Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hindsight is 20/20 and color-blind

Sometimes when I write these posts, I mull over a subject for a few days, and then commit my thoughts to the blogosphere, where surely few will read them, but at least they're out of my brain for a while. Today, I'd like to rant on something that either has occupied my mind for less than an hour (I was sparked into considering this subject by something I caught on television less than an hour before I started typing) or for most of my life (this subject has interested me since I was a kid; I guess I've always been a bit of a cynic).

Racism and closely related topics are often difficult to talk about for a number of reasons. It's a sensitive subject obviously. It's something ugly that we would rather just go away. It's something that most of us harbor in some form, although we hate to admit it to ourselves. Let me come out and make an admission: I have a certain amount of irrational fear and hatred towards Germans. I think admitting it to myself helps me deal with it, but it's still there. Being raised Jewish, my older family members and people within the Jewish community talked a lot about Nazis. As a young man, I didn't really understand what the term meant, other than knowing that in my father's lifetime, a lot of Germans killed a lot of Jews. Thus I associated an (arguably) irrational fear of Germans, making an internal association due to a limited grasp of history that rationally I know to be false, in general, but still get the creeps about nonetheless. So there's that off my chest.

(For some people, it's not racism, but some other form of prejudice: I once knew a guy who had had a bad employee who had graduated from a certain college, and ever since had not liked anyone he met who was from that college. A lot of us have a certain degree of sexism as well that manifests in many differing ways.)

Maybe is just that I am a cynic, but I think if we are honest with ourselves, we won't look at racists and say, "I'm so much better than them," but rather,"There but for the grace of God..." The thing that sparked me this morning was a children's program talking about racism (I think; I only caught about a minute while channel-surfing). A young white girl was asked to imagine herself living in the early part of the 19th century, in a family that owned slaves; how would she feel? She responded, "I would feel really bad about it..."

Would you really, though? It seems more likely to me that you would take it in stride. Obviously most of the people who lived in what would later become the Confederate States of America took it as a given that slavery was acceptable, proper and even good. It was necessary for the thriving of the cotton plantations and other agriculture to have a constant supply of cheap labor, and so slavery continued. Tell me, do you feel bad for migrant workers in 21st-century agriculture who work all day in the hot sun for less than minimum wage to feed their families, knowing that they will probably never be accepted by mainstream culture? When you think about it, it's a lot like the early days after the abolition of slavery in the South, when many former slaves had to stay working on their old plantations without pay because it was the only way to make a living in a culture that didn't want you to get ahead, slavery or not.

Why do you suppose it is that it seems so obvious to us today that slavery is wrong, and yet there seems to have been few people who voluntarily gave up their slaves before abolition? In Santa Cruz, there was a local historical figure named London Nelson who was a freed slave. His first master died and left him to his eldest son, who continued to use him for cotton picking. Eventually, Nelson was set free when his new master decided to go west in the Gold Rush. The story interests me because it seems to illustrate the point that on the whole, the way we humans treat our other humans has less to do with what we feel to be morally right, and more to do with what will bring us economic prosperity.

I actually recently discovered that there is a shocking (but perhaps not surprising) strategy that some businesses use to dispose of wastes of certain kinds. Electronic equipment is recognized to be very dangerous and toxic, being filled with lead, mercury, cadmium and other deadly substances. It's illegal to put electronic waste in American landfills, so the preferred method is to break down old computers and extract the toxic substances, recycling them into new computers. That's difficult and costly to do, however, so many companies have found a cheap alternative: ship the stuff to India, where there are no laws about dumping these substances. Thus, our toxic chemicals end up in landfills sometimes literally in the back yards of impoverished Indians. I found myself thinking: the Nazis killed off millions of Jews out of hatred, but if Americans kill off millions of Indians out of mere convenience, who is worse? I don't know, but it really bothers me. If I am a person who stands by and lets this happen, am I any better than the average German citizen who didn't stand up to the Nazis? Heck, my life wouldn't even be put in danger to stand up to this sort of evil!

One of the unfortunate things about prejudice is the fact that most of us don't notice it or confront it unless it's directed at us. Remember the movie Philadelphia in 1993? Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer with AIDS who sues his firm for wrongful termination because he believes he lost his job in part because of homophobia. On what does he base his claim that his employers were homophobic? In a flashback, we see a group of lawyers together at a gym, swapping jokes as follows:

What do you call a woman who has PMS and ESP at the same time?

I don't know, Roger, what do you call her?

A bitch who knows everything.

Sounds like someone I know.

Hey Walter, how does a faggot fake an orgasm?

He throws a quart of hot yogurt on your back.

The thing that bothered me about this scene from the first time I saw it was the fact that Beckett is laughing along with the others when the sexist joke is being told, but the smile melts away when the gay joke is told. I wanted to step into that scene and ask him, "So Andrew, it sexism better than homophobia? If telling a joke about 'faggots' means they must hate you, does that imply telling a joke about 'bitches' mean they hate women? Why were you laughing before, and why did you stop now?"

I remember a time when I was at work alone with a co-worker who said, "Hey, all the women are gone, let's tell some politically-incorrect jokes." He proceeded to tell a black joke, a Polish joke, and a Chinese joke, laughing up a storm. I laughed too, then I told him an Italian joke. My (Italian) co-worker said, "Ouch..." and joke time was over.

Don't think you're better than anyone else just because you're not a Nazi. Most of us aren't Nazis, and most of us aren't particularly nice.

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