Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sticks and Stones

I grew up in a time (1950s-60s) and place (Texas, USA) when stereotyping was just an easy way of keeping society organized, not to mention the source of some great jokes. Back in those days stereotyping was truly granular. We are talking micro-stereotyping. Within the same county you had “cedar-hikers” and ranchers. The “cedar-hikers” lived on poorer land that had been taken over by cedar brush. The stereotypical “cedar-hiker” was a poor hard-scrabble countryman who farmed a little, raised goats, had a cow or two, made moonshine or had close kinfolks who did, and also harvested cedar for fence posts. Cut up some cedar posts, hike into town and sell them. Cedar-hiker. I have family from the hard-scrabble cedar country, but as far as I know they were never cedar hikers. They actually carved out a decent living raising cotton and peanuts along with some livestock.
The “ranchers” lived on the other side of the county where the land was a little better, but not much. They might have tended to keep a few more cattle and occasionally prosper, but to an outsider they didn’t seem any different than the cedar-hikers. But within that small social circle, the difference was real and more than one fist fight was started when some rancher’s kid called a kid from the other side of the county a “cedar-hiker”.

In Fort Worth, there were rich and poor sides of town. Tough neighborhoods and snobby neighborhoods. Fairly or unfairly, you were labeled based on where you lived. And there were certainly ethnic and racial stereotypes. And not all were mean-spirited or ill-intentioned. I am thankful that my family advised me early on that the N-word was not to be used. We called them “colored” people and it was meant with all due respect. We didn’t drink out of their water fountains nor did they drink out of ours. They lived in their neighborhoods and we lived in ours. They made the best BBQ and the only time we used the N-word was when my father stopped by Nigger Jack’s BBQ for an order to go.

My folks regarded Mexicans as hard-working, industrious people and considered them basically “like us”. I went to school with Mexican-Americans and there was plenty of inter-racial dating and marriage. I didn’t really encounter serious racial bias toward Hispanics until I moved to West Texas. I guess there just weren’t enough colored folks out there to fill the bottom rungs on the ladder. And by that time, “colored” had long since been retired. Black was firmly established with African-American coming up fast.

We didn’t have many Asians around back then. The Asian invasion of Texas really came after the Vietnam war. Vietnamese, Thai’s and Cambodians are now well-established and prospering throughout Texas. With globalization we have a fair share of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans here as well. But when I was a kid…not so much, really hardly at all. This was post-WWII. The Japanese were cruel, treacherous people who now made crappy merchandise. The Chinese were a mystery. The China of ancient history was totally different from Communist China and the looming threat they represented. At a personal level we just didn’t have relationships with a lot of Asian people. Interestingly enough, we did have one kid in our school who was half-Asian. He was well-liked and well-received by all of us. I am ashamed to say that I honestly don’t know his specific ancestry. It just wasn’t a big deal to us. And I’m sure we made comments about Gooks, Slopes, Chinks, and Nips without even thinking.

Which brings me around to Jeremy Lin, the Chinese(Taiwanese)-American basketball sensation who recently burst on to the national sports scene with the NY Knicks. A reporter actually lost his job by going with this headline, “Chink in the Armor” after a Knicks' loss. I really can’t defend the reporter. I heard about the uproar over the headline before I actually knew the specifics. I told my wife that I bet he used the word “Chink”. Twisted minds think alike. I mean it’s just too obvious. He should have been fired for bad writing if for no other reason.

Overall, I think it’s a good thing that we are more sensitive toward stereotyping and making hurtful, demeaning comments based on stereotypes. And clearly, the “Chink in the Armor” headline was just way over the top. But it does beg the question, when is it ok to comment on an individual in terms of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religious beliefs, financial status, age, weight, etc.? Clearly there are times and circumstances when these factors are necessary and relevant in communicating information about the individual. But just as clearly there are times and circumstances where making comments about such things will get you in big trouble.

My advice is just don’t go there if there is even the slightest chance that it might be offensive. But, I have to admit that I have a hard time taking my own advice on this one. I am not easily offended and can pretty well take it as well as dish it out. Plus, I’m not all that in tune with other people’s sensitivities. So if anything in this blog or previous entries has offended you or someone you know, I can only say that I am truly sorry and JUST GET OVER IT.

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