Dear Dr. Pilgrim:
I stumbled on your website quite by chance this morning, and now I expect I’ll spend the next two years reading it front to back.
I work as a Senior Press Information Officer in Newark, NJ, done so for 17 years, and being an Anglo-Saxon Jewish guy, I deal with the entire range of the African-American experience, across an immense spectrum. I’ve seen, worked with, assisted, reported to, praised by, been denounced by, dined with, prayed with, taught, learned from, sympathized with, argued with, an enormous array of people. Some came straight out of the various stereotypes you write about, just enough for them to be irritatingly visible. Most, of course, were not.
I have a different take on their situation, having served in the US Navy in Japan for three years. On-base, I was the “Jewish guy,” and everybody wondered why someone “who had all the money” was in the Navy and if it was true I had horns. My answer on the former question was to say, “Hey, pal, if I had all the money in the world, do you think I’d be here in this stupid uniform, earning $92 a month for my ability to paint walls? I’d be coming back from my owner’s box at the San Francisco Giants’ Candlestick Park to my ritzy penthouse in Russian Hill, where my butler and cook would have my lasagna prepared and Holly Robinson herself would be waiting in bed for me in an expensive nighty and heated anticipation!”
My questioner would say, “Oh, yeah…right.”
I didn’t bother with the second question.
Off-base, the Japanese studied me warily, as a “gai-jin.” It means “foreign devil.” Go into a department store, the security guard followed me around. Some restaurants and businesses let gai-jin know they weren’t welcome by posting all signs in kanji lettering, not Roman. My African-American pals who went up to Fukuoka to the nightclubs were offered large sums of money by businessmen and mobsters to touch their hair and the females were offered larger sums of money for other services, which they turned down.
My Japanese girlfriend was anchor for a local TV newscast...she would not take me to see her TV station (I was in the base AFRTS outlet) or to local restaurants or to meet her family. It would “ruin her reputation.” (As you see, in my single days, I was an equal opportunity skirt-chaser. All you had to do was smile sweetly at me and be nice to me and I’d fall in love with you, which scared the hell out of a lot of women)
I had an epiphany from this. I went back to my African-American pals and told them, “Now I have some idea of what your condition is. The difference is – mine ends on November 1, 1994, when I ship out of Japan, and yours only ends when you die.”
They laughed and proclaimed me an “Honorary Negro.”
Here in Newark, as I say, I’ve seen the stereotypes, the non-stereotypes, the racist behaviors of whites, the anger from blacks, and the whole scene upsets me.
I want to throw bricks through my TV screen when I see perfectly talented young African-American actors playing the same old roles over and over again. I agree with Newark native John Amos about why he quit “Good Times,” because the producers promoted “J.J.” and “Dy-No-Mite” over the kids who were headed for college.
I am enraged when I see on the news someone being arrested for committing some ghastly heinous crime, and they are young black men with stereotypical names and appearances. I get annoyed when Rihanna struts around without any clothes on, sings about debauchery, tweets about doing so…and then lets herself get beaten up by her abusive boyfriend. I have trouble understanding why male rap musicians find it necessary to do songs and videos that trash women, and need to have entourages that pack more firepower than 42nd Battalion Royal Marine Commando (or the 2nd Marine Regiment, if you want the American version).
Every time one of these stereotypes pops up, white racists (themselves stereotypes) snicker to each other on the Internet about how their idiotic theories are again “proven right,” and they expand on that formula with ghastly material of their own.
And yet, these stereotypes are not just on TV shows – in my job, I periodically get phone calls from residents angry about something. I try to help them. They sometimes ask me if I’m white. Wi would say “Yes,” not realizing that was a flash point, and they would get angry and demand to speak to someone of color, on the theory that I can’t be trusted to help them, or will deliberately make it worse, or will ridicule them, or just don’t care. After a few of those, when they would ask, “Are you black or white,” I would ratchet up my British accent, and say, “Sorry, mate. Neither. I’m a Maori from New Zealand (where I lived for three years). Polynesian. None of the above. How can I help you?”
The usual response is: “What are you doing in America?”
“Came here for university and got the job out of it. How can I help you?”
That leaves them puzzled, but defuses the tension. But it’s not enough. Every day, I read filth in the comments section of the web page of our local newspaper by white racists, who only like black people if they are hitting a baseball, singing a song, or in handcuffs. When President Obama was elected, we talked about “post-racial America.” Instead, the divide is greater than ever. In retrospect, I think that was more of a victory lap than a serious statement. We see more violence, greater anger, more divisions, more failures by government, private organizations, and ordinary people to use their heads and hearts instead of their guts, more fear, more despair, more anger.
Worsening this situation is the omnipresence of destructive tools in our society – overheated rhetoric from professional demagogues who only care about the dollars; a culture that worships ignorance, firearms, and xenophobia; an economy that is shifting daily if not hourly, and leaving millions stranded at the station; a river of increasingly deadly weapons in the hands of increasingly combustible people; and an expanding world population that is rapidly consuming the planet’s supply of food, water, and other resources.
The way I see it, we have to get rid of these ghastly stereotypes, and start dealing with people as people, and recognize minor differences like melanin content in skin as being a subject of personal identity, not a source of villainy, and find differences in culture as something interesting to celebrate and enjoy.
I told all this to my pals here at work, shared with them my experiences in Japan, and told them how important it is to me that these stereotypes are sponged, blasted, and erased from the planet and existence. I don’t work with ANY of the Jim Crow stereotypes. I live here in Newark, and NONE of my neighbors, workers, and friends are stereotypes.
They laughed hard, and proclaimed me an “Honorary Negro.”
I told them it was only the second time I had gained that status.
So I’m reading your website, and finding it educational, informative, and quite upsetting…my emotional makeup is such that I get easily offended by unpleasant depictions of people by their ethnicity – any ethnicity. However, I am reading it front to back, and regard it as tremendously important, because when you cut through these idiotic and stupid racial and religious divisions in our country, we should all be members of one group – Americans, who are defined by diversity, citizens of a nation that was founded on the highest ideas and principles, an experiment in self-rule, that is still struggling to complete and define that experiment.
You’ve done a fantastic job. More power to you.
David H. L.
P.S. I have to deal with my own stereotypes. You know about the Jewish ones. Try the ones for Englishmen. We have the dopey Cockney butler, the mincing gay Englishman, the cold upper-crust Englishwoman who turns into a sexual dynamo with a workingman (or American), the Bertie Wooster aristocrat who falls off his horse when he rides to hounds or treats people like dirt (or both), and, of course, the incompetent British military men, who do more damage to the Allied cause in the war movie than all of Hitler’s tanks. Example: the movie “Patton.” That scene where Monty and Patton face off in Messina? All fiction. So was all of “Braveheart.” William Wallace died seven years before Sophie Marceaux had that baby. Pretty impressive feat of impregnation, that.