Jason Jones, University of Washington
Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/appropriating-the-one-drop-rule
The one-drop rule, or the notion that one drop of African blood renders a person black, once played a vital role in the expansion of the nineteenth-century American slave population and segregation under Jim Crow. Media, communication, and rhetorical studies, however, have yet to consider the extent to which the one-drop rule continues to function in contemporary American discourse on race. There are, nonetheless, scholars in other fields who have turned a critical eye to the one-drop rule and the ways Americans have taken up or challenged the one-drop rule in their language. Ronald Sundstrom studied the obstacles multiracial individuals have encountered in their efforts to assert their multiracial identities in the face of various parties who deny such identities on grounds informed by the one-drop rule and other perspectives that refuse the existence of mixed race (110-116). Joshua Glasgow and his colleagues performed an experiment in which participants were asked to racially classify a woman who looked white and self-identified as such, but discovered that she had a black ancestor; the overwhelming majority of participants categorized her as white (64). However, as Glasgow went on to point out, many Americans identify President Barack Obama as black despite common knowledge of his white mother. Given such observations, it is clear that there are vestiges of the one-drop rule in American racial discourse. But as Michel de Certeau explained, people appropriate discourses to achieve ends that do not always coincide with the ideological implications originally associated with some facet of language use (48). Being no exception, the one-drop rule no longer works to expand the ranks of dehumanized chattel nor does it serve as grounds for the legal removal of peoples from segregated areas, yet many still rely on it, though less rigidly, to identify some biracial Americans as black. The one-drop rule’s discursive utility, however, is not confined to regressive forms of racial identification and has been used for other strategic purposes as is the case in an episode of Seth MacFarlane’s Emmy-nominated Family Guy ("Peter Griffin...") that parodies the slavery reparations debate, a veritable minefield for anyone willing to partake in the dispute.
Arguments for and against reparations for former slaves and their descendents can be traced back long before the abolition of slavery (Bacon 173), and both proponents and opponents of reparations have been more than willing to call each other racists—a counterproductive move that shuts down communication rather than promoting it. With such a binary, it would seem as if the claims of reparations advocates and detractors cannot cohere in any possible way, but Family Guy’s satirical take on the reparations controversy proves otherwise. The question, however, is how does an animated television show with an unmistakably white face (MacFarlane’s) present white detractors who see themselves as the potential executors of reparations and the black recipients of such compensation while at once avoiding charges of racism, particularly in the show’s representation of the latter? To navigate this dilemma, Family Guy writers have Peter Griffin, the show’s overweight, Irish-American protagonist, pass as black via the one-drop rule to critique some black American reparations beneficiaries behind the shield of Peter’s altered racial identity while at once challenging the very rule that enables the show’s reparations commentary to take place. Although the use of the one-drop rule is nothing new in accounts of white to black passing as Baz Dreisinger elucidated in her treatise on such narratives, Family Guy’s argument from someone else’s identity, albeit fictional, builds on Dana Anderson’s contention that one’s personal identity can be included in one’s available rhetorical means. Through Peter’s rhetorically constructed black identity and sustained visible whiteness, Family Guy questions how those on the receiving end of reparations might put them to use, as the show juxtaposes the selfishness of Peter qua black reparations recipient with the selflessness of Cleveland Brown, Peter’s African-American friend. By doing so, the episode calls attention to one of the ways people can avoid offensive speech when partaking in racially charged disagreements—arguing from the identity of oneself or others. While navigating the discursive constraint that European-American comedy writers often face in the twenty-first century (the act of avoiding racist portrayals of African-Americans), Family Guy also models a form of rhetorical listening (Ratcliffe) for viewers as it reveals that elements of pro- and anti-reparations claims can be simultaneously acknowledged as opposed to approaching the debate as an all or nothing scenario.
Reparations, “Racists,” and a Rhetoric of Identity
“Since its inception,” MacFarlane noted in a recent press release, “Family Guy has used biting satire as the foundation of its humor. The show is an ‘equal-opportunity offender’” (Fernandez). Averaging 4.5 million viewers in 2001 ("How did your Favorite Show Rate?") when the reparations episode first aired and having steadily increased its viewership to 7.5 million viewers in 2009 ("Season Program Ratings [through 5/17]"), Family Guy’s political and social commentary has had the potential to influence public deliberation for nearly a decade despite the often vapid, spasmodic comedy that accompanies the show’s satire. Though some may frown upon scholarly treatment of not just a cartoon, but a single episode of one, directing an analytical eye toward Family Guy’s satirical portrayal of the reparations debate ackowledges that people draw from the discursive possibilities made available in a society when they deliberate over public issues; Family Guy’s reparations episode addresses the debate and informs or generates discussions about reparations. But before examining Family Guy’s use of the one-drop rule to take on the reparations debate, its necessary to map out some of the circulating discourse on the subject put forth in Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, David Horowitz’s controversial response to The Debt, and rhetorical scholarship on the reparations debate. Some of the general public’s discourse on reparations (e.g., Amazon.com reviews of The Debt and college students’ reactions to Horowitz) are discussed as well because their voices are just as significant to understanding the debate as that of public intellectuals and academics.
