Who knew Robert De Niro was a racist? I always thought of him as a progressive minded actor who has been in some great movies. That is until I heard Newt Gingrich admonishing him for a joke told at a fundraiser.
For those who don’t know about it, here’s a recap of De Niro’s joke.
A few days ago, De Niro was hosting a fundraiser to support the reelection of President Obama to a second term. As he opened the night’s events, De Niro told a few jokes. One of the jokes was about the possibility of a new first lady, should the Republican candidate -- still undecided among Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- defeat President Obama in the November election. Said De Niro “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady?” As all but one of this country’s first ladies have been white -- Michelle Obama being the one exception -- De Niro was obviously being sarcastic.
One of the Republican candidates, Newt Gingrich, was offended by the joke and called on President Obama to apologize. Said Gingrich “What De Niro said last night was inexcusable and the president should apologize for him, I do want to say one thing, both on behalf of my wife and on behalf of Karen Santorum and on behalf of Ann Romney, I think that Robert De Niro's wrong. I think the country is ready for a new first lady and he doesn't have to describe it in racial terms.'
That’s quite an expression of pain from Newt. I imagine his first reaction was to scream in agony, just like Don Ciccio when young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) stabbed him in the chest to avenge the death of his parents and brother.
As a Native person, I can’t help but feel compassion for Newt, his fellow Republican Presidential candidates and their wives. When a group of people have been historically oppressed like the Republican Party, it’s understandable the words of an actor would inflict a pain so great that only an apology from the President of the United States would provide a salve.
Sadly, we Natives are more than familiar with racial slurs. Redskins, guteaters, wagonburners (I sorta like that one), Prairie Nigger, etc. People of Color all have racist terms to describe and dehumanize them as well. As Gingrich pointed out, De Niro was engaging in this ugly racism by using probably the most offensive racist term in the English language: White. Calling someone White is definitely not okay especially when the person doing it is also White.
Some might say that Newt is doing his people a disservice by taking on the role of victim but what else is he to do? Republicans have been marginalized in American politics and access to media outlets, money and political power is virtually nonexistent. Much like our ancestors, Newt has nothing but his personal courage and a strong voice to counter the powerful forces of racial terror. For us, it was Custer. For Newt, it’s Robert De Niro.
Still, I wondered if maybe Newt was overreacting to the jests of Robert De Niro. Could it be that Newt was being overly sensitive and maybe even whining about a comment that might be ultimately harmless?
Trying to put myself in his shoes, I thought of how I might take the jests of Robert De Niro. I don’t think I’ve ever been mistaken for being a white guy but there are rumors that I might have a white family member somewhere in my family tree. Because I might have a distant White ancestor (there’s that terrible word "white" again) I feel this qualifies me to understand their history and what might be offensive to them.
After thinking it over, I had to admit I wasn’t offended by the De Niro joke. I also asked two of my White friends if they were outraged by De Niro’s remark and they said “No.” Furthermore, I saw some White Woman on TV saying Newt shouldn’t be so thin-skinned and his party had bigger problems to worry about. That settled it for me. If my two friends weren’t offended, and the TV lady wasn’t offended, and I wasn’t offended, then Newt should get over it.
Then again, I could be wrong about this and history will judge both me and Robert De Niro most harshly.
Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. He is also co-authoring a new book with Gyasi Ross coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is www.cutbankcreekpress.com (coming soon).