Tuesday, February 11, 2014


I didn't  think much about prejudice till I got to New York City and was trying  to be a dancer. Junior Ann Henry, a black girl, and I became a dance  duo. Duke Ellington liked us, so did Louis Jordan. You can read about the year I tried hard to be black in AIN'T NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS  (7/24/09)

I  didn't want to dance like the white dancers I knew -- they  didn't thrill me. But black dancer Talley Beatty did -- he  had magic in his bones. So did Janet Collins, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade. I wanted that magic in my own bones.  It just wasn't there. I wondered if it was because I was white.

I  had a head-on collision with another kind of prejudice when it came to  gays -- the good-looking male dancers I hired for my Dance Drama  Company. It bothered me that most of them imitated what I didn't like about women --. exaggerated helplessness,  that sibilant tone of voice that was excessively female, and those  broken wrists, their ridiculous concern with a perfect hairdo, perfect  outfits.

It didn't occur to me  that I was prejudiced, but when we had a flat tire, the men who could have, should  have helped, sat cozily in the warm car, while we girls went out in the  snow, and did the work.

Another slam-bam --I  was told by a friend in a lesbian relationship, that whenever I  talked or wrote about gay guys or gals, I expressed old-fashioned  race-prejudiced ideas. It got me thinking about remarks I made about  various well-known creators in show biz. "Oh he's gay!" I would murmur, letting "gay" explain why so-and-so  was successful. Was it because birds of a feather flock together -- the gays hire gays? Was it jealousy? Was it because I'm not gay that top flight show-biz creators didn't hire me?

Apparently, what I heard and observed as I toured the country and performed in the south, a lot of prejudice stuff  that's part of American culture -- is in me.

Black American Touré, (he uses  one name only), essayist, music journalist, cultural critic, and  television personality, author of four books, including  "Who's Afraid  of Post Blackness," which the New York Times called the "notable book for 2011," said, in an article in Time recently, "Inside the racist mind, bias is the complex neural play  between emotions and beliefs. It's learned quickly, often after a  single presentation, of an unconditioned stimulus in a fear learning  paradigm."

Quoting surveys, psychologists, and research, Touré proves how prejudice is ingrained in us.

I wasn't surprised to learn that 15 percent of Americans believe that  blacks pose a greater threat to public safety than any other groups, and realize that my prejudices about gays is built on words in the air,  hand-me-down ideas of what's masculine, what's feminine.

Okay, Touré, you're right. I'm prejudiced. Prejudice is a pair of gloves in  my drawer that's filled with gloves I've sort of collected over the years.

I don't wear them all the  time, but I sometimes I put them on them without thinking -- it's the weather -- they look nice -- they sort of enhance the outfit I'm wearing.  Without thinking, just reacting, when I see plays, like "Streetcar Named Desire," with blacks playing the leads, it seems wrong. In Shakespeare In the Park, when a black actress played the lead in "Measure for Measure," I was very aware,  distracted by one black nun in a group of whites nuns.

I can't change. It's a conditioned reflex. I see a black person and it  registers -- he's black, she's black. I hear someone's accent and I might think "Latino." Also, it registers if a person is fat -- I am prejudiced against fat people. I am prejudiced against women who wear too much perfume. Hey, I am even prejudiced against old people inching along, crowding the sidewalk when I'm in a hurry, or homeless people sleeping on my street.

I don't know how to eliminate prejudice.

But I can try to throw out the gloves.


Carola said...

I remember the prejudices against gays back in the 50s and 60s, prejudices that were held even by people who were very close to me. Those prejudices get imprinted on people when they are young, and sometimes it's hard to catch up when times change.

Linda Phillips said...

I honestly don't think of myself as being prejudice, and yet, like you, I guess I am.
Most of my life I have had black friends and gay friends. It will sound like I am being patronizing, but the truth is I have a special love for both groups.
And yet, yes, if I suddenly see a black person, in my now "cocooned" beach community in CA, my antenna, immediately goes up (mainly because our population here is almost entirely Caucasian and Hispanic.).
When I lived in my native NY, I was far less inclined to react that way in general, except when I lived on the "very white" Upper East Side.
I think it had to do more with self preservation than anything else. In NY the Blacks were more inclined, or so it appeared, to be the rapists and robbers. That's a sad commentary, but it was true (at least in those days).
I don't like the part of myself that reacts that way at all, but I think it is just, as you said, inbred in us.

THE Frugal Foodie & Gonzo Gourmands said...

You're not alone Em. Mean-spirited, prejudiced people were looking for a way to find fault with the Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed race daughter. The racists had a problem with a daughter who wanted to help her dad watch his cholesterol. They couldn't take it for the intent of the message, but they had to bring out negativity where there was none.

Dustspeck said...

It was President Lincoln's Birthday yesterday. The Firesign Theater joked a long ways back that he "didn't die in Vain; he died in Washington D.C.". I like the introspection and honesty of this topic you've chosen Em. You are constantly evolving but keep your core safe and sound like that of a tree that makes not a sound. It's only the pressure of the air that we hear when it moves the leaves and branches of our memories. Our experiences always vary throughout our lives and they are recorded inside of our minds like the growth-rings of a tree. They are what they are and cannot be changed. If you’ve made enough observations to render a judgment; a general noteworthy determination of any particular group of people; well, that’s just normal human nature. We are animals and we have instinctual capabilities just like lions, tigers and bears and lamas too. People often choose to try to separate themselves from the rest of life on earth as though they really aren’t from this planet and aspire to a spiritual realm while managing to ignore as much of their own species as possible. Merrily they float towards the sea. It doesn’t always work that way though; the merrily part, that is. It’s okay to be discerning and to learn from direct interactions with others. Prejudice is nothing more than a reaction within ourselves to stressors that were planted inside our minds or were exploded upon us without any warning. Elia Kazan’s film (Baby Doll) played yesterday on TCM. That movie shows how complicated prejudice can be. Watch Carl Malden’s conflicted character maneuver through his mental thicket and Eli H. Wallach’s character stand tall, even as it is being threatened and disparaged; good stuff and still one of my all-time favorites. The Last Poets first album circa 1968; self titled, has much to say about New York City and prejudgments. In their song, “On The Subway”; they give a slanted, poetic view into their subculture of that time and its struggle against it’s own lack of unity, how it viewed itself and felt that other viewed them. They did a song called “New York New York” on that album as well; in which, a voice from the background clearly states, “Rotten to the core, rotten to the core”, a reference to The Big Apple; how they saw it back then. It’s not he same as it was. New rings have been added but the impressions of years gone by stay with those who long survive. Dustspeck