Family Guy’s reparations episode, humorously titled “Peter Griffin: Husband, Father… Brother?,” originally aired in December 2001 in the wake of controversy. A year before the episode’s broadcast, Randall Robinson wrote The Debt in which the author argued that compensation should be given to African-American descendents of black slaves via a trust fund used to finance a rigorous K through 12 educational curriculum for at-risk black youths. Not long after The Debt’s publication, Horowitz responded to Robinson’s book with what would later become an infamous advertisement, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist, Too!” Horowitz's response fomented rancor among blacks and whites as he sought publication of the ad, mostly without success, in college newspapers nationwide during Black History Month of 2001. Following Horowitz’s lead, opponents and proponents of reparations characterized—and continue to identify—the other side’s arguments as racist. Such charges are also present in rhetorical studies of the debate (as demonstrated in Tom Farrell and Mark McPhail’s 2005 analysis of reparations rhetoric) that further polarize the discourse. Rhetoricians who have lent their scholarly eyes to the matter suggested that pro-reparations arguments cannot be subjected to reasonable criticism. With the reparations debate framed as a zero-sum game (as often the case when the term “racism” is bandied about), the divisive arguments supporters and detractors hurl at one another leave no room for alternative points of view. The dispute is characterized by, to borrow from Krista Ratcliffe, a lack of rhetorical listening, or “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (17). Satire, however, often rests on such an openness because “the form,” as Dustin Griffin observed, “lends itself to open-ended inquiry rather than to steady progress toward conclusion” (41). Family Guy’s satirical inquiry, then, explores the intractability of the reparations debate without succumbing to it, but carefully treads the waters of this rhetorical impasse, because to satirize the reparations debate in a way that could be seen as racist toward African Americans would lead to the same fate that Horowitz’s statement faced—censorship.
In The Debt, Robinson grounded the need for reparations in an awareness of America’s centuries of unjust treatment of black Americans and the lingering effects of institutionally and socially backed racism. Among his recommendations were state-supported schools that provide housing and a well-rounded education for poor, urban African Americans (244). In an effort to target direct beneficiaries of slave labor, Robinson also recommended an extensive investigation “to determine the extent to which American and foreign companies, or the existing successors to such companies, or individuals, families, and public institutions, were unjustly enriched by the uncompensated labor of slaves or by the de jure racial discrimination that succeeded slavery” (244-245). In sum, Robinson sought reparations from the United States government and the individuals and businesses who aggrandized their wealth on the backs of slaves while at once working to avoid seeking compensation from European Americans who have indirectly benefited from white privilege that grew out of slavery and other racist practices. Although Robinson’s latter suggestion acknowledged the difference between whites who directly profited from slavery and those who did not, European Americans who trace their ancestors’ United States arrival to Ellis Island were not pleased with the thought of American tax dollars going toward such ends, as some Amazon.com reviewers explained. Along similar lines, one anonymous Amazon.com reviewer pointed out that Randall’s “selective reading of history manages to ignore thousands of whites who worked for the abolition of slavery in the United States [and] the long line of whites who took great risks to advance the cause of racial equality” (Anonymous Amazon Customer 1). Some reviewers took the harsher route as another nameless critic bluntly wrote, “Randall Robinson is a racist, and this is a racist book whose goal is to stir up animosity between the races and make money for Robinson and his gang of racists in the process” (Anonymous Amazon Customer 2). No response to The Debt, however, would attract more attention than David Horowitz’s advertisement.
Originally published May 30, 2000, on Salon.com and the following year on Horowitz’s FrontPageMag.com, the social critic’s ten reasons why reparations are bad can be most aptly characterized as arguments of association and division. Among the claims, Horowitz contended that black Africans and Arabs partook in the slave trade, that today’s African Americans have benefitted from slavery if the institution indeed generated wealth for the United States, and that hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers gave their lives for the abolition of slavery. Directly challenging Robinson’s position that past reparations given to Holocaust survivors and Japanese-Americans who suffered internment during World War II are precedents for slavery reparations, Horowitz countered that “the recipients of reparations [in those cases] were the direct victims of the injustice or their immediate families.” For Horowitz, there was not an accurate way to go about measuring the impact slavery has had on lives of living African Americans, and the presence of a black American middle class indicated that even if slavery had a negative impact on the lives of African Americans such an influence was not evenly distributed throughout the black American population. Though the statement was provocative throughout, Horowitz stepped it up a notch in the second half of the list as he argued that blacks owed a debt to America for abolishing slavery and that reparations had been paid through welfare and affirmative action. Adding fuel to the fire, Horowitz sought publication of his statement in college newspapers nationwide in February 2001 and continued to do so in the months that followed. What would have otherwise slid under the radar ultimately generated media attention as students protested the few college newspapers that printed the ad and some editors issued apologies for doing so. The Los Angeles Times covered the protest of Berkeley’s Daily Californian, which ran “Ten Reasons” during the last week of Black History Month. Unsatisfied with the editor’s initial front-page apology, protesters, according to the Times, “circulated fliers charging that the Daily Cal supports racism and demanding an apology that takes up the entire front page or runs repeatedly” (La Ganga). At Brown University, a group of students who claimed to represent minority interests at the university replaced 4,000 copies of The Daily Herald with a flier that criticized the paper for its decision to print the ad (Lesley), another response that would generate news coverage. Rarely, however, did campus receptions of “Ten Reasons” mirror that of the University of Chicago’s—at least when The Chicago Maroon first printed the statement. As Laneka Thomas of the university’s Organization of Black Students (OBS) told The University of Chicago Magazine: “Our lack of response came from not wanting to give [Horowitz] exposure” ("Campus News"). Horowitz, nevertheless, managed to gain a great deal of publicity as his extensive “Reparations Bibliography” published on FrontPageMag.com indicated ("Ten Reasons"), and his media ascendancy on this particular issue helped make him the face of anti-reparations. The resulting problem is that for someone whose arguments have been considered racist to become the champion of reparations detractors helps shut the door to possible arguments against reparations that might not be seen as racist.
