Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are you a tandoori-chicken bigot? Obama and race.

As per Dictionary.com, here are the first two definitions for the word prejudice:

1. An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.

2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable. [emphasis added. We'll come back to that in my next post.]
The word and its definitions are on my mind today because of a new poll, out from AP-Yahoo News, that purportedly documents what the pundits have been discussing for the past week: that Obama's path to the White House may be complicated by racial prejudice on the part of whites.

Keeping the foregoing definitions in mind (and also speaking in terms of the racial conventions that cripple society; see bold-faced text towards the end), it's clear that those interpreting the polls for us assume that all sentiment against blacks is ipso facto unfounded and/or unreasoned
based on preconceived notions rather than evidence or actual life experience. (Read this version of the story, by the AP's own Charles Babington, from my local newspaper, the Morning Call. Note the spin throughout.) I take issue with that assumption. And again, let me be clear: I'm not arguing for racial prejudice. I'm simply arguing against the idea that a dislike for another group is automatically prejudice. There could be more to it than that.

Let me start with an example that doesn't (directly) concern the black/white thing: For the 10 years of my life immediately post-college, I sold custom wall mirrors for a living.* Overall, my sales career was a study in contrasts: The first half of that time I worked mostly in midtown Manhattan; the second half I worked mostly in Harlem and the South Bronx. By the time I switched territories, I'd pretty much decided that I couldn't stand white people with money, which is to say, the sorts of folks who populated the high-gloss high-rises in New York City's elite neighborhoods. I found them smarmy, insufferable, pretentious, arrogant, and often despicable. I saw the way they treated "the help," which was not dissimilar to the patronizing way they treated me, Lowly Vendor-Being. I couldn't get past the casual assumptions they made about life and their deserved station in it. (I was never religious in the classical sense, but these people struck me as profoundly un-Christian in all they did.) Even when they tried to be "nice"as when they'd offer me a cup of tea, then serve it on china that probably cost more than my carit rubbed me the wrong way. Which is one reason why I say, still today, that I don't care how much you give to charity, if your lifestyle includes the likes of $25,000 toilets or even $2,500 purses, there is something very wrong with that. I recognize this as a personal gripe, and I also recognize that I may be incorrect in voicing it. But it's a visceral thing. (I'm workin' on it.)

Over the course of five years, I put mirrors in most of the prestige addresses in midtown (as well as any number of major retailers; I once sold $12,000 worth of mirrors to Macy's lingerie department). I met thousands of well-to-do individuals.** I realized by the end of it that with small (expected) deviations here and there, most of those thousands of people were essentially the same person. Wasn't that enough of a sampling for me to draw a conclusion that had personal validity for me? I can tell you that I certainly didn't go into midtown with that attitude. At first I thought the city was way-cool, and that there could be no nicer place to live and work. Until I worked there.
So, again, my question: Was I "wrong" in disliking those people? Did I not have sufficient evidence to go on in deciding that the next midtowner I met was probably going to be a gold-plated a-hole, too? I think it tells you something that I was far more comfortable once my territory was shifted to Harlem, even though there were black revolutionaries literally gunning for me (and my fellow white salespeople) at the time.***

Or how 'bout a more pointed example. If you grew up in Brooklyn of my day, and you weren't yourself Italian, you almost surely disliked Italians. At the least, you distrusted Italians, or were vaguely annoyed by them. And it wasn't prejudice, necessarily; it was a reasonable reaction to the way many Brooklyn Italians behaved. A fair number of them were mobsters, and a fair number of the ones who weren't mobsters nonetheless comported themselves as if they were. Young Italian men, as a class, were loud-mouthed, belligerent/prone to fighting, and abusive to their women, even when on their best behavior. (Have you seen the movie A Bronx Tale? There's that classic early scene where the young protagonist-narrator says something like, "...in summer, you'd hear the sound of young Italian men romancing their women." And the action shows a young man cruising slowly alongside a girl who's ignoring him. Finally he says, "Hey Angie, come on, get in the f**ckin' car...!" That pretty much captures it.) Nor did they impress as being especially bright. Now, I'm sure that if you actually sat down with some of the Italian men of that period and were able to open a heart-to-heart dialog, they'd explain a lot of what I've just described as "cultural"; they'd tell you that "it's not really what it looks like." But why would you have been obliged to consider that in your assessment of Italians? Why would you have been obliged to wonder whether Italians who lived in Kansas City or Columbus, Ohio, might act differently? You lived in Brooklyn, and probably weren't ever going to get to Kansas City or Columbus. Brooklyn was your universe and that's all that mattered.

