Charles Ramsey’s tee shirt, my fat pants, and NPR’s classist condescensions

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Yes, people are racists, but NPR reeks of classism as it scolds racism. Maybe NPR people only eat the wee tips of organically raised kale while wearing their immaculate pink chiffon at home, but the rest of do have an occasional McD’s run while wearing coffee-stained t-shirts and fat pants before performing acts of heroism. Imagine!

Representations in the media matter. Recently, challenges to how black men are represented have come across my path. The first from Clarence Thomas in comments about how Barack Obama is approved by the liberal elite and managed to win the presidency this way-, and this, from NPR, about the “wacky black neighbor” with regard to Charles Ramsey and (and many other wacky neighbors from news stories that I’ve never heard of). From NPR:

On the face of it, the memes, the Auto-Tune remixes and the laughing seem purely celebratory. But what feels like celebration can also carry with it the undertone of condescension. Amid the hood backdrop — the gnarled teeth, the dirty white tee, the slang, the shout-out to McDonald’s — we miss the fact that Charles Ramsey is perfectly lucid and intelligent.

The original video of Mr. Ramsey is, IMO, awesome. Honestly, how often is it in life that something truly interesting happens to one and you get to tell a great story? Doesn’t he get to be a little excited and proud of the story? Can’t we be genuinely excited for him? Is it really so evil of us to enjoy the fact that three young women that we thought were dead are actually alive, and the gentlemen who helped them isn’t a prissy bore on camera?

I’m sure there is a puerile element to expecting Mr. Ramsey to “perform”, but there is a great deal in this particular paragraph from NPR (and the rest of the story) about what “we miss” (what do you mean “we”?) that straight up pisses me off with its OWN tone of condescension about class and reminders about, golly, how “well-spoken” Mr. Ramsey is despite all the grave, grave flaws about Mr. Ramsey just enumerated. Here goes:

The gnarled teeth. Yeah, my teeth are bad, too. It’s called crap health care and getting old. Dentists in most states aren’t required to accept to state programs and so most don’t because, unlike slapping caps on rich kids, taking care of poor people’s teeth doesn’t buy your boat or greens fees.

Except that a lot of us in America, even white people, have crap teeth, too–but I’m betting your average NPR reporter doesn’t hang with those types very often. Maybe some people are gawking at the teeth (NPR writer, I’m looking at you)….but there are a lot of us out here who don’t see Ramsey’s teeth as anything other than a middle-aged man’s teeth–because that’s what middle-aged men’s teeth look like in some families and communities. You should have SEEN my dad’s teeth before dentures.

Simply because he doesn’t have the approved-for-television pre-fab coastal smile does not make him a freak of nature to us, or a “wacky uncle.” To us, he’s just a guy, and we didn’t notice the teeth until you pointed to them and noted that those teeth are a mark of his status.

I’m 40 years old, I have a PhD, and I’ve been well enough off for 15 years that I have dental, and I’m STILL trying to fix the mess of my teeth that comes from growing up poor.

the dirty white tee. Ok, this one I find befuddling. Do NPR commentators NOT wear t-shirts? If they do wear t-shirts, do they only wear colored ones because nothing says “hood” like a white tee? Frankly I never noticed the tee shirt was dirty, and when I read this, I went back and watched the video twice and I STILL don’t think it’s particularly dirty. I actually think the NPR writer just assumes the tee is dirty because, well, you know.

But even if it is dirty, are you kidding me?

I dunno, maybe NPR listeners and reporters all swan around at home wearing immaculate pink chiffon, but at home I mostly wear t-shirts, a large variety of them, some of them white, and many sporting holes in the armpits and coffee stains on the front. Why? BECAUSE I’M AT HOME FOR GOD’S SAKES, and I don’t wear nice clothes to pick up dog poop in the yard, paint my shutters, or anything else one does at home. What? You’re supposed to change out of your grubbies when you are dealing with a panic-stricken woman who has been kept prisoner for A DECADE?

Hold on, I know you want your freedom from the sadistic fk who has held you captive all these years, but can you wait until I put on my skinny jeans, ironically nerdy tee and hair prodo?

I’m going on record right now: any acts of heroism in my neighborhood that require my participation had BETTER be able to cope with me having bedhead and wearing fat pants while I perform them.

the shout-out to McDonald’s. You know what, coastal denizens? IT’S JUST McDONALD’S FER CHRISSAKES. There are parts of the world where people don’t act like eating at McDonald’s is tantamount to consuming weapons-grade plutonium with a poop chaser. I MISS BEING AROUND PEOPLE WHO CAN JUST SAY THEY EAT McD’s without turning it into some big THING. I mean, McD’s has not gone out of business, so it’s safe to say that some people still go there. Maybe NPR people only eat the tips of organically raised kale while wearing their immaculate pink chiffon, but the rest of do have an occasional McD’s run. OK?

Just like the teeth deal, many of us grew up and live in places where they talk about things other than our bodies-as-temples and yoga and pilates and blah blah blah–like having an occasional McDonald’s meal just when a person long assumed dead asked you to help her in her escape attempt. Some of us (read Midwesterners and Southerners) do not blather on about our gluten-free, celiac this, vegan that, special that, allergy locavore freaking blah-de-blah-blah. Yes, McD’s is not good for you. It’s not good for the planet.

And while I am pleased that people wish to be healthy, yay you, it would be nice if we supposedly educated elites could have a conversation about something other than food and how we’re all far too, too precious little snowflakes to besmirch our precious selves with McDs or the like. Fine, don’t besmirch, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD the dude got a be a hero! Can we just focus on that instead of his g-d lunch?! Just for a minute?

The hair. The man’s hair was fine, people. FINE. See above: me, coffee stains, bedhead, and fat pants.

Edited to add: Commenters via Facebook have noted that I am missing that the NPR writer is problematizing the racism and classism of people who are going to appropriate Ramsey’s image into memes and other things for internet circulation, and that I am missing that critique because I have missed that world of internet production. That’s right. But if that’s the critique, then the critique needs to focus on the problematic details of the reductive meme subculture and those who populate it instead of the details of the man who become their object. The NPR story goes on and on about the “weird” people selected for these memes, and the problem isn’t their inherent weirdness or marginality. It is the elite status of image-makers and these manufactured images make money–something I admit I don’t actually know anything about. That would be a useful critique.