Benetton Hearts & Sexual Napalm: More Thoughts on John Mayer’s Race Fail
by Couch Sessions
“Maybe I need to take a break from trying to be clever…
“I quit the soundbite game. I quit the media game. I’m out. I’m done. I just want to play my guitar to whoever is around… – John Mayer
John Mayer can’t quite get it right. Just two days after his now infamous remarks in a Playboy interview sent Twitter and blogiverse into a frenzy, he’s still paying the price for running his mouth – and inserting his foot in the process. At this point, everyone from ?uestlove to token black crush Holly Robinson Peete to our very own Marcus Dowling has weighed in on the controversy. But now I’m entering the fray and offering a rebuttal of sorts. Because I’m not done with this conversation yet. Or ready to let John and his white supremacist man parts off the hook.
As a black woman, this is a topic that cuts straight to the bone. For me it goes way beyond hood passes, Benetton hearts, and weird masturbation fantasies. This is as much about the intersections of race, gender, and pop culture as it is about stars behaving badly. This is about what happens when not even fame is enough to keep us from having to deal with those ugly parts of ourselves and our world we’d like to pretend don’t exist.
It would be easy to label John Mayer a racist and call it a day. But that’s way too simplistic and lazy for something as complicated and nuanced as race. In my world, racism isn’t just isolated hateful acts or prejudiced attitudes but real structural oppression. I believe you can’t have one without the other. Which is why Mayer’s comments feel so problematic. Because they are rooted in the same kind of backwards thinking, unchecked privilege, and dangerous stereotypes that keep both individual and systemic racism in place. What he said can’t just be reduced to off-color remarks made by an artist who likes to shock the public. His comments come with tons of cultural and historical baggage that can’t be ignored.
Fact of the matter is, John Mayer messed up. No matter how progressive or down he claims to be, what he said was thoughtless, hurtful, and offensive. It was also downright tacky and just plain stupid. I don’t think he intentionally set out to insult entire groups of people or ignite an increasingly messy PR nightmare. But I still don’t think he gets it either. He’s now of course backtracked from his original comments. He’s begun his inevitable racial mea culpa tour, making an emotional plea for forgiveness at a concert the other night. Flanked by his mostly black band, he awkwardly apologized for his misguided attempts at being “clever.” Elsewhere, he’s made it known that he’s sorry for dropping the n-bomb (it was apparently “arrogant” of him to try and “intellectualize” the word). He’s also vowed to stop being so “raw” in interviews and decided that he’s quitting the media game.
For all his apologies, Mayer still seems to miss the point. The n-word and hood pass foolishness was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more cringe-worthy material here to work with. For starters, there’s the little matter of his Grand Wizard sex organ. Some folks may have found it a hilarious, if distasteful, throwaway comment. But I think it’s a painful reminder of how far down black women often fall in the social hierarchy. For all his epic sexual conquests, black women have apparently never made it onto his radar. Mind you, he didn’t say he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet or hadn’t been around enough of us to try things out. He has essentially never even considered the possibility of seeing us as potentially dateable or f*ckable.
Now before the red herring of “preference” comes up let me be perfectly clear. It is one thing to have a weak spot for brown eyes and facial hair and quite another to make a sweeping generalization and decide an entire ethnicity just doesn’t do it for you. There is also no way to divorce his comments from the fact that historically, black women haven’t always been seen as desirable. Instead, we’ve been relegated to the sexless mammy role or viewed as wanton jezebels. Mayer played into this age-old stereotype, rendering us both completely invisible (“I don’t think I open myself to it”) and branding us as wild uncontrollable freaks (“Kerry Washington…She’s superhot and she’s also white-girl crazy”).
What really stands out though, is that when pressed about black women he finds attractive, Mayer not only name-checks Kerry Washington but two C-list actresses best known for sitcom roles over 15 years old. For someone so enamored with his own cleverness, John Mayer wasn’t even smart enough to at least give a halfway convincing stock answer of Halle or Beyonce. Instead, he references Officer Judy Hoffs and Hilary from Fresh Prince. Both gorgeous and talented women in their own right, but that’s the kind of answer you give when you really have limited knowledge of black culture or don’t know any black women personally (so much for that “hood pass,” huh?). Seriously, he couldn’t think of someone more relevant and visible, like say Gabrielle Union, Zoe Saldana, or Taraji Henson?
Not that the goal of true liberation is equal-opportunity skankdom. Truthfully, I think sistas have dodged a bullet considering the way he treats the women in his life. Turns out Mayer’s not only racially insensitive but kind of sexist too. Then again, isms usually come as a package deal. So I’m not exactly surprised that his interview was also chock-full of slut-shaming, objectification, and tons of garden-variety misogyny. He even throws a touch of anti-Semitism and homophobia into the mix too just to keep things interesting.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what I think. John Mayer doesn’t need my forgiveness. Just like Tiger Woods, Chris Brown, and countless other celebrities haven’t needed my forgiveness either. The changing nature of fame means that stars can get away with more and more and the bubble grows bigger and bigger, feeding off our collective voyeurism and insatiable taste for schadenfreude. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and the 24-hour news machine we now have constant access to celebrities. We can track our favorite stars’ every move and witness each fall from grace with frightening clarity. We also get to be there for the subsequent fallout and public amnesia that comes when we forget that something offensive, disturbing, or flat-out illegal even happened in the first place.
John Mayer, of course, isn’t the first star to come out the side of his mouth and certainly will not be the last. He thought he was playing the media and ended up getting played himself. I’ve always questioned his carefully crafted image as an edgy rock star with no filter so none of this really surprises me. I’ve also never understood the allure he has for so many black folks, especially black women. I don’t find his music particularly romantic, earnest, or even all that interesting. It’s always come across as tame, sentimental, middle-of-the-road commercial pop to me. Sure, he has some blues-rock chops. But if you want heartfelt white dudes with guitars try some Sondre Lerche, Kings of Convenience, or Smog instead. They may not be attracted to me either but at least they’ve learned to keep their mouth shut about it.
If John Mayer learns anything from this latest debacle, it’s that you don’t mess with black female fans. There are a lot of pissed-off sistas right now throwing out copies of Room for Squares and giving away tickets to his upcoming shows. If anything, Mayer needs to take his cues from 90’s white r&b crooner Jon B. He earned the wrath of countless black women following an interview where he said he preferred light-skin over dark-skin women. He hasn’t been heard from since.
Ultimately, I hope we begin to realize that just because someone sings about “Waiting for the World to Change” doesn’t mean they’re going to be the ones to do it. Music and popular culture can open hearts and minds, helping us peel back the layers of prejudice and injustice. But that takes real change. The kind you can’t get from soundbites and twitter feeds.