hits a home run around 11:30:

______________________________

WAIT! I can’t go without sharing one more fan tweet:

Oh, Ritzi Cortez. You don’t know how many times I’ve read this tweet and just shook my head and laughed to myself.

Why do comedians have such purchase in our worlds? Why do fans give their objects of affection so much leeway? Things I will never understand.

Advertisements

26 thoughts on ““Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m commenting now to support your writing and hopefully will have more to say later. I’ve read it twice and plan to sit down to really digest. It’s that good.

  2. Great way to break down WHY jokes about Black female bodies are offensive and NOT funny. So often, we fight for our humanity and are constantly doing work to break down these ridiculous tropes about Black female sexuality, woman-ess and our bodies. People who operate within their own privilege refuse to grasp just how destructive their constant trivializing and joking at the expense of someone’s (esp. women of color) marginalization is, because it inconveniences them and their agenda… even when that agenda is comedy. People often hide behind derails like, “Oh, it was just a joke… lighten up!” to avoid having to accept responsibility for their ignorance. Offenders like to gaslight and insert themselves in the role of victim, placing the onus to pacify their ignorance, on the marginalized .Great and thoroughly written piece.

  3. This is so so good. I don’t even have words for all the truth and awesome here. And as someone who has also been inundated with hate tweets when a famous person replied to me (and who then totally ignored all the hate sent my way, even though many of those tweets included his @ name too, so I know he saw them, but chose not to tell people to STFU or lay off) I can greatly sympathize and am also very impressed that you were able to turn that vortex of bullcrap into this incredible post. Thank you so much.

  4. I would like you to look at the following two blocks of text and tell me if you agree with it.

    “Rihanna receives a lot of undeserved attacks accusing her of being a slut or otherwise sexually immoral. People making these attacks, when they bother to explain, often sight things like clothing that makes her appear sexually desirable as well as the flirtatious or provocative nature of her dancing and general demeanour. They feel that these behaviours are deviation from the norm and hence an indicator of her being lacking in terms of decency.

    Rihanna is from a tropical island which has a high tourist trade and generally less conservative outer culture than mainstream USA. It is one that allows for women to be more expressive of their sexuality in their clothing (which is usually less concealing if only because of the tropical weather), dancing and general behaviour. It is a culture which allows for a young woman, such as Rihanna, to be more expressive of her sexuality without drawing conclusions regarding her personality morality and yet is close enough to mainstream USA culture that they consider it a great tourism spot. A culture where a very moral, upstanding girl can dance swinging her hips in a short dress in a nightclub without judgement.”

    Now I want you to look at a way you could express this in two phrases which are put together in what appears to initially be a non sequitur for the purposes of comedy:

    “Rihanna is not a slut; she’s from Barbados.”

    I honestly believe that 90% of Kelly’s fanbase didn’t understand this joke and just laughed at it for the same reason you laugh when you hear canned laughter. They’re used to laughing when Kelly posts so they now assume that anything she posts MUST be hilarious (even if they don’t know why). Some of them probably came up with stupid explanations when pushed (like the ones who tweeted at you) and a good number of them are racists.

    While I understand that the Internet is full of hateful bigots – such as the ones who sent you death threats, and that often white people do just assume they can say whatever they like because they assume since it’s funny based off their experience it’s also important to remember that not every joke that involves a marginalised person is at their expense or in judgement of their group.

    It’s important to call racists out on racism, regardless of their social status, however it’s also important to make sure that you don’t call anything that speaks of race, culture or gender to be inappropriate if it comes from a privileged group because all that does is basically re-enforce the divide. Yes if people are being an asshole call them an asshole, but just, be sure they are being an asshole first.

  5. Rihanna is from a tropical island which has a high tourist trade and generally less conservative outer culture than mainstream USA.

    I don’t even think this is true. I think this is your perception of Barbados, a perception that then makes it easier for you to try to justify what Oxford wrote. I think you perceive Barbados this way because we all have ideas about the Caribbean based on long-standing stereotypes about black culture and black sexuality.

    I never said Oxford was a racist. I said that what she wrote was racist. I never said she was a hateful bigot. I said she was a bully but she was to me.

    You will never, ever convince me that I shouldn’t call out racism when I see it because I’d be participating in the reinforcement of some racial divide. As Oxford’s tweet shows, the divide is already there.

    UPDATE: 2 more things
    1) Oxford herself referred to the tweet as a “joke.”
    2) There is nothing that I can find in Oxford’s Twitter feed that would indicate that she is a fighter against sexism (which is what you first block of text would indicate) or that she gives a flying fig about Barbados (which is what you second block of text would indicate). In order for me to read her tweet the way you would like, there would have to be some indication that she was coming at the topic of Rihanna or Barbados in the ways you say, because those ways are not the norm. And still, how you talk about modern-day Barbados is wrong.

  6. I am happy to admit I have never been to Barbados or anywhere else in the the Caribbean. That’s how I read it based off my personal knowledge base and experience (which is as fallible as I am, i.e. very).

