Yes, Fried-Chicken Jokes Are Racist

Golfer Sergio Garcia's jab at Tiger Woods is subtle racism at its finest.

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Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- When I heard that a golfer had made a "joke" about Tiger Woods and fried chicken, I had to double-check to make sure it wasn't 1997 all over again. That was the year Frank "Fuzzy" Zoeller was asked for his thoughts about Woods' impending success at the Masters, and he joked about Woods serving "fried chicken" or "collard greens" to celebrate his win. The remark cost Zoeller his primary sponsor, Kmart, and will likely overshadow his athletic successes in his obituary some day. 

Yet despite what the comment cost Zoeller, another golfer just made a similar one. Here's hoping bad '90s fashion doesn't come roaring back with the same vengeance as bad '90s racial humor. According to reports, Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia and Woods have been feuding for years, so Garcia was jokingly asked if he would be inviting Woods over for dinner at next month's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. Garcia replied, "We will have him 'round every night. We will serve fried chicken."

For someone for whom English is not a first language, I guess Garcia should be applauded for sounding as ignorantly racist as some people who are born here and are taught racial stereotypes from the time they are potty-trained.

Woods was rightly offended by the remark. Garcia, in turn, issued the standard nonapology apology, saying, "I apologize for any offense that may have been caused by my comment onstage during the European Tour Players' Awards dinner. I answered a question that was clearly made towards me as a joke with a silly remark, but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner."

OK, can he explain how the comment was meant if it wasn't "meant" in a racist manner? How could this comment be delivered and received in a nonracist manner? (For those genuinely unaware of the negative connotations historically associated with black Americans and fried chicken, please click here for an overview.)

This latest incident brought back memories of the frustrating conversations I had with fellow students about why Zoeller's comments were racist all those years ago. "Why is joking about food such a big deal?" It's a big deal in the same way that conservatives labeling President Obama "lazy" -- and being called out by Colin Powell -- is a big deal. Engaging in racial stereotypes is not appropriate, no matter how subtly one tries to do it. Couching such stereotypes in "humor" doesn't change that fact.

But now that we officially live in the age of the first black president, in which everyone knows that saying the n-word will result in public criticism and ostracism, coded racial language employing stereotypes has essentially replaced the n-word, in some ways making it more dangerous. After all, everyone knows the n-word is considered offensive, but jokes about fried chicken leave just enough wiggle room for the person delivering said joke to claim, "I'm not a racist," and in turn leave open the possibility that the person on the receiving end is both humorless and paranoid.

So here's my advice to Garcia, Zoeller and others: The next time you have something to say to Tiger Woods, or any other person of color with whom you have a problem, be man enough not to hide behind humor but to tell them how you really feel. Use the n-word if you have to. And be man enough to suffer the consequences.

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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