Was this comment racist?
August 26, 2018 8:48 AM   Subscribe

We attended a rodeo in a small town in the rural Pacific Northwest recently. There was a sole African-American competitor in an event. The other contestants (4 or 5?) appeared to be white. When it came time to introduce the African-American contestant, the white, middle-aged announcer with a generic rural Western accent referred to him as a "cat." He did not call any of the other competitors "cats." More context follows.

To put this in context, the announcer also made a dumb-blonde joke when a blonde rodeo queen was in the arena. As the blonde rodeo queen was circling the arena with a brunette (his words, not mine), he asked something to the effect of:

Q: "What is a brunette to a blonde?"
A: "An interpreter."

He also made homophobic comments about a man in the arena who was wearing an earring - first, something to the effect that cowboys don't wear earrings and, later, that you'd better watch out if he gets close to you.

Also, as if channeling Trump in rally mode, the announcer let loose with this bit:

"Is anyone here from California?"

(A few claps from people in the stands, presumably from Californians.)

"Welcome to America," followed by "Now, get lost" or "Now, get the hell out;" I'm not sure which, since I was so stunned.

I'm inclined to think that singling out the only African-American contestant in a rodeo event as a "cat" could be seen as offensive and possibly a form of racist stereotyping. Does anyone still call people "cats" today? It's not as if the event was a jazz performance in a nightclub with an African-American announcer.

If the announcer hadn't made sexist, homophobic and socially divisive "jokes," I'd be inclined to think he just had a tin ear and was trying to be cool by calling the African-American contestant a "cat." In this case, his other remarks greatly eroded any benefit of the doubt I might have given him.

Of course, in Red-State America, complaints about sexist, homophobic, nationalistic and racist comments will just elicit a big "Womp, Womp."

Regardless, I'd appreciate your take on the "cat" portion of the announcer's performance.

For that matter, what do you think I should tell the County Fair Board, the NPRA Rodeo Association and the local newspaper about the announcer?
posted by A. Davey to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Huh, I know more than one person who called people cats. Was not racist in those contexts. I have never heard that as a stereotype. Just a data point.

As for how to frame your complaint - outline what you said here. What he said speaks for itself. I would leave out the cat thing personally.
posted by pintapicasso at 9:01 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm very concerned with language and systems of oppression myself, but have found rarely anything useful comes out of the discussion over whether a particular statement or action is racist (or sexist, or ableist or part of any other system of oppression).

What is clear from reading your question is that you found it to be a form of othering and I would absolutely encourage you to speak out about that, but without getting drawn into a debate about whether or not it is "racist". There's not a universe of racist and non-racist actions. Racism is a system of oppression and what we do and say can tend to perpetuate or dismantle it. What you observed certainly wasn't trying to do the latter, but regardless of that fact, how you respond to it can.
posted by Cogito at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2018 [33 favorites]

I agree with everything Cogito said. But if you need some validation from an anonymous poster on the internet: The whole event sounds gross, and I wouldn't hesitate to describe what you heard as racist.

I think that the real question I have, though, is this: What is the outcome you're hoping for here? Do you want the announcer to get fired? Do you want rodeos to stop functioning as a means means whereby discourses and practices of oppression are expressed, fomented, and propagated?

I myself would not think that the rodeo is the best site for trying to enact meaningful political change, but that's me. I think your time is better spent volunteering to help a local political candidate who shares your values get elected instead.

But if you're writing to the County Board Fair, the newspaper, and the NPRA, research shows that talking about how the event made you feel is more likely to be persuasive than trying to prove the facts of the case. Don't try to convince your readers that what happened really was racist, sexist, etc., in other words. What you write will supposedly be more compelling if you focus on describing in detail how uncomfortable the event made you feel and how you are unlikely to want to attend another event like it, as a result.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:53 AM on August 26, 2018 [14 favorites]

Did he call him a cat or a cool cat?

I thought cat was 1970s slang for dude. So the announcer is making an incredibly old reference to black slang, somewhat appropriatively, not entirely complementary - calling him out as black which everyone can see so why mention it. Coming from someone else "this cool cat from New York..." wouldn't bother me at all, but in this context is skeevy. Tone is everything.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:18 AM on August 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Cat" is so weird and dated as to suggest the announcer stopped himself from being as inappropriate with the black rider as he had been with the blonde and the man with the earring. Perhaps somebody already complained about the patter the last time this rider competed!
posted by Scram at 10:19 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Of course it was racist. Welcome to rural PNW?
posted by humboldt32 at 10:28 AM on August 26, 2018 [12 favorites]

Exactly. And at a rodeo!

I thought cat was 1970s slang for dude.

Yes, it's true -- and some of us Olds still call people cats. This was the most trivial of the things said by your announcer, and to some not even offensive. (The blonde "jokes" and the California callout are what mark him as a jerk, to me.)
posted by Rash at 10:44 AM on August 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Much of rural Washington *is* red state America.

