Tuesday, November 29, 2005

On Bigotry

I grew up in a Midwestern town where there were really only two races - black and white. There were some Asians and Indians, and there were a couple of temples in town, but the overwhelming majojrity of families were African-American or white.

I can only think of one family in my high school with a Spanish name. The Asians mostly went to the High School on the west side, where the rich folks lived, but we had a few in our school. We also had one high profile Indian family, all sons. Those kids, like the Asian students, were very quiet, kept to themselves, usually got the highest grades, and never seemed to get in trouble. After high school, they seemed to disappear. I imagined they went to impressive colleges, and likely never moved back to our little town. But I really don't know.

My high school's student body was almost half African American. Everyone else was plain white. The Jewish kids were white too, and frankly, we couldn't tell who was Jewish and who wasn't. Nobody seemed to care.

I always felt accepted by the black girls in my class. The term African American wasn't in use yet, so we used the term black. Those girls were nice to me. They liked the way I sang and danced in the school plays and in Swing Choir. And, I suspect, they knew that the white girls, for the most part, rejected me. I'm sure they saw how little self-esteem I had. I was far from uppity or proud. I was a geek, and a lonely one. A few of them were rather mother-hennish toward me, literally putting their arms around me and saying "You alright girl. You better than them."

I never wondered what they meant by that. I was simply grateful for the kindness, and the friendship.

In my senior year, when I got my first serious boyfriend, it was my black girlfriends who talked frankly with me about sex, about not losing my head in emotion, about doing the safe thing, and what was best for me. Most of my white girlfriends had visions of a wedding in their heads, and thought it would be so romantic if I were to start a family right away.

And that guy was such an asshole. Ugh.

I have always preferred "black music" to "white music." From the time I played "Sweet Georgia Brown" ad nauseum on a toy player piano at five, to now when I prefer listening to Kanye West rather than Nickelback. I was trying my hand at rapping when I was fifteen, and singing Billie Holliday songs in my spare time. My music teachers, however, far preferred my covers of Barbra Streisand tunes. Yeah, I could belt out Streisand songs with the best of them... but nothing moved me like "God Bless the Child" when I was fifteen, wearing my cousin's hand-me-downs, and knowing the only reason my classmates wanted to sit near me was so they could copy my paper. Yes, Barbra had a big nose like mine... but she was a rich movie star with fancy clothes and expensive hairdos. Like the popular girls at school. I could not relate.

When ya got money, you got lots of friends
prowlin' round your door
But when the money's gone, and the spendin' ends
They don't come round no more

Brains, you see, were my social currency.

You can't grow up in my hometown without coming face-to-face with blantat, old-fashioned, southern white-style racism. The KKK marches there once every few years, and there were riots in the nineteenth century that people still talk about. I was lucky to connect with my black classmates over a shared like – music – and a shared dislike - popular snobby kids, all of whom were white. This seemed to transcend race.

I've always said that racism, homophobia, and misogyny are three forms of hate that fall under the umbrella word of bigotry. I've never felt that one could, by nature, be worse than another. But, as Dantallion mentions, bigotry can be insidious. It slimes itself into efforts toward pride and diversity. It justifies itself by "keepin' it real." It turns appreciation for differences into judgement, and turns self-esteem into self-aggrandizement. It's a leap from Pride to Supremacy... but an easy leap to make, if you've been hurt badly enough.

When I was in college, a Doonesbury cartoon featured a beleaguered Principal being approached by the head of the Student Body Diversity Affairs Council, or some such title. They were congratulating themselves on having created a campus where the minority students felt that they were equal to the white students. Howevever, they were dismayed to notice that the minority students were making a set of demands. They wanted seperate bathrooms from the whites. Segregation by choice. Who would have imagined this would be the end result of all those Awareness & Sensitivity seminars? A lot of well-meaning hearts were broken.

Music, again, was the heartbeat of my college class in 1991. Grunge was white music. Hip-hop was black. If you walked through a group of white students, you'd hear Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. If you walked past the Alpha Phi Alpha house, you'd hear Naughty by Nature, and Tribe Called Quest. I owned all of Nirvana's albums, but I knew all the lyrics to OPP too. I had also discovered En Vogue, SWV, Salt-n-Pepa, and Queen Latifah. I listened to that so much that one of my floormates in the dorm asked me where I was from, with that funny look on her face.

