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Farai Chideya

Farai Chideya

Posted: February 11, 2010 08:57 AM

John Mayer's Playboy Interview: A "Tweachable Moment" in Race, Gender

What's Your Reaction:

The singer John Mayer, @johncmayer on Twitter, put this 3-tweet post on his feed:

Re: using the 'N word' in an interview: I am sorry that I used the word. And it's such a shame that I did because the point I was trying/ to make was in the exact opposite spirit of the word itself. It was arrogant of me to think I could intellectualize using it/ because I realize that there's no intellectualizing a word that is so emotionally charged.

Mayer had the bad luck to have his interview in Playboy (warning: NSFW) reach a wide online audience during a snow day, when the Twitterati were generally housebound and looking for something to talk about. And talk folks did. Among the, uhm, bracingly frank statements he made, two are getting the most attention.

First, the "n-word." From the interview:

I come on very strong.... That's why black people love me..... Someone asked me the other day, "What does it feel like now to have a hood pass?" And by the way, it's sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a nigger pass. Why are you pulling a punch and calling it a hood pass if you really have a hood pass? But I said, "I can't really have a hood pass. I've never walked into a restaurant, asked for a table and been told, 'We're full.'"

What caught my eye more was this one:

PLAYBOY: Do black women throw themselves at you?

MAYER: I don't think I open myself to it. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I've got a Benetton heart and a fuckin' David Duke cock.

I've interviewed white supremacists, and the punchline to this joke falls... limp. I can roll with some pretty raw or adventurous humor, but this fratboyesque ahistorical cheap shot shows a profound misunderstanding of of white supremacy. Today's white supremacists may decry "miscegenation," but white supremacy resulted in an awful lot of race mixing -- the forceable kind. Mayer's father is Jewish and I wonder how much he knows or cares to about the violent history of white surpremacists towards Jews in the US and abroad.

But what I just said sounds too on-the-nose and preachy even for my own tastes. The reality is that it's insulting to say black people love you and then profoundly misunderstand the difference between entitlement and humor. The entitlement goes beyond race to (again, boorish) comments about women by name and generally, and an obsession with generalizing his experiences at 32 as if every man shares the same perspective. (Note the phrase "that's what you do...." If all men do, write in and let me know.):

....during sex, I'm just going to run a filmstrip. I'm still masturbating. That's what you do when you're 30, 31, 32. This is my problem now: Rather than meet somebody new, I would rather go home and replay the amazing experiences I've already had.

Hey, if that's his thing, that's his thing. But to overgeneralize it seems presumptuous and self-serving.

Using the "n-word" publicly often results in an apology, and this is no exception. I think his use of the word isn't enlightened but it isn't at all like, say, comedian Michael Richards'. But there's a lot more going on in this interview around race and gender. I wondered, on Twitter, after doing my share of venting and listening, if we could redirect the conversation in a more positive direction. And the folks in my circle on Twitter really had some fabulous things to say. Among them:

From @bookofjames: The premise of your query doesn't really get to the root of the problem. Racism cannot be effectively "treated" by triage.

I replied that was open to these random, Twitter-fied pop culture teachable moments, and gave my own two-tweet example:

I had an Asian-American friend who used a term about another Asian-American group. This was over 20 yrs ago in college./ I used term, and a white student schooled me that it was not okay to use. It was a learned moment. Stuck with me.

I hope the conversation was thought provoking for those of us sending in our short-form missives on Twitter. I also hope this entire experience has given Mayer some food for thought. I have compassion for the fact that celebrity makes every move of those who have it uber-public. Not one, but two of Mayer's songs (including "My Stupid Mouth") contain the line "I'm never speaking up again," and now he may well feel like taking his own advice. But that would be a shame. Sometimes the only way to learn is by messing up, getting checked... and then learning to check yourself.

 

Follow Farai Chideya on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@faraichideya