Thirty years ago, I rolled my eyes at the trope. Now I don’t.
Photo: New Line Cinema
When Eddie Murphy’s rom-com Boomerang premiered in 1992, the critical reception was lukewarm at best, but over time, the film earned its place as an underrated ’90s classic. Arguably one of Murphy’s best films and the launchpad for several now-familiar Black entertainers, from Halle Berry and Tisha Campbell-Martin to John Witherspoon and Chris Rock, the movie portrays a vision of Black culture that was probably over the heads of most movie critics of its day.
One of the film’s most interesting characters is Tyler, the best friend to Marcus, Murphy’s character. Portrayed by Martin Lawrence, Tyler is a Black man who sees racism in every aspect of his daily life. He makes seemingly outlandish observations of systematic racism throughout the film — which he sees everywhere — from shopping for clothes to a simple game of billiards. “The white ball dominates everything, right?” he explains.
Tyler’s circle of friends responds to what they see as his fantasies of nonexistent racism with repeated eye-rolling. Having seen Boomerang more times than I’m willing to admit, I once viewed Tyler the same way. It is easy to write him off as a trope, a harmless stereotype in Hollywood’s portrayal of Black America.
But is he, though?
His perceived racist origins of billiards notwithstanding, maybe Tyler was onto something. The truth is that, in the 30 years since Boomerang graced the silver screen, America has seemingly done everything in its power to show us that Tyler’s theory of ubiquitous racism was right.
As a Black man of a certain age, I look at Tyler differently now. I see him not as the humorous trope but as an oracle, delivering a warning of a reality I could not — or would not — see. Now when I think of him, I have to acknowledge he wasn’t entirely wrong. Racism, while not omnipresent, constitutes a series of waypoints in my life’s chronicle.
I think about the first time a White person called me the N-word. It happened one night when I was nine or 10. My parents left my brothers and me in our car while they shopped at the new Kmart in our town. White children in the car parked next to us screamed the word in our direction with glee. When my parents returned, the children included them in their chants as they repeated the epithet even louder.
I don’t believe I understood the gravity of what was happening then, perhaps because I’d never heard the word before that night. But the looks on my parent’s faces — part anger, part fear — as they rushed to leave the parking lot are seared into my memory. I think that was when I realized the power of racism; it was a weapon so powerful that even when wielded by a small child, it could send a Black person fleeing in terror. Times like this taught me that when overt racism visits you, the odds are that no one will come to your rescue.
The mid-1990s was the first time I experienced racism at my place of employment. A few years earlier, when I got my first “real job,” my Uncle Roger, who was like a surrogate father in many ways, pulled me aside for what I think of as “the other talk.” For the unfamiliar, it’s similar to the talk I give my kids on to behave with police, but this is the talk Black people — Black men, in particular — receive concerning how to behave around white people in the workplace.
The most important thing to remember, my uncle said, was that under no circumstances could I strike a White co-worker for using the N-word in my presence at work. He explained that, based on his experience, I would be the only one punished and that I’d probably have a tough time finding future employment. I remember how I laughed at him, confident that no White person would behave that way, especially at work.
When I say I “experienced racism” at my job, I don’t mean the random bigoted comments or microaggressions Black folks and people of color deal with almost daily. What I mean is a racist event explicitly directed at me — a dagger of hate thrown with the intent to cause harm to its target.
It was when I worked at a prominent investment bank in my hometown. Since I was one of the first Black professionals to work there, it did not surprise me to learn later that none of the firm’s White sales assistants wanted to work for me because they, as one put it, “weren’t raised that way.” In retrospect, that very racist sentiment is a remarkable commentary on their upbringing.
But as I said, when I think of the racism at that job, I don’t mean the ignorant White ladies that were frightened by my Blackness nor do I mean the Black jokes that morphed into Polish jokes when I walked into the room. I’m also not talking about the time someone used a marker to alter a photo of me, drawing jagged lines from my head in an attempt to make me resemble Buckwheat from the Little Rascals television series. Thanks to my Uncle Roger, I was armed to withstand that.
What I am referring to is the day I took a walk outside at lunchtime and returned to find a memo on my desk. It was decades ago, but I’ll never forget what it said, in bold, capitalized letters:
KU KLUX KLAN N***ER APPLICATION FOR EMPLOYMENT
The “application” was more of a questionnaire for the “applicant” — me — to complete. It delineated areas such as food preferences: watermelons or fried chicken? It inquired about my government assistance usage, goals in life, and especially my desire for White women.
After I collected myself, I asked who was responsible for putting the memo on my desk. Unsurprisingly, no one had the slightest clue as to the source. “For all we know,” one of my co-workers said at the time, “you could have brought that here yourself.”
I shared the memo with my assistant, a slightly older Black lady (remember what I said about sales assistants), and asked her to forward a copy to the firm’s human resources department along with a handwritten note that said something like, “How TF am I supposed to work under these conditions?” At first, she was hesitant, expressing the curious belief that I was risking termination for “causing trouble.”
Later that day, I did receive a call from human resources — not with a plan of action to address my situation but with concern about “what I planned to do next.” In the end, they did nothing. The local civil rights attorney I contacted regarding the racism at my job would not take my case. As it turned out, my employer did lots of business with almost every lawyer in my town, so they all claimed to have a conflict of interest.
Pretty soon, I realized I should consider alternative areas of employment, so a few months later, I started my own business. A few years later, I left Arkansas entirely.
The last time a White person said the N-word to me was in 2019. A truckload of White guys shouted it at my wife and me one night as they drove past our home.
My wife, who is White, was stunned. I’ll never forget the look on her face — it was the look all White people get when confronted with irrefutable evidence of the racism that is everywhere in America, the racism Boomerang’s Tyler tried to tell his friends and us about 30 years ago.
It says something about America that my first encounter with the word occurred in the 1960s and the last time was in 2019, more than 50 years later. I believe America has a sickness regarding race that it is unable — or unwilling — to address. I’m starting to believe the disease is incurable if not terminal.
Whatever the case, now when I watch Boomerang, I don’t laugh when Tyler says everything is racist. I don’t laugh because I’m not sure anymore that he is wrong. After almost 30 years, the least we can do is admit he has a point. Maybe almost everything in America is racist, although I still have my doubts about billiards.