I've always loved singing with bands in bars and clubs, and have always wanted to get a gig - meet the right bunch of fellas, so to speak. When I was nineteen, someone - a beautiful African American gal who sang with a local club band - told me that I'd never be asked to join a band that played the kind of music I liked to sing, because a black band would never hire a white singer, and I "sang black." This didn't make sense to me. Was she talking about vocal "licks," and messing with the beat, and that sort of thing? Reba McIntyre does that all the time with her voice! This gal told me that if I wanted to sing with a cover band, I should do more Sinead O'Connor and less Mariah Carey. "And nobody wants to hear that old stuff," she scoffed, referring to my love of old jazz standards.

I'm sure a lot of performers have stories like this one. I did feel rejected on a personal level, and I never tried to get a gig with a band after that. I slunk back into musical theatre, and eventually turned to opera - both essentially "white" venues.

But I think, at nineteen, deep down inside myself, I didn't believe what that gal said to me. After all, I had wonderful memories of African American musician friends from my hometown, who loved my singing, who liked working with me musically. It was the fact that she believed it that hurt. This is what she believed, and likely, others did as well. This was the real sadness to me.

Racial Pride became a hot subject while I was in college as well, although to read books written by people who were in college during the sixties, this wasn't a new thing either. College students tend to think they are the first ones to come up with ideas.

Suddenly people were wearing their nationalities on their sleeves, shouting it from the rooftops. I wasn't white anymore, I was a Wild Irish Rose, and I can drink all of you under the table! I'm also Italian, so you better not piss me off! But... I was also laughingly accepting the idea that people might think I'm a borderline alcoholic, and a-moral. It took a short while for that to really sink in. And my fellow students? I saw a group of African American girls swarm a lunch table in the cafeteria, harass the lone white student eating there until she got up and left, and then laughed at mach-Q decibels as she scuttled away, "We scared her good!" They were immensely pleased with themselves, and I was horrified.

For me personally, this meant that the black girls I used to feel so welcomed by were all of a sudden hostile strangers. At first I assumed that, in college, race relations are just that much harder. Over half the students at my college were from Chicago, and I figured their inner-city experiences might have shaped their bitter, angry behaviors.

But then I noticed that even within their own ethnic group, certain girls were excluded. Overweight girls. Girls with bad fashion sense. This didn't seem to be about race anymore. This seemed to be about... popularity. I didn't quite know what to make of that.

Not too long after that - I believe it was the same semester - a Latin boy in one of my classes invited me to a movie, so I went along. He was hot as hell, and seemed like a nice guy. He was very quiet, soft-spoken, and very proud of his heritage. He spoke Spanish beautifully and I liked practicing a few words and phrases with him. We went to a Disney film - it might have been Beauty and the Beast.

He was all over me. I was disgusted. I think he honestly thought we'd have sex in the theatre. Call me naive, but I actually thought we'd watch the movie. If he had waited until after the movie, who knows. But the minute the lights went down... eeuccch.

After the movie was over, I walked purposefully in the direction of my dorm. My date took out a pocketknife and started flipping the blade open and closed, open and closed. My blood went cold. I began talking about the class we had together, how awesome I thought the teacher was, how much I loved Moby Dick. He didn't say much. When we got to my dorm, he said he would call me. "Sure," I said, "Thanks for the movie." I went inside without a kiss, and never heard from him again.

Thinking he'd score in the movies - that's a guy thing, not a spanish thing. But latinos, at that time, on my campus, among the provincial white girls, had a stereotype of only wanting one thing. I'd never been treated that brutishly by any other boy - and I'd been out with white guys, black guys, and once an Islamic named Aladdin. All of them had been more respectful. I sat there in my dorm room, after the date, seething. Doesn't he know that he's proving them right, I thought to myself, those people who say those things?

And what the hell was up with the pocketknife?

Both the girls in the cafeteria and my date were clearly enjoying being intimidating. I've heard that this is an effort to reclaim something. Ok, you call me dangerous, fine. I'd rather have you scared of me, because then you'll respect me. Maybe my date was assuming I'd heard what people say, and had agreed to go on the date because I wanted sex? I'll never know, but I always felt that this line of thinking and behaving was playing into the hands of the racists. Yes, it's true that just because you dress like Ludacris does in his videos, that you're not robbing convenience stores in your spare time, or shooting people, or that you have no respect for women. But it's not just the clothes.