In the case of blacks, we have volumes of troubling data staring us in the face. We know the statistics on violent crime, illiteracy, unemployment, teenage pregnancy. We know the stats on single parenthood and the appalling absentee-father syndrome that blights urban America; the very presidential candidate I support is a product of that syndrome. Can all of those numbers be coincidental, or explained by white oppression? Perhaps they can indeed. White racism was surely virulent in America until quite recently, and is one possible explanation. But there are other possible explanations that we're not permitted to speculate on amid today's unrelenting crusade for social justice. Even research on the link between race and intelligence
a legitimate area of scientific inquiry, or so you'd thinkwas suppressed, then demonized, because it suggested a hierarchy unfavorable to blacks as a class. Yes, William Shockley's work betrayed crippling flaws that should not have escaped the notice of a brilliant Nobel laureate. But people were offended merely by the nature of his research. So science, too, is not immune: If we don't like the conclusions to which the science may lead us, we call it prejudice.

Which brings us, at long last, to the tandoori chicken. If you've tried 20 plates of the dish at a variety of Indian restaurants, and you disliked each and every version, are you still obliged to keep trying tandoori chicken? Or are you permitted, at that point, to simply decide that you've had enough of it. Now, it's possible that the next plate of tandoori chicken you encounter might be unlike all the rest; it might be delicious. But we don't think like that. Do we? In every area of life we give people license to form judgments based on their own experience. Except this area of life, where we call such judgments prejudice. Even when there may be volumes of data to supplement that judgment. (To be precise about it: This applies in gender politics as well.) Yeah, I know...tandoori chicken is chicken, whereas people are people. So what? The principle applies in both cases, as long as you're using experience and evidence as the basis for forming that judgment. (How many of you out there with small children at home would never consider buying a pitbull? "Too risky," you'd say. And yet from what I hear, most pitbulls are nice dogs. Is that prejudice?)

I am not a racist. I don't even believe in race, for myself. But I can see where some white people would feel that they have valid reasons for disliking or distrusting blacks, and they would tell you that their reasons have nothing to do with prejudice in the sense of the definitions above (or the casual way the media throw the term around). In the same way, I can absolutely see why many blacks feel that they have a valid reason for disliking or distrusting whites...and that's not prejudice, either. Are you kidding me? If I'd been born in Harlem instead of in Flatbush, I could easily see myself jumping to my feet and clapping when Brother Malcolm said, "I don't call it violence when it's self-defense; I call it intelligence."


Look once more at the definitions above. Then tell me what you think about all this. I'm honestly asking.

* the sale of custom wall mirrors being, improbably enough, one of those occupations in which it was possible to earn $50,000 a year in 1970-era dollars. After I launched my writing career in 1982, it would take me the better part of another decade to get back to that plateau.
** Is it possible that I just happened to meet the only 5000 families in all of Manhattan who acted that way? Yes, I guess it's possible. But likely?
*** For a vivid and faithful account of that era, the early '70s, try former DA Bob Tannenbaum's Badge of the Assassin. It's a great true-crime book and a gripping read.

