My son is ten, and recently he asked me something about racism.
And in the middle of it, he farted.
“Dad, with racism, are there like, y’know, different typ—BRRRRRrrrrRRRRppp.”
Breaker of winds, first of his name, my son has no self-consciousness about producing some natural energy. For him, the sound of flatus rippling flesh is a precious gift, an “easy button” for laughs when bored. Of late, he has taken to using his booty as a weapon, pointing it at me and firing whenever I do something he doesn’t approve of. Say, “iPad time is over,” for example, and blocka-blocka, he lets his nine-millimeter heinie spray that potent tear gas. Give him Nacho Cheese Doritos instead of Cool Ranch for a snack, and you’ll receive a rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat rat-tat-tat.
But in this particular moment, he was chastened. Like the famous E. B. White quote, he didn’t know whether he wanted to save the world or savor it. One part of his heretofore innocent, carefree revelry was now puckered by a fraught internalized consideration of identity politics. The other part knew his latest bottom burp was a masterpiece and wondered whether he should conserve bandwidth to better recall the majesty of this achievement for his friends.
“Well, y’know, son, I’m a bit of a fartologist, and I have recognized—sniffed out, you might say—some undeniable similarities between farts and racism,” I told him, adopting a faux professorial manner. “While seemingly unrelated, these subjects offer more mutual insight than you might expect.”
He eyeballed me with squinty-eyed skepticism, “Dad, are you going to say they’re both stinky? I know you’re going to say they’re both stinky.”
I paused for a few seconds to consider my age and mortality and the poison pills buried in the comedy genre we call “dad humor.”
“Well, yes, I probably was going to say that, because it is true. But there’s more to it than that.”
Still somewhat dubious, my son cocked his head: Is Daddy being silly?
“For example, let’s start with some basics. You know, the most common fart we encounter is typically noisy, gross, and a little scary for anyone in close proximity. And, well, this is also the first type of rudimentary racism we think about: audibly unappealing, obnoxious, usually a prompt to change locations. When expelled in the company of decent people, loud farts, or racism, will clear a room quickly. Now on the opposite end of the spectrum, but also frequently confronted, is the ‘silent but deadly’ variety of flatulence, where the smell of a fetid stink bomb makes you question the diet of people around you. Similarly, there is racism that can quietly appear out of nowhere and make you reconsider who you spend time with. Personally, I prefer loud sonorous farts, or racism, and knowing what I’m up against over the haunting, sneaky insidiousness of those quiet assassins.”
He smiled and nodded in agreement while I pulled up the blanket on his bed.
“And you know how ‘Dutch ovens’ strike fear in your heart, leaving you thrashing and desperate to escape? Well, as you go through life, you might find the deep, malodorous discontent of racism in a closed, trapped environment—for example, a frat house or Silicon Valley—leaving you with the same sense of panicked, claustrophobic anxiety. You could call all of these examples ‘passing a little gas,’ but you could also call it ‘dog-whistling with your butt.’”
My son’s eyes were now beginning to widen as his face transformed from cynical disbelief to earnest and thirsty-to-learn, “Dog-whistling?”
“Eh, we don’t have to get into that now. I suspect the most important type to know is where sometimes you think there will just be a small puff release, and instead you get more than you bargained for. Many folks have left their legacies stained, their careers ruined, because they let loose what they thought would be a mild breeze of racism, but it actually came out so much worse.”
The discomfiting truth of this reportage registered grimly on my son’s face as he shook his head.
“I don’t know whether you remember my old college friend, Evan, who you met briefly years ago, but he would spend hours trying to light his farts on fire. He’d only get it one in eight chances. Online nowadays, I often see the kind of racism needed to start flame-wars. Depending on the forum, it may well be one in eight posts that provide the spark.”
“Hmm, well good thing you don’t let me read those.”
“The truth is, there’s some innocent benign farting, and racism, you can share between friends and laugh over. But there are farts, and racist acts, that you will never ever forget or forgive. Eventually, you have to come to your own opinion about this, but I think it’s important to remember what makes racism so dangerous is how it’s interlaced in our power system. If farts were similarly empowered, there’d be wars every day about who’s farting and who’s not farting, who should be canceled for stinking it up, and who doesn’t smell anything. It’s important we distinguish fart from the fartocracy that would truly signal our demise.”
“I know, Dad,” was his hasty response to my premise about the shared phenomenology of power in farts and racism.
“I mean, believe it or not, some people think racism is over, that our country is color blind. And to those people, we’ll say, ‘Pffft, yeah right, you probably also live in an odorless-fart society. NOT!’ In theory, all farts are created equal, but in reality, we know that is far from the case.”
“Mommy says her farts don’t stink, but…”
“Exactly, son. But… we’ve experienced otherwise.”
“Are there more farts I should know?”
“Probably, but we can pinch this lesson off here.”
“So if my friend farts, is he racist?”
“No, but if young people fart, parents usually try to correct the bad habit. When old people fart, you often just let it go and hope it doesn’t cause too much damage. Ultimately, I think we recognize farts, and racism, as potentially offensive components of human nature, something we seek to curb, or restrain, or poo-poo as much as possible. We frown and furrow our brows and ask whether someone needs to excuse themselves. But we also remember it’s not something we can cure or totally eradicate. We must accept some mild day-to-day flatulence, and racism, as part of human existence in a diverse society where we interact with people and have no idea what they consume as part of their food or cultural diets. You stay wary, and if you’re cornered by someone who is aggressively farting, or racist, you do what you need to do to get away and alert the proper authorities. But in most cases, this gas, or racist toot, will pass.”
“Okay, Dad, I think I got it. I can’t wait to tell Ms. DiBenedetto what you’ve taught me.”
Me too, son. Me too.