It's when four African American guys get on the Metro-North Train, walk through the cars until they find one that’s quiet, and half-full of white yuppies, and then start bragging at the top of their lungs about the escapades of they brutha that jus got out of prison - I mean he JUST got out! Then laughing even louder as he relates the story of the bitch he done fucked in the bushes last night in front of someone’s house, who I imagine they don’t like. “He JUS’ out of prison, you KNOW he (insert euphemism for sex).

I can’t imagine that their deliberation as to which car they should ride in wasn’t at least partially motivated by a desire to irritate the occupants of the car. There were plenty of other African Americans on that train - but not in that car. Those young men on the train were asserting something. It was kind of like those commercials with the Vikings, who have no battle to fight, so they wreak havoc in modern society.

Was I irritated because I’m white and I can’t relate? No. Were they just “keepin’ it real” or “representin’?” No. They were being obnoxious, immature assholes, and you can be any color to pull that off. This is not a race issue – but by embodying this negative stereotype, they are feeding the fires of racism that may be smoldering in anyone near them. So it becomes a race issue.

So much unfocused rage. So much arrogance. So much... bullshit.

My mother proudly wears a T-shirt warning others that she has an Irish temper with an Italian attitude. (I think I might have given it to her!) My father, until it shrank in the wash, wore a sweatshirt that reinforces the stereotype of Germans as overly-indulgent beer drinkers. After it shrank, I had fun wearing it on occasion. The African-American youths on the corner of 82nd and Amsterdam that call each other "mah nigga" were polite to me as I walked by with my enormous bags, moving out of my way and saying "excuse me ma'am," and they did not laugh behind my back. My girlfriends and I sometimes call ourselves bitches. And I've lost track of how many times I've been around a bunch of gay boys referring to themselves as a bunch of faggots.

Some would say this is pride, but I'm not sure. This appears to be the opposite of intimidation posturing - this is a laughing acceptance of negative words and stereotypes in an attempt to demystify them. And this is an equally loaded position.

The current debate surrounding the "n-word" as adopted by popular African American culture is the most visible example. (I myself am so uncomfortable with that word that I won't even type it here.) On Random Noise, Kyle discusses a recent Oprah show that addressed this issue:

Her guests included the cast of the Crash, a movie that deals with racism and social perceptions. While discussing the movie and its contents it brought up an issue about the usage of the word 'nigger'. On one hand, Oprah argues that the term holds too much hurtful history and is still a term filled with negative power. On the other, Don Cheadle believes that the word can have its connotation changed to be a term of endearment and can be embraced with acceptance.

(The rest of his post is a worthy read, as is the rest of his blog.)

Dantallion makes a point in that the assumption of the acceptance of stereotypes reinforces them, and this leads bigots to utter hateful statements such as the ones quoted in his post. But where do positive sterotypes come in? African American men have the biggest penises. There's no lover like a latin lover. Jewish people will get you the biggest tax returns. Nothing is holier than Motherhood.

The real answer to this question is that we wish the world was a different place. I wish that the raising of children was something that everyone valued and took responsibility for, so that women wouldn't feel obliged to choose. I wish that African American and Latin men could, like white men, be taken seriously enough in pursuits of the mind that they wouldn't accept such sexual objectification. I wish that other races could be as well known for their education and brilliance as the Jews, so that the bar would be raised on the professions of law and accounting, and we wouldn't say "He can get you the biggest tax refund because he's Jewish and knows how to cheat the government" - they would say "He can get you the biggest refund because he knows the tax laws like the back of his hand."

The world is the way it is because of the people we are letting make the rules, and because of our willingness to follow them. And yes, it's been this way for millennia, but I believe there is hope. Things really are better than they were years ago. People and societies can and do change.

Just ask Betty Friedan, who I heard speak at my old church in the late '90's. She recounted a time when if a woman pursued an advanced degree, she was called "unfeminine," and a woman who pursued a career in the performing arts was assumed to be a prostitute, or simply a slut. Yes, things are better. But we still have a long way to go.

The "Anti-PC" movement of the 1990's was a backlash against sensitivity efforts. All of a sudden it became fashionable to call a spade a spade - a person isn't "vertically challenged," for pete's sake, they're short! This was basically a call to Americans to stop molly-coddling (there's a misogynist term for you) people with chips on their shoulders. Women shouldn't be insulted by being called hot babes. Black people are black. Bald people are bald.

