Why we ever give voice to the vapid and vain I still don’t fully understand. In the past week, we’ve allowed Raven-Symoné (of The Cosby Show and That’s So Raven fame) and Bill Maher (host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and a mediocre stand-up political comedian) to determine our discourse on race, racism, Islam, atheism and terrorism. Proving once again the power of Whiteness in our racially narcissistic nation.
Raven-Symoné certainly isn’t the first Black celebrity or entertainer to declare herself “not African-American” or Black, to Oprah or to the rest of the world. Morgan Freeman’s been making statements rejecting labels like “Black actor,” the term “African American,” and even Black History Month, going as far back as interviews in support of Glory (1989) and Shawshank Redemption (1994) (of course, he also was making the point that he’s an American first). Raven-Symoné isn’t even the first Black entertainer to say they’re “not Black” or “not African American” in 2014. Pharrell Williams holds this distinction, as he allegedly represents the “New Black,” whatever colorblind racist nonsense this is.
It all points to a phenomenon I’ve been calling the “unspecial American” over the past twelve years. The idea that we can discard labels, histories and cultures in an effort to make ourselves unique or special individuals. All of this is born out of a racial narcissism, one which afflicts the most vulnerable to this psychosis — the famous and the wannabe famous. Maybe there’s a bit of internalized racism to this, too — that’s clearly speculation to be sure. But that obsession to be unique, to declare oneself above constructs and labels, but then to latch on to the term “American” as if the world might forget? It reflects on some level stereotype threat, not to mention the defensive posture of someone like Raven-Symoné attempting to preserve their income and elite social status.
Maher’s take on religion, especially Islam, isn’t unique. The idea that he can claim this his Islamophobia has nothing to do with race — his own Whiteness/Jewishness or that of his brown-skinned Semitic cousins — is what makes Maher’s xenophobic argument a specious one. Maher’s is a culture of violence argument, one that attempts to combine the foundational tenets of Islam with the actions of terroristic jihadists in a sweeping indictment of at least half a billion people. HBO and Maher’s friends and fans have let him get away with this ridiculous line of thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia for years. Yet if Maher made the same kind of argument about Blacks, poverty and crime — the culture of poverty hypothesis proposed by the likes of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s — he’d probably lose his show.
That Maher has no sense of history or understanding of human nature isn’t surprising. He’s a stinking comedian, not a historian, political scientist, religious studies professor or philosopher. At this stage of his career, I’d make a better stand-up comic than Maher would a critic of any culture or religion. That Maher has found himself in arguments with Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan is telling. Maher in his late-fifties has become Ronald Reagan — an arrogant White male who firmly believes in the primacy of his brand of White culture above all others.
Both Maher and Raven-Symoné should take a long look at history and learn from it. Raven-Symoné should learn that Black celebrities who deny the existence of racial constructs tend to crash into a few barriers during their lifelong journeys. Maher should look at violent examples of atheism — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism, among others — and ask if these were the product of narcissism and violent repression or the product of a culture of violence based too heavily on the reliance on the scientific method for ultimate truths. And we should continue to ask ourselves why we ever take people like Raven-Symoné and Maher seriously at all.