Bigotry is big in the news this week. Apparently, we’ve all been very busy being insensitive to each other—even more so than usual—and the victims of this insensitivity are crawling out of the woodwork to be heard and seen.
The two big events in bigotry this week deal with two very different groups. There’s the special people (apparently mentally challenged or disabled are negative euphemisms) who are up in arms about the usage of the word “retard,” in the new movie Tropic Thunder; and there is the entire foreign press corps who are up in arms about the Spanish basketball team posing for an advertising picture in classic team photo pose, with the exception of them each using their fingers to pull their eyes outward making them “squinty,” an apparent dig at the Chinese.
In the case of the movie (which coincidentally also has a white actor in blackface—HUGE props to the Black community for taking a joke and rolling with it instead of whining and bitching like everyone else!) the excuse for bigotry is that it’s all just a joke, the movie is outrageous and funny and supposed to be insensitive in a way that’s meant to be harmless. In the case of Spain’s basketball team, they did what they were told to do by a team sponsor and did not mean any offense by their gesture.
And that’s just it, that’s my question. Do you have to mean it in a mean-spirited and down-putting way for it to be bigotry?
I once watched a black guy with the patience of Job deal with an old white man who kept referring to him as colored. The old man wasn’t trying to be offensive. He was actually trying to engage the other man in a nice conversation—the problem was that every time he talked about the past, he felt it necessary to mention the way it was back in his day for the colored folk.
Old man or not, if the guy he was talking to had been more sensitive, it could have gotten ugly, but it didn’t. Eventually, the old man left and my friends and I sat open-mouthed at the black man’s patience. He must have recognized it on our faces because without provocation, he simply said, “He just didn’t know any better.”
I left that chance meeting with an extremely high opinion of that man for his patience and his reason.
I think if I had asked him, he would have told me that there has to be intent to be bigoted for bigotry to exist. But is that really so?
I also walked away from that situation ashamed that a white man in this day and age could possibly be that unintentionally ignorant. It’s not as if the information isn’t out there for us to digest. We all know where the line is and we all know not to cross it.
You can’t tell me that in the name of satire, the writers, director and actors in this movie didn’t know that the possibility existed for some negative attention. And you can’t tell me that in an entire gym full of Spanish basketball players making squinty eyes, not one of them had the thought cross his mind that they might be offensive to someone, somewhere.
And each proceeded, despite that potential for perceived bigotry. Their motives cannot be measured. In the case of the movie, their insensitivity has made it a blockbuster before it even opens. Did they offend for financial gain? In the case of the Spanish team, they did this for a sponsor—again, for financial gain—in the name of humor.
But which is it? Is it in the name of a good laugh—of us not taking ourselves so damn seriously, or is it in the name of the almighty dollar (or do I say the almighty euro now that the dollar isn’t worth much?)?
And either way, if the intent isn’t to offend, and the act is still deemed offensive by some, is it still an act of bigotry? Does that simply render it a matter of semantics? Is it ignorant but not bigoted?
And what about those of us who find it funny? If we laugh at something that might be offensive to someone, what does that say about us? The truth is that it’s a fine line and one that will never be clearly visible or stationary. I think, like the patient man I met who endured an old man’s ignorant racist terminology that sometimes, you just have to shrug your shoulders and understand that they didn’t know any better.
I think at other times you have to learn to laugh at yourself and the things that make you different from other people. If you love yourself and who and what you are, you’re a lot less likely to be offended by someone pointing out how you might be different from other people. I think, like in the case of the hero from my example, that personal pride and dignity carry you a long way.
Hypersensitivity only places a larger target upon you. Call it blood in the water, or showing weakness, but overreaction to an alleged attack of bigotry is almost more dangerous than the attack itself because it invites more attacks. You can turn the other cheek and educate the world while taking a higher road, or you can play the victim and be looked up in that way.
Sadly, more times than not, groups take the defensive approach. That’s been the way people have reacted to the two incidents that have occurred this week. There’s a lot to be said for just lightening up, for rolling with the punches, for taking a joke.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And that’s the hidden part of bigotry that no one ever talks about. If you’re proud of what makes you unique, if you’re proud of what separates you and makes you different, then having those differences pointed out shouldn’t be offensive. If you take pride in what makes you different, you are easily able to get the joke.
I’m not condoning either instance of bigotry in the news this week, but they make me wonder about the responses and the uproar. Learning to be sensitive to one and other couldn’t hurt, but taking pride in who and what we are and allowing others to demean us for our differences might take us even farther.