Hidden Things

Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told.  And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.

That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching.  It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.

Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important.   The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.

Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me.  For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other  films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary  that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on.  That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me.  It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.

I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace.  And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.

These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton.  One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?”  (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)

The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this.  But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.

I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods.  Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like.  And to this day, I still don’t know.  I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.

When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever.  Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists.  We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed.  I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.

This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us.  There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.

While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.

Breathing Lessons

I grew up in an isolated, virtually all white small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  It was the 1960s, and my world was the small town streets and the shaded neighborhood backyards.  We were buffered from the bigger cities of Milwaukee and Racine by miles of farmland, and grew up in an idyllic world of fields and woods and backyards, isolated from the turmoil that invaded our homes via the television airwaves. While city after city was burning with race riots or bleeding with anti Vietnam War demonstrations, we were playing kick the can on warm summer nights or pickup basketball games in driveways.  The economy was booming, and most families were able to live comfortably with a single wage earner.  My mom, like a lot of moms, didn’t work, while my dad made a good living as an over the road semi truck driver.  From our vantage point, it was about as close to paradise as you could get, and adults and children alike couldn’t understand what the rioters and protesters were so angry about.

About the time I turned nine years old, in 1967, I became a huge professional sports fan, starting with football and the Green Bay Packers.  Soon I became a big fan of professional baseball and basketball.  I had many favorite players, with the great Packers quarterback Bart Starr becoming my hero.  Other heroes included Willie Mays and Bob Gibson in baseball, and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor in basketball, and Gayle Sayers in football.  Later, I’d grow to admire Muhammad Ali and later still Joe Frazier.

With the exception of Bart Starr, all of these great athletes had one thing in common:  they were all African Americans.  I really didn’t notice that.  They were all great at what they did, and they had skills that set them apart from the rest. They all imposed their personalities on the games they played, and they were all artists in the truest sense.  Meanwhile, in my isolated small town, I grew up and graduated high school never knowing a single black person.

My mom was a big reader, and would go to the library a couple of times a week.  I’d often go with her, and check out the books in the children’s section.  I remember graduating from the animal books I’d check out in the first and second grades to the slightly older section, and in fourth grade discovering the sports section, and the book The Willie Mays Story.  I checked it out and took it home and stayed up all night reading it.  The book told how Mays was born into poverty in the south (I think it was Alabama) and how he started his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues.  It was the first I’d ever heard of the Negro Leagues, and I remember being shocked when the book told about Jackie Robinson and Monte Irvin and how there was a time when black players weren’t allowed in the major leagues.

I loved the book, mainly for the stories about how young Mays, while playing for the New York Giants, would still play stickball in the neighborhood streets with the kids, and the patience his manager, Leo Durocher, had with him when he started his career in a massive slump.  Over the course of two or three years, I probably checked the book out and read it about ten times.

There were other books, too, like Bill Russell’s Go Up For Glory and Bob Gibson’s From Ghetto to Glory.  These books inspired in me a love of reading, and they also opened my eyes to what was going on outside my town’s limits.  I began to understand that not everyone in our country had the same advantages I had, and that there was real suffering igniting the race riots I saw on television.

About the same time I was listening to a lot of AM top forty radio and falling in love with the sweet and simple and innocent songs of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Temptations.  I’d see them on television and damned if they weren’t black, too.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the role that sports and music played in developing my sensibilities towards race. The fact that so many of the athletes and musicians I admired had to overcome so much was a revelation to me, and by the time Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics, I understood at least on some small level their courage and the symbolic power of the act.

Go forward about twenty years, and two of the most powerful black cultural icons are basketball players Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.  Jordan avoids getting involved in politics and becomes a corporate conglomerate, saying famously that “even Republicans buy shoes.”  Barkley stars in a television ad where he famously pronounces, “I am not a role model,” eloquently making the argument that parents should take responsibility for their kids and not look to sports figures to provide guidance.

Now with the events in Ferguson and the Eric Garner death, questions are being debated about whether it’s right for athletes to use their forum for political protest. I’d argue that of course it is, and I applaud LeBron James, this generation’s Michael Jordan, for wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt.  Barkley may have been right that parents shouldn’t look to athletes to instill values in their children, but the truth is that athletes and musicians and actors all have a platform that reaches beyond cultural and physical and geographic barriers and touches people that wouldn’t otherwise be touched.  They can use this platform to sell shoes or to increase awareness and effect change.  Cultural battles may be waged in loud and acrimonious front lines, but they are usually won quietly and over time, when people far removed from the front lines see something they recognize in those who choose to get involved on the periphery.

