A lot has been said about Michael Richards’ (AKA “Kramer”) meltdown in which he used the “N-word” and suggested that lynching was an appropriate response for hecklers in his audience. (For those who missed out, you can watch the meltdown on Google Video.) The most anthropological response I’ve seen was by Six Apart’s Anil Dash who argues that the incident was partially about the “mismatch between white and black culture in regard to social standards in public settings”:
Put more succinctly, Michael Richards lost his shit for the same reason white people always get mad when black people talk at the movies. It’s about control, and who sets the standards, and clearly Richards is someone who gets filled with rage when he’s not in control.
… there’s a significant tradition in many African American communities to see entertainment venues as a forum for interaction, as a place for dialogue and conversation inspired by, or even directly in response to the performance. Whether it’s call-and-response in church or at a hip hop show, it’s not merely acceptable to be talking or reacing, it’s expected. Would showtime at the Apollo be as fraught without that expectation?
Conversely, a lot of white culture places an expectation on respect for the performance. There’s a standard of reverence for the person on stage, or the film being screened. And there’s an underlying sense of value: Hey, we all paid to be here, so be quiet!
It is an important insight because I think a lot of liberals think that a genuinely inclusive society will be the same as what we have today, just with more colorful faces; but that can’t be the case. As one of my college professors put it: “Some people think that diversity just means inviting more African Americans into their houses. They don’t anticipate that these African Americans might want to rearrange the furniture.” Many Americans seem to feel that while Richards’ outburst was unfortunately worded, he was in his right to defend himself against audience hecklers. This position ignores the way in which those very social norms are themselves racialized.