I would probably make a complaint about general offensive/othering comments and include the examples provided.
posted by HMSSM at 10:48 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

"cat" (and "cool cat", "hep cat") used for a man is explicitly African American slang, dating back to jazz culture in the 20s. Its use spread through to the 70s but to my ear hasn't lost that association. So yes, I think there was a racial aspect to using that slang to describe the one African-American contestant. It's not explicitly offensive slang, but it's both dated and probably inappropriate for a white announcer to use it. Combined with the rest of your description of the guy's banter and he sounds like a thoughtless bigot of a type that is very common in America.

I wouldn't raise a big stink about the announcer but only out of a depressing sense it wouldn't go anywhere useful. People presumably already know he's a jerk. That line about dumb blondes is unlikely to go over well with many people and is more clearly offensive to a casual listener than the "cat" reference.
posted by Nelson at 10:54 AM on August 26, 2018 [11 favorites]

Yes. He was obviously drawing attention to the fact that the competitor was African-American. He was othering him, making sure that he didn’t forget that he was different and not really wanted there.

Was it also meant to be plausibly deniable? Of course. It was an intentional microaggression.
posted by Etrigan at 1:26 PM on August 26, 2018 [12 favorites]

From The Economist this week: Like obscenity, you know racism when you see it
posted by Kwadeng at 1:54 PM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I call people cats, but find it weird that he only called one person a cat, unless that guy was particularly cool for reasons other than his race, like his outfit was super flashy or something.
posted by corb at 2:16 PM on August 26, 2018

Cat may have originated as African American slang, but that doesn’t mean it still is. I’m 59, and I associate it with white beatnicks as depicted on 1960s TV. In the 80s, Nick at Nite used it in their ads describing a character in Dobie Gilles, which had no African American actors (I don’t remember which character, but I’m thinking Warren Beatty’s). Your question about a specific person using that term cannot be answered. If you’re planning to complain, including this example will weaken your argument.
posted by FencingGal at 3:25 PM on August 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

It kind of reminds me of The Royal Tenembaums where Gene Hackman would call his ex-wife’s current (Black) partner faux-intimate nicknames like “Coltrane” and terms from incredibly outdated Black slang. It was a form of othering and hostility masquerading as being “down with” somebody.
posted by matildaben at 6:04 PM on August 26, 2018 [7 favorites]

Was this up in Lynden at the fair? If so, definitely racist. Lynden is a slice of solid evangelical red state.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:19 PM on August 26, 2018

You might complain to their sponsors, but I am not sure that Septic Pros are that worried about their brand being tarnished.

I say drop the NPRA a line and say that you felt unwelcome because of the announcer's behavior, and if they are interested in attracting a more diverse audience this is perhaps not the best way to go about it. I wouldn't focus on the "cat" thing because it's a little too technical and plausibly deniable. "California isn't Real America" is a definite dog-whistle though, and that joke isn't funny anymore.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:22 PM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use ‘cats’ to address small groups of people and ‘cat’ to refer to individuals because so many other terms are gendered. It doesn’t have any racial connotations in my usage or when my social circle and coworkers use it.
This rodeo announcer sounds excruciating, for sure.
posted by janell at 8:36 PM on August 26, 2018

Not gendered? I've never heard of referring to a woman as "cat."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:02 PM on August 26, 2018

Yes, it was kinda racist. No, don't waste your time reporting it. Rodeo announcer has become the last refuge of a type of shitty stage banter that even Tucker Carlson couldn't get away with. Flag it and move on.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:22 PM on August 26, 2018

Person originally from the rural Pac NW here, grew up across the street (not joking, literally across the street) from a rodeo venue.

It was racist and meant to have plausible deniability. But it was definitely racist.

Our local elementary school was really good about egalitarianism, but those rodeos... yeah, I'd watch them from our house for about five minutes, roll my eyes, then go find somewhere on our property I couldn't hear the PA system.
posted by fraula at 12:21 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, it was racist. My dad typically referred to black men that he thought were the "good ones" as "cats." He thought it was polite to refer to people in the "language of their people." Therefore, cat, hombre, and chief were not exactly slurs but they were damn well not inclusive.
posted by teleri025 at 7:38 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

"For that matter, what do you think I should tell the County Fair Board, the NPRA Rodeo Association and the local newspaper about the announcer?"

In what capacity are you telling these groups anything, like, were you there to review the rodeo or just want to make note of a racist event in racist lands that features racists? I think once someones crossed that threshold, any discussion to make regarding their racism will be taken as badges of honor. To that group, even being from California was enough to make you an Other to them and it's clear how they feel about Others. Anyway, I'm just curious what your motivations are here. Don't mean to sound discouraging even if your motivation is just a sense or desire for justice and equality. I still remember emailing David Duke back in the day just to tell him how stupid he is, and I'll always cherish his salty reply even if fundamentally I didn't make the world any better.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:26 PM on August 27, 2018

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