Sunday, April 22, 2012

Diminishing Racism One Granite Countertop at a Time

Race is in the news again this week. George Zimmerman was released from jail on a $150,000 bail and is awaiting trial.  He apologized to Trayvon’s parents in court, and many people believe the gesture was opportunistic, though I’m not so sure. A North Carolina judge, Greg Weeks, tossed out the death sentence of inmate Marcus Robinson because he ruled the trial was influenced by racial bias.  It was the first ruling under the 2009 Racial Justice Act. Two black men filed a discrimination lawsuit against TV shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for the treatment they received during a casting call. They believe the shows intentionally screen out people of color.
What side you fall on in each of the above events doesn’t matter. What matters is that they happened, and they happened because racism, bias and discrimination still exist.
Marcus Robinson, a black man who killed a white teenager in 1991, deserved a fair trial and to be judged by his peers, but the prosecutors rejected qualified black jurors and stacked the jury pool with whites.  It may have been a fair trial in every other way, but even so, because bias was used in jury selection, we’ll never know for sure. That uncertainty was enough to throw out the death sentence under the 2009 Racial Justice Act. This law was passed in North Carolina (Kentucky is the only other state that has a similar law on the books) because of the number of black inmates on death row in comparison to white inmates.
The judge’s ruling stated, “Race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors,” and that the disparity was enough “to support an inference of intentional discrimination."
Cassandra Stubbs, one of Robinson’s attorneys, said, "For over 100 years, jury selection in capital cases has been plagued by racial discrimination against qualified African-American citizens. Today’s decision offers promise that change in this area, long overdue, is finally coming.”
The two men who filed a lawsuit against the popular reality series said that they were treated differently than white applicants. One was asked why he was even at the hotel where the casting call took place. The suit claims that TV programs assume "minorities in lead roles and interracial dating [is] unappealing to the shows' audience."
It goes on to say, "The refusal to hire minority applicants is a conscious attempt to minimize the risk of alienating their majority-white viewership and the advertisers targeting that viewership. Nevertheless, such discrimination is impermissible under federal law."
George Zimmerman’s bail hearing made headlines. When he gave his apology in court, Trayvon’s parents were stoic. The prosecutors called the gesture opportunistic, but Zimmerman insists he wanted to apologize to them in private but was advised not to. He also stated that he thought Trayvon was older, but he didn’t say specifically what caused him to follow Trayvon or what made him suspicious of him.
Here’s the thing about racism or any ism: most times it is a subconscious reaction. It’s ingrained. It’s a lens through which we process and interpret what we experience and see. We have to work hard to alter that lens and accept other possibilities. But first we have to acknowledge that our biases exist and that we operate under their influence without question.
“Why bother?” some might ask. “What does it have to do with my life?”
I have heard that question many times in my life. Once I participated in a work sponsored diversity workshop, and I shared some of the situations Ronald and I had experienced. Many people expressed shock, even sorrow, that such things still occurred, but one white man just shook his head.
“What do you expect me to do about it?” he asked, sounding disgusted. “I don’t have anything to do with it, and I’ve got my own problems.”
Then he said, “What do you think of your Louis Farrakhan? He’s against interracial relationships, too.”
That was the first time I realized some people considered me non-white, perhaps even black, because of my relationship with Ronald and because I bore his children. That proved to me conclusively that race is a social construct because it appears one can move back and forth between races depending on who is looking at you. President Obama has suffered this bias and so have my daughters.
Before I could respond, one of the other white women stood up. She had something important to say and wanted to make sure she was heard.
“I’ve known Dianne since she was a college student,” she said. “I can vouch that she is a very nice person.”
Her comment was meant to diffuse, but instead I was upset that she felt my character needed defending, as if she were saying, “Okay, you’re right, she made this terrible choice, but she’s still likeable.” Yes, yes, I’m a nice person, but is that the only reason someone should care about the discrimination I’ve experienced by being in an interracial relationship? Even nasty people deserve equality and fair treatment.
Another white woman in the workshop said, “You should consider yourself fortunate, because interracial marriage used to be illegal. At least you were allowed to marry.”
That comment made me angry. As if I needed permission to marry and should be happy I received it from some anonymous source. Just ask any gay couple if they are waiting for permission to legalize their relationship. They don’t want your permission; they just want equality and fair treatment.
There aren’t many houses without television or the Internet these days. I admit to watching TV shows with regularity and passion in some instances (I can feel my anticipation for Mad Men escalating as Sunday evening approaches). I have my favorites. But I notice the lack of diversity in most shows and that is disappointing.
Ronald and I watched Full Metal Jousting for each of the eight episodes. It is a reality show that resurrected the ancient Euro-centric sport of riding a horse toward an opponent, dressed in armor (both the rider and the horse), and carrying a large lance that is aimed at the opponent in an attempt to unhorse him. The show highlighted a competition that ended with one jouster being the overall champion and winning $100,000. There was not a single black contestant or trainer on the show.
“I’ve noticed there aren’t any black competitors,” said Ronald while we were watching one of the first few episodes, “but I still want to watch it. I wonder, though, did any black guys audition or were they not drawn to the sport?”
I had noticed, too. I can’t imagine that there are no black horse trainers or black theatrical jousters or black rodeo cowboys (or Asian or Hispanic ones, for that matter). Those were overwhelmingly the backgrounds of the all white competitors. Then again Cara, Mackenzie and I used to go to the Renaissance Faire in Sterling, NY, and there were very few black actors there and not many black spectators. Even Ronald fought us for years about going, thinking he wouldn’t like it, but Mackenzie and I convinced him to go last year, and he had a great time. I digress.
In my quest for diverse television, I find myself gravitating to HGTV. Seems ridiculous, right? But the shows are quite diverse – all kinds of couples and singles looking for housing, in all price ranges and geographic locations, to buy or rent. Seeking housing can be an equal opportunity endeavor as long as the seller, the landlord, or the realtor isn’t biased, as was the case when we purchased our first home. Perhaps the cameras prevent such bias. After all, who wants to be caught on camera being a racist unless that person is a member of a racial extremist group?
Watching people of every ilk engage in the search to fulfill one of the basic human needs, shelter, is in some way comforting to me. The universality of the need normalizes the process and breaks through cultural and racial differences. Right now it seems everyone, no matter race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or socio-economic level, wants granite countertops and stainless steel appliances on their home wish lists. How mundane is that?
In many ways TV and the Internet cause us to have more shared experiences and shared aspirations, like those granite countertops, for example. The needs are created by ad men (like in the 1980s when minivans became the must have for people with children), the message is spread via television and the Internet, and the fulfillment of that created need is equal opportunity, as long as there is economic access, but even then, you can buy granite-looking Formica or granite tiles at Lowe’s or select a high quality, unique piece at a granite yard, depending on your budget.
Where the disconnect happens, and where the situation can turn ugly, is that now, as we begin to congregate in the same places, to want the same things, to do the same things, and to share the same experiences, those biases and social constructs crop up and get in the way.
The solution is to keep questioning ourselves; to realize no one needs to give permission to anyone else to be who they are; to understand that bias and discrimination of any sort hurts everyone not just the targeted person or group; to acknowledge that the lens through which one views the world is not the only lens and does not afford the only picture of things, but is just one view out of billions; and to speak up when bias is evident because even if it doesn’t seem to affect you, it does. It affects all of us. We need more sharing of experiences and aspirations, like those granite countertops, so we can see the commonality in all of us. Then perhaps race won’t be in the headlines every week.

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