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Trying to wrap my brain around intolerance

I wanted to revisit this one in light of all that’s happening in our country right now in how we deal with race, mainly that I don't feel like we're dealing with it in a constructive fashion. In many cases outrage is warranted when dealing with incidents of racism and it’s ilk. Other times cooler heads would be better because bridging an understanding may prevent future incidents of the severity that warrant our outrage.

When I first wrote this, I was compelled by an incident that is now likely long forgotten, even among Red Sox fans. But I’ll refer to it again because I feel it’s a perfect microcosm of the ways we miscommunicate on race. The incident was Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd publicly accusing Wade Boggs of making racist remarks during their time together on the Red Sox. Boggs responded with an impassioned call to a local sports radio show, lashing out, accusing Boyd of being a junkie, declaring his statement to be an outright lie and incredibly hurtful.

Boggs claims he never made off color remarks the entire time they were playing together. I find that statement dubious. This is a baseball clubhouse, where off color and non-PC remarks are likely thrown around constantly. I don’t really know, I wasn’t there but that’s how I fall on this one. I find it easier to believe that what seemed like harmless chops busting to Boggs was understandably far more hurtful to Boyd. Boggs was the big stud at the time. Is it possible Boyd simply felt that he had better just take it because if he escalates things, HE’S the one losing a job, not Boggs?

Was calling Boggs out in public the best way to handle this? Not at all. What should have happened in a perfect world was a private discussion ending something like this:

Boggs: “Listen, it was a long time ago, but if I ever said or did anything that upset you, I’m truly sorry. I’ve always respected you and I’d hate for something I’ve done to give you the impression I didn’t.”

Boyd: “Thank you, Wade. I’ve been waiting a long time to hear you say that. I appreciate it.”

Two adults working through something and coming out the other end friends.

But once something like this is in the media, now it’s everyone’s turn to pile on with their indignation even though they had nothing to do with it and it has no direct effect on their lives. Now everything gets muddled to the point where a teachable moment is gone. Now Boggs is fighting for his reputation because we, the public mob, kind of lose our minds when it comes to race and any concept of context or intent is thrown out the window.

This really goes for all the “isms”, racism, sexism, ageism and the honorary-isms like homophobia. Context and intent are important. We need to be careful not to treat a more casual form of ism, such as a boneheaded statement or joke made by a public figure, celebrity, what have you, with the same level of severity that we treat a dangerous and costly incident of racism. I’m talking about the kind perpetrated by people who wield power such as police, politicians or employers; people whose bias can cause severe and lasting damage to a person’s livelihood or life.

I suggest we could use a change in our tactics. It is always necessary to address and confront the casual racism of a boneheaded, insensitive statement, movement, what have you, but an open dialogue is essential to counter that ignorance and we can’t have that when we attack the person and not the statement. The majority of ism comes from ignorance on the part of the offender. Most of the time he or she doesn’t even realize what they’ve said or done is prejudiced. With a little education you can begin to correct their errant path. A negative can become a teachable moment. How does throwing out everything that person has ever done and everything they’ve accomplished and reducing them, an entire person, to this one misstep, help them see the error of their ways? You’re not going to solve anything this way because you’re doing exactly what discrimination does which is reduce an entire person and the infinite aspects of their personality to one trait.

The public loves cutting people down and is even slower to forgive. When you do that you deny the inherent ability in human beings to grow and evolve. The public still hasn’t forgiven Mel Gibson. He made some horribly hateful statements while drunk on separate occasions. He was also, as described by people with experience, a man clearly in the throes of addiction at the times he made these statements. It’s not to excuse them, they hurt people, but he was not well and very apologetic. Michael Richards has pretty much disappeared from the face of the Earth. His meltdown on stage was a spectacle of hate. Those hecklers had upset him so he went straight to the language that he knew would hurt them most. Rage is a destructive force. It makes us do stupid things. But how many times does he need to apologize before we allow him to move on from a mistake and evolve?

