LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The question isn’t who’s racist. It’s who’s a jerk.

Racism is hard. It’s hard because it is a thing that exists in all of us, even those of us with Liberal Arts educations. It’s hard because more often than not, it’s a question of feelings and feelings are nebulous. When I read Asha Alexander’s article, I found her struggling with her own feelings. It was a thoughtful and compelling piece, but even after multiple reads I don’t think she never quite managed to define what it was she found, for lack of a better word, racist in the Greek students stepping performance. I respected her feeling as legitimate, but I didn’t understand it fully. So I came up with a question I wanted to ask Asha so I could better understand what she was getting at, a question that I felt was, unlike almost every other question asked of her in the comments section, legitimate and possibly even productive. I wondered, What would respectful stepping by a bunch of white people look like? Would it be a step performance that even without black performers somehow demonstrated that it had an awareness and appreciation for the art form as an institution? For its history and significance?

This then, as all good questions do, got me to thinking. Somewhere deep down in the sea of obnoxiousness that followed Asha’s article, some young buck pointed out that nobody really considers Eric Clapton a racist for appropriating the blues even though the blues are ten times the holy institution to African-American culture that stepping is. I pondered this for a while, and it occurred to me that the reason that Eric Clapton or even Kurt Cobain isn’t a racist when they play old blues songs, is because when they play their music, when Cobain sings Robert Johnson’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” it’s clear that they love and admire and believe in the art form. They’re engaging with it. Honoring it. That’s why it’s not racist. That’s why it’s not offensive. Yet, when I’m in my backyard pulling weeds and singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in my best sick-moose falsetto, I am being a little offensive because even though I’m just screwing around and having fun and don’t mean any harm, I’m debasing, if you will, the sacred institution of the Negro spiritual.

It is my hunch, then, though I wasn’t there to see it, that the stepping performance that these Greeks engaged in was a pretty bad example of stepping. So bad in fact that what Asha was perhaps picking up on was that what the Greeks were doing did not seem like a step performance at all but a parody of stepping, an inadvertent parody maybe, but a parody nonetheless. This, then, is why it’s offensive, not because white people can’t steal black culture, or some ephemeral instance of white privilege, but because appropriating a distinctly black cultural form like stepping and then performing it badly, performing it in a way that degrades and insults that form, is to effectively fall into that white cultural art form of appropriating black culture as a way to mock black culture for a white audience—Black Face. Again, inadvertent Black Face, no ill intentions Black Face, no shoe polish on the face Black Face, but Black Face. The Black Face that perfectly decent people engage in everyday. The Black Face that we all participate in from time to time because we’re all racists, because we’re all Americans and America is racist society, and that society is what gave birth to us and imprinted itself on us, and from that we can never be free. It’s instinctive in who we are. We can do better, we can try harder, but we can never overcome, not even if we vote for Barack Obama, not even if we take an African-American studies class, not even if we have perfectly innocent intentions.

The question can never be then, who is and isn’t a racist. Once we enter into that, no work can be done. We might as well all turn off the internet and go home. Instead, if there is moral in what Asha wrote and how we all responded, a teachable moment that allows all of us to be a little less racist, it’s not that black culture can’t be appropriated, not that you can’t sing the blues, or step, or play jazz trumpet, because so long as black culture remains compelling, those things are inevitable and ultimately productive because they allow those things to become part of our shared cultural heritage as Americans the same way that baseball or the Babylonian Exile became part of American black cultural heritage. It is only that when we make those appropriations, when we begin to make that effort to come together over these cultural products or institutions, we can’t be dunderheads about it. We can’t be haphazard. We can’t just be screwing around. We can’t do it just for the yucks, because to imitate other people’s cultures, their art forms and important traditions, as a joke, as a thing to be laughed at, no matter how well meaning, is to belittle them and degrade them, and belittling and degrading people, even inadvertently, makes you something worse than a racist, a jerk. Though, my dear Alleghenians, not one single one of you will ever cease to be a racist any more than you will cease to be a human being, what you can do, with effort and careful reflection, is to perhaps one day cease to be a jerk. And that is all anyone really asks of anyone.