The Pendulum Swings

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The Waitrose candy company has had to apologize for releasing a dark chocolate Easter duck called “Ugly.” People took to Twitter to complain about the name for one of a trio of candy ducklings, the others being named “Fluffy” and “Crispy.” (Jack Guy, “Store withdraws chocolate ducklings over racism complaint,” cnn.com, April 9, 2019) Such is the state of race relations in modern society.

For literally hundreds of years, people of color have had to fight against the perception that their skin color makes them less than: less intelligent, less moral, less human. Blacks who could “pass” for white used their skin color to their advantage while at the same time feeling they were betraying their own people. In the Sixties, the slogan “Black is beautiful” began to reclaim the dignity and power of African-Americans. The Civil Rights movement made great strides towards equality for people of color, but racism continues to persist.

In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on continuing racial bias, particularly in the area of law enforcement. The shooting of black suspects, the mass incarceration of minorities and differential sentencing based on skin color have all rightly been the targets of vociferous protest. But increasingly, litmus tests to determine how “woke” a person is threaten to trivialize the very real threats that racism still poses in our society.

Social norms are like a pendulum that veers wildly from right to left. In the bad old days, African-Americans were called “colored,” expected to be nothing more than servants or laughable minstrels. It was considered funny, not appalling, to don blackface. I recently listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and how he had to swallow so much casual racism just to make it in the world of entertainment. Gladwell includes a snippet of a Shriners Club roast given to Sammy. His so-called friend Dean Martin rattles off a series of horribly racist jokes at Sammy’s expense: references to watermelon-eating and even lynching. And the worst part? Sammy has to laugh at it all to be part of the club.

Today the pendulum is arcing far to the left, and every instance that might potentially be seen as racist is put under the microscope and dissected on social media. Does the hapless naming of a candy duck indicate a deep-seated prejudice towards dark skin? It might. I do think that little things – habits of speech in particular – affect the way in which we perceive the world around us. If the references to the ducks had been sexist, I would have been annoyed. But I worry that focusing on these minor issues will create a backlash and hamper progress in social justice.

Let’s hope the swinging of the pendulum begins to slow and that people of all ethnicities, social classes, and skin colors can feel equally valued and respected in our culture.

 

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