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I admit it: This cartoon is basically a dad joke. I was just mulling over the idea of racist bones and this cartoon idea came up and made me chuckle.
But there is a real issue this strip nods at. If I say “I think that joke is kind of racist,” and someone angrily responds “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” the conversation has been diverted.
Instead of discussing what makes a joke racist, we end up discussing the moral character of someone I may not even know. Is he evil? Does he hate Blacks? Is he rotten inside? In short, does he have racist bones?
It’s an impossible conversation. We usually have no way of knowing what someone’s hidden character is. It’s much better to discuss if things are racist – actions, institutions, rules, and even jokes. But that’s a conversation that many white people seem desperate to avoid.
“There’s not a racist bone in my body!” is an expression that goes back to at least 1967, a variation of 19th century expressions like “not a lazy bone in his body.” But, according to Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer, the person who turned that relatively obscure expression into a cliché was Ronald Reagan.
This tactic emerged in a climate in which explicit racism was no longer openly tolerated in U.S. politics, but white Americans remained uncomfortable with and opposed to the policies necessary to ameliorate decades of racial discrimination.
As this rhetoric crept into the political arena, the “racist bone” defense rose alongside it as the default retort against allegations that opposing civil rights policies revealed a racist character. This pairing was no coincidence. While Reagan and his Justice Department brought colorblindness to the Oval Office, they also fundamentally reframed the federal government’s conception of racial discrimination from a group issue that could be addressed with policy to an individual one that required personal change.
This framing was essential to Reagan’s assault on civil rights. It raised the bar for proving invidious behavior and for justifying public policies intended to right past wrongs. And when one changed the metric from the marginalization of African Americans at a group level to individual misdeeds, the “racist bone” defense made much sense. After all, racism was a matter of body and soul, not public policy. What mattered was an individual’s personal conduct toward others.
So I guess that’s something else we can thank Ronald Reagan for.
(I initially began to draw the man in my strip with Reagan’s distinctive haircut, but decided that if he looked like Reagan that would just be confusing to readers old enough to recognize Reagan.)
In my first sketch, the bones were just… bones. Realistically drawn bones floating in space with no faces or hands, just word balloons pointing at them. It would have been neat, visually, but I just didn’t want to draw something so… lifeless. Also, the idea of bones with eyes and mouths and even teeth really amuses me.
For such a simple idea, the script took a surprising amount of work. The first version was pretty much a listicle of racist things “Sam” said. But then I realized that nothing indicated the bones, themselves, were racists, and without that what makes them racist bones? So I rewrote, with less issues touched on, and the extra space being used to make it clear that the bones agree with the racist things Sam says.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has four panels. The first three panels show three bones talking in a blank space. The three bones – a rib bone, a thigh bone, and a hip bone – are anthropomorphized, with cartoon faces, arms and legs. They’re wearing white gloves with rolls at the wrist, like Mickey Mouse.
The fourth panel shows two human beings talking in a park.
Rib Bone is talking to Thigh Bone and Hip Bone. Hip Bone, in particular, looks concerned.
RIB BONE: Thigh bone and hip bone! How’s it going?
THIGH BONE: Not good, Rib.
HIP BONE: We’ve been trying everything to get into this guy named Sam…
In a closer shot, Thigh Bone leans back, laughing, and Hip Bone, still looking concerned, shrugs.
THIGH BONE: First Sam did a hilarious fake Asian accent! I love funny Asian accents, so I thought, “I’m in!”
HIP BONE: But then Sam said he was just joking, and as we all know, saying it’s a joke means it can’t be racist.
A shot of the three bones. Rib Bone listens with a neutral expression and gosh darn it I just now realized, looking at the cartoon as I type the transcript, that I drew a mustache on Rib Bone in panel 1, but forgot the mustache in panel 3. Hold on, I’ll be back in a few minutes.
I’m back. Rib Bone, sporting a thick, luscious mustache, has a neutral expression as oh geez I just noticed I forgot to draw Rib Bone’s arm. Wait here, I’ll be right back.
Okay! Rib Bone, a character with both a mustache and arms, listens with a neutral expression. Thigh Bone steeples their fingers and is smiling in anticipation, and Hip Bone is grinning hugely.
THIGH BONE: Then Sam talked about how bad white men have it and how much easier it is for Blacks to find jobs.
HIP BONE: Exactly what I think! I thought for sure I was in! But then he said…
Two men stand talking in a park. The first man — Sam — is white, blonde, wearing a button-up tan shirt, brown slacks, and a nice-looking pair of sneakers. He is yelling and waving his arms, obviously angry. The other man has brown skin, black hair, and a van dyke beard. He’s wearing an orange tee with a “!” design, and is rolling his eyes.
SAM: I DON’T HAVE A RACIST BONE IN MY BODY!