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Why Clint Eastwood's 'Empty Chair' Skit Was Not Funny

Shadow and Act By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act September 3, 2012 at 4:53PM

The inevitable apology happens before weighing in on race, this time: "I love Clint Eastwood." "I love his movies." "He's a good guy." You won't hear me say that. I dug 'Mystic River'. His Westerns are etched into my memory (to the point where I would like to make a Western, one day). I defer to my Jazz heads on 'Bird' and many weren't pleased. 'Straight No Chaser' was interesting mainly because Thelonious Monk is interesting, most geniuses are.
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Clint Chair

The inevitable apology happens before weighing in on race, this time: "I love Clint Eastwood." "I love his movies." "He's a good guy." You won't hear me say that. I dug 'Mystic River'. His Westerns are etched into my memory (to the point where I would like to make a Western, one day). I defer to my Jazz heads on 'Bird' and many weren't pleased. 'Straight No Chaser' was interesting mainly because Thelonious Monk is interesting, most geniuses are.

Yes, Clint Eastwood has an affinity for black people, perhaps, Black people who entertain him. None of his achievements make me want to fawn over him. Nor do they shade my ability to see racism enacted. Is he an American icon? Yes. Is he an accomplished film legend in front of and behind the camera? Yes. Did he perform a 'skit' that was, essentially, an attempt to put President Barack Obama in his place? A resounding, yes.

Charlton Heston. John Wayne. White men with guns are America's darlings. As we sit idly by and watch gun violence saturate this country's soil with varied shades of blood, we had to suffer through the arrogance of a doddering elderly white man who believes the mythology that surrounds him. There is nothing as foul as arrogance laced with fame.

Clint Eastwood is a master of the visual. The chair placed beneath him. The talking down to it. The dismissive style. Ad libbing which was stream of consciousness (thoughts coming directly from head to mouth, uncensored). If you don't believe that that entire episode was about 'putting Obama in his place', just look at the visual. Many people have referenced Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' as a way of explaining Clint's antics. I can appreciate the association, however, I disagree. President Obama's issue is that he is too visible. He is highly visible. No Black man has ever been that visible and powerful in the history of this country. Was Clint trying to render him invisible? Well, he can't. So, he was trying to demean and bring him down to size.

One of the most helpful things about the Obama presidency is it is showing us that the enactment of racism is not just someone calling you N**er. Most times, it isn't about being tied to the back of a truck and dragged until your head comes off or being lynched and having your body parts removed as souvenirs. The enactment of racism is complicated, sinister, crazy and as varied as the bodies it emanates from. And, that's the rub. The culture likes to appear startled and completely undone when someone is blatantly racist. As a result, we have a difficult time recognizing racism when it's in front of our eyes.

In High School, I learned that there were consequences to being Black and exceptional. I loved Shakespeare. I devoured him. Would show up to English class ready and excited to discuss what I read the night before. I was always answering the questions. To the point where my teacher would look past me or say, "let someone else answer", when I flung my hand in the air. Well, on this day, I couldn't wait. She asked the question, I flung my hand up, no other students did. I, proudly and enthusiastically, answered the question. My Teacher acknowledged how correct I was. The next thing I hear…"Why don't you go back to Africa?"

The innocence of my 15 year old self was gone. It had been stripped away in other forms of racism up to that point. After all, I grew up on the very wealthy New Jersey Shore. But, this moment was different. This was a challenge to my intellect, my gifts, my right to be where and who I was. I was daring to be something other than what this girl had in her imagination. I understood, in that moment, that being Black and exceptional made people uncomfortable, it would come with a tax. And, I've paid that tax many times since.

Racism is about people trying to fit you into their idea of who you are. It doesn't matter what you've accomplished, how kind you are to them, what thoughts or feeling you might possess. It's about what they think about you. And, those thoughts can result in everything from murder to chastising an imaginary you in an empty chair.

So, Clint, you can attempt to lower someone as graceful and elegant as President Obama to the idea that he can utter the words, "go f*** yourself." (Funny, Clint was doing the thing that many of wish Obama would do. Say, "go f*** yourself" to these clowns.) But, President Obama doesn't have to do that. He's already won. And, hopefully, will win again. Clint Eastwood is the John Wayne of our day; invincible, arrogant, feebly erect, talking down to a chair and ready for the dustbin of history. He represents an America that was and never will be again. It's over, we've won. And, we are going to continue our march-FORWARD.

As I watched others dance and justify Clint's actions as "absurd", "funny", "odd", I realized how numb we have become to racism. Nowadays, we try and figure it out. If someone doesn't say "Ni**er", we scratch our heads. Emotionally, it feels wrong but we can't say, definitively, what it is. It takes a minute for us to recognize racism because we don't want to believe that it's true. We qualify it; "Oh, well, the person isn't racist but his actions were racist." I don't accept that qualification. It's an excuse, another "apology". If you act or speak racism, you are racist.

I will concede that there is conscious racism and unconscious racism. Conscious racism being overt, explicit, direct; a lynching, for example. Unconscious racism is embedded into the psyche and slips out in odd ways. I, usually, note it in liberals, folks who believe themselves to be free of racism. Folks who have never confronted the racism within themselves other than by surrounding themselves with Black friends or hiring a Black person or two. Undoing the racism that America has implanted, in all of us, takes work. And, we have all become too lazy to do the heavy lifting required to undo it. We would rather indulge it as it builds, festers and strips Black children of their lives.

President Obama said that he is not offended by Clint's 'skit'. At the end of the day, he remains the President. So, these antics do not disturb his position. It's Eastwood's problem, not his. And, it's true. I don't believe that President Obama should be bothered by this. But, it hints at a larger issue. We keep giving racism a pass. There is a price when we deny racism. There is a cost to these years during President Obama's tenure when he doesn't speak about racism, the impact of racism on blacks and people of color. We participate in the mythology (and pathology) of an America that wants to believe that racism does not exist. By not speaking about the fact that it does, we hurt, not them. And, that's how America wants to keep it. It's okay for Black people to suffer but white people cannot be disturbed.

I will cast my vote for President Obama, while, on my shoulder, my reluctant voice will nag at me. I will be casting a vote for someone who does not speak to, what I consider to be, one of the most important issues since America's birth. In casting the vote, I will pause for a moment to acknowledge that this is not a vote for the part of me that is a Black woman trying to live with some degree of sanity by not denying racism. I am casting the vote for the policies that President Obama is enacting. Policies that assist the disadvantaged, single mothers, women who can get political asylum in the U.S. because they are victims of domestic violence in their own country, etc. However, I am waiting for the President who can speak, boldly, about the inequities in America and enact policies to combat them. In the meantime, I will cast my vote for this great first step that is President Barack Obama.

With high unemployment comes increased gun violence. With high unemployment, violence against women and children increases. America wants to believe that young Black men are so genetically sick that they can't help but kill each other. When the fact is, there is a legacy, there is a connection to be made between the enactment of racism in the culture and the loss of Black life. It's easier to believe we are all destined to be on Welfare or in a grave than to understand that your actions and the actions of your ancestors, the manifestation of 'white is right' in every segment of the culture (economic, education, entertainment, etc.) has poisoned all of us. There is a legacy of violence, inequity and a notion of white superiority that we have to undo.

Clint Eastwood and his kind can continue to wrestle with the fact that a black man is sitting in the highest seat of power, arguably, in the world. The rest of us have other things to do. We've got an election to win. We've got lives to save. We don't have time for this. So, to you and your kind, Dirty Harry, I say, as one of my favorite poems declares, "The Bridge Poem" by Donna Kate Rushin, "Evolve or die."

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or visit digtanya.com.


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