    But your interpretation of the joke (as I see it):
    1. Does not make sense
    2. Is completely incongruous with Kelly’s posting history
    3. Seems to rely heavily upon a rather esoteric knowledge of Barbados’ history (which is unlikely to be common knowledge outside of Barbados) and how it connects to modern tropes less educated people would probably attribute to other sources (like insane Welfare Mother propaganda).

    So as I see it, odds that Kelly’s joke was meant to be interpreted as you’ve stated it are pretty slim – but it’s obviously still a flaw with the joke (along with the fact it went over the heads of most of her followers and all of her followers who should probably be getting therapy). However it’s rather disingenuous of you to provide your individual interpretation as the objective “correct” way to read the joke.

    Particularly since you post that people shouldn’t rush in and abuse people without context (https://twitter.com/scATX/status/204035834444398593) while admitting you just came across it without context or background yourself (https://twitter.com/scATX/status/204214133627961344).

    It’s also disingenuous to call her a “bully” when you posted your critique of her statement to all your followers, followed by statements of your assumed understanding of her post. (https://twitter.com/scATX/status/204005927567896576) You wanted it to become an issue for your followers to read about (and participate in if they chose) and apparently so did Kelly – she just happens to have many, many more followers (many of whom are atrocious creatures not fit to be called human).

    Had it been that Kelly had 30 followers to your 1000 would that have made you a bully?

    I happily stated the divide is there. I know it’s there. I come from conservative parents who live in an ultra-conservative area (a local politician who spoke at my school is on record for claiming that there are no gays born in his area – it’s too “red blooded”). But, from my experience – if you call people out accurately and back it up with reason, sometimes (not often) they can stop to question it and you might get them to reconsider their approach. If you call people out over a misunderstanding/misreading of a situation (which is easy to do) then for the rest of the time they will paint EVERYTHING you say with that brush whether the rest is valid or not.

    Which is why I bothered to go to all this time and effort to express I felt this may have been less a racist statement and more a differences of interpretation.

  7. Stewart Lee is a bug-eyed nonce.

    I didn’t read the rest of it. Just wanted to put that out. Thanks. Keep up the great work!

  8. How does my interpretation not make sense?

    And please explain how it is incongruous with Oxford’s posting history. In what way has her past tweeting indicated that she is concerned with fighting sexism? Is there actually any context here that I need to be aware of? It’s a one-off twitter “joke.”

    The insane welfare mother propaganda is a direct descendant of the exact stereotypes that I am talking about. Whether someone connects those things doesn’t matter. They are all coming from the same place. Making fun of black sexuality in any capacity is playing on these racist ideas.

    Yes, you’re right. I did post to all of my followers and I did it for a reason. But the truth of the matter is this: If Kelly had 30 followers, I wouldn’t have bothered most likely. I don’t go around policing the entire internet. The fact that she has 350,000 people who read every tweet plus all the people who then read the RTs makes what she says have weight. It makes her tweet that more egregious.

    I will also note that you can call me out on what I said because what I wrote still exists for you to find and link to.

    I appreciate you conversing with me. But I don’t see how your version of the “joke” is based on anything from Oxford’s past history, the reality about how people talk about sluts or black sexuality, or what people mean they talk about the Caribbean.

  9. “She’s not a slut because she’s a slut” is not structure for a joke, not even in the most prejudiced circles I’ve been required by professional or family obligation to be around. A joke in the structure you’re indicating to would be more like a bait and switch “She’s not a slut (assuming you’re from x)” or “She’s not a slut, ask anyone from Barbados” etc.

    I’m not disputing that the various welfare mother propaganda has it’s origins in slavery, oppression, etc. What I’m pointing out is when you formulate a joke you create it based off your audience’s knowledge. Thus if she wanted to appeal to modern myths of bigotry she’d use a modern reference. In this case she didn’t even specify black, she specified a particular island.

    Now, if you’d messaged Kelly with “I’m concerned that projects slut shaming, racism and sexism relating to slave culture” and she pulled in her followers I’d say she’s a bully. But all the information you gave her was “This is fucking terrible.”. I’ve been following Kelly for about six months and she gets feedback like that once a week – usually from someone who’s offended she mocked their prejudices or apparently thinks she shouldn’t be making jokes about stuff they don’t relate to (like being a mother etc). Her standard operating procedure is to make a public response then delete shortly after.

    You wanted your followers to be aware (I don’t know if you wanted them to join in, I don’t know you) and Kelly always lets her followers see her responses to attacks (I don’t know why, I’ve never asked her and if I did I doubt she’d answer since she doesn’t know me).

    Now I’m happy to point to examples to call out on issues here – but the issue I’m referring is much deeper. It relates to people with fixed mindsets (usually conservative but it varies) relying on their own quick references to re-enforce their position so they don’t have to question them. Most of the people who dismissed you would now dismiss anything you say because they figure “She though Kelly was racist, what does she know?” without even reading if you had a point.