There is responsibility that comes with this platform, and it isn’t limited to African American athletes.  White athletes have an even bigger platform. Imagine the impact if, for example, Aaron Rodgers wore an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt to his weekly press conference.

Just like in the 60s, the front lines of these battles are the inner city streets where violence and poverty run rampant, but real change will occur only when those who are isolated and far removed from the realities of this landscape understand what is at stake, and that there are lives in the balance, lives that they can recognize through the eyes of the football or basketball player they cheer for.  Athletes have a unique opportunity to not only increase awareness but also empathy.  With empathy comes compassion and understanding, the foundation of change.

Race to Judgement

“The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you’ve lost your innocence.” –        Bruce Springsteen 

There’s been a lot of fuss in the news about some television personality named Paula Deen and the use of the “n” word.  I know nothing about Paula Deen except that she apparently has some kind of cooking show, and, from what I can gather from the headlines, the “n” word in question isn’t “nutmeg.”

Race is and has always been the most sensitive, complex and divisive issue in American history.  We are a nation of immigrants, the “melting pot” where opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are considered inalienable rights granted to us all.  Our ideals are undeniably noble, while our reality undeniably falls short.  The words at the heart of what we believe and aspire to, “all men are created equal,” were written by an unrepentant slave owner.  We became a country by vanquishing the Native Americans who were here first.  We were the last industrialized country in the world to formally abolish slavery, after more than four years of bloody civil war.  As a nation, our innocence long ago lost, we struggle to maintain the idealism we were born from.

As a middle aged, middle classed white man living in the Midwestern suburbia, I am amazed at the number of men belonging to the same demographic who’ve had no hesitation in telling me about their hatred for other races.  These are typically casual acquaintances, people who know who I am but don’t know me.   When my sons were younger and playing sports, on more than one occasion I had other fathers approach me on the sideline to make small talk. You know what small talk is – polite and safe topics meant to pass the time agreeably and to make a good impression. Small talk in these instances included things like, “your son is really improving,” or “how about the weather?” or “I’ve had it with those lazy black people.”  I had another man say to me, “I know it’s prejudiced, but I just can’t stand Mexicans. At least I admit it,” like that somehow makes it better or more rational.  Most recently, I was having a nice conversation with a guy about rising health care costs; we were pretty much on the same page until he pointed out that a big part of the local costs were all the black people from Illinois who were coming across the Wisconsin border to make fraudulent claims.

It always amazes me that these attitudes are still so prevalent, but even more how casually and comfortably they are espoused.   I don’t know what it is about me that makes me so approachable, that makes them think that not only wouldn’t I find offense but that I would agree with them.  The only thing I can think of is that, like them, my skin is white, and since we have that in common, we must think alike, too.  Normally, in an attempt to be civil, I bite holes in my tongue and don’t say anything in response, sometimes I give a brief I don’t agree with that remark.  I’ve long given up trying to argue or point out the hatred and bigotry behind their remarks, because I won’t change their minds.

The various people spouting off these opinions have come from different classes, from working blue collar to corporate executive, from retired to freshly entering the workplace.  The only things they have in common are that they are white and male.  Oh, and none of them use the “n” word, and none of them are racists.  Just ask them.

This is my problem with the “n:” word.  (By the way, the “n” word in question is “nigger.”  There, I’ve said it.)  I agree that it’s offensive, especially when used by a white man.  But I don’t believe that a word should be used to determine who’s racist or not, because it is too simple to hide behind.  Not using the “n” word doesn’t acquit one of being a racist any more than using it is an automatic conviction.  Racism is much too complex to be determined by a single word.

Besides, my writer instincts tell me that no word by itself should ever be forbidden.  Whether it’s Richard Pryor or Chris Rock, Mark Twain or William Faulkner, or David Duke using the word can make all the difference.  People have a right to be offended, but it’s in the context of the use of the word, just like any other word, like “fuck,” for example.

My father, rest his soul, was born in 1926 and raised on a farm in rural northwestern Wisconsin.  He was a good and kind man, who I loved dearly.  He was smart and funny and, more than anything, good company.  He was also raised in a geography and time that had no exposure to people of color.  As a result, when I was born in 1958, he still had unsophisticated and uninformed and unsubtle attitudes about race.

When I was four years old, in 1962-63, we’d just moved from northern Wisconsin to an all white small town in the southeastern part of the State.  We had a black and white television set – mainly white, because there weren’t many black people on the air at that time.  I remember watching Louis Armstrong on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and he was a genuine curiosity. My brothers and I were all amazed at his lips and how white the palms of his hands were while his skin was so dark.  I’d never seen anything like it before.

