This week, more proof of the pervasiveness of prejudice in American society was thrown at us than most thinking people can stand.
Barack Obama, the charismatic young senator from Illinois, was slapped with a backhanded compliment well-known to the black community. He was referred to by one of his Democratic colleagues (Senator Joe Biden) as "clean" and "articulate." Most of us white folks didn't bat an eye. However, the black community was in an uproar. That's because Biden's comment, even if he didn't realize it himself and didn't consciously intend it, used some very offensive imagery. It didn't take long to realize, if you didn't know already, that there were a few words missing from the end of Biden's quote - those words were, "... for a black man."
In this country, it is easy to think racism is fading away, that progress is winning out. It's easy if you are white that is. It's easy to sip our Starbucks and think about our black friends and feel like we're part of the solution. But it's also easy to ignore the fact that most of us harbor some very ingrained and disturbing ideas somewhere in our minds about what it means to be "black" or "white." Don't believe it? Take the test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/). It was easy for Joe Biden to call Barack Obama "articulate" because to Joe Biden, a well-spoken black man deserves to be praised. A well-spoken black man becomes "whiter" to us. A black man with full command of the English language is an oddity to us.
Still wondering why this bothered so many black Americans?
During the Superbowl this past Sunday, another hated group of American citizens got a reminder of their proper place. A seemingly innocent Snickers commercial had the GLBT community up in arms almost immediately after it aired. Like so much of American "humor" it highlighted our discomfort with things we do not understand. Two men, working on a car, each gnawing on an opposite end of a Snickers bar, "accidentally kiss." After the offense takes place, both men jump sky high and away from each other. Poor taste, sure. But at that point, it was possible to pass the ad off as a stab at homophobes themselves.
Then one of the men says, "Quick, do something manly!" This is followed by, on tv, the two men each ripping a patch of chest hair off of themselves and screaming in pain. On the Snickers website, alternate endings were made available. One showed the two men fighting with wrenches. One showed them drinking motor oil. One showed a third man walk in and say, "Is there room for a third in this love boat?" And an additional video showed professional football players watching the ad and reacting, some of them in very negative fashion.
Message? Homosexuality is unnatural and disturbing. Homosexuals are like women. Being like a woman is a bad thing. Homosexuals are promiscuous.
This ad managed to offend not only gay Americans, but female Americans as well.
After a campaign of several hours, Snickers removed everything from its website, but the damage was already done. Homophobia is one of the last "allowed" prejudices in America. Members of the GLBT community are mocked and beaten and raped and killed with impunity in this country every day. Progress away from this is moving at an excruciating pace, with no real signs of hope for anything different in the near future.
That's easy to miss. If you are heterosexual.
And in Atlantic Beach, Florida, a woman driving by a comedy club was faced with what is, apparently, her greatest fear. She came face to face with that most horrific of words... vagina. Several plays were currently showing at this theater, and one of them was Eve Ensler's prolific play The Vagina Monologues, a very common choice at this time of year. As she drove by the club, her niece read the marquee and asked, "What's a vagina?"
Well, first of all, a child old enough to read the sign should have already known the answer to that question, so shame on her parents.
But, even more disturbing was the aftermath. This woman called and complained about the sign, claiming it was offensive. In her own words, she was offended she "had to answer that question." Oh the horror! It is almost impossible to imagine the emotional pain of explaining to a female child that she has a v-a-g-i-n-a.
The theater's solution to this? They changed the title on the marquee to read The "Hoohaa" Monologues.
In response to this, I'd like to offer up a brief excerpt from The Vagina Monologues:
So, when the show was first done downtown,
guys would call up and say,
can I have tickets to The Vagina Dialogues?
And women would call up and say,
can I have tickets to The Monologues?
I've heard people call it The Viagra Chronicles.
And there was this punk ticket taker,
and she would say,
"Listen, if you can't say the name, you can't come.
Now, try again, try again."
Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues to remove the stigma from the word. To get women (and men) talking about it, without shame and without censorship. Her entire legacy is being sneered at in an attempt not to offend anyone.
Apparently, it's okay to be offended by the word vagina in America. At the same time, it's okay to offend a black man. And it's okay to offend an entire community of gays, lesbians, bisexual Americans, and transgendered folks.
What turns out not to be okay is being offended by a part of your anatomy being referred to as a "Hoohaa" - being offended by your quality and ability to lead being judged by the color of your skin - being offended by your fellow Americans thinking it is acceptable to mock your sexuality.
Guess what America? This country is full of women who have vaginas. It's full of black folks. It's full of homosexuals.
Once we all get that through our thick skulls, maybe we can get on to progress.