Rhetoric scholars who have examined the debate have also played a part in reinforcing the idea that anti-reparations claims are racist or nothing more than unreasonable arguments. In Farrell and McPhail’s analysis of reparations rhetoric, the rhetoricians contended that the debate boils down to “what [Kenneth] Burke describes as identification and division, between reparations and separation” (232). Focusing specifically on Horowitz’s anti-reparations rhetoric, Farrell and McPhail compared the social critic’s discourse to the rhetoric of nineteenth-century slavery apologists and twentieth-century segregation supporters to demonstrate that Horowitz and his language are racist. Preceding Farrell and McPhail’s study, Jacqueline Bacon explained that different understandings of history are at the root of the dispute. While anti-reparations arguments ignore the roles black Americans played in the fight for abolition, mistakenly conflate anti-slavery with anti-racism, downplay white Americans’ responsibility for slavery, and so forth, pro-reparations arguments, according to Bacon, “acknowledge that history is inherently rhetorical and that it reflects the ideologies of those who write it” (184). That Bacon aligned pro-reparations discourse with the values of many rhetoricians indirectly devalued the anti-reparations arguments she discussed in her attempt to evenhandedly present the debate. And though Bacon made a strong case that illustrated the marginalization of pro-reparations discourse in mass media, her study, like Farrell and McPhail’s, downplayed the fact that the majority of college newspapers in which Horowitz sought to print his statement refused to do so. The most significant problem, however, is that neither study acknowledged the possibility of a sound argument against reparations. When more time is spent refuting anti-reparations rhetoric (and vice versa) than working to recognize an inkling of validity despite the inescapability of disagreement, such discourse can yield nothing substantial.
If, as Farrell and McPhail claimed, the reparations debate is a matter of identification and division, the identification they and their opponents demand is problematic. Pointing out a significant communicative setback in Burke’s notion of identification, Ratcliffe argues that “divisions,” despite Burke’s recognition of the equality between identification and division, “are posited as differences that must be bridged in order to construct a place of identification” (59). Through this understanding of identification, the purpose of a communicative act is to conquer, not to cooperate, with another perspective. As Wayne Booth would likely have described the reparations debate, the “emphasis [is] on win-rhetoric rather than on listening-rhetoric: how to persuade better than how to join and thus progress together” (149). To move beyond identification’s denial of difference, Ratcliffe posits four strategies of rhetorical listening:
1. Promoting an understanding of self and other
2. Proceeding within an accountability logic
3. Locating identifications across commonalities and differences
4. Analyzing claims as well as the cultural logics within which these claims function (26)
The first strategy is a communicator’s recognition of an interlocutor’s voice and the necessity of integrating his/her words with one’s own in order to make meaning. The second move involves acknowledging that each member of a community must be accountable to the group as a whole. The third rhetorical listening tactic has to do with working to create spaces where commonalities and differences can collaborate rather than having the latter yield to the former. And the forth is an attempt to understand, not refute, the reasoning on which an opposing perspective is founded. Through rhetorical listening, new perspectives that integrate differing points of view can be articulated, or, at the very least, opposing views can be openly explored rather than quickly denounced even if some sort of agreement is not achieved. Though it might be difficult to put Ratcliffe’s model of rhetorical listening to use in everyday discourse, satire is particularly equipped for such strategies as it often helps audiences map out “the implications of a given moral position” among other questions present in a societies discursive landscape (Griffin 38). As Griffin appropriately terms it, “What we behold in satire is not a neatly articulated homiletic discourse but the drama of an inflamed sensibility, or a cool and detached mind playfully exploring a moral topic” (37-38). As we will see in the coming analysis, Family Guy writers put their “inflamed sensibility” to work as the episode not only excavates what informs the reasoning of pro- and anti-reparations discourse, but also synthesizes the claims in ways that show that aspects of the different positions can actually work together. Though the show does not leave audiences with a moral that resolves the dispute, Family Guy humorously works through the question of reparations in a way that is less divisive than is typically the case.