    And yes, Kelly has reminded people of Chris Brown’s abusive tendencies (https://twitter.com/kellyoxford/status/204399303412826114), mocked people who complain about women having PMS (https://twitter.com/kellyoxford/status/201518528208175105), tweeted about how kids have to be taught prejudice (https://twitter.com/kellyoxford/status/146981481577852928) and called out Akon on pretending he’s not being disrespectful to women (https://twitter.com/kellyoxford/status/172573790847500288). She also in her tumblr generally discourages people from blindly following trends (like buying fashion items you can’t afford, cultural appropriate to look cool, Cosmo’s fixations with sex and fat, etc) and is generally speaking pretty progressive.

    Personally the reason I started following Kelly (which took a long time to find, since Google doesn’t value it) was because she openly called out someone who had posted racist sentiments against Japan during their tsunami disaster (
    http://kellyoxford.tumblr.com/post/3786906448/for-every-1-of-him-i-hope-there-are-at-least-100-000) and took the time to talk about accountability to him in an open letter (http://kellyoxford.tumblr.com/post/3796005513/an-open-letter-to-the-ignorant-kid-in-the-previous-post). Sound familiar?

    Really the point here isn’t though that Kelly is a patron saint of anti-sexism and anti-bigotry, because she’s not. She’s a comedian with fairly progressive leanings who mostly makes fun of herself and her role as a mother. The point is that a bell, once rung, cannot be unrung, so if you’re going to ring a big, loud bell (like call out a verified twitter account with 350k of followers) it’s best to double check it to make sure you want to ring that bell and you’re ready for it.

    My initial response to this was not anywhere near as rational and neutral – but then I thought about it and figured that there’s no reason to make assumptions about you (or Kelly for that matter).

  10. I will again point out that I never said Oxford was racist. I said her statement was racist.

    I appreciate you finding that stuff that Oxford wrote. Still, you can be progressive and liberal and mean well and still have privilege and say racist things. It happens all the time. Good people fuck up all the time. It’s what you do once someone points out that you fucked up. It’s certainly not hide behind idea that your a comedian and sometimes jokes are edgy. And it’s not tweet back at someone with a period in front of their handle knowing that your rabid fans are going to respond with death threats.

    I’m not surprised she was defensive. I’m always defensive when someone points out how my privilege and the way that I speak, the words that I choose are harming someone else. But I also ALWAYS change it. Yes, sometimes it takes time to process it and come around, but I’m open to that change. Oxford’s tweet is still there. As we are all WELL aware, she could delete it at any time.

    I fundamentally disagree with your reading of the tweet. I think another way to translate “Rihanna’s not a slut; she’s from Barbados” IS “Rihanna’s not a slut, ask anyone in Barbados.” I think that is the only way this works at all as a “joke.”

    And I explained in the post why when someone talks about the Caribbean as a place (or Barbados in particular), they are talking about a black place. She doesn’t need to say that because that is understood. That is the subtext of the tweet.

    The point is that a bell, once rung, cannot be unrung, so if you’re going to ring a big, loud bell (like call out a verified twitter account with 350k of followers) it’s best to double check it to make sure you want to ring that bell and you’re ready for it.

    I’m not sure what exactly about my post or my responses has made you think that I am not ready to ring that bell. I was surprised – continue to be surprised – by the level of hate I received for criticizing Oxford but I think I took that heat just fine. And I still think the tweet was racist and sexist. And I wouldn’t go back and not tweet what I did.

  11. scATX, thanks so much. You’ve handily pointed out that the joke is only funny if you know the stereotypes associated with Black women’s bodies (without them, the joke makes no sense), but have neither the empathy nor the imagination to understand what it is like to live in a body associated with those stereotypes.

    If I ruled the world, anyone who said, “It’s just a joke” would then have to spend a semester reading comedic theory, focusing on Hobbes and Freud. (Freud really wants to believe that there’s some sort of humor that doesn’t rely on hostility, but has great difficulty coming up with examples.)

  12. Pingback: In which I read awesome articles « In Which there is a Librarian

  13. Great post, great responses, scatx. Braviss’. Personally, when I feel defensive about something someone’s called out, I usually take it as a sign that my objection to their objection may not be the paragon of rationality that I hope it will be. It’s often a sign that I’m speaking from privilege, and that it’s a good time to check that shit out, and stop it.

  14. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  15. this is the absolute best blog post i’ve read in recent memory. thank you. for the writing and being on tumblr and all the heart the work takes. xoxo

  16. I really, uh, enjoyed reading this post. And reading about your research also makes me think that we have a lot of shared interests, if I’ve not said that before…

  17. Pingback: Violence in Black and White « PLUG

  18. This was incredible! I couldn’t agree with you more. Well done! One of the best blog posts on the Internet.

  19. This first 3 paragraphs of this article are some of the most ill-conceived misinterpretations I’ve ever had to read. I was unable to read any more without laughing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s