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.

More Race, More Judgement

Racism is in the news again, and everybody is outraged.   Some multi-millionaire idiot by the name of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise, said some stupid things to his mistress, of all people, who recorded his verbal idiocy on a hidden tape recorder.   The remarks were released to the press, and all Hell broke loose. Adam Silver, the new commissioner of the NBA, acted swiftly and boldly, and, per the powers granted to him in the bylaws of the NBA constitution, banned Sterling for life and recommended that the remaining 29 owners act quickly to force Sterling to sell the team.

A few months ago I wrote an essay in reaction to Paula Dean’s use of the “n” word and the uproar that followed.  ( https://djgourdoux.com/2013/07/17/race-to-judgement/  )That was at the same time some redneck idiot from a “reality” show called “Duck Dynasty” got a lot of attention for some similarly stupid remarks.  Now we have the latest episode in what has become an on-going American phenomenon, the self congratulatory denouncing of idiotic public figures and the insensitive things they say.  In other words, the destruction of easy targets.

I should mention that I am a fan of basketball and the NBA in particular.   After a few years in the nineties and early 2000s in which the quality of play was mediocre at best, the past few seasons have given us some of the best and most exciting basketball I’ve ever seen in my more than forty years as a fan.  So far, this year’s playoffs, still just in the first round, have been amazing.  The level of competition, the athleticism, and the heart and soul being poured into each game have been exhilarating to watch.  The product that the NBA is putting out has never been better.

So in reacting to Silver’s decision about Sterling, there are a couple of key factors that have to be taken into consideration.  First is the makeup of the league, which is predominantly African American, and second is the role the league plays in the African American culture.  Because of these key constituents, Silver had little choice but to do what he did.

Were Sterling’s rights violated?   This is a complicated question.  The first answer is no.  As its leader, Silver is responsible for the product and public image of the NBA.  It is not only within his rights but part of his job description that he protects that image.  Imagine for a second that Sterling was the owner of a Subway sandwich franchise in Harlem and made the same racist comments.  It would certainly be within Subway’s rights to replace Sterling in order to protect its brand. I don’t think anyone would argue this point.

But here’s where things get a bit more complicated.  Suppose a restaurant in the Deep South refuses to serve African Americans, on the basis that they would lose their white clientele, and their business would suffer. Suppose the restaurant owners can prove that in their racist community, 80% of the whites would stop frequenting the place if it served African Americans.    In the Silver/Sterling example, it’s okay to punish racism because in the case of the NBA it’s bad for business.  But what of the instances where a business profits from racism or racist attitudes?   And don’t give me the moral high ground of it’s wrong to profit from racism – that may be true, but it happens each and every day.  We can deny this all we want, but the simple truth is that the vast majority of Americans have become very comfortable with the systemic racism that we all know is embedded within the structure of our society.

All of the commotion and uproar over Sterling’s remarks shows that we still aren’t ready to seriously discuss the role of racism on our society.  A stupid millionaire makes some stupid remarks to his stupid mistress about millionaire athletes, and everybody is up in arms, demanding retribution and justice.  Yet when we look at this situation, who is really getting hurt?  Is it the players?  Not one NBA player is going to lose any money as a result of Sterling’s rants.  Is it the fans?  Both players and fans can be very good at looking the other way.  It’s difficult to gauge the hurt sensibilities of either when an NFL franchise named the Washington Redskins still exists

Meanwhile, while we get hysterical about the idiotic babblings of a high profile moron, institutionalized racism continues unabated.  In the past year or so, the Supreme Court has ruled against the Voting Rights act and Affirmative Action.   A number of states have passed voter registration laws that are thinly veiled efforts to suppress the African American vote.   Racial profiling was all but legalized when New York City passed and began enforcing laws that empower policemen to stop and frisk “suspicious” looking individuals without probable cause.

Even in Sterling’s own past, there are more troubling incidents.  As far back as 2003, he was the target of a discrimination lawsuit for his practices as a landlord.   Recorded testimony shows remarks and behavior much more outrageous than anything he said this time. He deliberately refused to rent to African Americans and Latinos and invaded the privacy and harassed existing African American and Latino tenants.  Remarks he made that surfaced in that case are incredibly offensive.   He settled out of court for 2.7 million dollars, yet admitted no wrong doing or guilt.  Denying access to housing based on race seems much more severe than telling his mistress who she can be seen with.   So where was the outrage then?

Equally damning for the NBA is Sterling’s treatment of one of its all time greatest players, hall of famer Elgin Baylor, who was the general manager of the Clippers.  Baylor bought age and race discrimination lawsuits against Sterling in 2009, alleging even more outrageous behavior by Sterling.  Sterling beat the age discrimination charges and Baylor dropped the race charges, but one wonders, as one of its greatest players and after a lifetime of distinguished service, and given the 2003 lawsuit and what we know now, why the media and the NBA were so silent in Baylor’s case. In his press conference yesterday, Silver issued an apology that mentioned by name several all time great African American players, including Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. The absence of Baylor’s name is damning.

The point of this all is, just like Paula Deen or the guy from “Duck Dynasty,” it’s easy for us to feign moral outrage when some stupid public figure says something stupid.  It becomes a media frenzy, everybody eagerly jumping in to condemn the insensitive and moronic sentiments, whipping themselves up into a self righteous fervor.  It’s easy, because there is a face and a name to direct our outrage at.  It’ll last for a few days, and everybody will pat themselves on the back, satisfied that such hatred and intolerance has no place in our society, and congratulate themselves on their enlightened views.

Then, a week or two from now, Donald Sterling will be forgotten, and we’ll continue to turn our heads and pretend we don’t see the daily victims of our country’s systemic and institutional racism.

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.