Now that 2013 is coming to a close, it’s time for us to look back and compile our annual list of “head-scratcher” race stories. This year may have lacked the racially charged drama we saw in last year’s presidential election, but there were still enough stories with blatant racial overtones that left us scratching our heads. Below, in no particular order, we highlight some of stories Tell us which one made you scratch your head the most.
Is Miss America American enough?
When Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America in October, the racist corner of the Internet exploded with predictably ignorant bile. The saner parts of America, meanwhile, reacted with complete mockery–exemplified by Stephen Colbert’s righteous rant on Comedy Central:
A receipt with a racial slur leads to a big tip
In September, Toni Christina Jenkins, a waitress at Red Lobster in Tennessee, claimed that one of her customers wrote the n-word on the receipt and took off without leaving any tip. A picture of the receipt that Jenkins posted on Facebook went viral. The ensuing publicity netted her a $10,749 “tip” from an online fundraising organization called Tips for Toni.
But then came a twist: The alleged customer, 20-year-old Devin Barnes, denied writing the offending word and hired a handwriting analyst, who confirmed that the slur was written by somebody else. When conservative website The Daily Caller confronted Jenkins, she acknowledged she didn’t know who wrote the word, and that she would be open to sharing the money with Devin.
A foul-mouthed former city employee costs Chicagoans dearly
In October, the City of Chicago approved $560,000 in compensation for victims of racist and sexist behaviors of Joseph Annunzio, who had been dismissed from his $77,148-a-year post as a Chicago Department of Transportation supervisor in 2007.
Victims had accused Annunzio, the nephew of former U.S. Rep. Frank Annunzio, of using n-word, “mambo” and “Magilla the Gorilla” to address African-American co-workers and calling female workers “bitches.” Then-Inspector General David Hoffman investigated the allegations and recommended that Annunzio be fired. In upholding the firing, a circuit court judge wrote, “The record is replete with evidence that … Annunzio repeatedly made racist, derogatory and disparaging remarks.”
Media headscratcher #1: Bloomberg Businessweek
In February, Bloomberg Businessweek adorned its cover with this:
In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum gave a caustic critique:
“The cover stands out for its cast of black and Hispanic caricatures with exaggerated features reminiscent of early 20th century race cartoons. Also, because there are only people of color in it, grabbing greedily for cash. It’s hard to imagine how this one made it through the editorial process.
Compounding the first-glance problem with the image is the fact that race has been a key backdrop to the subprime crisis.”
Media headscratcher #2: Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen, a controversial Washington Post columnist, found himself under an avalanche of angry criticism for his incendiary comments about interracial marriage and lesbians in November. It all began when Cohen wrote this:
“Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled–about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York–a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”
It came to be known as the “Gag-gate,” and critics branded him as a racist and created a hashtag, #FireRichardCohen.
Cohen defended himself to The Huffington Post. “The word racist is truly hurtful. It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right,” he said. “The column is about Tea Party extremism, and I was not expressing my views. I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held.”
NTSB falls for a hoax
Days after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport in July, the National Transportation Safety Board apologized for “inaccurate and offensive names that were mistakenly confirmed” to KTVU Channel 2 as those of the pilots.
KTVU also apologized, indicating that the error was part of a hoax. As the news unfolded, the Asian American Journalists Association released a statement saying “words cannot adequately express the outrage” the organization felt.
Offensive app of the year #1: “Ghetto Tracker”
A website purporting to crowdsource the information from local communities to identify “ghettos” came under intense fire in August for its unfortunate name: GhettoTracker.com. PandoDaily called it “the most offensive startup of all time.”
David Foster, who has been identified as the site’s creator, initially rebranded it as GoodPartofTown.com and posted a defiant message: “Some people saw the name of the site, used their political ideology as a starting point, knew that ideology tells them they must act offended by a word, and used mental gymnastics to work their way backwards into arguments.”
He then took the site down–only to resuscitate the GhettoTracker.com shortly afterward.
Offensive app of the year #2: “Make Me Asian”
In January, “Make Me Asian,” a smartphone app that let its users alter their pictures with a rice paddy hat, Fu Manchu mustache and yellow skin to cook up an Asian caricature, triggered a petition drive on Change.org demanding that Google take it down from its Play Store.
“This is not what it means to be Asian or Native American–these are nothing less than hateful and offensive stereotypes that are used to this very day to marginalize and humiliate people,” wrote Peter Chin, who started the petition. “They are not funny, and their use highlights a vicious double standard in the treatment of certain minority groups. Blackface (dressing up as a caricature of a black person, complete with black makeup) is thankfully and rightfully recognized as thoroughly racist, so why in the world is “yellowface” and “redface” given a pass?”
The petition went on to receive nearly 10,000 signatures, and Google quickly pulled the app from its store.
Celeb head-scratcher #1: Paula Deen
In June, word got out that celebrity chef Paul Deen had given a videotaped deposition in which she admitted to past uses of n-word and other discriminatory remarks. Almost overnight, Deen went from being a culinary superstar to being cast as a racist pariah. Deen soon found herself without lucrative contracts with a slew of companies, and the Food Network announced that it wouldn’t be renewing her TV show.
Deen showed up at the “Today” show and tearfully told Matt Lauer that she wasn’t a racist, and that she used the discriminatory words “a world ago.” Support for Deen came from an unlikely quarter: The Rev. Al Sharpton argued that it was unfair to hold Deen’s decades-old utterances against her. “She deserves what’s fair, but that’s based on what she’s engaged in now,” he said.
Celeb head-scratcher #2: Oprah Winfrey
In August, Oprah Winfrey sparked an international row when she told “Entertainment Tonight” that she had a racist encounter while visiting a boutique in Zurich, Switzerland. The former queen of daytime talk show claimed that a clerk at the shop refused to show her an expensive bag. “That one will cost too much, you won’t be able to afford that,” Winfrey said the clerk told her.
Trudi Goetz, the owner of the boutique, shot back: “I don’t know why she talked of racism,” she told London’s Daily Mail. “I am sorry, but perhaps she is being a little oversensitive here. Maybe she was somewhat offended because she was not immediately recognized in the store.”
Winfrey said she regretted the media frenzy but maintained that she wasn’t being overly sensitive. “What I experienced in Switzerland has only happened to me once before in life,” she said. “I didn’t want to attack Switzerland. It was an isolated incident. The kind of incident that people with black or brown skin have to experience every day.”
[Photo by Alex Hinds/Shutterstock]