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My editor proposed this story about "that's racist" after hearing her young son's friends using it as a joke. Just the night before, it had been a punchline on one of my favorite sitcoms, Parks And Recreation. (Someone calls sorting laundry into whites and darks racist.)
Our sense that "that's racist" was evolving into a commonplace catchphrase that only occasionally had to do with racism and race was confirmed by conversations with parents, teachers and a website that tracked how it started as an online meme. A video clip from the cult TV show Wonder Showzen showed an African-American kid with the words "that's racist" underneath. It became a virtual retort on online message boards. People started dropping it into Internet arguments, to quench or inflame them.
From there, "that's racist" used as an ironic or absurdist diss spread into the mainstream. Comedian Hannibal Buress, also a writer for the show 30 Rock says he uses it because it makes people uncomfortable. That's critical to a certain kind of comedy, that takes pokes at the cultural underbelly.
Fourteen-year-old Gus Rachels and his friends use it to call out people overly sensitive to race issues. Regina N. Bradley, who teaches classes in African American literature at Florida State University, says she thinks kids are using "that's racist," to establish that they're not — but even the college students she teaches get confused about the difference between race and race issues. Saying "that's racist" is sometimes a way to get out of difficult discussions about race, she says — which is still a sensitive topic.
Three musicians named their hip-hop band Das Racist in homage to that original meme. But one of them, Victor Vasquez, told me that the name has not really worked out that well. Some people assume they're a white power band. (They are most emphatically not — the musicians are all men of color.) Some promoters won't put it on posters and it's cost them a few gigs. He says perhaps they didn't quite think through the implications of naming a band "that's racist" in German. And they may have underestimated the power those words still have.