One of the above was one of the biggest box office stars ever. The other played one of the most beloved TV characters in history. In both cases, their accomplishments have been wiped out in favor of their mistakes, mistakes that hurt emotionally and we were right to call them out, but didn’t cost anyone their livelihood or lives. Just in the past month or so, Amy Schumer, quickly becoming America’s sweetheart, almost saw things go right off the rails when a comedy routine dipped into off color racial territory and Hulk Hogan, one of the most iconic figures in professional wrestling has all but been erased from WWE history for some idiotic statements of his own that recently surfaced. Kelly Osbourne made a statement on live TV in a lame attempt to defend minorities but in the heat of the moment chose her words very poorly and endured a backlash. And this is fine. Call them out because these things deserve to be called out. But before you call for firings and banishment really consider a time you've said something stupid, without really thinking it through and completely not reflective of who you believe yourself to be, and think about how it would feel if that suddenly became the only thing you were known for.

A people constantly in fear of saying the wrong thing will eventually stop saying anything. If we shut down dialogue, people will simply bury their beliefs. I’d rather have someone be honest about his or her bias so that it can be challenged in the open. Because it will come out regardless. Look at the Birther movement, for example. A group of people became obsessed with proving that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore couldn’t legally be president. It was complete hogwash, of course. But look at what was really being said there: he’s not one of us. I believe finally electing a black president unearthed a lot of buried racial hostility. Some people in this country were just not ready for a black Commander In Chief but they couldn’t say that because then they’d have to admit they’re racists and no one wants to deal with racists. I think it would’ve saved a lot of time if we could’ve just confronted the real issue-- Why are you so afraid of a black president? It would have likely been a difficult and uncomfortable discussion but it would’ve benefitted so many to see just how their ignorance and hostility were negatively affecting their judgment and holding them back.

That reflection on our own attitudes might do us all some good because when I see the feeding frenzy of people on message boards and talk shows piling on an offending party, loudly denouncing whatever was said and being overly demonstrative about how they’re better, more open minded people, I wonder why it’s so important for them to prove this to everyone. Is this a fear of something within that they don’t want to acknowledge? 

Let’s really be honest with ourselves because one thing I’ve noticed, especially among my liberal minded friends is an agreement that racism and its brethren are absolutely alive, ugly and eating this country alive, yet they themselves are never part of the problem. Ask anyone but a proud bigot if they’re racist and you’ll get a tacit denial. No one is racist but racism is a huge problem. How can that be?

So regardless of your own race or culture or religion, ask yourself, can you really say, with complete and total confidence, that you’ve never treated someone differently or thought about someone differently because of some aspect in them that was different from you? Do you think it might be possible you weren’t even aware you were doing it?

Can you honestly say you’ve never said anything stupid in a moment of weakness, absent-mindedness, or, God forbid, anger? You’ve never cursed out, EVEN TO YOURSELF, someone for doing something stereotypical of a white person, a black person, or an Hispanic person? How about a man or a woman? Or a homosexual? Or a heterosexual? How about a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? What about one of our society’s ethnicities we're seemingly okay with taking shots at, such as an Italian or an Irishman or a German? What about a southerner, a Yank, a teenager, an elderly person…

You’ve never made a crack about someone’s bad driving being attributed to their being Asian? You’ve never seen a group of Latinos working somewhere, speaking Spanish and assumed they’re here illegally? You’ve never seen someone of Arab-like appearance and immediately became suspicious of him or her? You’ve never gotten uneasy walking alone at night with a group of black kids in oversized clothes coming the opposite way? You've never judged a person’s intelligence or value based on the fact that they don’t wear a suit to their job or that they get paid minimum wage? You’ve never heard a person mention God or Jesus and immediately assumed they’re close-minded about gays and abortion? You’ve never rolled your eyes when you found out a certain celebrity was a Scientologist? In all these instances, are you not judging someone based on your preconceived idea of them and not his or her individual actions? Does it matter that you don’t voice these thoughts? Does that somehow make the idea less real if it’s not said out loud?

How often do you make jokes about a particular group, even just among your friends, knowing that no one from that group is present? If no one is present to be offended, is it no longer offensive?