If rhetorical listening begins with an understanding of oneself and others, then one anti-reparations rhetorical move that Bacon discusses at length is worth further consideration because it suggests where the threshold of offensive speech lies in anti-reparations rhetoric—the emphasis on personal (historical) actions to assert one’s innocence. As many anti-reparations arguments posit, white abolitionists, whites who did not own slaves, and the millions of European immigrants who arrived to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are historical actors who opposed slavery or did not immediately benefit from slavery, thus absolving the majority of today’s European Americans. Such arguments demonstrate what Dana Anderson understood to be “the rhetorical strategy of identity, the influencing of others through the articulation of our sense of who we are” (4). A reparations detractor who cites aspects of his/her familial history such as having family members who fought for the Union to assert one’s innocence not only rests on the presumption that such a history is an indelible part of his/her identity, but also implies that one’s ancestors’ resistance to slavery or lack of connection to the institution exemplified their non-racist identity, an identity that transcended the context of slavery. In other words, identity, as Anderson contended, is often understood to be trans-situational in colloquial discourse (98); someone who stood against slavery or had nothing to do with this racist practice could not have possibly been racist or benefited from racism in other situations according to this logic. But such arguments ignore the benefits of white privilege and foreground an understanding of American history, as Bacon pointed out, that “is fundamentally about individual rather than collective relationships and responsibilities” (182). This reading of anti-reparations arguments that pull from one’s personal identity and the identities of one’s ancestors, however, is not the only possibility. If one’s identity and the identities of his/her ancestors are available means for arguments against reparations, then so are the identities of one’s opponents, which appears to be where the line of offensive speech can be drawn.
When Horowitz claimed that blacks were just as responsible for slavery as whites, argued that African Americans should show gratitude for abolition, and evoked the welfare queen stereotype to point out that reparations have already been made, such arguments were directed at black reparations apologists. Although there is no surefire way to determine what black (and white) Americans specifically found offensive about Horowitz’s “Ten Reasons,” offensive language in its most rudimentary form is discourse that attacks, or at least is perceived to attack, someone else. To avoid potentially offensive speech, then, arguing from one’s identity or the identities of relatives enables white reparations opponents to voice their opinions without appearing to target black reparations supporters on the grounds of their racial identity. Put differently, European Americans who declare their innocence with regard to slavery and racism offer arguments that run less a risk of being understood as offensive or racist than rhetoric that places the guilt of slavery and its legacy on black Americans. When Family Guy writers decided to take on the reparations debate, they faced similar discursive constraints that some white Americans adhere to and others such as Horowitz challenge. A show with a reputation for being willing to say or do just about anything, however, addresses the “white” and “black” sides of the reparations debate without portraying African Americans in ways that are reserved for black comedians in today’s racial milieu. Take for example Dave Chappelle’s 2003 reparations skit on The Chappelle Show. After the federal government grants African Americans one trillion dollars in reparations, the recipients go onto embrace mass consumerism to the fullest, stereotypically black extent as fried chicken and Cadillac sales soar through the roof, one person buys enough Kool cigarettes for himself and his family to last a lifetime, and the now defunct, black-owned FUBU clothing brand merges with KFC to become the world’s largest corporation. One reparations beneficiary by the name of Tron (played by Chappelle) becomes the richest man in the world after a high-stakes dice game. When asked by a reporter what he plans to do with his money, his response is telling:
Reporter: I think what everyone wants to know now is what are you going to do with all this money?
Tron: I’m gonna reinvest my money in the community.
Reporter: That’s a very nice gesture.
Tron: Psych! (Brennan, Chappelle, and Broder)
What is Chappelle’s critique of selfish spending, which is only a microcosm of the larger American consumerist mindset, would have been labeled racist if MacFarlane’s Family Guy had taken a similar route in its efforts to make the same point. By using the one-drop rule to present Peter as black while at once sustaining his visible whiteness, Family Guy writers use this fictional character’s identity as a rhetorical maneuver to steer clear of an offensive portrayal of African American reparations recipients and to serve as the springboard for a parody of the reparations debate that works to unite black and white Americans rather than divide them, as the controversy has typically done. Moreover, the choice of the one-drop rule to initiate Peter’s passing demonstrates an awareness of a social and, at one time, legal custom of racial identification that grew out of slavery, yet continued to influence the lives of Americans well beyond emancipation. Thus, Family Guy is able to critique self-interested reparations beneficiaries via Peter while at once recognizing the social reach of slavery for which anti-reparations arguments have been taken to task.
Using Not Quite Black Peter to Mend the Reparations’ Racial Divide
The reparations episode begins with Peter and family watching a Quahog High School basketball game and hoping the oldest son Chris, who turns out to be nothing more than the team’s towel boy, gets a chance to play. During the drive home after the game, Chris speaks using African American slang with which Peter is unfamiliar, and his father douses him with holy water because he thinks Chris is “speaking in tongues” ("Peter Griffin..."). Frustrated with Chris’s continued use of African-American colloquialisms that he has picked up from black players on the basketball team and rap music, Peter turns to his African-American friend Cleveland for advice. Cleveland suggests that what might be the reason for Brian’s linguistic choices is a lack of awareness of his own cultural heritage. Peter agrees and decides to introduce Chris to his Irish background by taking him to an Irish cultural museum that stereotypically presents Irish men as violent alcoholics and Irish women as the Irish Mother who “is seen as having a large number of children, Catholic, poor, uneducated and married to an alcoholic laborer” (Wall 9). Next, Peter takes Chris to the library where his son pulls the Griffin’s family genealogy from one of the shelves. As Peter flips through the pages, he is suddenly taken aback as he notices the picture of one of his family’s ancestors from 1840, a black slave named Nathaniel “Nate” Griffin. Shocked, Peter exclaims, “Holy crap, I’m black!,” as he racially identifies himself through the discursive parameters of the one-drop rule.
