I was reading an English news publication and came across an article about black and white Americans being incapable of getting along. Asians didn’t get a mention. The article writer seemed to feel very disdainful of the sad racist U.S. I thought, “Great. Even the people responsible for Brexit, not to mention basically raping most of the world at one point or another in history, are legitimately able to look down on us.”
So many people – a lot way smarter and more articulate than me – have weighed in on our current state of affairs and even the best of the pieces are starting to become stale. Like dry sawdust in your mouth as the bodies pile up, the trust chips away and tomorrow it’s back to politics as usual. Like Michael Moore, I am wondering where my country is and I am wondering if we’re fixable.
We’re All Racist and Sexist and We Need to Take Responsibility and Action
It’s been said before (a lot), but I agree that the first thing to do is change ourselves. To start within. Not too long ago, I was on the set of a film, “Lose the Labels,” about the labels society places on us based on our race or our gender and what we choose to do about those labels. The writer, Cici Chu, asked one of the actors, a black man holding up the label “Black Men Are Dangerous,” what he thought about that label. His reply was simple and brilliant. “Some men are dangerous,” he said. “And dangerous men come in all colors.”
The dangerous thing about these labels is that we come to believe them, internalize them and that’s why some of us will find a bunch of excuses for the white guy who rapes a girl in an alley while shrugging off gunning down an unarmed black guy who is just out and about with his family. I have had white, black and Asian people subject me to racist or sexist commentary. I myself have said things that were sexist, not even realizing until later how crappy my words were. But it’s the realizing. That’s what we need to do. We need to take a break, take a breath, examine our own knee-jerk reactions and thoughts and ask ourselves, “Wait, hey, is this a legitimate and reasonable response to the circumstances or am I letting cultural stereotypes and ingrained racism take advantage of my better judgment?” Yeah, it sounds wordy and overly nerdy, but hopefully you know what I am trying to get at. If we can recognize where we ourselves are going wrong, we have the opportunity to make a choice. To do the right thing or the wrong thing. Our actions, right or wrong, become examples for others. The dialogue has begun. That’s good. But it has a long long long way to go.
I remember the first time I had a racial epithet thrown at me. I was very young and at a playground. A group of white children made a circle around me and chanted, “Chink! Chink! Chink!” I didn’t understand the word. I had never heard it before. The kids got bored and went off looking for more amusements. I walked home and asked my mother what a “Chink” was. She asked why I was asking and I told her what happened. She said, “Next time that happens, you say, ‘I’m Chinese and proud of it.’” I remember being genuinely confused and replying something to the effect of, “If I was Chinese, I would be proud of it, but I’m not Chinese. I’m American. And I still don’t understand. What’s a ‘Chink’?” Ahh, small me of the past. The world was so simple once.
Stereotypes affect us all the time. All kinds of stereotypes – not just racial or gender-based ones. Another film I worked on over the past year involved casting. After one session at which we saw an actor read wonderfully for a certain character, I turned to the woman I was working with and said, “This is awesome! She’s perfect!” To my surprise, the woman frowned at me, shook her head and lowered her voice as though sharing a dirty little secret. She whispered, “No, she’s too fat.” The comment took me by complete surprise. Slowly, I replied, “But the weight of the actor has nothing to do with the character. She could be thin or average or fat or anything. She just has to be able to show a confident, warm person with just a shade of vulnerability and this actor does that just perfectly.” The woman with whom I was working objected and said, “Audiences will equate fat with lazy. This character has to be likeable, not lazy.” Then, I got angry. I got on a soapbox and lectured about how catering to stupid stereotypes just reinforces them; about how I got screwed in castings all the time based on race or “prettiness” or whatever and how there was no way that, now that I was on the other side of the casting table, I was going to do that shit to someone else. We fought for awhile and then I pulled the “I control the money” card and I got my actor. And she was just as fabulous as I hoped. And, hopefully, the other woman from that casting learned something from that experience and maybe she won’t fall prey to that kind of limited thinking in the future. Maybe there’s hope. Maybe.
What About the Police?
But back to our law enforcement officers shooting unarmed black men. The very sentence is ironic. Law enforcement. Shooting unarmed black men. That seems like the antithesis of law enforcement, doesn’t it?
Police. Thank God for them, right? If you’ve ever had to call 911, ever been in a scary situation and been saved, well, you’re pretty glad the police are there, aren’t you? There’s another side, though, in which people who get to wear get-out-of-jail-free uniforms and badges and carry guns can target you and bully you and even kill you for no legitimate reason and get away with it…over and over and over again.
We need police officers. We need them to enforce our laws, to protect us and to serve us when we’re in need. Because their duties are so great – protect, serve, enforce – and because they put themselves at risk for us every day, we agree to give them a lot of power we, as ordinary citizens, don’t have. We agree to let them carry guns, arrest people (within guidelines), detain people (within guidelines), search people (“”), imprison people, (“”)…you get the drift.
My feeling is if we’re going to give them all this trust and all this power, we should also have exceedingly high standards for who these people are and for the their conduct. They really should be the best trained and the boldest and brightest and even the nicest. If it turns out they’re abusive or racist or murderers, well, justice should be swift and severe. None of this cover up and excuses nonsense. Police should want their comrades held to the highest levels of professionalism. Each bigot – even if they are only a tiny number of them – brings all his or her comrades down with her or him when she does something horrible and they allow her/him to get away with it. Law enforcement. What does it mean? Seems pretty simple, right? So, take it seriously. Everyone.
The citizens have a duty to speak up and keep the government in check. The government has a duty to stand up and protect its citizens. The police have a duty to do what they’re sworn to do – protect and serve – even if that means they have to do that detaining, arresting and imprisoning to “one of their own” for breaking the law. That’s their job and when someone breaks the law – regardless of who they are – they need to face the consequences. If a police officer crosses the line to engage in criminal conduct, they don’t deserve to be a police officer anymore. They’ve taken a noble professional and shit all over it. They don’t deserve loyalty from other police – they gave that up when they decided to betray them and all of us. Perhaps more importantly, they need to know they will have to face the consequences. When the law is not applied equally, it’s just a sad joke. And that makes us all just a sad joke.