But what's really going on here? The problem is not that we're using some of these terms, for example, short, bald, black, hot babe. The problem is that these terms are seen as insults. Just because someone is short doesn't mean they're weak. Just because they're bald doesn't mean they can't bring me to multiple orgasm. Just because I'm a hot babe doesn't mean I'm not smart. And just because he's black doesn't mean he's dishonest.

So rather than adjust the thinking surrounding these people, we're going to outlaw the word.

Don't get me wrong - I believe in monitoring your speech. Being cautious in the words you use shouldn't be something you do because you're afraid of being called a bigot. It should be something you do because you care about whether or not you hurt people, on purpose or by accident. You care about showing the world - and God, if you so believe - that you're a good person. You care about making the world a more welcoming place for everyone, yourself, your family, and those you've never met. Don't do the right thing because of peer pressure. Do it simply because it's the right thing.

I was called a racist once, when five Latino boys on the corner of Astoria boulevard and 32nd street surrounded me, making sexual comments and gestures, and I swept though them as fast as I could, without looking at them. This does not make me a racist.

However, all my serious boyfriends have been white. Most have been Jewish. Am I a racist?

I don't want to end this essay with a question, but the truth is, our society doesn't have the answers yet. I'll simply close by saying that I am doing the best I can. I don't believe that the color of a person's skin will tell me anything at all about what kind of person they are on the inside. For every Snoop Dogg, there is a Carlton Banks. For every Paris Hilton, there is a Jane Roe. I believe that the kind of person we are lies in the choices we make, and how we treat people. All people.


Dr. Zoom said...

There you go again, being all brilliant.

It makes me want to document the evolution of the perception of the handicapped, er ... disabled ... ummm ... physically challenged.

LONG LONG post, there.

Dantallion said...

I really shouldn't be surprised - this is a fantastically written piece MzO - if everyone was as thoughtful as you about this stuff, the battle would be half won before we even got started. Thanks for this.

St. Dickeybird said...

VERY well said!

tornwordo said...

Wow, I'm in the choir. I think you brought up something that makes me sigh though - and that is "doing the right thing". Because, sadly, there are a lot of people out there who are not interested in doing the right thing, and enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Sister Staceypatrick said...

Wow. Brilliant post. So glad Dantallion pointed me here!

Here in Toronto we pride our selves as being oh so accepting and oh so openly diverse, and yet there has been talk in the news lately of having all black schools because students of colour aren't treated the same as white kids in "white" schools. A white girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by a group of black teens at her school and rather than feel sorry for the poor kid the parents scream racism against the cops for believing her.

Growing up a Jew I've had my fair share of nasty anti-semetic remarks as well as many supposedly well-meaning ones. A colleague once couldn't understand why the term "Jewed down" offended me since she saw it as a compliment refering to how money-savvy "we people" were.

Ignorance takes many forms.

God of Biscuits said...

You know you're not a bigot.

Or if you are, then I am, too. Because I've only ever had gay men as boyfriends. :)

This was an incredibly candid post, and you covered a lot of territory in the process. Extraordinary.

Wayne said...

Oh, thank you for the amazing entry.

And seriously, from a guy's point of view, I still don't know what the heck was up with the stupid pocketknife.... Maybe he wanted to trim his pubic hair.

epicurist said...

Came by your post via Dantallion's recommendation, and must say it was a stunningly beautiful and honest commentary.

"...They were being obnoxious, immature assholes, and you can be any color to pull that off. This is not a race issue – but by embodying this negative stereotype, they are feeding the fires of racism that may be smoldering in anyone near them. So it becomes a race issue."

Your observations about race relations (inter and intra) were particularly interesting and I appreciated how you said it in your own voice and without apology. Thanks for sharing this.

Jase said...

Well said honey!

Personally, I also believe that the connotations of words can change - similiar to how meanings of word changes throughout the ages. "Gay" for example only meant "happy" once upon a time. And, like, the word 'like' was, like, never used as a conjunction.

I am one who believes that using 'insult' words in a non-insulting manner does empower the user.

Of course, 'disempowering' one word might just lead to another word being used.

I don't think words are the problem here, but people's ignorance and inacceptance; and that leads to prejudice and stereotypes. But I think the bigger issue than this is not that there are stereotypes, but that people use them to hold themselves superior.