I watched the Bill Maher show the other evening and it made me think. Mr. Maher was apologizing for using the “N” word in a previous show. He admitted that it was wrong and explained that it was a comic comment and not meant to hurt. He was sincere, but I watched as one of his guests, Ice Cube, didn’t quite buy in to it and it made me think about racism…
Prejudice towards any person because of their race is wrong, no matter how you explain it. For most people, including myself, it is an intellectual belief. However, I didn’t “get it” until it happened to me – I was 51 years old. There is no way that I can compare what happened to me, a one-time occurrence, with what happens to people who have been and still are being discriminated against because of their race.
I was living in Puerto Rico, where English-speaking North Americans are not the privileged class. I had closed my restaurant and hired an auctioneer to sell my equipment. After the auction, the auctioneer took the proceeds and disappeared. So we went to the District Attorney (DA) to file charges. My wife, Millie, and lawyer accompanied me – both are Puerto Rican born and fluent in Spanish. We entered the DA’s office and introduced ourselves. The DA was conversing in Spanish and my wife asked if she spoke English, she did. Then my wife asked if we could conduct the discussion in English because I was not fluent and needed to be involved in the discussion. She declined saying, in Spanish, “We’re in Puerto Rico and here we speak Spanish.” My wife got upset and told her what she thought of her comment and the DA threatened to have her arrested. The rest of the meeting was conducted in Spanish. Millie was translating, but I was not able to participate; I was left out of the discussion. I never before have been marginalized because of some characteristic that made me different from others. I felt powerless (you don’t argue with a DA), angry, and marginalized for the first time in my life – it hurt.
When I got home, I called my friend Paul and told him what happened and how I felt. Paul has felt that way his whole life because of the color of his skin. He once spoke with a client on the phone and then, when they met in person, the client said, “You didn’t sound black on the phone.” What happened to Paul was racist, and I can sympathize with Paul because the comments and words people use bring back the feelings of being marginalized. Labeling people because of one or more characteristics is wrong. It creates a divide between people.
So, back to Bill Maher’s comment. It was racist, perhaps unintentional as he stated, but when people have to deal with intentionally racist comments, it hurts the same. It’s about how it feels. I felt one instance of racism and it was hurtful. I can’t imagine how someone feels having to deal with it his or her entire life. That’s why racism is a hard mindset to change. When you are part of a “majority”, you don’t get to feel how racism feels. When you are part of a “minority”, you get to feel how racism feels 24/7. Understanding it intellectually is a good thing, but not sufficient to “get it”.
I hope that we stop using discriminatory labels because “in total darkness, we are all the same” – Janet Jackson.