am guilty of being an American Idol fan. For someone who is supposed to be
politically radical, it just doesn't feel right. It started out innocently
enough. I'd watch it with my little sisters every now and then. After a
while, however, I wasn't just watching it on weekends. It was almost every
day. Before long, I was watching it alone. I even visited the show's
official message boards to see what other fans were saying about the
contestants. It was there that I got an interesting glimpse in to the racist
underside of mainstream America.
Whether it is widely acknowledged or not, race has always been an issue on the show, just as it is with any pop culture phenomenon in this country. Last year, controversy erupted when Ruben Studdard, the eventual winner, was nearly booted off the show along with the 2 remaining African Americans in the contest. During that round, the marginally talented country singer, Josh Gracin, easily made the cut. Some accused the American public of racism. Others thought Gracin, a Marine, was riding the wave of "patriotism" that was sweeping the nation at the time. Maybe it was a combination of both.
This year racial sparks have been flying from the start. Near the beginning of the season poor William Hung landed a record deal. Hung, who I'm sure is a very nice guy, personifies almost every stereotype about Asian men. He was one of the "bad" singers displayed at the beginning of the show for comic relief. His celebrity rests on his being a commodified Asian minstrel for white people to laugh at. His 15 minutes of fame will probably accomplish little other than the perpetuation of those stereotypes that many Americans harbor about Asians.
This year's top 12 includes 2 Asians and 4 African Americans. This prompted one Idol fan to complain, "these jungle bunnies are taking over this competition." Another fan lamented that "Affirmative Action is alive and well on American Idol. The finals are stocked with women (most of which are of a non-Caucasian) in addition to the non-Caucasian males ... I am not a racist, however, I have been on the wrong end of the affirmative action program in my life too many times." Yes, pity the white man! For God's sake, when is it going to be OUR turn?! For all their complaining about how blacks need to "stop whining" about racism and get on with life, white men don't ever hesitate to throw a pity party for themselves and blame others for their own failings and inadequacies.
The anger the fans displayed over the presence of non-whites in the competition reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a white friend. Somehow we ended up discussing the Miss America pageant and my friend complained that she "couldn't even remember the last time Miss America was white." I did a little research, and it turns out that 8 of the last 10 Miss Americas have been white. Since the competition began in 1921, there have only been 6 black Miss Americas. My friend's uneasiness with a black Miss America is a microcosm of the larger attitude of white America toward people of color. Any time non-whites begin to claim a piece of public space for themselves, white people feel threatened. Even with regards to something as unimportant as a beauty pageant, whites feel as if our territory is being invaded when people of color make even token gains.
Fantasia Barrino, a black Idol contestant from North Carolina, has been the object of extreme racial derision. It started in the semifinals when she said, "My lips are big, but my talent is bigger." The judges seem to agree. Fantasia is basically a more entertaining version of Macy Gray, and she easily ranks among the top 3 contestants. Despite her talent, many Idol fans express intense anger over her presence in the competition. Most complaints center upon her alleged "attitude problem," even though she has never done anything offensive or off-the-wall. Those complaining about her "attitude" actually don't like the fact that she carries herself with a lot of confidence and a bit of swagger.
Many white contestants have exhibited similar behavior only to be praised for their unique personalities or healthy confidence. Kimberly Caldwell, a white contestant from last year, was borderline arrogant at times, and she didn't receive half the "attitude" complaints Fantasia is now receiving. Fans were quick to pigeonhole Fantasia in to the stereotype of the "pushy black diva" thanks to her skin color. Due to their fear of black people, whites are much more likely to perceive the behavior of blacks as hostile. This is evidenced by the fact that blacks are disproportionately punished for subjective discipline infractions in schools, such as "attitude problems" and "defying authority."
Many fans complain about Fantasia being too "ghetto," which is another way of saying she's too black. Fans who claim to be "concerned" mothers bring up the fact that she had a child out of wedlock, as if that is any of their business. Nikki McKibbin, a white contestant from last year, also had a child out of wedlock and hardly anyone cared. As is often the case, one of the most offensive comments came from a white fan attempting to defend Fantasia: "I personally think the world of her for trying to do something with her life instead of letting the system take care of her. Fantasia you rock!!!" The exclamation points are all hers. She might as well have said, "Fantasia, you are so cool for staying off the crack pipe!!! Gimme five up top, sistah!!" This fan's comment, while ostensibly designed to defend Fantasia from racist attacks, only ends up reinforcing racist stereotypes about black mothers. She would not have said the same thing had Fantasia been a single white mother.
Fantasia's lips, hair, and accent (all of her distinctly "black" features) have been the objects of racist insults. One of the first things the show's stylists do to the black female contestants is straighten out their hair. In doing so, they help to promote the racist standards of beauty that are common to American culture. When finalist Jennifer Hudson straightened out her hair, the judges unanimously said that they "love the straight hair." Fantasia has thus far done little to change her style and image, which has probably contributed in large part to the hostility toward her.
The sad reality is that white people are terrified of black people who are proud of who and what they are. Loving blackness is seen as a subversive activity by most whites. We are offended to find people of color who have no desire to conform to our standards. We much rather prefer black people who humbly beg white America for acceptance. Those who neglect to say "yes-suh, no-suh" are the ones with "attitude problems." When I confronted Idol fans with these charges, many reacted by pointing out that the voters couldn't be racist since they made Ruben Studdard the winner last year. However, Ruben only won because he was quiet, humble, and cute. He was nicknamed "America's velvet teddybear." What could be any less threatening than a teddy bear?
This year the black contestant who seems to have the most white support is George Huff. George, like Ruben, is very subdued. He has a nice smile. He dances around and always exudes an aura of happiness. It seems that in order for the black contestants to gain widespread white support they have to bend over backwards to appear non-threatening and friendly, lest they arouse the racial fears of white America. If Ruben Studdard had ever displayed a little swagger near the end of last year's season, there is no doubt in my mind he would have lost. While I hope the support of the judges will be enough to help Fantasia win the competition this year, ignorant white voters may be a stumbling block for her. Even if she loses, she will hopefully get a record deal and continue to frighten white America even after American Idol.
Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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