18 Feb 2013 10:44 am

Typecasting Racism

This past week, an internet fury broke over the announcement noted sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card was writing the digital "Adventures of Superman" comic book. I was surprised to learn Card, the writer of "Ender's Game" among many, many, many others, had made some pretty disparaging remarks about homosexuals in the past, hence the fury. I discussed the issue with a lot writers and artists this part week. In our discussion, everyone agreed that, even from a conservative standpoint, Card's comments (which liken homosexuality to rape and molestation) were uncalled for. But as the discussion of the separation between art and artist continued, one thing struck me. A lot of those who hadn't read Card's work thought his readers were automatically bigots too. It was hard to convince them that Card's writing, at least in the Enders series, was intelligent and compelling, much less devoid of bigotry.

I know this is serious subject for this blog, but it's something which has been weighing on me for a while. We've made great strides in civil rights over the last few decades. As President Obama has said, we've turned the corner. But have we gone so far that we've misunderstood the concept of racism altogether?

As I understand it, there are two components to racism. The first is ignorance. This is the component most people associate with racism, whether it is against demonstrated race, religion, sex, orientation or politics. Honestly, what other word better describes the act of categorizing entire sections of humanity into one giant stereotype than "ignorant"? The problem is we've taken it too far. We see racists as fundamentally ignorant. If you think of the word "racist" what do you see? If the answer is trashy, uneducated, white and Southern, you can probably see the problem. We're typecasting the racist themselves, leaving ourselves open to attack from the real problem.

The second component to racism is fear, and this is the part which is all too often overlooked. You can educate away ignorance, but you can only educate away so much fear. Fear is an fundamental part of human behavior. It exists within all of us. For better or worst, it guides our actions. This means all of us are capable of racist tendencies, even the reasonable and intelligent ones. In the 1937, Curt Siodmak fled fascist Germany to become a Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote "The Wolf Man" not because of the Nazis, but because even good people can behave like Nazis under the right circumstances, much like "pure of heart" Laurence Talbot became a werewolf when the wolfbane bloomed. A similar wolf exists in all of us.

One of my favorite movies is "Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner", and it is easily one of the most misunderstood movies today. Katherine Houghton brings her boyfriend over for a dinner - a black man played by Sidney Poitier. Her father, played by Spencer Tracy, doesn't approve. Most people says its because he's a racist, but he's not. Listen to Houghton talk about Tracy's character. He's a newspaperman who championed the Civil Rights Movement. That's why she doesn't think twice about bringing a black man home to meet her parents. While Tracy's character might be guilty of "talking the talk, not walking the walk", there's more to it. He fears for both the safety of his daughter and Sidney Poitier's character. Interracial marriage was not common in 1967, and if you weren't careful, it could get you lynched. That's what Tracy is struggling with throughout the whole movie - the racial tides of his own country.

We've come so far now that we've forgotten, at one time, racism had infiltrated every fabric of our society, through segregation, Jim Crow laws and more. We've long since demonstrated the ignorance of such practices, but even though they are gone, the fear remains. We have to remember we're all afraid at some point in our lives, and all capable of doing stupid, ignorant things when we're afraid. Yes, we've made progress. Yes, we've turned a corner - but if you turn too many corners you end up right back where you started.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder later this week.)

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