It was about the same time that my mom took me with her grocery shopping at the Sentry store in Racine.  We were standing near the frozen food section when I saw a real live black man for the first time in my life.  My mom was getting something out of the freezer while I stood there gawking, and as she returned to the cart, I said to her, plain and loud enough for all to hear, “look, mom – a nigger.”

The next thing I felt was my arm seemingly being pulled out of its socket as my mom grabbed me, and I remember the look of disgust on the man’s face.   I’d obviously said something very wrong, but I didn’t mean to – I was just repeating the word my dad always used.

So was I, at four years old, a racist?  Was my dad for teaching me the word?  Was my mom for tolerating that language in her home?

This is where things get complex, get a little grayer. It’s the “r” word, the companion to the “n” word.  Nobody accepts that they are a “racist.”  I swear, you could interview an entire Klan of sheet wearing fanatics at a cross burning and not one of them would admit to being a racist.  If any word is more reviled than the “n” word, it’s the “r” word.

Racism is as insidious as it is pervasive, and it seeps in to our conscious and unconscious thought patterns.  No matter how enlightened or open minded we like to think we are, we all have, deep down inside us, prejudices and stereotypes that we to some extent, whether we want to admit it or not, believe.

A few years ago, I was in the drive-thru lane at a fast food establishment. The voice on the other end of the loudspeaker had to belong to a complete and total idiot, as he could not get my order straight.  I was finally, after the third time repeating that I did not want fries, able to get through to the tinny voice on the other end of the speaker.  I approached the first window eager to put a face to this moronic voice, when I saw that it belonged to a small middle aged black woman.  I was overcome with liberal guilt and waited with kind and tolerant patience as she struggled to get my change correct, and I thanked her when she finally handed it to me.  If she had been the white teenage male I was expecting, my sarcasm would have undoubtedly boiled over.  This strikes me as not only unfair to the white teenager, but also condescending to the black woman.  My liberal bias refused to accept that a black person can be just as incompetent as a white person. This is exactly what many conservatives see as wrong with liberals, and there is some truth to their argument that by being “compassionate” liberals are really lowering expectations and perpetuating social injustices and inequalities.

So it’s important that we get to the substance.   All racism is evil.   Not all racists are evil.  A racist is a human being, and all human beings I believe have the potential for both exploitation and redemption.   Racism is institutional, racism is fear and hatred, racism is a means to an end.  Watch newsreel footage or read newspaper headlines from the 1940s, while World War Two was being fought – you’ll find frequent use of the words “Japs” and “Nips” as well as ugly caricatures in reference to the Japanese.   At the same time, we were interring Americans of Japanese descent in prison camps.  Racism was deemed an accepted tool in fighting the war against Japan.  We’ve seen the same attitudes rise against Muslims after 9/11 and in proposed legislation to profile Hispanics on the U.S. / Mexico border.   With such strong and pervasive institutions as the government or the media making its arguments, it’s not difficult to see why people accept racism, and how the perpetuation of it creates an unending pool of racists.

The United States became as strong as it is by taking the best of people from all over the world.  Our strength comes from the aggregation of our differences.  Racism is the fear of these differences, and plants the seeds of hatred in otherwise good people.  Like any evil, there are those who profit from perpetuating it, those who capitalize on our fear.

This is the unspoken subtext that is really behind the Trayvon Martin shooting and the George Zimmerman verdict.  What I haven’t heard in all of the discussion is what planted the idea in Zimmerman’s head that Martin was so suspicious looking to follow in the first place, what was it that made him carry a loaded pistol with him.  Zimmerman was acting out the fears that the gun manufacturers and their mouthpiece, the NRA, have been relentlessly pushing, the fear of the hoody wearing black man.  It doesn’t matter that Martin was unarmed and had committed no crime, the “stand your ground” laws imply that fear of the hoody is a valid reason to shoot first and ask questions later.  The gun industry has been so effective in promoting these fears that sales are off the charts, and all states now have some form of concealed carry laws.

But in the process of fearing each other, we are weakened.  Only when we acknowledge and accept our differences can we see the common humanity we all share.

I don’t know the first thing about Paula Deen, if she is a racist or not , or if she deserved to get fired from her show.  The only way that Paula Deen matters is if she makes us take a long look in the mirror and see our own prejudices and fears.  Maybe then we can remember that whatever the color of our skin, we are all members of the human race.