Comedian Michael Richards, best known as "Kramer" on the popular "Seinfeld" TV comedy series, stunned his audience at The Laugh Factory in West Hollywood last Friday night, when he responded to hecklers with a flurry of racial epithets. Richards' rampage included repeated use of "the N word," and other profanities. Many in the audience left that night. Richards has a public apology already in the works, but it's possible his career will never be the same. He won't have "the Seinfeld curse" to blame anymore.
In watching the tape on the internet (and if it happens in the world, somebody's gonna "YouTube" it soon enough), some people of color in the audience responded by referring to Richards as a "cracker." One could excuse this as the result of an obvious provocation by Richards. Then again...
The use of racial slurs, whether for comic effect or for other colloquial usage, is in fact quite common in America, even among the politically-correct and socially-enlightened. But it doesn't work both ways. And you have to know what's okay and what's not okay. Walk through a student lounge one day, and listen to young black men refer to "my n****," or refer to a white student as a "cracker," either in jest or as an insult. As a Scout commissioner visiting local units, I've encountered young black men refer to themselves using "the N word," which obviously runs counter to the spirit of fraternity that is supposed to transcend race in Scouting. It doesn't always pan out that way.
And then there's "cracker." This reference to whites is common on cable and late night television, not to mention the movies. Apparently it's okay to hurl racial slurs at whites, perhaps as part of a payback. This being the case, we must assume someone is keeping score. This would beg a fair question: when will we all finally be even?
Of course, as if to complicate matters, apparently it's also okay for blacks to use racial slurs against Asians. Watching the movie "Rush Hour," starring Jackie Chan, we hear the supporting black actor, playing an LAPD detective, referring to "Mister Rice-a-Roni" and exhorting a Chinese rival to "get your sweet-and-sour-chicken a**" somewhere or other. We can't be sure just what the quarrel is on the part of African-Americans toward Asians.
Is it because they're opening convenience stores in black neighborhoods? Is that it? Is that question offensive? Is it offensive because they are upset by the phenomenon, or because they are not?
Beats the hell out of a "cracker" like me.
(Can I say that?)
UPDATE: Above is a public apology issued by Richards, through the courtesy of Jerry Seinfeld's appearance on David Letterman.