Peter’s discovery is readily accepted by the rest of the family as they embrace this new identity for specific ends as is the case with most narratives of white to black passing (and vice versa) according to Dreisinger. In her study of reverse racial passing, Dreisinger cited a 1946 article written by Josephine Schuyler, wife of African American satirist George Schuyler, that explained how white partners in interracial couples would declare an imaginary, distant black relative so that their relationship could be deemed acceptable under the one-drop rule (1-2). Schuyler and others’ decision to discursively construct their identities in such a way is a rhetorical choice that allowed them freedoms, relatively speaking, that would have otherwise been denied—specifically blacks and whites wanting to have public relationships. Aside from the obvious laughs that will ensue as Peter awkwardly tries to acclimate himself to his newfound blackness, that Family Guy writers opt for Peter to pass as black through the one-drop rule connects the narrative to a discursive practice that does not carry the same social and legal force as it did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but nonetheless lends Peter’s rhetorically constructed blackness some credibility. In other words, Family Guy’s use of the one-drop rule, to borrow Susan Miller’s explication of the relationship between trust and rhetoric, situates the narrative in “infrastructures of trustworthiness we are schooled to recognize” (2) as the one-drop rule has a long history in American social, legal, literary, and other discursive practices that have strengthened its believability. Use of the one-drop rule to identify Peter as black is also a more palatable move than to have had the character don black make-up and run the chance of partaking in an entirely different, more historically reprehensible practice—blackface. Although blackface has made a comeback in American entertainment, most notably Robert Downey, Jr., as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, which earned the actor an Oscar nod, Family Guy elects not to cross certain racial lines despite its unabashed political incorrectness. By doing so, Peter’s identity can be used as grounds for communicating ideas that could have been perceived as offensive under other circumstances.
Initially, the telos of Peter’s passing is unclear as he genuinely appears to want to learn more about being black as he turns to Cleveland once again for some African-American insight. Rather than taking offense, Cleveland recommends that Peter “go out and commingle amongst [his] newly found brethren; you know, absorb the culture” ("Peter Griffin..."). White to black passing by means of one’s proximity to blacks is a common theme in white to black passing narratives and is historically rooted in the one-drop rule. During Reconstruction, “Fears about blackness being contagious, transmittable via proximity, were particularly invoked in panicky rhetoric about miscegenation—which results, after all, from literal (i.e., sexual) proximity” (Dreisinger 21). The anxiety over black/white nearness would later abate in contemporary white to black passing narratives as Dreisinger would go on to elucidate, and Family Guy drives home that point when Peter unsuccessfully tries to facilitate his figurative blackening by entering what are presumed to be black cultural spaces. First, Peter watches a stand-up comedian at the Apollo Theater where he struggles to understand the punch-line of a Jheri curl joke and subsequently escorts himself from the building when the all-black audience turns to stare at him in bewilderment. Next, he attends an African-American studies course at Quahog University and “hoo-hoos” like the audience of the early 1990s Arsenio Hall Show when the professor discusses Thurgood Marshall’s being the first African-American Supreme Court Justice; once again, Peter excuses himself when the black students look at him askance. Though both scenes are humorous due to the awkwardness of Peter’s failed attempts to act “black” in spaces primarily occupied by African Americans, these moments simultaneously work against the one-drop rule as neither his ancestral nor physical proximity to African Americans provide Peter with what Jacqueline Jones Royster calls rhetorical competence, or “the sociocultural knowledge and language experience” necessary to communicate effectively in those spaces (48).
Despite Peter’s futile attempts to be black, Cleveland continues to accept Peter as African American and brings him to an African American men’s league meeting. When the session commences, Cleveland announces that he has received reparations from the descendent of his ancestors’ former slave-owner:
Yesterday, I received reparations from the family that enslaved my ancestors (Applause). Now that family has become poor, white trash since then, so they only gave what they could: this tray of scrumptious Rice Krispy treats. I share them with all of you in the hopes that one day your wounds may be healed as well (Applause). ("Peter Griffin...")
That Cleveland is willing to accept Rice Krispy treats as reparations for past transgressions against his family might immediately call to mind notions of his being an Uncle Tom; after all, a tray of snacks would be a smack in the face to many whose ancestors endured the injustices of American slavery. Read differently, Cleveland’s acceptance of what appears to be meager reparations from an economic standpoint demonstrates his willingness to acknowledge the unequal distribution of white privilege that some anti-reparations arguments articulate and his unwillingness to invert the white/black power hierarchy of slavery in order to exploit a working-class European American today. From a position of rhetorical listening, Cleveland exercises an openness not only to the injustices he and his ancestors faced, but to the circumstances of his fellow white American. Equally significant is the idea that reparations do not have to come in monetary form, but, in the least, an acknowledgement rather than a disavowal of America’s bloody legacy of slavery and racism. Through the symbolic acts of Cleveland’s sharing the Rice Krispy treats with fellow African Americans and the reparations made between he and the poor European American, Family Guy emphasizes, in this case, that reparations can be for the commonwealth—for both blacks and whites—and synthesizes aspects of arguments for and against reparations that locates a gray area between the incorrigibly bifurcated public and academic discourse on the matter.
