Ellen Degeneres is well-known for her goofy, usually lighthearted comedy, not only on her daytime television show but also on her social media. She loves a good meme and she loves Photoshop. She’s the reason Zac Efron found out about Simone Biles’ crush on him; when Biles went on Ellen’s show, the comedian presented the champion gymnast with a leotard covered in pictures of Efron’s face.
Her Photoshopping is generally just as lighthearted as her comedy; on Monday, however, it went too far.
Following Usain Bolt’s history-making win in the 100m race, and the photo of him smiling directly into camera while leading his running competitors went viral. Ellen’s then tweeted a Photoshopped version of the picture that showed Degeneres riding on Bolt’s back and the caption: “This is how I’m running errands from now on.”
It’s fairly easy to discern that Degeneres did not intend to be racist or to offend. Her joke was intended to imply she would get her errands done at superhuman speed with Bolt’s help. The intense racial history in this country, however, makes her lighthearted humor much heavier this time. American slavery lasted for almost 300 years and involved white people abusing and exploiting black slaves for their own gain. Using and treating a black person like an animal was common practice during slavery, and even making a joke about something like that, implying that Bolt is a means of transportation like a horse or a mule, is a painful reminder of what our country was built on. We had institutionalized slavery for longer than we haven’t had it, and we had and have institutionalized racism that means that black people and people of color suffer inequality, oppression and prejudice while white people succeed. This is not a blanket truth, of course: everyone suffers, everyone faces failure and prejudice; but, we have inherited the racist institutions and ideas that continue to keep black people in a disadvantaged position just as they did historically.
The racial climate in our country today is facing growing unrest and tension resulting from police brutality and harassment in communities of color, the disproportionate number of people of color in our prisons, and the continued lack of people of color in positions of power and influence.
White men own football teams and profit off of black men who are prized for their brute strength; the parallels to buying and selling the most fit slave are apparent, as is the practice of pitting black men against each other physically as depicted in Django Unchained. Police departments across the country are over-policing black communities especially to turn a profit for the city or to feed the for-profit prison system. Unpaid slaves built the White House so that white man after white man could sit in a position of power and determine their fate, and the fates of their descendants.
Photoshopping herself on the back of a black man, even a Jamaican black man who is her friend, even in the spirit of lighthearted comedy, is not okay. It’s at best problematic; but it is also irresponsible and a painful reminder of the heinous racial disparity this country was built on and which it continues to benefit from.
Degeneres responded to the backlash by tweeting that she is “highly aware of the racism that exists in our country” adding that “that is the furthest thing from who I am.” This tweet falls short because it is not an apology, it is a defensive statement common from people who think being called racist is a bigger deal than the reason they were called racist in the first place. The media outlets (and Degeneres’ own twitter) emphasizing her friendship with Bolt are no different from someone saying “I’m not racist because I have a black friend.”
Some Degeneres defenders responded by saying that if Bolt were white it wouldn’t be a problem. That’s true, because we do not have a history of exploiting and abusing white people in this country. It’s different for a reason. That argument is not far from “White Lives Matter” in erasing the real issue of race in this country. Of course white lives matter, of course it wouldn’t matter if it were a white runner; it’s the fact that black lives are not treated like they matter and have never been historically that makes this a problem. You (as a white person) benefit from racist ideas and systems even if you are friends with all of the black and brown people in the world, and failing to acknowledge your own problematic actions for what they are only perpetuates the erasure of systemic racism. It also serves to make the people who were genuinely and appropriately offended by the photo look crazy and irrational.
I believe she didn’t mean to be racist or offend. That doesn’t mean the photo wasn’t racist or offensive.