Racism with Roseanne, in real time

The Roseanne saga confirmed that in the US, some forms of racism are opposed vehemently, while others remain tolerated.

Rosanne Barr Reuters
Actress Roseanne Barr has expressed regret for the racist comments she made on Twitter, but it was not enough to save her job [Reuters]

The rise of Donald Trump, and his appeal among the white working class in the United States, brought newfound relevance to Roseanne, a television programme that initially aired in 1988. ABC revived the programme in 2018, in an America radically different from what it was 30 years earlier. The TV network sought to capitalise on the turbulent social and racial moment by showcasing the archetypal modern, working-class white family as a societal mirror.  

Roseanne and the expanded Conner family were to offer the US audience an intimate peek into the political and racial conversations had within the private confines of a white working-class home. It was to be a visual complement to J D Vance’s wildly popular book “Hillbilly Elegy” about the Rust Belt in the US.

The concept was timely, and the early success of the Roseanne reboot illustrated its relevance today. Yet, the private conversations on race and racism that the show aspired to address were interrupted and on May 29, finally put to rest by the real-time racism of Roseanne Barr – the actual person, not the television character. 

Real life is stranger than fiction

A twelve-word tweet directed at former President Barack Obama’s aide Valerie Jarrett led to ABC swiftly cancelling the Roseanne redux. A programme brought back to tackle the racism and bigotry emboldened by Trump, ultimately, was permanently shelved by its leading star. Roseanne all along was more of a mouthpiece for Trump than a TV star committed to tackling the societal ills he ushered in.

Her tweet was supposed to be a response to another comment about Jarrett, who is African American: “Muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes had a baby = vj.” The tweet was riddled with Islamophobia and anti-black racism. It used the Muslim Brotherhood as a racial descriptor and the Planet of the Apes reference as a long-standing and vile dehumanising slur directed at black people. In short, Roseanne used hateful terms to claim that Jarrett looked like the progeny of Muslim and black parents.

WATCH: ABC cancels Roseanne show after star’s ‘abhorrent’ tweets (2:13)

Roseanne deleted the tweet, and later directly apologised to Jarrett on Twitter. But the damage was already done. ABC could not take the risk of having an openly racist actress on air, nor tacitly endorse her private bigotry by allowing the show to continue running.

Many of her backers shouted, shared and tweeted in the aftermath of the show’s cancellation that Roseanne Barr has a right to free speech and has the right to express her racist and bigoted views.

But those who contended that Roseanne shouldn’t have been fired for her views, would not have backed Colin Kaepernick’s right to free expression or any of his NFL colleagues’, who are threatened with a ban for kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racism. And that is because, in the US, there is and has always been a selective defence of free speech.  

ABC exercised its right to cancel the programme on account of Roseanne’s anti-Black racism and did the right thing. As a private corporation steered as much by the realpolitik of racial sensitivity as the politics of ratings, shelving Roseanne confirmed the very statement that the rebooted programme was seeking to make – that specific forms of racism will be opposed vehemently, while others will be tolerated.

Broadening the bounds of condemnable bigotry

In the seventh episode of the new season, Roseanne’s character becomes uncomfortable with and suspicious of her new Muslim neighbours, Fatima and Samir. Encouraged by the post-9/11 American culture of “see something, say something”, she begins spying on them. She sees their faith as a sign of homegrown radicalisation and their ample supply of fertiliser as evidence of a “terror” plot.

After concluding that the Muslim neighbours might be, “a sleeper cell full of terrorists getting ready to blow up our neighbourhood”, Roseanne goes over to confront them only to learn that they are ordinary people, with ordinary American interests like gardening and baseball.

Muslims appeared on the show only because of the terrorism theme, which mirrors the general political discourse: Muslims are only topics of concern in relation to terrorism or efforts to combat it.  

This episode, which showcased the prevailing potency of what I call “private Islamophobia”, reveals much about the tweet that led to the end of Roseanne show. It very clearly demonstrates which brands of political messages and slurs remain tolerated in the US mainstream, and which are cast as abhorrent and unacceptable.

Again, Roseanne used the group “Muslim Brotherhood” as a racial stand-in for Muslim identity, a religious identity which is (too often) narrowly racialised and conflated with Arab, South Asian or “Middle Eastern” identity. This racialisation is imagined in line with the “terrorism” tropes peddled by right-wing proponents like Trump, Bill Maher and indeed Roseanne, who correctly claims that “Islam is not a race” but routinely treats it as such, and frames it as inherently suspicious – on television and in real life.

However, Roseanne’s Islamophobia was not the cause of her fall from grace. The problematic “Muslim neighbours” episode faced criticism, but also garnered positive reviews, affirming, again, that the trope tying Muslims to “terrorism” is a form of bigotry that America, and its major networks, will not just tolerate but also green-light. We give people a pass for their Islamophobia, largely because the legitimacy of this form of bigotry is still being debated.     

If Roseanne had stopped typing after “Muslim Brotherhood”, her tweet would have likely provoked some criticism, but it wouldn’t have gotten her fired. We live in a country where the political discourse still counts Islamophobia as an acceptable brand of bigotry. 

It was the second half of Rosanne’s vile statement that led to the cancellation of the show – and rightfully so. Time will only reveal if her Islamophobia, on and off screen, will one day be met with similar scorn and penalty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.