16 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Growing up in the south, one would assume that I would have been raised in an environment of racial intolerance and deep-seated prejudice against blacks, but this was not the case. Other races were viewed as "different," but without the disdain so commonly attributed to us southern "crackers." No, that disdain was reserved for anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line. Especially New Yorkers. :-)

From an experiential perspective, I did make assumptions about other races. Mexicans were, in my experience, hard-working, honest, and pretty laid-back, and aside from more recent examples of gang members and gang wannabees, my initial positive bias remains intact. The blacks I knew growing up weren't so much identified by skin color as by their economic conditions. The blacks I knew were mostly poor, and the few I got to know well, I genuinely liked.

It was not until adulthood that I really encountered significant negative examples of other ethnic groups. I admit having a negative opinion of people who exhibit the negative stereotypes I encountered, but my attitude is inevitably formed based upon behaviors than upon ethnicity. Prejudice? Perhaps, but I honestly think that, as you describe, my response is based more upon experience than upon preconceived notions.

In my military service, I had a group of "brothers," our bond infinitely more real than that contrived "brotherhood" that is based purely upon ethnicity. We didn't announce our brotherhood; we lived it. And a core element of our closeness was our ability to laugh at our own ethnically-based foibles and idiosyncrasies. When we could laugh at ourselves, it was OK to laugh at each other. And we could have called each other every ethnic slur in the book and gotten away with it, but we didn't, out of respect for each other.

Ironically, the members of my Team - especially the black members - would on occasion refer to an obnoxious black as a nigger. The definition of that term was understood to mean a black who exhibited the negative stereotypical behaviors that most blacks eschew. And there weren't that many of that type around.

My sense is that the individuals who earn negative labels are few and far between, but since they make most of the noise, their numbers seem greater than they actually are. By the same token, the arrogant whites so frequently despised are also a minuscule percentage of the total population, but they're the ones who make the news. Rotten apples exist in every barrel.

So long as we, in our attempts to appear sensitive and respectful, refuse to acknowledge negative behavior when we see it -- in ourselves, as well as others -- we will, in effect, be encouraging that behavior. And as long as we damn anyone who dares to address that kind of behavior, we will have no chance of getting past the stereotypes upon which racism and prejudice are formed.

There will always be a**holes. And they will come in every color. If we hope to ever put aside our prejudices, we need to see, address, and eliminate the kind of behavior that inspires others to prejudge. And we need for our media to figure out that it's their job to present actual behaviors, without making excuses or being so obsessed with *sounding* neutral, even as they present viewpoints that are so "neutral" that they completely ignore reality. And that's my 2 cents' worth. Your mileage may vary.

RevRon's Rants said...

In answer to the question posed in the title of this entry: Only if an adequate (read: large) portion of sag paneer isn't included! And it'd take a significant force to get me to endure even a bite of kim chee!

Steve Salerno said...

All I can say, Ron, is that if you haven't polished off a nice bowl of chicken korma--then used a perfectly baked and seasoned piece of warm naan to sop up the rest of the sauce--you haven't lived, my friend.

RevRon's Rants said...

I have, Steve, and I agree. Haven't found any Indian dishes I don't like... unless you count what passes for iced tea! :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

OK, I get the hint. It's Indian food for dinner tonight. I've been planning on that anyway for a while but, post-hurricane, just didn't have much ambition to cook. Of course I don't make it from scratch; we use those jars of simmering sauces and the boil-in-a-bag pouches you can buy in some grocery stores. I'll take the chicken breasts out now and start marinating 'em, Ron.

As for the real subject of your post, Steve, you made some very important points. I wasn't brought up *not* to be racist, but I wasn't brought up *to* be racist either. The issue just wasn't ever addressed by either one of my parents. (Perhaps it was easier for it to be a non-issue because I spent my early years in the Rocky Mountains, in areas where the population was pretty much white-bread.) I was eleven or so before I even heard the "n" word and was actually shocked that racial prejudice existed. My parents explained it to me and told me it was wrong. Actually I believe it was my mom who explained to me that the "n" word was a bad word, and this was from a woman who'd grown up in a Southern Baptist family in a rural area in Louisiana, where surely that word was used by many other whites around her.

