Earlier this week I started a little firestorm on Facebook after reading this article about Prince being honored at the Black Entertainment Television Awards. For those who don’t want to click through, I’ll summarize quickly: I asked for a discussion as to whether or not America still needs awards ceremonies, pageants, etc. that excludes all but a specific race of people. Of course, the danger of initiating that discussion is the seemingly common belief that anybody who would ask must be a racist at heart. That’s not the case, of course, but before I continue this I want to give a little background as to why I would ask. (It has nothing to do with Prince, who I really don’t care about at all.)
I grew up in Enid, Oklahoma. Enid is a very odd small city. Despite its size, it was — and still is — very much a backwater, good ol’ boy city. They did not integrate the schools until 1971 which, coincidentally, was the year I began kindergarten. When I was in high school (Enid has only one high school, and I had a graduating class of over 400 during the height of the oil boom in the 1980s) it was still common for white kids to tell racist jokes, after looking around to make sure no one of the race in question was within hearing distance. The black kids had a stairwell on the second or third floor where they’d gather in the morning, and a lone white kid would seldom dare pass that corner because racism went both ways and there is strength in numbers.
Several years later I was working in a machine shop there in Enid. There was a black guy who took a vacation to see his family in … Georgia? I don’t remember, but it was one of the old Confederate states. Anyway, when he came back he was talking about racism there and how much better Oklahoma is in terms of races getting along. Since then, I’ve kind of looked around me and watched how folks treat each other.
Today I’m an English teacher in a public school in Oklahoma City. My school is in a high poverty district and, while whites may still be the majority there, it’s barely, and if you go white vs all other races combined, there are more students of color than there are white kids. Unlike my high school days of 26-30 years ago, where kids of different races were classmates but almost never anything more, these kids are genuinely friends. Kids of different races hang out together after school, they eat lunch together, party together, and inter-racial dating is at a level that would have been unbelievable 30 years ago. The only time I hear a racial slur in school is when one black kid calls another "nigga", and somehow that has come to be a good term.
I’ve never had the money to travel much, so my view of the country and world is pretty insulated, I guess. Based on what I see around me, and the fact we’ve had black actors win Academy Awards, black singers win Grammy Awards, women of color winning Miss America (or Miss USA, or whatever), ethnic legislators, Supreme Court justices, and now a black president, I genuinely wanted to know if the general public thought it was still necessary to have exclusionary events. Interestingly, it seems the more liberal one is, the more likely one is to say yes.
Maurice Broaddus wrote the longest and most thoughtful reply to my query. I’ve always enjoyed Maurice’s blogs because he’s an intelligent guy with a good sense of humor, and I appreciate that he took the time to write his thoughts and point me to them. And that he decided not to name me as the catalyst for his blog, though I don’t really mind because, as I said, I’m not a racist, nor am I trying to stir up racist sentiment. I hope you’ll at least click through his link to see what he has to say. While I don’t agree with every point he makes, he has reminded me that perhaps my world is just too small. Is Oklahoma the post-racial Nirvana he says we all wish for? Oh no. I know it’s not, but apparently this red state has become a lot more tolerant than many other areas of the country and, as this younger generation matures, I think we’re likely to take giant steps toward that Nirvana.
Back to the Facebook post for a moment … Lots of people pointed out that there are few black actors in leading roles on major network TV. Well … okay. Since they watch it, I’ll take their word for it. They say it’s because people of color are being deliberately excluded. I have no context on which to argue for or against that. When I watched network TV on a regular basis it seemed there were a lot of shows about black people, but that was back in the days of "In Living Color" and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and Steve Urkel. Since almost all the primetime shows today are about cops or doctors, or are some stupid reality crap, I don’t care to find out who’s on the screen or what color they are.
No one addressed my question concerning this Wall Street Journal article about whites becoming a minority within a generation and whether or not it would be acceptable then to create blatantly white-only awards. Again, I’m not saying I’m for that; I’m not. I just want to know if it would be acceptable to the new majority if it happened. I’m a writer. I live in a world of "What if …?" Robert Heinlein must have asked himself a similar question before writing his post-apocalyptic Farnham’s Freehold where whites became a minority … and a delicacy. Is it simply natural for the majority to oppress the minority? What will happen when the population shifts? Have we really learned anything? These are the questions speculative fiction is built upon.
Somebody pointed out that Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother was raped and impregnated by an unknown white man, which, I think, was meant to show how evil whites are. Well, I’m sorry, but if we go far enough back most of us could find instances of oppression, violence, and tyranny in our family history. Rape, sadly, has always been with us and is not a white-only crime. I know his point was that this distant relative of the first lady was a slave and therefore no more than property, but look at how long ago that was. We are not there anymore.
Another person said these awards and such are still necessary because some people make racist remarks about Barack Obama. I’m not sure how to respond to that. Yeah, it happens … but do the people making those remarks represent the majority of America? Even a significant minority? I don’t think so, and I think the fact Obama won a democratic election proves it. There are always people on every fringe who are going to say outrageous things. To counter this, I’d point to the people who twist any criticism of the president’s policies to make the critic a racist. Saying Obama is a socialist or that he was slow to respond to the BP situation may or may not be correct, but neither statement has anything to do with race.
It was also pointed out that race-specific recognition is still needed because we’re still noting firsts. Obama is the first black president; Sotomayer is the first Latino woman on the Supreme Court, etc. This, I think, was the best argument to continue the segregated awards. We’ve reached a point where few people take note when a black man is named the starting quarterback of an NFL team because it’s become fairly common and guys like Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, and others have proven race doesn’t prohibit them from being leaders. Hopefully we’ll get to that point in all areas of society someday soon.
Well, as Adam said to Eve, this thing has gotten a lot longer than I expected. To sum up, I am not a racist. I’m just an Okie who enjoys playing devil’s advocate while trying to elicit meaningful discussion.