NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.
You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.
I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.
What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?
The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.
What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.
Do I need to add that the speaker is white?
I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.
But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.
As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.
“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”
I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.
I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.
As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.
Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.
And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)
It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.
What about this mess seems like a good idea?
So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.