Ted Danson believes that he is an honorary black person. And that is where he went wrong.
Danson believes that because he is dating a black person -- Whoopi Goldberg -- he can use words in public that only black people can use in public.
Such as the word "nigger," which Danson used 12 times at a Friars Club roast for Goldberg last Friday.
Danson, who was the toastmaster of the event, showed up in blackface with large white-painted lips.
He told a variety of racial and off-color jokes, including "vivid" jokes about Goldberg's private parts, and then he had a waiter bring him a watermelon.
Goldberg, who wrote some of the jokes, said she was very amused. Others were not.
Talk show host Montel Williams, who is black, walked out and later wrote: "I was confused as to whether or not I was at a Friars event or at a rally for the KKK and Aryan Nation."
New York Mayor David Dinkins, who is black, said the jokes were "way, way over the line".
But is there any way to joke about race without crossing the line?
Billy Crystal, who sent a telegram to the roast, said Whoopi is "the most important black actor working today excluding Clarence Thomas."
In comparison, Ted Danson said: "I was told, 'The mayor's coming, so be careful, don't do any political jokes, just do nigger jokes.' "
There is a difference between those two jokes. Both are racial, but Crystal's is funny without being offensive and Danson's is offensive without being funny.
As we all know, members of minority groups can say things about themselves that others cannot say about them.
You need only to listen to everyday speech or "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO to find out that some black people use the word "nigger."
(Others do not. Richard Pryor, for instance, dropped the word from his act after visiting Africa and discovering the dignity of his origins.)
OK, so black people can use the word. But what happens when white people use it?
Well, ask Fred Grimmel.
In 1988, Grimmel, who is white, was the manager of the Turf Valley Country Club in Howard County and said of a black NAACP member: "This nigger, I am going to put him against the wall" and "Yo nigger."
It became a huge incident and Grimmel was fired. (And later re-hired.)
So why can black people use a word that white people cannot?
For the same reason black politicians can make open appeals to race and white politicians cannot. (The Congress has a Black Caucus. A White Caucus would not be tolerated.)
It is the difference between the majority and the minority.
The minority needs to build unity and turn insults into passwords in order to survive.
When the majority does the same things, however, this can amount to oppression and not survival.
Not a very satisfying answer, is it?
That's because race is still such a delicate matter in our society that we often have to "feel" the correctness and incorrectness of certain words and actions without being able to explain them fully.
Whoopi Goldberg said after the roast: "People who are offended by Ted in black face, I doubt they were offended by Eddie Murphy in white face on 'Saturday Night Live.' "
I doubt it, too. But the two aren't the same.
Eddie Murphy in white face is turning racism on its head and spoofing it. Ted Danson in black face is re-creating it.
But Danson felt he could cross the line and do things that only a black person could do because he is in a relationship with a black woman and, therefore, has "proved" that he cannot possibly be a racist.
He is so politically correct, in other words, that he can dare defy political correctness.
Danson said after the roast: "There was too much love behind my words to ever be misconstrued as racist. Racism is a matter of intent. My intent was to amuse my dear friend Whoopi. . . . "
The trouble is that Danson's jokes were not done solely in front of Whoopi. They were done in front of a large audience with the press in attendance.
So is Ted Danson a racist?
He's just a guy who thinks that if your heart is in the right place, your mouth doesn't have to be.
And he is wrong about that.