Ellen Degeneres, Historical Racism and why it’s not funny.

If you’re like us, you love Ellen DeGeneres and her usually kind heart. Which is why we were surprised to find an image of her photoshopped to look like she is riding Usain Bolt as a “joke” earlier this week. Without historical context, this might be a funny comment on the fastest man alive! We do believe her when she says that she was not being intentionally racist when she posted this image. The problem is, we’ve got a lot of historical context to navigate.

This picture evoked a strong, angry reaction by many in the social media-verse and for good reason. Historically, there are many examples of white slave owners photographing themselves “riding” their slaves. This is exactly as disgusting as it sounds, and we will not post those images here, but if you need proof, it is a mere Google search away. Ellen’s intention with this post was presumably to honor Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, as a phenomenal athlete – he is the fastest man in history with a world record time of 9.58 seconds – and to keep herself relevant on social media by making a topical “joke.” Her mistake here was not considering historical facts of POC being treated as “beasts of burden” in American society.

Our good intentions have to be matched by respectful action. We hope you’ll consider this position and take a moment to read more in the open letter we are sending to Ellen Degeneres and the Ellen Show.

Dear Ellen,

We’re writing in regards to your post about riding Usain Bolt to run errands, the response from the Black community, and how meaningful it would be to explore what happened. We believe that your heart is in the right place, and that this post was not intended to hurt people. The fact that it has means we have an opportunity to work together to bring light to racial inequality and the ways we can be listen, learn, and be more respectful.

White Nonsense Roundup is an online project created by white people to confront and dismantle racism – sometimes unintended, sometimes deliberate – within our own community. We hope to change the expectations for white people so that we are actively talking about systemic racism, supporting communities of Color, and contributing to positive change. We do this at the invitation of People of Color to help alleviate the burden of educating white folks in addition to experiencing marginalization, and we do it under the guidance of diverse advisers.

There’s a real danger in thinking that a “nice” white person can’t be racist. We’re white too, and we have all been on a path of discovery, starting with feeling like our best intentions and good hearts were enough.
They’re not.
Our silence perpetuates systemic racism and the violence and oppression that come with it. We are all learning and need to own up to our mistakes! This is what you are called to do in this moment, even if it’s uncomfortable – the photo of you “riding” Bolt is problematic and many voices from the Black community have clearly illustrated the harm it has caused and the ways it perpetuates racist ideas.

Without context, it might be funny to suggest riding an athlete as a faster way of running errands. But depicting you riding on the back of a powerful Black man, reducing him to a mode of transportation or a beast of burden, is offensive and calls forth these old racist lies.
It’s not funny when it follows on the heels of a brutal history in which Black people were not regarded as human, starting with forced slavery, abuse, disgrace, torture, rape, and murder.
It’s not funny because Black people were considered only ⅗ of an actual person by our highest courts.
It’s not funny because Blacks were experimented upon as if they were lab rats.
Not funny because there were “human zoos” right up until the 1950’s, displaying Black people as if they were animals.
It’s not funny because these violent assumptions still inform white culture about Black people and actively contribute to racism today.

An authentic apology is healing. It is your task now to apologize, thoroughly and clearly, and use this opportunity to talk about how important it is to listen to communities of color when our own accidental racism is called out. As our taglines says: “Listen. Learn. Do better.”

Franchesca Ramsey has outlined very clear, painless methods for making genuine apologies – maybe she can be a guest on your show to talk about it. (http://bit.ly/29RzseY)

You tweeted that you aren’t racist and that it’s the “furthest thing from who I am.” That’s wonderful! Now we need you to prove it. We’re here to help.

White Nonsense Roundup


More information about microaggressions, and why it’s hard for white people to talk about race:
White People: Stop Microvalidating Each Other
What My Bike Has Taught Me About White
Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race

Past challenges on the Ellen show regarding race, from the Kinfolk Kollective

Nice and Racist: What Ellen Degeneres Teaches Us About Racism

Resources about our history:
Are Blacks Human Beings?
Racial Stereotypes From the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy
White Torture of Black Bodies: 6 Medical Experiments On African-Americans You Never Knew About
Deep Racism: The Forgotten History Of Human Zoos
Cargo of the living dead: The unspeakable horror of life on a slave ship