By Leonard Pitts Jr.
I wish I was offended.
So many other people are that it feels lonely not to be. So I’ve tried to channel the anger I’ve seen in Internet postings. Tried to agree with Tony Dungy, a black football coach who says he was racially insulted.
But all I see is a naked chick and a football player.
Meaning, of course, actress Nicollette Sheridan, Philadelphia Eagles receiver Terrell Owens and a “Monday Night Football” promotional skit that had folks gathering three deep at the water cooler last week. In it, Sheridan, a star of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” shows up in the locker room wearing only a towel. The actress, who is white, seduces Owens, who is black, into skipping the game in order to, ahem, spend some time with her. She ends up dropping the towel and jumping into his arms.
The spot has produced a torrent of criticism, most of it coming from one of three directions.
Number one, some people say they were offended by the raciness of the skit. Which seems a stretch, given the raciness of your average football game beer commercial.
Number two, some blacks say race — not raciness — is the reason many whites took offense. They think many good ol’ boys simply could not deal with seeing a desirable blonde in a black man’s arms. That’s probably true, but it just makes me wish Owens and Sheridan had also lip locked for a minute or two. Nothing’s more fun than making bigots stroke out.
It’s complaint number three, though, that moves me to offer a few words. You see, some blacks say the promo promotes an ugly old stereotype: black men as sexual predators lusting after white women. That’s a ghost that has long haunted the national consciousness, source of beatings during slavery, murder during Jim Crow, hysteria during the O.J. Simpson trial and imprisonment for Marcus Dixon, a black kid in Georgia who drew a 15-year sentence — since overturned — after a sexual encounter with a white girl.
It’s a torturous history one is morally bound to honor.
But the question is: Does that history — “should” that history — automatically come into play every time there is a sexual encounter between black and white? Is there ever a point where you are not a racial symbol, but just a human being?
I have to admit that I didn’t see the skit in question, though I have seen numerous excerpts. As near as I can tell, Owens did not bug his eyes out like Jimmy Walker at the sight of Sheridan’s naked body. As far as I know, she did not say, “Come plow these fields, stud.” There was, in other words, nothing overtly racial about the encounter beyond the fact that her skin is light and his is dark.
So I have trouble seeing it as an example of racial insensitivity. It seems instead an example of the ability race has to warp our worldview, to make us see what isn’t there.
Thing is, it can also make us fail to see what is there.
Consider black folks’ continued support for singer R. Kelly as he fights charges growing out of a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with and urinating on an underage black girl. Many of us are content to accord him the benefit of the doubt.
And I wonder: Would we be as calm if it were Tom Cruise who was alleged to have done those things to a black child? Would we be this quiet if white people continued to go see Cruise’s movies and give him prizes? I don’t think so.
Why, then, is it “OK” so long as Kelly and his alleged victim are both black?
The answer is that race is and always has been a producer of dichotomy and double standard. It changes what we see and how we see it.
That’s what this latest contretemps proves yet again, and it would almost be funny if it didn’t speak so tellingly to the hurt and irresolution that still attach to black life — especially where the subject is black men and white women.
I wish it didn’t matter, but I guess that’s still too much to ask.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org