Friday, December 11, 2009

I'm all over this like White on a Tea Party protest!

I received an (faux) urgent call from my friend Jeff at 10am today. He wanted my opinion as to whether something he had said was racist. It's my belief that phone calls of this nature only occur between Novo Collegians and Alumni. Anyway, Jeff told me the story as follows. He was with his lab advisor when she asked him to go do science to something that desperately needed science done to it. He firmly stated that he was "on it like white on rice." She then (in my mind) gasped and told Jeff that this phrase is racist. Jeff was caught off guard. He disagreed since he had never heard this before but his advisor stuck to her claim. He went on about his business but was still confused by the seemingly non-sequitur social critique of his idiom.

You see, no one wants to be even remotely considered racist, least of all White people. In fact, I think that in the generally clear field of effective racial slurs against Caucasians the only real stand out epithet is "racist." Call a white person a honky, they'll just laugh and think of geese and the foi grois they'll have for dinner later. Call them a racist on the other hand and be prepared for a spit parade of indignation and the names of all their minority friends. Sweeping generalizations are fun aren't they?

Back to the story, this is where Jeff decides it's a good idea to call me, Captain Aryan, to see if I possessed knowledge of this phrase's possible racist connotation. I told him I had no recollection of the phrase "being on, or sticking to something like white on rice" being racially charged in any way. We discussed possible ways the phrase could be utilized to serve a dark and inflammatory purpose but we both came up blank. We thought that the key might lie in the phrase's origin. Maybe "being/ sticking on something like white on rice" was originally used by plantation owners who referred to particularly attractive female house slaves in code as "rice" so as to make secret bawdy jokes in public? I don't know, White people are always up to crazy, secretive, backwards shit. We both had to get back to work, but I told him I'd look into it when I got the chance. I conferred with the internet for about an hour on the history of the phrase in question and really didn't find that much.

It seems no one knows where it's from. I figure that if its origin were steeped in racial controversy or if there was a closer racial connotation it would be easier to find more information on the phrase. For example, the phrase "to call a spade a spade" is thought by many to be a racial slur since spade can be used as a derogatory term for a Black person and I was able to find a bunch of info on its etymology. Other interpretations of the phrase interpret the spade in question as the playing card suit, a shovel, or even a eunuch (a spayed person). Truth be told, the phrase actually came from a Greek play by Menander, which contains the line, "I call a fig a fig, and a spade a spade" where "spade" means something along the lines of bowl or trough or boat. None of those things are Black people. Again, I'm pretty sure that the reason the phrase "to call a spade a spade" has more info on its origin than "stick to something like white on rice" is that the former phrase has a much clearer racial connotation in the current vernacular. Granted, it could be that history is mostly written by upper class, educated White people and therefore the real secret and dastardly meaning has been covered up, but I feel that conspiracy theory is so contrived and banal that we would need Robert Langdon to investigate it.

To play Devil's Advocate: As with meaning in general, a phrase's racial connotations can change over time. As in the case with "to call a spade a spade," it's origin becomes somewhat irrelevant as society as a whole begins to view the phrase in light of "spade's" 20th century racist connotation. If for some reason the ancient Greek word for bowl or trough or boat happened to be "nigger" then clearly we wouldn't use the phrase "to call a nigger a nigger" since the term is now part of a particularly vile heritage and imbued with about as much disgusting hate as 6 letters can contain. Zeitgeist is a bitch huh?

Here's the thing though, the phrase " being on/ sticking to something like white on rice" is not associated popularly with any sort of racial connotation. The only thing it's got going for it in this vein is that "white" is a term for Caucasians, but it's clear that the phrase purely refers to the color since it doesn't say, "a white on rice" and that the popular societal conception for the color of rice is that it is white. Yes, there are other colors of rice and perhaps there is underlying racism in that society views all rice as white and can't see the veritable rainbow of browns and blacks that rice can come in. But, seriously? Anyone trying to glean negative racial connotations from this phrase using that rationale is is just silly and trying too hard. Saying that "sticking to something like white on rice" is racist due to it's lack of rice-color-spectrum-inclusiveness or any other reason I can think of is like saying the phrase is racist because it includes the word "rice," which invokes an Asian racial stereotype. It seems that in order to interpret the phrase as racist, you would have to twist the connotation of the words within the phrase outside of their meanings or purpose within the phrase. The only way for this phrase to become a racist phrase is for people to continue needlessly attaching such negative meaning to it.

Besides, it seems that the phrase was popularized by Ike Turner in the Ike & Tina song Baby Get It On. Personally I'd say that since Ike Turner said the phrase, it's much more sexist the racist anyway.

On a final note, Jeff has decided to say "being on something like a white on rice" from now on and I fully endorse this course of action. If the phrase is going to be interpreted as racist, best to turn it on a group that has the least slurs against them. It's like Affirmative Action for racism. Besides, I'm white and I personally love rice of all colors.


PS: I promise to start blogging again! We all pretty much know this is a lie!


  1. You mean...there's a black Stormy?

  2. I think she may have been messing with him. I would do it. In fact, I've done it before.

    -Stephen Q

  3. To the extent there are any racial overtones to "white on rice," it appears that might be due to its heritage in southern black slang. I think its pretty innocuous - it'd be a lot more inflammatory if connected to white-asian race relations. But, its worth bearing in mind that rice was an important slave-labor cash crop in the American South (See the wikipedia article "Southern United States" for a bit more on this).

    I found the following on JSTOR (there's italics in the original, to designate the phrases, but I can't seem to italicize in this comment box):

    James H. Warner, A Word List from Southeast Arkansas, 13 American Speech 3 (1938):

    We should also note that the speech of southeast Arkansas abounds in distinctive and forceful similes which often spring directly from the occupations and conditions of the region. For example: 'I'm feeling like a sharecropper,' that is, very bad. 'He got all over me, like the white on rice,' that is, he scolded me as thoroughly as the color of white covers rice. 'He runs like a windmill in high gear,' that is, like the windmills in the rice fields around Altheimer, he runs very fast. 'He came out of there like beetles out of an old house.' 'He's sweating like a nigger at election.' 'I don't chew my tobacco but once.' 'I have him in the short rows now,' that is, where I can control him. 'He'll raise more trouble than the alligator did when the pond went dry' (several decades ago alligators frequented the streams and bayous of the region). 'The wind is off the peach orchard,' that is, the wind is cold. 'When he got to acting like that, I unhooked my mule and went to the house,' that is, I quit. 'I'll bat you down a hatch,' an interesting survival of the nautical expression for punishment, but with noticeable weakening.

    Merle Herriford, Slang among Nebraska Negroes, 13 American Speech 316 (1938):

    Here are a few phrases in Negro usage. To be on rubber or to be on wheels means to have a car. To be caught in the go 'long means to be an unfortunate victim of circumstances. To motivate down the thoroughfare means to walk along some widely frequented street, as along 24th Street in Omaha. To make light sport is to have a good time. Hip me to the jive! and lace my boots! mean 'put me wise!' Thus to be hipped or to have one's boots laced is to be aware of a situation. Let me blow you one means 'Give me a cigarette' in Omaha. To blow your top or to knock yourself out means to go the limit in some particular direction. A nice little piece of furniture is a pretty girl. To make a creep is to set out on some clandestine mission.

    Last may be noted some picturesque similes: take off like a herd of turtles, knee high to a tall Indian, higher than a Georgia pine, blacker than the inside of an undertaker's derby, run off like a striped ape, come out like a bat out of Hell, stick like white on rice, slicker than a poker player on New Year's Eve.