The Bigot In My House
I’ll admit it, I wasn’t prepared for someone coming into my home with bigoted opinions (that were expressed out loud, anyway). I grew up doing theatre and even as I moved into Corporate America, I have been fortunate that I’ve always been in an environment where politics were kept outside the offices I’ve worked in.
He came to fix the cable. A 6’4” white man in his 60’s (I’m guessing) who was very friendly and knew exactly what needed to be done, fixing things quickly. (That last part alone seems remarkable in this day and age.) As he was checking the work he had done, it did not escape me that he kept putting the television on the Fox News Channel. (I’m a trained actor, you always look for the context clues about a person. A good actor not only reads what the character says about himself but what the other characters say and do around the character they’re playing. Works in life too.)
Finally the cable man lands on a channel showing President Obama marching in Selma. He says, “He’s my president and so I have to respect him as a former member of the military but (and I’ll cover my Cox badge when I say this) you don’t see him going to any white events.” I’m not an idiot, I know this thought process exists, I have plenty of right wing friends on Facebook that post this every day but I had never had it in my home. I responded, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk politics.” He continued, “Well, he didn’t go to Boston after the bombings but he goes to this? He should remember that he’s half white.” I said, “There have been many white presidents that didn’t go to black events.” There were a few more exchanges and he left. I felt sick, literally, physically sick.
As I rethought through the experience, I realized I didn’t say enough. Maybe that’s why I was so physically ill. My mind began to wander to the old movie, Gentlemen’s Agreement (a movie about anti-Semitism). There’s a scene where the Kathy character is recounting a dinner party to the Dave Goldman character. She talks about a man at the party making anti-Semitic jokes. She explains that it made her sick, made everyone sick. But when Dave asks her what she and everyone else did, she confirms that she nor anyone else said anything. Dave tells her maybe she wouldn’t have felt so sick if she had said something. I wondered if that’s why I felt sick? Did I not say enough? Do enough?
I guess this is the point where I tell you I’m a short Jewish man that has been in love with a 6’ foot, former altar boy, black man for 26 years. I always joke that we’re the poster children for hate crimes! He wasn’t here when the above took place. I know the above wouldn’t have happened had he been here.
People say, “Black people need to get over it already.” In my spouse’s lifetime, he was not allowed to drink out of the same water fountain. In my lifetime I had a man in my house, an old white bigoted man who felt free to spew racist comments to me. Free speech, sure but it still stung and I wonder if this is what they had in mind when they put free speech in the Constitution?
And then I thought of another old movie, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (the original with Sidney Poitier). His father is opposed to the interracial marriage the Poitier character, John, is going to enter into. Here’s the speech I hear in my ears so often:
John: You listen to me. You say you don't want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you've been doing? You tell me what rights I've got or haven't got, and what I owe to you for what you've done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you're supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don't own me! You can't tell me when or where I'm out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don't even know what I am, Dad, you don't know who I am. You don't know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it's got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you've got to get off my back! Dad... Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I've got a decision to make, hm? And I've got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?
I feel this way about the old bigoted white men in politics, making decisions that affect all our lives in this country today. “Not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs!” I hope I see it in my lifetime. Until then I realize I need to be better prepared for the next time something like this happens. I need to say something more so that I won’t feel like Kathy from Gentlemen’s Agreement. So that maybe I won’t feel so sick because I had said something.
And thinking a little larger, the big lesson/question reinforced to me is that we surround ourselves with people who think like us probably a little too much. We build our friends and acquaintances in our own image, it’s safer, makes it easier. But should we?