A Little Prejudiced
Wednesday night, while I was sitting in my recliner, waiting for a post topic to turn up, I turned my Roku to Amazon Prime and started watching the 2004 film, Crash. Crash takes place over a thirty-six hour period on Los Angeles, following a racially diverse cast of characters as their lives intertwine and their individual prejudices appear in random encounters. Rather than divide the cast into heroes and villains, each person is shown to harbor racial prejudices, usually borne of ignorance rather than malice. A signature of the film is that many of the characters find themselves in situations where their humanity extends beyond their prejudice. For example, bigoted police officer, John Ryan, molests a black woman during a traffic stop, then ends up risking his own life to save her from a burning automobile. A theme of the film is that everyone harbors prejudices. The film was a surprise winner of the Oscar for Best Picture over the 2004 favorite, Brokeback Mountain. Many critics attributed that to homophobia among Academy members and others complained that interconnection of the many characters in Crash was contrived (Can you imagine that? A contrived plot?). I didn’t see Brokeback Mountain but I really enjoyed Crash, and I enjoyed it again Wednesday night. It touches not only upon the bad that can infect each of us but the good we can do. It’s well acted and the ethereal score by New Age artist, Mark Isham, carries the film’s mood perfectly.
In an essay, Our Differences, in his book, Awakened Mind, David Kundtz quotes French Writer, Albert Memmi: There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist: still racism persists, real and tenacious. Unfortunately, we are collectively prejudiced against not only people of other races, but of other cultures and religions and sexual preferences. Some of us are prejudiced against the opposite sex. And while it is true that many don’t want to see themselves as prejudiced, I think there are plenty of people that are perfectly happy to be biased against others … or ignorant enough to justify it in their own minds. But just as some of the characters in Crash who abhored the racism in others turned out to have their own biases, Kundtz suggests that we all contribute to the tragic enigma of racism by harboring prejudices of our own. He reluctantly admits to it in himself.
Not to cite credentials, but I was raised by a mother that truly believed that by the time I was her age, prejudice would be gone because intermarriage would eliminate races. If only. And I was a member of the first interracial fraternity at the University of Connecticut … nearly half of my fraternity brothers were African American. In my career, I’ve supported equality across races and for women. I’ve tried hard to follow in my mother’s foot steps. I’ve got every reason to be prejudice-free. But my Dad could be a little bit racist, and my uncles … well, they were another story. All my life, I’ve heard the stereotypes, the stories of how they are … from strangers, from acquaintances, even from friends who I otherwise liked. And any man my age has lived in a world where queer jokes were accepted fare in most male bull sessions. As a spiritual nomad, I’ve dealt with the slights of the religious, often not subtle. I’ve watched the World Trade Center come down and Palestinians dance for joy. In many ways, we are remarkable creatures for the knowledge we can retain over the years, but the epithets, the slights and the stereotypes are all there, too, lodged among my brain cells. When someone of a certain ethnicity cuts me off on my way to the park, I may retrieve one of those epithets. No, I don’t say it aloud, but there it is. My decision not to see Brokeback Mountain wasn’t based on altruism and it took some effort to enjoy La Cage Aux Folles. Tell me you’re Muslim and a synapse fires .. you’re a terrorist … and tell me you’re born-again, another synapse tells me you’re not too smart. When my Dad would make one of his comments and we’d all act shocked, he’d say, I didn’t mean anything by it. I not only don’t mean anything by it, I don’t want to be that way. But like David Kundtz, I reluctantly admit, I sometimes am.
Kundtz says that the accumulation of these seemingly minor attitudes in you and me gives truth to the tragic enigma of (prejudice) that persists, real and tenacious. You cannot, he says, transform a personal attitude like racism unless you first acknowledge that you personally have it – shame be damned. I agree. I’m owning up. I can’t always control what pops into my head from the past, and certainly not saying the prejudiced thought is a start. But only by calling it what it is … prejudice … actually holding the thought in my mind and saying, This is wrong, do I make a small contribution to healing the world.
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