So I pretty much grew up with the notion that actual racial prejudice is wrong, but still haven't managed to stay out of trouble in this area. There have been a few times in my life, one recently, where I have have been accused of being racist when that wasn't my intent at all. It's a very frustrating experience.

This isn't to say that I don't hold what could, to an outsider, be interpreted as "prejudices" against certain groups. For example, I find New-Wage "leaders," as well as the leaders/activists of the religious right, at turns amusing and disturbing. (And I find hate groups of any race to be VERY disturbing.) But my opinions are not based on "prejudgment". As in your example with the snooty rich uptowners, they're based upon years of experience (particularly in the case of the New-Wagers) and observation. And, per the point of your post, that's not really prejudice.

On the other hand, I am still willing to be civil to and even friendly with some people who are into New-Wage practices and/or religions that I love to snark about. In the views of some, this makes me a hypocrite. Ya just can't win sometimes. :-)

Okay, that's my two-cents' worth. Now it's time to go marinate those breasts.

Cosmic Connie said...

Addendum to my previous comment: It occurs to me that I might have sounded prissy and a little self-righteous when using the term "the 'n'-word" and relating that my mom taught me it was a bad word. In case there was any doubt, this was no reflection on Ron's comments about the use of the word among his brothers in arms. It's all about context, and I have just never been in a situation where I felt comfortable using the word myself.

Steve Salerno said...

Funny thing, Connie: Last night I'm flipping around the dial and I come upon Blazing Saddles, which, for my money, ranks among the funniest and--in its own way--most socially canny movies ever made. The original script--by (black) comic genius Richard Pryor--is, of course, replete with "niggers," used in the must uproariously hilarious contexts. In fact, I think it's safe to say that The N Word is one of the major subtexts--if not THE major subtext--of the entire film. Which makes it all the more perplexing to me that the Comedy Channel, of all places, chose to excise every single instance of the word! But what can we really expect in these "enlightened" times, eh? I think even Richard Pryor would turn over in his grave. In fact, I think I can even hear him screaming from beyond, "What the f*** did you do to my movie, niggaz!"

Steve Salerno said...

p.s. I should probably note here that Pryor is just one of about 400 writers credited on the script, and the actual contributions of the various players remains controversial to this day. However, I always had the sense that it was Pryor who effectively "vetted" the more eyebrow-raising passages in the script.

Elizabeth said...

In light of what you have said in your post, Steve, do you think that the prejudicial attitudes exhibited by many whites towards Obama are justified, or, say, understandable?

ellen said...

Ah, the problems of generalisation.
In the London we have every variety of subcontinental cuisine on offer, must be 40-50 distinct ethnic/racial/religious groupings. I'd say that if you don't like the chicken tandoori at first bite, move on brother, (who says you have to like anything?) there's a smorgasboard of incredible Indian food on offer, it would take a lifetime to sample it all. And they are an inventive and canny people, forever dreaming up new 'ancient traditional culinary delights' to tickle the jaded tastebuds. Brits favourite national dish is now chicken tikka masala according to the opinion polls, I doubt it would be recognised as mother's cooking anywhere on the subcontinent.

Same goes for people, I don't recognise the dishes served up by the polls, they bear no relation at all to any of the people I meet daily, the only real categories those people fit into are 'people, mixed'.

We seem to be in a very weird cultural space at the moment, as I mentioned before we have staid, old, white, christian, judges suggesting the adoption of Sharia Law here--trying to be hip and multi-cultural, young and liberal maybe?---the most vociferous objections come from the Brit Muslims, the majority of whom are sane and reasonable and came here to escape such rigidity. Today I heard that a mosque has allowed a guide-dog to accompany his master to prayer, the first dog to enter a mosque, apparently, since Mohammed (blessed be his name)dreamed up the Quran in the cave.

