The conservative media is in a lather because they think University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler called Dr. Ben Carson “Coon of the Year,” which obviously makes her racist. Last week, Butler responded to this (now-deleted) Goldie Taylor tweet:
The tweet linked to this article, about Ben Carson’s remarks on NASCAR fans flying the Confederate flag. This was Prof. Butler’s reply:
That reply caught the attention of conservative website Campus Reform, which contacted Prof. Butler for comment, at which time they claim she deleted the tweet. On Tuesday, the story broke big all over conservative media, with variations on the headline “Ivy League Prof. Calls Ben Carson a ‘Coon’.”
There are a few problems with this story, chief among them being that Professor Butler didn’t actually call Ben Carson anything, nor did she even recommend him for the titular award. Butler herself pointed this out before her Twitter account was locked, perhaps because conservatives decided to defend Ben Carson from her alleged racism by calling her everything from “Buckwheat” to “Jigaboo” to, yes, “coon” (here’s a sampling of those tweets).
Now, if you want to interpret Professor Butler’s tweet that way, you’re welcome to do so, but to state that interpretation as fact is just plain wrong. In fact, maybe you’re the racist for reading that tweet and assuming that she meant Ben Carson is a “coon.” There’s another much more relevant interpretation to be made.
Professor Butler’s tweet was in response to an article about Ben Carson’s remarks on NASCAR and the Confederate flag, which these conservative sites have characterized as a defense of private property. But Carson was specifically asked about Richard Petty‘s July comment that the debate over flying Confederate flags at NASCAR events was a “passing fancy,” and whether NASCAR fans should fly the flag:
He was cautious when asked to weigh in on Petty’s recent comments on the Confederate Flag, a symbol of slavery for many African-Americans and southern pride for whites. The flag is often flown prominently by NASCAR fans before and after races around the country. Petty this summer called the flag debate “a passing fancy.”
Carson told the AP that NASCAR fans should continue flying the flag “if it’s private property and that’s what they want to do.”
He also acknowledged the flag remains “a symbol of hate” for many black people and compared it to the Nazi swastika.
“Swastikas are a symbol of hate for some people, too. And yet they still exist in museums and places like that,” Carson said, describing the decision about flying the flag “a local issue.” ”If it’s a majority of people in that area who want it to fly, I certainly wouldn’t take it down.”
Despite the fact that NASCAR has long banned the Confederate flag from use in any official capacity, and has been trying to get fans not to display the flag at races since the tragic mass murder in Charleston, Carson says it’s okay with him. The sentence in Professor Butler’s tweet could have been completed in any number of ways, including “If only there was a ‘coon of the year’ award…Ben Carson could tell NASCAR to hold the ceremony, as long as it’s a majority of people in the area who want to give out the award, and it was on private property.”
Too many characters, but you get the idea.
As it turns out, the only official “Coon of the Year” award I could track down didn’t go to Ben Carson, it went to this cat, who was The International Cat Association’s 2014 Maine Coon of the Year. Unofficially, Carson’s name has been bandied about as a candidate for the fictional award, which brings me to another problem with the conservative outrage over this story.
In almost every story that conservatives have written about Professor Butler’s tweet, they have included a fairly consistent definition of the word “coon.” Here are some examples:
Campus Reform: The word “coon” is an offensive term to slander Africans, deriving from the Portuguese word “barracoos,” which is a hut-like dwelling used to store slaves during auctions, according to Online Etymology.
Breitbart: The Urban Dictionary website defines “coon” as a “Insulting term for a black person.” The site treats the insult as similar to other words that are rarely published outside rap lyrics.
Daily Caller: “Coon” is a common slur for blacks, though it’s worth noting Butler is black herself.
These definitions are all perfectly accurate as it relates to white people using the word, but among black people, it has a completely different, much more complex meaning. When a white person calls someone a “coon,” they are slurring all black people, but within the black community, the term is not a racial slur, and it’s not interchangeable with the multi-purpose n-word. It is a provocative (and yes, offensive) social and/or political critique that covers a wide range of behaviors. Here’s how the website Coonwatch defines the term:
In the historical racist context of the USA, the coon was/is portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon whose sole purpose in life is too amuse those in the dominant society. The coon was/is labeled as a childish adult; albeit a good-for-little adult.
Eliminate that definition… because this website is for us and by us and we DO NOT SUPPORT THAT RACIST DEFINITION.
We will keep an eye on those whose actions (intentional or not) inflict harm on people of color. We want to watch those who live by the coon code of conduct.
So what can we do…
- Identify them
- Track their transgressions
- Stop supporting them
- Ignore what they say
Every person listed may or may not live their life by the coon code of conduct, however if they are non white and they have clearly demonstrated anti black actions they will be listed.
The definition of “coonery” is as subjective as it is broad. The Fox megahit Empire was singled out by professor and social commentator Boyce D. Watkins as an example of “coonery,” as have other forms of black entertainment, but so has the real-life affect of Cleveland kidnapping hero Charles Ramsey. On the latter point, the dissent over that label demonstrates the complexity of the word:
The message here is clear: Poor Blacks embarrass bourgeoisie Blacks. The evocation here is…Please, per Vice President Biden, only put the clean and perfectly coiffed Blacks on TV.
If the man who rescued these women had resembled Denzel Washington or Will Smith, all of Ramsey’s critics would be bursting with race pride. But bourgeois black folk don’t abide the unwashed horde of poor black folk, and that’s actually nothing new.
The term can also apply to those who reinforce stereotypes, rather than enacting them, by practicing “respectability politics,” or who support policies that are viewed as harmful to black people, or who are seen as giving cover to racists by validating racist behavior. The common thread is a result that ingratiates the subject to white people, while harming the interests of black people. The term doesn’t have universal currency within the black community, but it is universally understood. It’s intended to be provocative, offensive, and even insulting, but it’s not a racist term.
None of that should really matter, though, to the conservatives who are hyperventilating about this, especially those who support Ben Carson. Why, just the other day, he was rejecting political correctness even as he smeared the victims of the Oregon mass shooting as complicit in their own slaughter. This effort by the conservative media is nothing if not an attempt to police black language, a practice they supposedly reject with every fiber of their being.
It’a free country, though, so if you want to be offended by what Professor Butler said, go ahead. Just be offended by what she actually said, not what you imagine she said, and just know that no matter how many times she tweets the word “coon,” it’s still racist when white people say it.
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