Friday, May 4, 2012

Racism-The One or the Many


Sometimes television raises good questions.  Anti-Semitic 800 Little_Rock_integration_protestrhetoric runs rampant through Mad Men and has recently brought to my mind a question about racial issues.

I religiously watch three AMC original shows:  The Killing, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.  For those you who have never seen Mad Men, it is the story of a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the late 1950’s.  Think of The Office with less comedy, better writing and acting, more sex.  You might even call Mad Men a dark comedy.

Genre splitting is not my forte.  What lodged in my mind while I watched a first-season rerun episode of Mad Men—an episode filled with anti-Semitic remarks—was what the Jewish owner of a prominent New York department store said to the creative director of the advertising agency as she (the department store owner) met with him.  He was trying to find a way to create a creative campaign to market Israel, but no one in the agency had anything positive to say about Israel and  Jewish slurs colored the dialogue.  I don’t remember exactly what she said to him, but it was something like this: he might like one Jewish person but that didn’t mean he liked the group. 

Isn’t it that way with any racism?  We may like the one Jewish, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasian, or Latino person in our workplace, school, or church, but that doesn’t mean we like the group.  Our minds (whether we admit it or not) separate that one and place that one in our own group while retaining the negative perceptions of the race.  It might not be so obvious.  Our stereotypes seem to  lie dormant until aroused by an incident that feeds them.  

A recognized African-American man is no threat, even if he has a companion.  But, if you are Caucasian or any other race than African-American, how do you feel when you encounter two unknown men on the street at night?  Tell the truth.  Do you pray for safety, cross to the other side, tightly clutch your valuables, avoid looking at them, determine to sign up for marksmanship classes? 

At a recent writing festival, one author, a Latino, spoke of his fear when he was travelling a deserted road in Texas near the Mexican border.  As he and his wife travelled east, an old, rusty car full of Mexicans raced toward them.  He observed them from the corner of his eye and gave a sigh of relief when they passed and continued on.  Relief turned to dread when he saw the car, through his side mirror, make a U-turn and begin following him.  He didn’t know what to do.  The car came closer and closer until it was a mere car-length behind him.  He kept his eyes glued to the road ahead.

Finally, the car swerved around him and raced down the road in the same direction he was travelling.  After a few miles, he passed a gas station and noticed the car stopped at a pump.  What had seemed a threat was someone who realized that the next gas station was too far away.  The group suddenly became an individual. 

What can we do to turn groups into individuals?  It starts with confronting our stereotypes head-on.  It begins with cultivating friendships with people who are not like us.  We need to stop and listen to the stories told by people who are not like us.  Once we step into their stories, maybe we can see them more as many individuals, than as one group.

What are your thoughts?

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