I first remember prejudice as a very small child, my parents were much taken with the idea of Empire and the 'Raj' and revelled in the luxury of native servants that they treated appallingly. 'Natives'(in practice anyone not us, not British) of any description were looked down on and I don't think my parents ever got over the return to Britain and the realisation that they were in fact quite poor and not at all special. I had a succession of amahs, chinese nannies, that I remember with considerably more affection than I do my parents.

I married an enormously wealthy German in my youth (ah, the folly) and my mother refused to meet him for the duration of the 7 year marriage; she was, however, desperately keen to meet his money.
We kept dogs, a few rottweilers and often an orphan tiger cub from the safari park next door. Good animals but not pets and a lot of work and understanding needed for us all live in relative harmony. I didn't think much of my husband as a person, but I thought he would do; he was ace at moneymaking (his only hobby ) but neglected just about every other aspect of being human. I was young and it took me awhile to figure out the chicken tandoori answer. I made a lot of excuses for him too, he'd grown up in the hand-to-mouth aftermath of war and learnt to turn a buck trading anything-and I do mean anything- in the black markets. It took time to dawn on me that my excuses for him were really excuses for my own complicity.

The $25.000 toilets took me a while to fathom. I could never get that conspicuous consumption thing until I knew my husband really well as he didn't seem to like or appreciate the fabulous stuff he bought. He could do nothing else but produce money, couldn't change a tyre or a plug, or even be in a room on his own for longer than 10 minutes. The answer is simple really, the money once made has to be spent, in order to make room for tomorrows money, so just another vicious circle.
I lied about the dogs, over time I became fonder of them than of my husband and these 11 stone muscled beasts became my pets and would sleep on each side of me on my bed.
Inevitably the day came that my husband issued an ultimatum,--never a good move in my book-- either the dogs went or he did, so I waved him goodbye.
I have huge prejudices against stinking rich plutocrats as a result, I consider them well-earned. I met many of the breed, of every shade of skin colour in my casino career and can count on one hand those who had more than a vestigial remnant of fellow-feeling for humanity.

Steve Salerno said...

Funny you should ask, Eliz. I think that--while prejudice against a group is understandable--people (even prejudiced people) make exceptions for individuals. For instance, if you read the recent poll that prompted this post, even some of those who admit to prejudices against blacks are nevertheless supporting Obama. My brother-in-law, whom I've written about on this blog, used to know a lot of cops, some of whom were black. The black cops would sit down with him over a beer and talk about the "niggers" they had to arrest that day. Were they pandering to my brother-in-law, or baiting him? Doubtful. This is a not-unfamiliar phenomenon to anyone in law enforcement, and has been dramatized in several cop films.

Race is a very, very strange construct. Speaking just for me, I say we do away with it.

ellen said...

Rev Ron,
Isn't kim chee Korean? My first and favourite teacher was Korean, although all he ever offered me to eat was instant pot noodles.

Elizabeth said...

Race is a very, very strange construct. Speaking just for me, I say we do away with it.

How 'bout gender? ;)

Steve Salerno said...

I am really pressed for time, folks, so I can't even come close to doing justice to your contributions--not that you need any affirmation from me--but I'll try to remedy that tomorrow in any case. For now, though, I must say to Ellen: What a fascinating story! Reads like notes for the first chapter of an offbeat memoir...

RevRon's Rants said...

Ellen - Kim chee is Korean, but the first "taste" I got was in Vietnam. We could spot a village from a mile upwind, just by the stench of the kim chee pots, buried to rot in the ground. I could never bring myself to try it (and ate many other, supposedly disgusting) things while there. To this day, the smell is disgusting to me, and the kim chee you get in the states is supposedly devoid of rotted fish heads.

RevRon's Rants said...

Eliz - Let's hang on to the genders, okay? My amorous tastes never included any kind of attraction to androgyny.

Besides... Who would us belligerent Machiavellians dominate, if there were no women in the world? :-)