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Racism, Reid & Republicans…Can’t We All Just Get Along? January 11, 2010

Posted by Kate Ryan in Barack Obama, Democrats, Harry Reid, National Politics, Racism, Republicans.
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Years ago, when my daughter was 10 or 11, she was assigned to read a book about Langston Hughes – the early 20th century African-American poet and playwright – for Black History month.  She came to me one day to ask me about the terms “colored” and “colored people” that cropped up throughout the book. I explained that in the past, “colored” was a term used to refer to African-Americans.  That it was once acceptable, but now was considered perjorative, and that the correct term was African-American.  My daughter chewed on this for a while, then asked, “why isn’t everybody  a colored person?”

Surprised, I asked her what she meant.  She went on to explain that she knew lots of African-Americans and that were not one color; some were dark-skinned, some were brown, some were almost white.  That she had Indian and Hispanic friends that were brown.  That even she – a supposedly white girl – had a dark complexion (olive-skinned) as compared to me (white as a sheet).  “Can we be colored people?”, she asked.  It took a while to convince her that, no, we would not be colored people.

I was reminded of this conversation with my daughter this weekend when the flap broke over Senator Harry Reid’s comments about then-candidate Barack Obama – whom he described as a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”.  Reid’s comments were revealed in the new book, “Game Change” by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and were made to explain Obama’s acceptability to white America as an African-American candidate. 

Of course, Senator Reid’s gaffe has caused a great uproar among our friends on the right.  GOP Chairman Michael Steele said on “Meet the Press” yesterday that Reid should step down as majority leader.  Steele likened Reid’s comments to those of former Senator and majority leader Trent Lott wh was forced to resign in in 2002 when he commented that had virulent former segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948;  “…if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either,”  implying that the civil rights movement was a “problem”.  Not quite.  Steele also conveniently forgot that he was under fire in the same week for saying that he was an “honest Injun”, something Native Americans found a bit racist. 

The fact is that just about everyone from every background and every race and every political part of the spectrum is racist.  That is human.  There is a basic human desire to be better than someone else – especially if you’re on a lower socioeconomic rung  – hence the prevalence of racism and racist activity among the most impoverished communities of any race.  I challenge anyone out there to really examine themselves and what they have said and done over the years.  I doubt that there is anyone out there that has NEVER told a racist joke, uttered a cringing racial epithet, repeated and believed in some stereotypical characteristic, or fretted over the “advantages” that other races have over one’s own.  The 2004 film “Crash” illustrated this beautifully, showing white racist police officers, black racist thugs, hispanic racist drivers, and asian racist accident victims.  The film even showed an Iranian woman cleaning her store after it was vandalized saying, “Why do they call us Arab?  Don’t they know we are Persian?”   I find that the people I know that harbor the worst racist feelings are people who insist they’re not racist.  That’s usually because they have a black friend and never use the “N-word”.  

I know that I have worked very hard over the years to free myself from racist language and the like – and I still find that I fail at times.  But I also know that I believe in equality of opportunity for all Americans and I support politicians, policies, and programs that will help our nation succeed in that achievement.  Real racism is not found in the words that we use.  Real racism is found in how we treat each other; how we arrange our society in such a way that it fosters great success for one race but dooms another race to poverty and despair. 

People who support tax policies that obscenely benefit wealthy white people are probably racist.  People who oppose a woman’s right to control her own fertility, force her to have an uplanned or unwanted child, then abandon that child to poverty because they oppose social safety nets for single mothers are probably racists.  People that oppose equalized funding for education so that children from wealthy, usually white, communities get superior educations while children in the inner-city study from torn texbooks in crumbling school buildings are probably racist.  I could go on and on – but I’m sure you get the point.  I’m willing to bet that not all Republicans are racists, but most racists are Republicans.

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If Not Now, When? October 12, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Gay Marriage, Gay Rights, National Politics, Politics, Racism.
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ebay_link_gaySometimes life imitates art, and sometimes art imitates life.  This weekend, as thousands of gay rights advocates marched in Washington to push the administration and the Congress to get started on their promises toward gay civil rights, I caught two things on television that got me thinking again about all this.

On Saturday, I watched comedian Wanda Sykes perform her stand-up special, “I’m A Be Me” for HBO.   Wanda’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love her.  She’s sharp, sarcastic, and a keen observer of life.  Sykes is also a gay woman.  She came out last November after marrying her partner of a few years in October 2008.  Sykes, in her public coming-out, stated that she never felt that she was in the closet – she was just living her life.  In her comedy special Saturday, however, she spoke about how liberating her public coming-out was.

“Being gay,” Sykes said, “is harder than being black.  You don’t have to come out as black.”  She then did an extremely funny bit about sitting her parents down to tell them that she was black – along with a hysterical imitation of her mother hearing the news. 

Though the bit was very funny, it made me think about the mere fact of being gay in America.   Sykes is 45 years old.  She has been with her wife since 2006; she had been married to a man for 7 years, divorcing in 1998.   So sometime between her divorce and remarriage she had to have come out privately to her family and friends.  So, until this woman was thirty-five or maybe older, she was living as a heterosexual – denying her basic human nature. 

Then, last night’s episode of “Mad Men” on AMC, wove together the struggle for civil rights in the black community with character Sal Romano’s closeted homosexuality.  Set in 1963, “Mad Men” is often looked upon with a nostalgic fondness for when “men were men”.  Last night’s episode was a reminder that the good old days were not so good for some people.  After Sal rebuffs an amorous male client’s advances – protesting that he is a married man – the client goes ballistic and requests he be fired.  And of course, Sal is fired, with his boss Don Draper making a sneering reference to “you people”.   At the same time, Betty Draper encounters her African-American housekeeper – her “girl” – listening to the funeral for the four girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing.  She sympathetically asks her housekeeper if she needs a day off because of the tragedy, then continues to tell her that things like this make her think that the time isn’t right for civil rights.

Is the time right for gay civil rights?  Many would say “no”.   While our gay brothers and sisters marched for marriage equality and the right to serve their country openly,  there were people – including openly gay Congressman Barney Frank – who advised them to slow down, to “work through the system”.   They caution that the President has too many other important items on his agenda to rush into a gay mine field. 

What is more important than the right to live as any other human being has the right to live?

President Obama can change “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with a stroke of a pen – by Executive Order.  It might not be politically popular – but it is the right thing to do.  And let’s face it – the people who would be craziest about that action are people who wouldn’t vote for or with him anyway.  

Sixty-five years after those little girls were murdered in Birmingham, we still have not overcome the spectre of racism.  Indeed, since the election of Barack Obama, it seems as though a lot of overt racism has been crawling out of the grave we assigned it to.  We should absolutely reject the idea that our gay community needs to wait half a century or more to achieve equality.