When Racism Changed

When Racism Changed January 21, 2020

In previous posts I have wondered about heightened attention to racism in the United States. This was even before the New York Times turned up the volume with its 1619 Project.

Now I come to learn that in 2004, the song, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” from the show, Avenue Q, won several Tony Awards. Here are some of the lyrics from the song which appears to be part of a dialogue, spoken and sung:

You’re a little bit racist.

KATE MONSTER
Well, you’re a little bit, too.

PRINCETON
I guess we’re both a little bit racist.

KATE MONSTER
Admitting it is not an easy thing to do…

PRINCETON
But I guess it’s true

KATE MONSTER
Between me and you, I think

BOTH
Everyone’s a little bit
Racist, sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go around committing
Hate crimes.
Look around and
You will find,
No one’s really
Color-blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face.
Everyone makes
Judgments…
Based on race.

…BOTH
Everyone’s a little
Bit racist — today,
So, everyone’s a little
Big racist — okay!
Ethnic jokes might
Be uncouth,
But you laugh because
They’re based on truth.
Don’t take them as
Personal attacks.
Everyone enjoys them —
So relax!

… KATE MONSTER
You’re a little bit racist.

GARY COLEMAN
Well, you’re a little bit, too.

PRINCETON
We’re all a little bit racist.

GARY COLEMAN
I think that I would have to agree with you.

PRINCETON & KATE MONSTER
We’re glad you do.

GARY COLEMAN
It’s sad, but true!
Everyone’s a little bit racist — all right!
Bigotry has never been exclusively white —

ALL
If we all could
Just admit
That we are racist
A little bit,
Even though we all
Know that it’s wrong,
Maybe it would help
Us get along!

Everyone’s a little bit racist.
BRIAN
I’m not!

PRINCETON
Oh, no?

BRIAN
Nope! How many oriental wives have you got?

CHRISTMAS EVE
What? Brian!

PRINCETON
Brian, buddy,
Where you been?
The term is Asian-American!

CHRISTMAS EVE
I know you are
No intending to be,
But calling me
Oriental — offensive to me!

… The Jews have all
The money
And the whites have
All the power
And I’m always in
Taxi-cab with driver
Who no shower!

PRINCETON
Me too!

KATE MONSTER
Me too!

GARY COLEMAN
I can’t even get a taxi!

ALL
Everyone’s a little bit
Racist, it’s true.
But everyone is just about
As racist as you!
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone
Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could
Live in — harmony!

CHRISTMAS EVE
Ev’lyone’s a ritter bit lacist!

In the spirit of recent protests over statues, should the Tony Award be stripped from this song and show’s writers? It is hard to imagine that anyone aside from Ricky Gervais could get away with exchanges like this and not be cancelled.

So what changed between 2003 and 2020? Police shootings and Black Lives Matter raised awareness of ongoing racism even if in ways that were flawed. Elite media found a narrative that resonated with a section of the American people and that generated clicks that in turn led to advertising revenue. And the elephant in the room is Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, whose own bigotry functioned to ratchet up awareness of bigotry and immorality at all levels of society, or at least the ones where he found supporters and defenders.

But as plausible as all of these factors may be, it is hard to believe that only 17 years ago Americans were unperturbed by show tune lyrics that playfully toyed with bigotry directed at people of color.

To borrow a line from Will McAvoy in the opening scene of Newsroom on whether America is still a great country, “we are the most sensitive nation in the world, but we used to laugh at ourselves.”

Image (Cast of Avenue Q at New World Stages, Carol Rosegg)


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