"I am by no means any kind of authority on anything."
For an authority figure, Andrew Ti has an unorthodox personal statement. And he stands by it, too, regularly reminding his readers that the only authority he has is what his audience projects onto him. The frequent hatemail he receives often makes this very point about his lack of credentials; he publishes it and agrees with it, just to piss off the author even further.
Ti is the sole human behind the Tumblr site "Yo, Is This Racist?": part advice column, part humor site, part schadenfreude shooting gallery. The concept is simple: he answers questions from the Internet-at-large about whether things are racist (and if you have to ask, the answer is probably yes), while swearing a lot. "If there were a tagline for the site," says Ti, a photographer who claims no relevant academic credentials, "it would be 'Fuck You, You Racist Sack of Shit.'"
Topics to date include racially charged pro-life billboards, 'Indian pudding,' and organizing your bookshelf by color, to name a few. And despite Ti only listing one sort-of qualification on the site ("If it's absolutely necessary for you to know, I'm not white"), YoIsThisRacist.com has blown up. Ti set up shop on November 1, and after 24 hours and a few well-placed blog shoutouts, he found himself with over 2,000 Tumblr followers. He's answered over 500 questions in the eight weeks since then, with another 4,000 unanswered questions in his inbox.
"It grew out of an office conversation," says Ti, a native Midwesterner now living in Los Angeles. "I was talking to my friend at work about Yosemite Sam, since that's what you do in an office, and we were talking about his litany of swears, his fake cartoon swears, and the phrase 'cotton-picking' came up within that. And my reaction was 'Yo, that is racist!' And it literally went from that, to blog, to people picking up the blog and running with it."
Of the submitted questions, Ti estimates that only a third genuinely want to know if something is racist; the majority are from people wanting an 'impartial arbiter' for a debate with a friend. Or the questions come from trolls hoping to trick him into admitting a deep-seated bias against whites, usually with a few racial slurs thrown in. Do they use the race-appropriate slurs? "No. Never. 99 percent of the people assume I'm black," says Ti, whose full name appears at the top of every page of the site. "The idea that the word 'yo' is the sole purview of black America... that boggles my mind, personally."
Of the site's readers, however, it's safe to say that nearly 100 percent enjoy seeing Ti exercise his unlisted point of authority: his spectacularly profane pyrotechnics.
Question: Yo, I'm an upper-class white kid with upper-class white friends. Is it racist that we all call each other nigga?
Answer: Yo, for real, I wish every hardship and sorrow upon you and your racist friends.
Question: Asking for a Callista Flockhart when you want a flat white coffee?
Answer: Yo, for real, do you actually do this at your local Starbucks, just so you can then clarify your shitty, sexist joke to the dude pulling the levers on the espresso machine? You know everyone hates you, right?
Question: Yo is it racist if I don't want to include my really good Indian (dot not feather) friend from my wedding party because all the other bridesmaids are white and I don't want her to steal attention in my wedding pictures?
Answer: Holy shit, I'm genuinely having trouble trying to count up the ways in which you are absolutely the worst person.
Question: you make me feel shitty for being white. based on most of your answers that's racist right?
Answer: Yo man, if there isn't enough shit in the world to make you feel good about being White, I can't help you.
Not all of YITR's published questions are as baldly horrifying; many are genuinely thought-provoking, or enjoyably silly, like this one about white people's poop. But for anyone who's lost good brain cells to the comments section on a local news article, reading Ti's one-sided swearcraft against a volunteer army of anonymous racists is some sweet vicarious payback.
"One thing I've learned," says Ti, "is that there is a significant portion of white people on the Internet who are looking for nothing more than some justification to say the n-word, no matter what it takes. It is all they are looking for, all day. Anything they can take. 'Can I say it in this? What about rap music?'
"It's just... what is the appeal? Let it go!"
Some people just want to make sure they're not eating anything racist, and for them, Ti maintains a list of foods that sound racist but aren't. Not everything makes the cut, though. "Brazil nuts, they're colloquially known in the South as, um, 'n-word toes' -- that's pretty openly racist," he says. "But there's a lot of colonial things as well; speaking specifically, someone asked about 'monkey bread,' and while I didn't do enough research to figure it out definitively, the stuff I found was pretty pretty horrifying."
Ti's advertised absence of qualifications works as a subtle satire of racially alleviative figures like Herman Cain. Is he concerned that the joke will be lost on the people who most need to get it?
"It's a worry that people are using me as a token, or as a person of color who can speak for all people of color, which I do not purport to do," he says. "If people see me as a crutch they can use, I hope I don't give them that crutch. I never try to confirm that people's racist or pseudo-racist views are, in fact, OK. I err on the side of 'this is super-racist, fuck you.' I feel like that's a safer place for me to be."
In other words, Ti isn't interested in using sweet talk to enlighten anyone. He sees it as ineffective, and worse yet, not funny -- and ultimately, any higher mission he has will have to be accomplished under the unforgiving rules of Internet comedy. As he says of his tone, "I'm taking the rhetoric to the Internet's level. And for people who are on the fence, who are potential allies, I'm bringing them in on the joke -- of making fun of people."
And, naturally, the same no-permission-necessary approach that makes the site so endearing has garnered some misses. He expresses genuine regret for an easy punchline about thin black male comedians dressing as fat black women, saying he wishes he'd taken the time to find a funny way to unpack what he calls the practice's "wildly problematic" history. He's gotten pushback for his decision to use the colloquial interpersonal definition of racism, rather than the social activist definition of prejudice-plus-power. Even when discussing one of his favorite responses, to an anonymous woman who asks why "there are no sororities FOR white girls" (to which he gives an atypically long answer with both bullet points and ad-hominem disses), Ti sounds a bit cautious. "I don't feel that I'm doing damage by calling this girl racist and dumb, even though it's super mean and probably unnecessary. But it was funny! Is it a net positive? I hope so, but I understand if someone says it isn't."
The reason for Ti's light tread is likely his readers, and not the racist ones. As he says he's discovered since launching, Tumblr has a magical combination of accountability, shareability, long-form format, and youth; as a result, a large number of enthusiastic young social justice geeks have found a home among (and within) the cat gifs. They're big fans of YITR -- and like Ti, they don't wait for permission to say when someone's privilege is showing. "I've certainly been called out for inadvertently saying sexist things, or things that are not quite on point," he says. "And I'll see, from reblogs of my posts, conversations going back and forth with people in these communities. It's great!"
In keeping with his goal to "try not to make the world a worse place," Ti's compromising his position as an unqualified expert and putting together a list of reading material, culled from reader suggestions. He describes it as "a resource for when people are done reading my dumb jokes about race and want to actually learn something."
Ti's not looking to move from jokes to academia, nor is he interested in interrupting his soliloquy of disses, "unless someone, and this is for all the readers out there, has a really great zinger that I missed." The reading list, then, shouts out the social justice community while leaving the jokes their own space. Popular suggestions so far include Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?," and Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at the Atlantic.
"One of the things that's actually taking so long," says Ti, "is that I want to at least, you know, try to read some of these things, to educate myself and to make sure I'm not suggesting anything horrible. And it's not a bad education for me to have."
"What I would like to have, the resource that seems most needed based on the questions in general and the hatemail from indignant white people," says Ti, "is just an examination of white privilege, and of all privilege in America. That's what I try to bring to the table, without being too serious about it: an examination of privilege. Because at the end of the day, I'm making jokes and making fun of people, and if that sting of embarrassment can make one in a hundred people think, 'why is that? Why do I feel this way?' That's what I can bring.
"Uh, besides being hilarious, which I totally am."