As Cleveland spreads the wealth in the form of Rice Krispy treats, Peter tries to capitalize on his blackness for the first time, but his actions are met with some hostility as members of the African-American league question his black identity. When Cleveland informs the crowd about Peter’s recently discovered black identity, one league member responds, “He doesn’t look very black to me” ("Peter Griffin..."). Though Peter manages to assert his blackness through his professed knowledge and appreciation of early sitcoms such as The Jeffersons and Diff’rent Strokes—a play on another white to black passing leitmotif (Dreisinger 96)—the league member’s observation verbally calls attention to the racial split necessary for Family Guy to take its representation of reparations in a direction that runs counter to the portrayal of reparations through Cleveland. Throughout the entire episode, Peter’s white skin constantly offsets his black racialization via the one-drop rule because “race,” according to Linda Martín Alcoff, “has historically worked through visible markers on the body which trump dress, speech, and cultural practices” (242). Visible racial cues—primarily the color of one’s skin—is why blacks who pass as white keep hidden the African American members of their family tree and whites who pass as black, such as Josephine Schuyler, declare black familial ties. Aside from pinpointing one of the one-drop rule’s longstanding weaknesses, Peter’s racial ambiguity is needed to neutralize the synecdochical functions of race that can encourage members of one racial group to perceive the actions of a differently raced individual as representative of that person’s entire race. The racial tension between Peter’s inherited blackness and visible whiteness allows him to embody what Anderson extrapolated from Burke’s “A Symbolic of Motives”: “Identity for [Burke] is a terrain of dialectical transformations, a place where our identifications with and divisions from aspects of the world commingle as we daily define who we are (our substance) and, consequently, how we should act (our motives)” (32). In other words, a range of dialectical, or agonistic, forces (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) constitute an identity that is continuously shifting along with its contexts. The competing components of an identity, however, are subject to a “god-term,” or “ultimate order,” that tames, even if only temporarily, the dialectical tension that comprises an identity. As Burke explains in A Rhetoric of Motives, “The ‘ultimate’ order of terms would thus differ essentially from the ‘dialectical’ (as we use the term in this particular connection) in that there would be a ‘guiding idea’ or ‘unitary principle’ behind the diversity of voices” (187). If it is neither Peter’s blackness nor whiteness that motivates his actions, then there must be some other element of Peter’s identity that guides his behavior.
Family Guy alludes to the god-term of Peter’s identity in the subsequent scene that begins with Carter Pewterschmidt, Peter’s father-in-law, teaching his grandson, Chris, a life-lesson:
Carter: Now Chris, this one’s for you. What’s the secret to happiness?
Carter: Very good. Babs [Carter’s wife] give him a caramel. ("Peter Griffin...")
Peter interrupts Carter’s capitalist indoctrination of Chris when he enters the room with his African American posse. After Peter tells his crew to grab something to eat in the kitchen, Carter expresses his desire to introduce the children to the Pewterschmidt (re: white) side of the family. Narrating the pages of the Pewterschmidt family genealogy, Carter begins with a photo of a Pewterschmidt forbear who is seen violently holding an American Indian child hostage: “Here’s your ancestor, Silas Pewterschmidt, bartering with some local Indians” ("Peter Griffin..."). Carter turns to the next page, stutters, and then tries to move on, but Peter stops him:
Peter: Wait. What was that?
Carter: Oh, that was nothing. Just some fellow we fed and took care of in exchange for doing a few chores.
Peter: You mean a slave! Let me see that! ("Peter Griffin...")
When Peter opens the book, he learns that the slave is his ancestor Nate Griffin. Carter’s efforts to gloss over the injustices his predecessors committed against Native Americans and African Americans are often cited in the arguments of reparations advocates—an historical amnesia that Peter also will not stand for. The next morning, Peter walks into the kitchen wearing a dashiki and announcing that his name is no longer “Peter,” but “Kichwa Tembo”—the name, ironically, of a luxury safari service in Kenya that suggests the little he knows about Africa and its peoples. Trying to repair his relationship with Peter (Kichwa), Carter asks if there is anything he can do:
Peter: Actually, there is. I want reparations just like Cleveland.
Carter: What the hell are you talking about?
Peter: I want an apology and some Rice Krispy treats.
Carter: Well I absolutely will not give you an apology, and I’m assuming Rice Krispy treats is black slang for money, so here’s ten thousand dollars. ("Peter Griffin...")