If you’re truly being honest with yourselves I think you’ll find yourself guilty, at the very, very least, of one of the above. That’s what makes fighting these problems so difficult: they're so often committed unconsciously. So when someone says or does something insensitive, before you pile on, first recognize your own human tendency for occasionally being insensitive and then address the thing said or done, not with the intent of punishing the person who said it but with an intent towards correcting whatever ignorance was feeding it’s creation.

And this will also allow you to listen with an open mind when someone is trying to explain to you why something you did or said is racist or sexist or the like. Just ask any black person how discouraging it can be to try and explain institutional racism to a white person only to have him or her fly off the handle. You can go online and read blog after blog by black people who have given up trying to talk about race with white people for this very reason. This is exactly what I want to prevent by inspiring a more open dialogue. You can start by familiarizing yourself with institutional racism because it’s an explanation for so much of what’s holding us back right now. And understand that when someone of a different race or gender or sexual orientation is trying to explain how they feel about something you may be responsible for, they’re in a much better position to know what its like to be them. For example, if you’re a white person, you have absolutely no idea what it is like to be black. So you have no business telling a black person he’s overreacting or being hyper sensitive about the issues facing him. You have no idea. The same thing applies if you’re a man listening to a woman explaining her unique struggles. And so on.    

The other thing we need to avoid is to become afraid of our differences. I know white people who tiptoe around acknowledging any trait that relates to person’s cultural or racial background because they feel that to even acknowledge it is somehow racist. We’re human. It’s in our nature to notice things that are different from us on an instinctual level. You will find in any species on this planet-- a natural instinct to take notice of anything that’s different from them. It’s a protection mechanism in animals because different looking things might eat you. In people, it's a left over part of our tribal instincts.

It all comes down to your attitude towards the differences. Kids will notice other kids who look different but it’s quickly brushed aside when someone says “let’s play.” We have to be taught to fear, shun or belittle those differences and if you react to our differences with fear or distrust or contempt, this is where things eventually turn to hate. This is where it becomes dangerous. There is where a police officer no longer sees just a kid. Instead he sees a menacing thug and now the officer's actions and reactions are coming from a place of defensiveness and anxiety.

This is where stereotypes become destructive. We’re currently drowning in incidents of police violence against black people. I’ve gotten in several lengthy, heated arguments with people about motivations and whether or not race played a part. I can’t say what goes on in a person’s heart but when I see an 18 year old kid—perhaps being a little reckless and immature like I or anyone was at 18, and so many others can only see a criminal, it’s hard to deny there’s an unhealthy difference in perception at play here. I understand why groups of different ethnicities lash out at jokes and such that revel in stereotypes because it’s stereotypes that are currently playing a role in the deaths of too many of our country’s black citizens.

But you can acknowledge common traits of a particular culture or people without stereotyping. Our diversity should be celebrated instead of feared or disdained. Every different culture brings a different way of seeing the world. And ultimately, once we get to know a person’s culture, ethnicity or whatever it is that's different from us, we come to recognize the ways it's really not that different. We're all people who just want to find the joy in life, no matter where we come from or how we look. If we can respect each other and never loose sight of the broader fact that our culture, race, gender, etc. is just one aspect of an infinite number of aspects that make up an individual, we’ll make headway. It seems like a lofty goal at a time when so many are being held back because of that one aspect, but I’m hopeful and I want to make that hope contagious as well.

A post-racial society is not one where we no longer see any differences between us. This often strikes me as a cover for not wanting to accept those who are different from you. If you feel this way, really look at yourself and find out why. And also why you would want it that way. Do you really want a society where everyone is the same? We all look the same? We all have the same point of view? We all have the same experiences? It’s our diversity that makes us so interesting as a species. It’s exposure to different points of view that make us wiser. We’ll have disagreements but that's what happens when differing points of view challenge each other. Working through those challenges together is how we grow. A true post-racial society isn’t one where we don’t see each other’s cultural and racial differences, it’s one where we've learned to love the fact that we have those differences and we can discuss any problems respectfully and with love.

 

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