Thursday, April 12, 2007

In the continuing controversy over Don Imus and his remarks that have been branded as both racist and sexist, this item captured from Ron’s Log is all the more significant:

When a Brampton, Ontario, family took delivery of their new sofa they were shocked to discover it clearly identified as "Color: Nigger-brown" on several different labels. The retailer and distributor are passing the buck back to Guangzhou [China] where the sofa was manufactured.


The Today Show Tuesday morning ran almost a full hour on the Imus incident, including a lengthy discussion with Imus himself and Rev. Al Sharpton. There was a panel discussion with several African-American leaders in different fields including Rev. Jesse Jackson-- who very quickly changed the subject when his own major political/racist gaffe of a decade ago (referring to a Jewish area of New York City by an anti-Semitic name) was brought up to him by Meredith Viera.

I've followed the Imus business until it all became repetitious and I got into my "enough, already!" mood. I'm not a fan of shock jocks because it's all the same thing: they don't just push the envelope, which I could respect, but intentionally go places they shouldn't to create a tumult and generate media attention, then claim innocence of any intent to harm. Actually, I believe they're well aware that racial, ethnic and sexual orientation outrage is the surest way to achieve maximum visibility.

When Don Imus appeared opposite Matt Lauer on Today, he retreated behind the excuse that his show is essentially comedy, not political commentary or news. I'm not sure how comedy can or should provide cover for racism, particularly when Imus and others have been repeat offenders and are, I'm certain, very much aware of what they're doing and the inevitable consequences. But the comedy comment grabbed me because I'd heard that excuse before. I'd heard it from my father.

I grew up in a very politically conservative family that had all the racial, ethnic and sexual prejudices typical of their generation and place in American society. I will not repeat the many names that I heard used to refer to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Germans, Poles, Jews, etc. Suffice it to say that no group emerged unscathed, even as my father told me bitterly of his resentment over the hurt he and his family experienced when they were called all the usual anti-Italian names in the streets of New York.

But the fact that his family had been the butt of prejudice meant absolutely nothing to him as he tossed insults and stereotypical comments around freely. He even did his Chinese restaurant waiter act IN Chinese restaurants while sitting in a booth and looking at the menu. If any of us protested in any way, he became defensive and said something like, "it's a JOKE, and if these people can't take a simple joke there's something seriously wrong with them. What the hell IS this?"

What the hell it was became the subject of a major sensitivity initiative, beginning with the struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S. and continuing into the Political Correctness campaign. My family did not approve of either. Both sides (Italian on my father's, English on my mother's) had immigrated in my grandparents' generation and were dead set against advancing anyone through the system for any reason other than proven merit. On my mother's side, the English class system was heavily imprinted, and any kind of class struggle for upward mobility was viewed as an attack on society and possibly criminal. My family (and many, many others, obviously) was not prepared for the second half of the 20th Century in the United States of America--and we won’t even talk about the sexual revolution and Women's Liberation.

So what happened to me? I escaped. Very early on I rejected most of my family's values and by age eleven at least was thinking and forming opinions for myself. Part of this was certainly a function of normal adolescent rebellion, but part of it was that I started reading large numbers of adult history books and forming an objective view of American society at an early age. Given a number of pressures within the family, I had more or less resigned myself to waiting out my childhood until I could get away to college which I did early, having graduated high school while still sixteen years of age. Once away, I began a lengthy but necessary process of rebuilding myself and my belief systems.

So what happened to my father? This is an interesting topic and one where he surprised me. He didn't become Archie Bunker, immutably entrenched in reactionary political and social beliefs. He evolved and shed a lifetime of biases and exclusivist attitudes because of a promotion at work and his own sense of professionalism.

Except for a few summer jobs in college (New York University) my father's entire career was spent with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, a massive, conservative firm where he began as an entry-level clerk. As he was a sharp young man with a good work ethic and virtually never missed a day of work because of illness (a trait that passed in the blood to me), he advanced with some speed into the Group Personnel Division, which today would be a section of Human Relations. His work was mainly administrative, but just as I was going off to college, he received a major promotion and was shifted into an area where his people skills would bring him out of paperwork and into direct contact with Met Life employees from all different levels. He would be guiding those who were having personal or work problems, facilitating careers that were on the move up within the company and, most significantly, mentoring new hires from an array of ethnicities, language skills and cultures, so that they could become the future of the company.

The new position changed him forever. Dealing one on one with every member of the great social mosaic that is New York City turned him around within twelve to eighteen months, and the process only deepened over the years. I was really taken by surprise and I think he was, too. He developed a very different take on bilingualism (assisted no doubt that his household growing up was trilingual—Italian, French and English) , a concern for glaring social injustices that put him directly at odds with his staunchly Republican past, and at last an understanding of my own maverick liberalism.

Whenever one of these media personalities starts spewing racist, misogynist or homophobic comments, I think back to my father's enlightenment and wonder at their inability to come to terms with the world as it is. And I admire all the more the journey he took in so short a time.

A very nice post, Will.

My father says that we live in an entirely different world than 25 or 30 years ago, and he often talks about the root causes of those changes, about which he is unable to arrive at any firm conclusions.
Very nice family story Will. Thanks for sharing.
A beautiful and thoughtful entry. One thing that comes to mind is that sometimes people who seem as though they will always be this way or that can change in the nicest of ways. This is something to remember and something to hold on to if we are feeling impatient and/or hurt. My partner's mother was quite liberal in her very old age after being pretty conservative and indeed most vexed at Roosevelt. Though even at the very end in the late 1990s it was best not to mention FDR unless you wanted to see and hear some fireworks.
Enjoyed this entry, and your blog. Things have changed a great deal, since the time we grew up.
Thanks for sharing.

Great entry Will. Your coments about your Dad remind me of mine, though unfortunately in reverse. He has grown far more conservative as he has aged, and has a real blind spot to his own racism. We have managed to remain close only because we have learned to avoid certain subjects. When he was still freer about expressing his racist views, he too would pass them off as being "just a joke."

Interesting timing on your posting of this subject. My partner and I are flying out to your neck of the woods later today (Boston, not New Hampshire) to celebrate Dad's birthday.
Drew and Ken--It's good to see your names here for the first time and read through your blogs a bit. I hope you won't be strangers to DesignerBlog.

Doug--have a good trip--we're expecting a big blow (not the good kind) starting sunday and possibly going into Tuesday morning. I'm hoping youtr travel plans won'tg be affected.

Scoobs--you're very welcajapkjxuome
This is an interesting story about your father. Where was your mother through this?
Gayprof--She died during this time. I've often wondered if the loss somehow allowed him a little leeway to reinvent himself.
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