After another brief exchange, Carter writes Peter a check for twenty thousand dollars. As he makes out the check, Carter asks Peter how to spell “Kichwa?” Peter responds: “Yeah, you know what, screw the Kichwa. Make it out to ‘Peter’: P-E-T-E." ("Peter Griffin..."). Figuratively tossing his blackness aside, Peter receives a reparations check for vowing to never mention the Pewterschmidt family’s role in slavery again. Peter’s reparations not only admit white privilege as white Peter makes off with a hefty payday compared to Cleveland’s compensation, but it also calls into question whether or not monetary reparations can heal racial wounds or simply cover them up as Carter asks Peter to do. At the same time, it is not Peter’s whiteness that guides his actions in this instance, but a capitalist, consumerist identity that transcends both his blackness and whiteness, thus serving as his identity’s god-term.
While Dave Chappelle’s reparations episode stereotypically portrays African Americans as spending money on fried chicken, Cadillacs, and so forth, Peter wastes his money in a way that is neither stereotypically black nor white, signaling Family Guy’s efforts to avoid an offensive representation of African Americans qua recipients of reparations. When Peter takes his reparations check and turns the den into Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Lois (Peter’s wife) scolds him for not donating the “reparation money to a worthy black charity” ("Peter Griffin..."). Peter’s avarice, however, detaches reparations from the community-building values reparations supporters stress and instead attaches them to the self-aggrandizement motivations detractors bemoan. Though Peter’s spendthrift is evidence of arguments that characterize reparations advocates as seeking to exploit European Americans to achieve selfish ends, Family Guy immediately gives salience to the institutional racism many African Americans face nationwide as the ensuing scene shows Peter being pulled over for driving while black:
Officer: Hey, you’re that black guy I saw on the news conference, ain’t you?
Peter: Uh, yeah that’s me.
Officer: (To the walkie-talkie) This is car 15. I’m gonna need back-up. I’ve got a stolen vehicle here.
Peter: But this is my car.
Officer: (To the walkie-talkie) Suspect’s getting belligerent.
Officer: Officer down (officer collapses and three squad cars arrive). ("Peter Griffin...")
By having Peter face racial discrimination at the hands of the police immediately after he squanders the reparations money, Family Guy illustrates that the vestiges of slavery still affect the lives of African Americans today despite the skepticism of Horowitz and other reparations opponents. Peter’s loss of white privilege, however, does not entail stronger identification with the town’s African American community as the African-American men’s league rejects Peter, Cleveland angrily explains, for “having given nothing back to the community” ("Peter Griffin...").
The following night, Peter decides to make amends with the town's European Americans and African Americans at a Quahog High School basketball game after an epiphany through Nate Griffin who tells Peter “to stop putting so much importance on race” and instead to define himself through good deeds ("Peter Griffin..."). Peter then steps onto the basketball court and announces that he wants to share his reparations money with his “brothers,” meaning his fellow African-American men. When he tosses the money into the air, everyone in the stands (black and white) smilingly rushes onto the court trying to pick up as much money as s/he can, showing that they are all indeed “brothers,” united by the god-term of capitalism and its valuation of the importance of the dollar. As Peter remarks to Lois, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; the only color that really matters is green” ("Peter Griffin..."). Fittingly, Cleveland and other African-American men’s league members are not present in this scene, thus working to prevent Peter’s observation from being the cliché moral of the story.
With money as the god-term, the guiding principle, for both black and white Americans in Peter’s reparations experience, Family Guy once again illustrates a facet of rhetorical listening that encourages us “to consciously locate our identifications in places of commonalities and differences” (Ratcliffe 32) instead of allowing identification to cover up differences that will exist regardless of how hard we try to pretend that they do not. This approach to rhetorical listening is extended more directly to the reparations debate as the show moves beyond simply taking a side on the issue and alternatively integrates arguments from both sides. Through the juxtaposition of Cleveland (communal betterment) and Peter’s (individualist consumption) respective reparations narratives, Family Guy demonstrates how elements of the debate that are presumed to be mutually exclusive can actually function together. Cleveland’s willingness to accept Rice Krispy treats, though comical, is tied to his recognition of the working class status of the family whose ancestors once enslaved his own. This point is further reinforced when he refers to the family as “poor, white trash”—a racially and economically charged, derogatory epithet that is grounded in the unequal distribution of white privilege. While a typical response would be that the white family still has a degree of unearned privilege, Cleveland refuses to invert the exploiter/exploited binary for the sake of healing past wounds, not—as reparations opponents argue—to create new ones. At the opposite end is Peter who receives monetary reparations that advocates would prefer, but the intentions of both the giver (Carter) and receiver (Peter) are for individual, not communal purposes; Carter demands that Peter never mention the Pewterschmidt family’s connection to slavery again, and Peter separates himself from his African-American identity so he can have twenty thousand dollars to spend on whatever his selfish heart desires. Thus, the form of reparations that supporters would find most agreeable is more divisive than unifying. Taken together, Cleveland and Peter’s reparations accentuate the importance of recognizing and accounting for slavery and other racial injustices while at the same time pointing out money’s potential to exacerbate America’s race problems. Throughout it all, Family Guy writers manage to navigate the risky task of portraying African Americans without doing so in an offensive way, thus exemplifying what Burke once praised of satire in The Philosophy of Literary Form: “for the most inventive satire arises when the artist is seeking simultaneously to take risks and escape punishment for his boldness” (231).
