Before leaving for work early this morning, I watched Smokey Robinson in a video on the news saying something about Chanooka. I rewinded it to figure out what he was talking about figuring it was something important because it was on the morning news.
Nope. It was Smokey Robinson mispronouncing Chanukah in a video greeting he was paid to deliver to Jeff Jacobson’s mom who lived across the street from Smokey in Detroit years ago. A part of me was angry they were making fun of Smokey but when you’re as big a celebrity as he is, it should be expected when you make a boo boo like that you’ll be exposed.
After work, I revisited the Smokey story to see how it was being received in the press and social media. I was pleasantly surprised it was considered funny, because it was. Yet, I was more surprised he didn’t get called an anti-Semite because that’s usually what black folks are labeled when they say ignorant stuff associated with almost anything related to anything Jewish.
Obviously – and somewhat surprisingly – Smokey had no idea how to pronounce Chanukah. In my little focus group inquiry, a number of black folks young and old didn’t know the word either. It goes to show how little black folks know about Jewish culture.
This is the first viral moment I’ve seen where a black person doesn’t get vilified for messing up something Jewish. This summer Nick Cannon and Professor Griff got called out for some ignorant Jewish stuff they said in a podcast episode. Immediately, they were both called anti-Semite and it was reported Nick lost his cushy job hosting The Masked Singer. After an apology and willingness to accept a proper education from Jewish experts, Fox decided to keep him on.
Charlamagne tha God came to Nick’s defense right away saying, “Listen, Nick is my guy. I hate it had to be him, but that’s what you can do when you have the power. And if there’s one thing Jewish people have showed us, it’s they have the power. I can’t wait until the day Black people are able to fire people for saying things about us that we deem racist. We can barely get cops fired for actually killing us.”
His radio station bosses made him apologize for that statement in order to keep his job even though most black folks wonder what he said that was so wrong.
Maybe times are changing and Smokey’s faux pas is a clear example that many black folks know very little about Jewish culture. Maybe our ignorance is being recognized for what it is – ignorance. To Charlamagne’s point, there’s never a time when ignorant statements on black culture find black leaders encouraging the people who make those statements lose their careers, get called anti-black, or require enrollment in a black culture tutoring program.
A couple nights ago, Jimmy Kimmel had a funny segment where they pulled a random black lady from the street to participate in a game to see if she could distinguish between the names of Jewish holidays and the names of pharmaceutical drugs. For every one she got right, they lit a candle on the Jewish Menorah candle. If she got 9 correct, she won. The viewers got to see the two words spelled out on the screen and I played along with her. She got two more right than me and I was looking right at the words on the screen.
I couldn’t help but to think that if a black late night comic had played that game on TV it would have received a lot of scrutiny. But, that couldn’t happen because there are no black late night comics.
I hope the Smokey Robinson mistake becomes a teachable moment for the extra sensitive black-Jewish relationship. There’s so much we don’t know about each other’s culture. If we can learn that often times what looks like disrespect is nothing more than a lack of knowledge. Labeling folks as anti-Semitic, firing them, and demanding an apology should be a last resort. A lot of black folks don’t even know what a Semite is.
It doesn’t hurt to give folks the benefit of the doubt until it’s determined they really meant to be hurtful with their words. In my opinion, based on the lack of education we all have on each other’s culture, folks don’t have a clue what they’re saying.
I’m just waiting for the next black celebrity having french toast for breakfast at a nice diner caught wondering why they call it ‘holla bread’ – Challah, that is.