At the IRS located in Memphis, TN, Ms. Yarbrough walked to her cubicle and noticed a strange picture. She knew that the office was going to be decorated in honor of “Employee Appreciation Week” but she didn’t expect to see what she saw in that federal government building. On the manager’s door, the image of a male pan-Indian head was stamped, depicting a stereotypical red man with an elaborately feathered headdress. Tagged to this disembodied head was a comic-strip style speech stating “How! Me help you with taxes. Me give you installment agreement.” This statement was supposed to be an attempt at comedy to illustrate the work they do in that department. Ms. Yarbrough was not amused. In fact, she felt disgusted to see that her manager supported distribution of this racist image. She asked a few of her black female co-workers if they noticed the new image. Unnamed middle-aged black woman replied casually, “Yeah, I saw it.”
“What did you think of it?” Ms. Yarbrough persisted.
“Well, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Ms. Yarbrough felt disturbed by this response. She continued, “You know that this image is incredibly racist, right? How would you feel if this image was a stereotypical black person speaking Ebonics and some white folks in the office picked it?”
“Well, it ain’t, so it doesn’t bother me.”
Ms. Yarbrough was absolutely appalled. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, especially from fellow black women. She didn’t stop there. She decided to approach the manager and protest until the images were taken down.
In high school, I experienced a similar disregard for oppressive imagery and language from my black peers. In Memphis, the main course of hip hop is dirty dirty and it persists primarily of abrasive, violent language of little meaning and depth to the spirits of urban black folks beyond beating, pimping, and killing. Attending a predominately black school, I grew up listening to this music like the rest of my peers. I remember riding with one of my friends from high school. She was listening to Ludacris’s song “Ho.” Feeling the need to bring it up because we never talked about it in all seriousness in high school, I asked my friend if she was offended from the song’s verbal abuse and ridicule of women, particularly of the stereotypical promiscuous woman as something disgusting and bad. Her reply was, “Well, at least he ain’t talking about me.”
Her attitude, like the unnamed woman in Ms. Yarbrough’s story, is noxiously pervasive in Memphis black life when it concerns making oppressions visible in conversation. If the issue isn’t obviously “black” then it’s not worth thinking over. Of course, the most important social injustice in American society is racial oppression of black people–not American Indian people and certainly not Mexican people, but black people. Well, at least black people in Memphis, TN. And you can forget about giving a monkey’s behind about animals (including those damn monkeys), those bitching women (a black woman is black first, anyway, so she don’t have time to be fooling around with that feminism nonsense), and those heathen queers. There’s only room to care about black identity and how white folks (and other black folks) are always impeding our progress. If you actually have the energetic drive to care or see the connections of struggle facing many communities and want to do something about it, then you’re not truly black anyway. At least, not black in Memphis, TN.