Wheel of Fortune: Spinning the Politics of Racial Shame

Julian Batts, left, and another contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Youtube screenshot
Julian Batts, left, and another contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Youtube screenshot

In 2008, Kevin James (the pundit, not the actor) lived the nightmare of every single one of us who has ever appeared on air: He was humiliated on national television by the host of the show on which he was appearing. James, who is white, was there to defend allegations that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was like those who had “appeased” the Nazis.


Only when James was pressed by MSNBC host Chris Matthews to actually explain what that meant did it become painfully clear to everyone that he didn’t know. (You can watch it here.) Yet despite the clip going viral (so much so that the subject now dominates James’ Wikipedia page), and despite being widely considered one of the most embarrassing pundit implosions in cable TV history, nowhere have I read that James embarrassed his race.
But the moment I saw the television clip of Indiana University freshman Julian Batts making a gaffe that would result in headlines calling him the worst Wheel of Fortune contestant ever, I knew there would be claims that he had embarrassed the black race. I was right. On Gawker, among other sites, debates broke out about references that Batts had made all of us (“us” meaning black people) look bad.

This led one commenter to reply: “People make mistakes. People are dumb. This guy is one of them. One guy speaks for our race if you let him or are that insecure about being black. That must really suck,” the commenter said before concluding for good measure: “Don’t worry about it … we still got Neil D ;),” apparently referring to African-American genius Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But another commenter highlighted just why so many minorities worry other minorities, particularly those who fail, represent and ultimately hurt the rest of us. This commenter posited, “Maybe he’s an athlete? Or maybe this state school has lower standards for black applicants so they will be able to admit enough to avoid discrimination lawsuits?”
The fact that this commenter immediately assumed that the Wheel of Fortune contestant’s poor pronunciation skills were proof that he must be coasting through life thanks to racial preferences is infuriating. After all, if pronunciation were a sign of benefiting from racial preferences, then former President George W. Bush must have as well. But, of course, rarely do people make sweeping racial generalizations about performance when the person is white and male. This is likely at least part of the reason you wouldn’t read about white Americans saying, “That pundit Kevin James sure made us all look bad,” or “Gee, President Bush was so inarticulate, as a white person it’s so embarrassing.”
The reality is that no matter how many black presidents we have, how many Oprah Winfreys we have, how many Neil deGrasse Tysons we have, there will always be someone who dismisses black Americans by our worst stereotypes as opposed to judging us by our greatest realities. We can’t control that. But we can control whether we internalize this and ultimately perpetuate it as self-hatred in our own words and behaviors. Because although it is true that prominent voices can occasionally cast a shadow over any group, every time a child of color hears one of us buy into the idea that one black person who fails represents all of us, what message does that send?
So instead of lamenting the race of this Wheel of Fortune contestant, or any other black person we think hasn't lived up to some invisible standard, and making the usual lament, “Why did he have to be black?,” here’s another suggestion for how we might cope. Next time another Wheel of Fortune-type pronunciation meltdown occurs, how about we simply say, “That was unfortunate. I guess he’s not destined to be Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest classical writers ever, or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest speakers ever, both of whom happen to be black.”

Keli Goff is The Roots special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

(Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story we said Julian Batts attended the University of Illinois)

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