“Shrek!” they shout.
Mr. Shakes isn’t Shrek, and he’d appreciate it if you didn’t even mention the infamous green ogre’s name in his presence, thank you very much.
It’s enlightening seeing the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of America through his eyes—some of which I always too close to see myself. Recently, he wondered why it is that Speedy Gonzales is considered offensive, but Shrek isn’t.
“I don’t know,” I said, at a loss for a response. “I guess because most people know that all Scots aren’t green ogres.”
“Don’t most people know that all Hispanics aren’t titchy mice?” he replied.
And the truth is, he’s right. There’s nothing less offensive about Shrek, and no less reason his skin crawls at the sight of a green ogre, representing all the negative stereotypes of the Scots—grumpy, penny-pinching, misanthropic, hulking oafs. The dour Scots. It’s a perfect encapsulation of America’s ignorance, really—a movie about tolerance whose main character reinforces an ugly stereotype, but since we’re so insular, most Americans don’t even know the stereotype exists.
It is this entrenched streak of insularity from which stems the ignorance that fuels hatred of The Other, of which racism is only one part. Yes, there are whites who hate non-whites, and blacks who hate non-blacks, and Asians who hate non-Asians, Native Americans who hate Middle Easterners, and Eskimos who hate Jews, and every combination, sadly, of which one can think. And yet, even within groups lumped together by race, there is bigotry: Japanese who hate Koreans, or Canadians who hate French Canadians, or Scots who hate Germans. There’s bigotry based on beliefs and behaviors (some of which may be justified on an individual basis, but inevitably spirals into blind hatred of whole groups): White Americans who hate “rednecks,” the kind of hatred of The Other that served as one of Chris Rock’s most well-known bits—“I love black people, but I hate niggers.” Everyone knows what he means, because all of us, no matter how enlightened, understands hatred of The Other. It’s as American as apple pie.
Which, by the way, is hated by cherry pie.
Extricating ourselves from the insidious plague of racism is not just about racial tolerance, but about addressing head-on the endemic insularity and resulting ignorance that not only underlies racism, but our other chronic ailments—sexism, homophobia, ageism, sizism, etc. We need honest and open discussion, with people who are willing to risk inadvertent offense and people who are willing to educate rather than shame if ignorance offends.
In her Blog Against Racism Day entry, Pam writes:
People across the political spectrum have difficulty discussing race, but the problem is particularly acute on the Left these days. Many progressive whites feel: 1) unqualified somehow to discuss the topic or 2) are afraid of being slapped down for offering what appears to be an obvious or "stupid" question or opinion. As I also commented in the "blackface" thread:
Race politics for white liberals who don't know many black people on a personal level is an abstraction, not something they live. It's admirable to be for civil equality and against hate, but it's quite another thing to:
* have black friends that you are comfortable discussing race issues with
* live in a neighborhood that is not predominantly white
* send your kids to schools that racially reflect the city in which you live
* feel comfortable in social situations where you, as a white person, are in the minority (if this ever occurs at all).
...The important part of this is talking about complicated feelings and self-reflection...and that goes both ways, mind you -- I think many blacks, in not wanting to deal with the discussion of personal feelings and race with whites, oftentimes throw up the defensive attitude. I understand this too -- sometimes you just get tired of being seen as a color, a political "object," not a human being, by the dominant culture (across the political spectrum).
Openness on all sides can only help, not hurt.
Communicating honestly about all of the complicated relationships between all colors of the human rainbow is sorely needed as well; it's certainly not just a black/white issue.
We are quick to judge, and quick to assume we are being judged—usually with good reason—but at some point, we’re going to need to be able to openly address hated of The Other, our fears, our biases, our ignorance, to ask questions of and challenge each other. As Pam notes, sometimes it gets old being tagged as a political object, the spokesperson for a whole group, but denying the opportunity of a man to ask a woman what might seem an ignorant question about feminism, or a white person what might seem an ignorant question of a black person, or a straight person the same of a gay person, isn't helpful. Indulging attempts to expand one's understanding of The Other requires patience, to be sure, but real tolerance means addressing curiosity rooted in ignorance with respect.
Hatred of The Other, including racism, won't meet its end in disdain and impatience, but in the openness of shared experience and honest communication.
Mr. Shakes isn’t really bothered by Shrek as much as he’s confounded by his existence. Why, he wonders, is it acceptable to portray some nationalities in a negative light, but not others? Is the loss of Speedy in reality just an indication that the best solution we’ve come up with for dealing with racism is to hide it? Hiding Shrek wouldn’t cure the Americans, of multiple races, who have snidely instructed Mr. Shakes that he needs to “learn to speak properly” when they haven’t understood his accent. Honestly dealing with our national obsession of hating The Other, however, just might.
(For the background on Blog Against Racism Day, see Creek Running North.)