Paul Hopper (paulhopper) wrote,
Paul Hopper

Black. White. (epside three)

One of the challenges of talking about race is that I think both sides are so charged that it makes it difficult to speak candidly about race issues, either generally or in specific terms. And I say that not as a comment on the show so much as a comment about me and the challenge I have in talking and writing about race and racism, whether the subject is this show or otherwise.

Tonight's episode had more of the same old recurring theme of people seeing what they want to see and not seeing what they don't. In the last episode, Carmen referred to a woman as "a beautiful black creature". Today's show picked up where that one left off. The black family found her words very upsetting. I thought it was the word "creature" that troubled them the most, but Brian commented at one point that he wouldn't have a problem if she had simply said "beautiful creature". When I heard her make that comment, I knew what she meant. I understood her intentions. And I wasn't offended. (Yeah, I know, I'm not black, right? That doesn't mean I don't find things offensive.) I was, however, disappointed. It's not that I took her comment as disparaging towards the woman in any way, but it brought attention to the fact that Carmen thinks of black people as being something very different from her. And, yes, culturally and complexion-wise, they are very different from her, but... black is part of the identity in her mind of every black person whe meets. This isn't new with her... I've seen it throughout the show, from the very beginning of the first episode. Her husband Bruno does the same thing, too. It's disheartening for me, because for all their talk about how people shouldn't distinguish between how they treat people based on race — and I do believe their intentions are genuine — they appear to be incapable of internalizing that sentiment. The best they can do is separate but equal. I guess I haven't seen an instance where they've treated someone different (setting aside some of their conversations, of course) based on their race, so maybe they do a better job than some of approximating "separate but equal", but it's important to recognize that, internally, they still see race and identify people based on race.

I've repeatedly referred to the people on the show as "the black couple" or "the white girl", etc., but keep in mind that here, in this discussion and on the show, skin color is relevant. Not to get too sidetracked, but this sort of reminds me of a conversation I had a long time ago with my former supervisor. He's Chinese and his legal name, of course, is his Chinese name, but he has an American name that he went by at work. I've always felt that he shouldn't change his name just for the convenience of others, that it is perfectly reasonable to expect and demand of us that we learn to pronounce his Chinese name, his real name. It wasn't that big of a deal to him, though, and I reckon it might be as much for his convenience as it is for everyone else's that he went by a name he didn't have to repeat 20 times for every person at work in order to train them to say it right. Similarly, perhaps it would be more appropriate for me, even here in this context, to insist on identifying the characters by name rather than race. I do hope that you, the reader, will recognize that when I fall back on using race as an identifier, it is only because it is a relevant detail.

One of the things I've been hoping for was for the Carmen and Bruno (especially Bruno) to experience what it's like to feel what it's like for your race to be an issue. They went, in makeup, to a cowboy bar. They were the only "black" people in the bar, which had a Confederate flag hanging prominently on the wall. Carmen noted that when she asked for a coffee and asked that they start a tab for her, the bartender insisted on seeing the credit card (which Bruno had and he was in the restroom at the time) before she let Carmen have the coffee. Now, that alone doesn't sound like one of those clearcut cases of racism, right? Of course not. And it's quite possible that they have a strict policy at that bar when it comes to starting tabs. Who knows!? But Carmen said she hadn't noticed that ever being an issue for her before and she wondered if it was an issue this time because she was "black". Aside from that, Carmen felt very out of place in the cowboy bar and she and Bruno both got plenty of stares and dirty looks throughout the evening. She wasn't the only who felt they were out of place!

Carmen has a new friend! While in makeup, she befriended a woman who hosts talks in the community (whatever community that is) on race issues. What Carmen was really hoping for was someone who was connected in the community who'd be willing to help her see things from a different perspective. I was a bit nervous when she revealed herself to the woman, whose name I missed, but Carmen definitely got her wish. The woman turned out to be great! In my own experiences growing up, I've noticed that many people don't recognize (or don't want to admit) that racist attitudes don't flow in only one direction. This woman was able to acknowledge that and that counts for a lot with me. Carmen, not in makeup, went through part of town with the woman and Bruno, who was in makeup. Once again, they got stares. Carmen got them for being white and Bruno got them for appearing to be a black man who went outside his race to date/marry a white woman. People were downright unfriendly and Carmen and Bruno both felt a sense of hostility. You could see hints of it, but I know the camera can't possibly convey the feeling in the air.

I think Carmen is doing a better job of taking all of this in than Bruno is. There's no question that he recognized the racist attitudes coming from the black people, but he blew it off when it came from the white people. Carmen, on the other hand, seems to be learning a little bit of what it might be like for black people in our society where success means competing in a white world (yes, "black" and "white" are relevant here). Perhaps Carmen's reaction to her experience at the cowboy bar is evidence of some level of internalization of the black makeup (that we aren't seeing in Bruno)? Exposure to different races can, over time, diminish Carmen's ignorance, but being able to see things from the perspective of others.... that's far more significant. I have hope for her. Now if we could just work on Bruno and the other couple!
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