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'That's Racist!' How A Serious Accusation Became A Commonplace Quip

Sort your laundry into whites and darks? "That's racist," quips one character on Parks and Recreation. (iStockphoto.com)

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.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, we dig into the meaning of a catchphrase that's become a staple in schoolyards and comedy routines: "That's racist." In the past, it was always a loaded challenge. It meant something to accuse someone of racism, but no more.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the transformation of an accusation.

NEDA ULABY: "That's racist." It's practically a running bit on TV. Sometimes it doesn't even refer to race. Like in the show "Parks and Rec," in a scene about folding laundry.

(Soundbite of TV show "Parks and Recreation")

Mr. ADAM SCOTT (Actor): (as Ben Wyatt) OK, so you always separate your lights from your darks.

Ms. AUBREY PLAZA (Actor): (as April Ludgate) That's racist.

ULABY: Or in the sitcom "Community."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Community")

Mr. DONALD GLOVER (Actor): (as Troy Barnes) You're saying I could be a lawyer.

Mr. JOEL McHALE (Actor): (as Jeff Winger) I'm saying you're a football player. It's in your blood.

Mr. GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) That's racist.

Mr. McHALE: (as Jeff Winger) Your soul.

Mr. GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) That's racist.

Mr. McHALE: (as Jeff Winger) Your eyes?

Mr. GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) That's gay.

Mr. McHALE: (as Jeff Winger) That's homophobic.

Mr. GLOVER: (as Troy Barnes) That's black.

Mr. McHALE: (as Jeff Winger) That's racist.

ULABY: To an episode of "Glee," when two kids are asked if they're dating.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glee")

Ms. JENNA USHKOWITZ (Actor): (as Tina Cohen-Chang) Because we're both Asian? That's racist.

Mr. HARRY SHUM JR. (Actor): (as Mike Chang) Totally racist.

ULABY: Even "Doctor Who."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Doctor Who")

Mr. DAVID TENNANT (Actor): (as The Doctor) That's cacti.

Unidentified Man: (as Character) That's racist.

ULABY: Kids are saying it too, like the girls who made a YouTube video of themselves going through a Taco Bell drive thru.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Woman #1: What's border sauce?

Unidentified Woman #2: Taco sauce.

Unidentified Woman #3: That's so racist.

ULABY: And 14-year-old Gus Rachels says he says it too.

Mr. GUS RACHELS: I mean, I admit to doing it sometimes, yes.

ULABY: Rachels and his friends in Lexington, Virginia started saying "That's racist" about three years ago. And they do it, why?

Mr. RACHELS: I think I or other people just sort of do it as a way of mocking people, who are overly sensitive about race issues.

ULABY: Like the white kid who thought it was racist to say someone's black. Or - another story - the kid who asked if a schoolmate was Chinese. Another kid yelled, that's racist.

Ms. SUZANNE VOHSTINA (Schoolteacher): They think that the term "that's racist" might just refer to things that are racial.

ULABY: That's schoolteacher Suzanne Vohstina. She teaches English at a public grade school in the Bronx. Her students are mostly black and Dominican with a few Albanians and Vietnamese mixed in. She says they all say "that's racist" constantly.

Ms. VOHSTINA: One of our hall aides, she's heard kids say it when she's asked them for their hallway pass or when she tells the student go back to class, the students will say "that's racist."

ULABY: Now, there could be racism in that scenario, but these kids also say it when they're all assigned homework. It's not just young kids, either.

Regina Bradley teaches college classes in African-American literature. Her students say it too.

Ms. REGINA BRADLEY (Florida State University): They were simply using it to lump discussions of race and race discourse all together. Because they were just saying because we brought up issues of race that was considered to be racist.

ULABY: Bradley thinks these kids are doing a couple of things. First, they're establishing themselves as not racist, by calling other people out. Second, they're avoiding difficult discussions about race, still of course a sensitive topic. And she agrees with Suzanne Vohstina, who thinks her grade school kids mimic shows like "South Park" and "30 Rock."

Ms. BRADLEY: Tracy Morgan is always saying "that's racist" to everything.

ULABY: Usually to his white female boss.

(Soundbite of TV show "30 Rock")

Ms. TINA FEY (Actor): (as Liz Lemon) You are unbelievable.

Mr. TRACY MORGAN (Actor): (as Tracy Jordan) I'm unbelievable? What about your racist mess? Thinking a grown man is illiterate. That's the subtle racism of lowered expectations. Bing Crosby said that.

Ms. FEY: (as Liz Lemon) No, Bill Cosby said that.

Mr. MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) That's racist.

ULABY: One of "30 Rock's" writers is comedian Hannibal Buress. He'll say "that's racist," for example, in a bar.

Mr. HANNIBAL BURESS (Writer; Comedian): Say a bartender is taking too long. This bartender is racist. Or is the bartender racist, but also just a bad bartender.

ULABY: "That's racist" works in comedy, Buress says, because it pushes buttons. Scholar Regina Bradley says it also works because racism's often expressed differently than from a generation or two ago.

Ms. BRADLEY: If it was the 1950s or when my grandparents were coming up in Jim Crow and somebody says that's racist, they're like, OK, well, duh.

ULABY: The segregated neighborhoods and swimming pools of Bradley's grandparents have yielded to more subtle forms of discrimination. That's reflected in how "that's racist" is being used - to shut down conversations or as a joke.

And not just in schoolyards or sitcoms. Glenn Beck used it as a cheap shot when he called the president racist a few years ago.

Mr. GLENN BECK (TV Host): This guy is, I believe, a racist.

ULABY: Beck eventually apologized. Trivializing "that's racist" shows how much cultural confusion exists about race and racism right now, says Regina Bradley.

Ms. BRADLEY: I think it can acknowledge the problem and also sweep it under the rug at the same time.

ULABY: "That's racist" started as a virtual retort on Internet discussion boards. It was a little video clip from a cult TV show, an African-American kid with the words "that's racist" underneath. People started dropping it into online arguments to quench or to inflame them.

(Soundbite of music)

Musicians Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez loved the meme - so much they named their band Das Racist.

Mr. VICTOR VASQUEZ (Das Racist): That was like an inside joke that was floating around. It's a cool way to kind of undermine the seriousness and, like, inherent, like, sadness of talking about race.

ULABY: The band's smart, prickly sensibility has impressed critics and fans. But the name Das Racist has not worked out that well. Vasquez said some promoters won't put it on posters, and it's cost them a few gigs. He says maybe they didn't really think through the implications of "that's racist" and they underestimated the power those words still have.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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