At the Golden Globes, Michael Keaton mixed up two movies with predominantly black casts and called one Hidden Fences. He was roundly criticized for his racial insensitivity by the left and then attacked for political correctness by the right when he apologized profusely for the gaffe. Such is the state of race relations in modern America.
No doubt Michael Keaton means well. He is not a closet Klansman, as Bill Maher sarcastically pointed out on Real Time. However, his well-intentioned mixup does indicate what is a natural tendency: to lump together people of the same race or ethnicity. I did this once myself as a high school teacher. I had two Asian-American male students in my class, and I once called one of the boys by the other one’s name. I was filled with chagrin at the mixup, even though I meant well. Today, as the mother of a Chinese-born child who is sometimes confused with her Asian classmates in school, I feel even worse about that mistake from long ago.
The fact is that even seemingly innocent acts of overgeneralizing or stereotyping can be harmful and prevent people from seeing each person as an individual. And as we know from our history, such stereotyping can lead to outright discrimination and worse. In today’s America, where Middle Eastern Muslims are looked upon with deep suspicion and black citizens are far too often stopped for the crime of “driving/walking/sitting outside while black,” we need to make an honest effort to change things.
In his gaffe, Michael Keaton unwittingly used what could be a metaphor for today’s race relations. The “colored only” water fountains and restrooms are gone. Blacks are no longer relegated to the back of the bus. But there are plenty of “hidden fences” that block the equal treatment of minorities in this country. Racial segregation still plagues big cities, and schools in black neighborhoods get short shrift on resources. Blacks still struggle for equal access to good jobs. Studies have shown, for instance, that candidates with “black-sounding” names are less likely to be invited for job interviews. And even when they are hired, many people assume black employees are affirmative action hires who are not as qualified as whites. In the film Hidden Figures, the three black female mathematicians have to be brilliant, not just adequately smart, in order to be given their due.
The other reality Keaton’s mistake highlights is the fact that there are too few forms of art that portray the lives of black Americans. When there are only a couple of “black movies” in the awards season mix, it’s more likely that whites will unthinkingly bunch them together. If people of different races and cultures were interwoven in books, movies, and television shows in the same proportions as they exist in our population, viewers would stop noticing race and focus on individual characters and actors.
Whites have a long way to go in adjusting our attitudes and beliefs about minorities. In a telling scene of Hidden Figures, the mathematician Dorothy Vaughan’s white boss tells her, “I hope you know that I’m not against y’all,” referring to the dozens of black female “computers” Vaughan supervises. Vaughan gives her boss an appraising look and replies, “I know. I know you believe that.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his devastating book Between the World and Me, whites have a stake in “believing themselves to be white.” By believing in our own racial superiority, we can grab the most prizes: money, prestige, power. It’s a bitter pill to recognize that fact and work to do something about it.
We can mean well, but we need to act and advocate for equality among all Americans if we are ever to tear down the hidden fences in our society.