Reparations, Identity, and the One-Drop Rule
By focusing the audience’s attention on individual responsibility for slavery and racism in the United States, Family Guy does exactly what Bacon found problematic in anti-reparations arguments that disregard the greater problem of social accountability. The focus on the individual instead of the social, however, is only problematic if we fail to accept the value reparations detractors attach to arguments from one’s identity or the identity of others. If reparations opponents talk about the issue from an individualist perspective, then Family Guy’s approach to reparations through individual settlements instead of the government acting as the executor of compensation is a move that works within the framework of such language to show audiences that there is value in the language of both sides of the debate that can still operate within individualist parameters. This strategy, however, is only one example among many that is produced by Family Guy’s rhetorical listening that moves beyond the zero-sum game of typical reparations discourse and synthesizes arguments from both sides: granting reparations while recognizing that white privilege is not equally shared across the board, recognizing that reparations can feed the selfish wants of individualist Americans who put community last, having Peter receive reparations yet still be harassed by the police, and so forth. Family Guy may not offer a final answer to the reparations dispute, but it certainly offers discursive possibilities beyond what has been provided by those at the front lines of the reparations debate. Furthermore, the episode may have encouraged audiences to explore and synthesize the positions of reparations supporters and detractors or, at the very least, initiated thinking and discussion about the topic among viewers who may have not even given reparations any thought whatsoever.
Alongside the episode’s contribution to the reparations debate and—potentially—public deliberation on the issue, “Peter Griffin: Husband, Father,...Brother?” furthers Anderson’s position on identity as a part of a communicator’s available rhetorical means. Though identity is typically a problem in critical theory, identity, as Anderson pointed out, is nonetheless assumed to be real in quotidian, non-academic discourse:
As long as [identity] seems a basic, even inherent feature of human selfhood (and perhaps especially Western selfhood) that people can formulate and share answers to the question “who I am,” this conviction will continue to inform and authorize a range of discursive acts. (7-8).
But in addition to arguing from one’s own self-understanding of identity is the strategy of arguing from the identities of others. Certainly, Family Guy’s use of such a rhetorical strategy might be an extreme example for some, but the responsibility of how groups of people are portrayed in film and television is often attributed to the person whose face is most publicly connected to that program; in Family Guy’s case, it is Seth MacFarlane. By rhetorically constructing Peter’s black racial identity through the one-drop rule while at once sustaining his visible whiteness, the episode’s writers used Peter’s racial ambiguity to question the motives of some potential reparations recipients without resulting to blackface or having Cleveland Brown, the show’s primary black character, embody possible truths of anti-reparations discourse. The latter alternatives would have likely led to criticism of MacFarlane and a show that avoids crossing certain lines despite its reputed cultural irreverence. But like many other rhetorical moves, arguing from the identity of others can be put to different ends. Less creative discursive choices such as the phrase “some of my best friends are black” are often used to justify spoken or coming offensive language while Family Guy drew from Peter’s identity to avoid offensive speech. The problematic ways that arguing from someone else’s identity can be used, however, does not discount the presence of this strategy as part of one’s available rhetorical means.
At the heart of Family Guy’s rhetorical use of Peter’s identity is Peter’s racial ambiguity by way of the one-drop rule. Though studies of the one-drop rule in contemporary American discourse focus primarily on the limitations it puts on racial identity, the reparations episode calls attention to a perspectival shift on how the one-drop rule functions in contemporary American discourse on race. Rather than only being concerned with how the rule limits racial identity in the United States or how people of mixed race challenge the one-drop constraint, Family Guy writers’ use of the rule opens the discussion to another question: what other purposes does or can the one-drop rule serve? In the case of Family Guy, the rule ironically serves as a rhetorical strategy for avoiding an offensive representation of African Americans. Though blackface has begun to reemerge slowly in American entertainment, Family Guy writers’ reliance on the one-drop rule not only highlights an effect of slavery that lasted well beyond 1865, but also enabled Peter to enact a pitfall of reparations without his actions being synecdochically attributed to his being black. Instead, Peter’s simultaneous embodiment of blackness and whiteness provide the foundation from which the god-term of his identity emerges in the form of money—part of what separates and unites participants in the reparations debate. And though the show relies on the one-drop rule, it at once critiques, though likely unwittingly, a scion of the rule—blackness gained via proximity to African Americans—as Peter’s blackness is disrupted by his visible whiteness and inability to act appropriately in African American cultural spaces. Consequently, Family Guy relies on the one-drop rule for its capacity to help the show navigate the precarious position of potentially representing African Americans in a racist way, but also calls into question the racism embedded in the one-drop rule itself.
Anonymous Amazon Customer 1. Amazon.com. 7 May 2001. Web. 14 July 2010. http://www.amazon.com/Debt-What-America-Owes-Blacks/product-reviews/0452282101/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_next_2?.ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar&....
Anonymous Amazon Customer 2. Amazon.com. 23 May 2002. Web. 14 July 2010. http://www.amazon.com/Debt-What-America-Owes-Blacks/product-reviews/0452282101/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_next_2?.ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar&....
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