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.

 

Goodness: Pass It On

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16351925_GMost Americans would agree that race relations in 2018 are fraught. Stories about police brutality towards minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of white nationalism: all point to the fact that inequity and tension still define relations between the races. Yet just this week, I read some news articles that tell a different story.

One of those stories was about an elderly white woman in Phoenix who discovered that an African-American man had no place to stay while he waited for his newborn daughter to be old enough to fly home with him. The man had been given custody of his child but had no funds to stay at a hotel for the 7 days required by the airlines for the baby to be allowed on a plane. The woman, a volunteer in the NICU at the hospital, simply told the man, “I’m coming to get you and take you home.” She welcomed this stranger into her home with his tiny infant. The two have promised to keep in touch.

This week I also saw a video wherein a black man sitting in his car encounters a homeless white veteran walking down the road with no shoes. So the black man gets out of his car and chats with the man, asking about his welfare, where he’s going to stay etc., all the while removing his brand new sneakers and giving them to the homeless man. What struck me about the encounter was not just the selfless gesture of literally giving someone the shoes off of his feet. It was the respect and caring in his conversation with a man clearly down on his luck. I’m sure the personal encounter meant as much to the homeless vet as did the new shoes.

And again, the other day I read that after discovering his new employee had walked 20 miles to his new job in Alabama, the CEO of the company offered the new employee his car. Here too the lines of race were crossed with sympathy and understanding, the CEO being white and the new employee black.

These stories give me a bit of hope. While there are many who live with fear and distrust of those who are different from themselves, there are also those whose innate kindness motivates them to reach out and take a chance on someone who has walked a different path in life. I hope our mass media continues to find and celebrate ordinary people working to make the world a better place. And I hope these stories will motivate all of us to pass on goodness wherever and whenever we can.

The World in Black and White

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When I was about 9 years old, our family got our first color television set. It was a wonder to us and a plague to my father, who spent endless hours trying to get the color adjusted properly. People on early TV shows always looked orange or green, it seemed, but it was exciting to see the television world full of color. It was like that moment when Dorothy gets deposited in Oz, and she steps out into a new and beautiful world.

The advent of color TV coincided with a flowering of expression and political activism in the United States. The civil rights movement had given birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of a larger push toward affording blacks equal rights to whites. Growing unrest over US involvement in the Vietnam War led to protests and violent clashes with police. The late Sixties was the time of hippies, free love, and drug experimentation. Many in America, youth in particular, rebelled against the homogeneity and conservatism of the 1950s.

The Fifties were a prosperous time for many, and after the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, Americans naturally craved comfort and security. The problem was that nonconformity was frowned upon, and prosperity and security remained elusive for blacks. So although some of the unrest and unruliness of the Sixties was negative, overall the era brought about progress for women and minorities.

Trump’s America seems to be a return to black and white. So much of his political platform and presidential agenda are designed to turn back the clock on civil rights, reproductive freedom, and freedom of expression. During the campaign, for instance, he called nonwhite immigrants criminals, rapists, and terrorists. He questioned the validity of Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate until late in the campaign. He said that women who had abortions should be punished and bragged about grabbing women’s genitals against their will. This was dismissed by his supporters as “locker room talk.” It seemed clear to those not dazzled by his reality TV fame that his slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make America White Again.”

As president, Trump has put his reactionary views into action – decreeing a de facto travel ban on foreign Muslims, appointing an anti-civil rights attorney general, removing the contraceptive mandate from Obamacare, calling for a ban on transgender individuals in the military. He has made both veiled and overt threats against press freedom and taken exception to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. He has called these peaceful protestors “sons of bitches” while refusing to condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and shouting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”

Seeing things in black and white is an apt metaphor for both the conformist Fifties and today’s politically polarized environment. It is incredibly depressing to see the hard-fought gains of the Sixties and Seventies being undone by the current administration with the complicity of the Republican-dominated Congress. I can only hope that the many Americans who have grown to love a world of color will rise up and demand that our country move forward, not backward, in the advancement of freedom and human rights.

Thank You, President Trump

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Dear President Trump,

On behalf of a divided nation, thank you. Your insensitive and thinly veiled racist jabs at Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players has had some beautiful unintended consequences.

Prior to your latest childish and angry tweet, wherein you called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” a few NFL players had been taking a stand (so to speak) by taking a knee during the national anthem at the start of games. Since your remarks, entire teams of NFL players, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, have chosen to remain off the field rather  than salute a flag that stands for freedoms they find far too elusive. More and more players have chosen this dignified and nonviolent method of protesting police brutality and institutional racism. So rather than do away with the practice, your hateful comments have created a tidal wave.

Another unintended consequence of your hate-spewing bile is that you have fostered unity among players, coaches, and others who support their teammates in their struggles to right injustice. Last night at the Dallas Cowboys game, the entire team including the coach took a knee to make such a statement of solidarity. Then they stood, arms locked together, during the anthem. All of this had been agreed upon beforehand in conversations that may never have taken place had you not had one of your Twitter tantrums.

I have also noticed people who are not particularly political taking a stand – whether prominent celebrities or just Facebook friends who are fed up with the hatred and casual racism that has been growing like a cancer since you took office. Their courage to speak out gives me great hope in our future. It gives me hope that your election was an aberration and that people of good will can bring some sanity and dignity back to our great nation.

I pray that this movement continues to grow and that it forces local and state governments to take action against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism in this country. I pray that it is not just a blip on the screens of our lives. I pray that it energizes a new civil rights era and moves us away from division and hate and towards unity and equality for all.

White Like Me

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Dear Black People,

After watching season one of the Netflix series Dear White People, I want to apologize for my ancestors having screwed up your lives for the past 200 hundred plus years and for making race relations so fraught to this day.

Watching Dear White People made me uncomfortable, as it is no doubt meant to do. Episode after episode, I squirmed as well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) white students try to relate to their black counterparts at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester. (The gun comes immediately to mind.) Whether getting called out for partying in blackface or learning that only blacks get to use the N word, the white kids at Winchester are alternately baffled and angered by their black classmates’ refusal to go easy on them.

The premise of Dear White People is that a mixed race student named Samantha White hosts a regular segment on the college radio station that starts “Dear white people” and  gives her a platform to air her exasperation, dismay, or outright disgust at the way people of color are treated at her school. Her show – and indeed the series – force whites to look at their privilege in a sometimes humorous, but always uncompromising, way.

What I love about the show is that each episode is told from the perspective of one student at the school. Even the black students at Winchester are not united in their views of how best to advance black causes at the school. Some are assimilators who want to find diplomatic solutions. Some are activists who wish to be confrontational. All have unique stories, and learning their stories is perhaps the most instructive part of the show for whites who might be tempted to paint all African-Americans with the same broad brush.

A twist in the show is that Sam, the radio personality/activist, is secretly dating a white grad student at the beginning of Episode 1. Once they are outed, Sam’s boyfriend Gabe tries to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic to the black students’ plight without being patronizing. But he learns that, as a white person, he just doesn’t get it, and probably never will. The same can be said for white audiences of Dear White People. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

While the show has deadly serious moments, it’s also very funny. The repartee among the students is topical and witty.  And the characters totally won me over. There’s the shy gay student who has a crush on his roommate, his equally gay newspaper editor who is constantly yelling at him for not doing the story he was assigned, the Buffy-like girl who gets an Emotional Support Animal to handle the stress, the Kenyan who insists that his people are superior because “we did not get captured” in Africa.

Dear White People is a sly, witty, earnest, and well-acted comedy-drama and a must-see for anyone who wants to examine modern race relations in America. I can’t wait for season two!

Hidden Fences

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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.

Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.