Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Can't We All Just...

I just finished reading Confederates in the Attic, and there was a part where Horwitz was observing an angry school board meeting concerning whether or not the Confederate flag should be recognized in the schools. All the white parents present were helplessly angry, their feeling being that it was a violation of their civil rights if the Confederate flag should be outlawed. The black parents felt it was a violation of their civil rights to recognize something that was a beacon of slavery and oppression to them. What struck me so about this experience was the equal footing of each viewpoint. Both sides had a valid point, like it or not. The passage began, for me, an interesting inner dialogue about the present state of discrimination in this country. If one, regardless of race, is completely honest with one's self, how much prejudice is nestled in the deepest nooks of the subconscious?

I was born in Payson, Utah to Mormon parents who met at BYU. (We were excommunicated from the Mormon church soon thereafter.) We moved to Belin, New Mexico when I was three, then to Orlando, Florida when I was six. It was a shock for a family used to small, dusty towns to suddenly find themselves in such a tropical highway, as Orlando seemed. The first person to befriend us when we moved into our new house was one Ramonia Dixon, or Mona, a heavy black woman that lived one street over. She adopted my mother and terrified us kids, with her collection of Mammies, her silent, smiling husband, and her too-hot kitchen. When I was nine years old my mother got a job. She was no longer there to greet us after school. We were sent to Mona's each day, where we waited for my mother, sometimes late into the evenings. It seemed to us that we saw Mona more than our own mother. It was as if there was a swinging door in our lives: swing in, and our mother was revealed; swing out, and it was Mona. When we were old enough, we could go home instead, but Mona was still at every after-school event with us, still at every birthday, every Christmas, every hot summer day at the pool with her two sons. She was our second mother, as quick to hug us as she was to snap at us for not saying 'thank you,' or 'excuse me' when passing in front of someone. What I'm trying to say, to be blunt, is that though I have never felt uncomfortable around her or her family because of our racial differences, I still know that we are different because of that. (Admitting that is probably the hardest thing I have ever done.) But I have to ask: why? Why do I feel that we can never understand each other, and that it's all polite and liberal jabber? I have her to thank for who I am today, yet when I truly take a look at myself, I see her skin color right along with who she is. I can't help but think, in some thread-thin alley in my mind, you are Mona and you are black black black. Does she process the same thought, a dim flicker deep in the center of her brain? Is it ever going to be possible to be color-blind, and only see the person?

I saw Avenue Q in October, and at one point the characters sing, "Everyone's a little racist...sometimes," and I must admit it was refreshing to see. Notwithstanding the fact that they were puppets, I was gloriously alarmed at such an admission being giddily sung to countless audiences on Broadway. Because it's true! Everyone has discriminated or been discriminated against, I don't care who you are. In this week's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is cringingly clueless, with his "It's a Mulatto!" comment and alarm-checking his car after he passes a black man. David has Wanda Sykes call him out each time, and we laugh along with her at his politically incorrecting, but then Sykes herself does a 180. She tells Larry, "You got to know when to pull the race card!" Isn't it a little racist to assume every white person will act one way when being told someone is black? Here it is in full color: the race discussion nobody wants to have, yet it is filling every corner of the room.

We all have questions about each other. Is it not true that one comes to know others by asking questions and processing answers? The worst thing one can do is to assume something about someone else. If we are not curious about each other, it means we do not care about each other, and are content to sit back and divide. The first thing we have to do is admit that we perceive difference. The second is to stop being scared to understand. The boundaries of what is acceptable dialogue are being pushed right now by furry puppets and the less furry Larry David. It's hilarious to watch. But isn't the essence of comedy - the roaring heart of what is funny - truth? And aren't we all laughing?

These are the things I think about while staring at the blood-pink of the bouncy post-its next to the telephone on my desk.

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