Most people don’t have lengthy attention spans or an endless capacity or thirst for data. There’s an awful lot of information to process on a daily if not momentary basis. So we can be forgiven for grasping at headlines as if they were articles (or “reading book reviews like they was books,” to quote Madame Rose.) Quite frankly a lot of what’s buzzing around us doesn’t warrant more than a cursory glance; quinoa’s in, bulgar’s out, cycling to nowhere is in, aerobics is out, and so on and so on. But then there are those big & important things that may be too large to ponder or tackle on a regular basis; issues that mercifully may not affect us on a daily basis.
Until your life and home are threatened by nature you might not get too riled about climate change. And even then, quite frankly, the most pressing (and perhaps only) issue is reclaiming your equilibrium. If you don’t experience prejudice and/or marginalization on any kind of regular basis you might not give biases all that much thought. When a story reaches media blitz proportion you may find more school gate/dinner party conversation about racism/sexism/bigotry than you would ordinarily. But when the headlines ebb and the talking heads shift their focus to another bright and shiny topic, the volume of those conversations probably lowers. It’s tempting (and completely understandable) to look at our biracial president, our recent strides in gay rights, and think “right, well I’m glad all that’s done with.” And that would be wrong.
There is far more danger in assuming things are okay and consequently turning our attention elsewhere than there is in not recognizing a social ill as a problem. Thirty or forty years ago mainstream America was (generally speaking) accepting that perceptions needed to change. In the 1970s civil rights began to find its mainstream footing. It no longer was acceptable to use certain words in public (at least in the Northeast.) This is hardly the hallmark of equality but it is a very strong indication of the public’s embarrassment at their overt bigotry. It would be another couple of decades before a similar semantics change occurred in regards to the gay community. One need only pour through some pop culture to confirm that “gay minstrel” was alive and well during the Reagan years. You’d be hard pressed in the 21st century to see African Americans or gay men and women as punchlines. Rest assure however, there are still plenty of ethnicities, religions and orientations that are ridiculed or “minstrelled”.
When it comes to the black or gay experience you might just think that all is mostly well. That is, if you weren’t affiliated with either of those groups. Most of us, no matter where our head is in proximity to our rear end, suspect that racism is alive and if not exactly well, at least on some form of life support. You can’t live anywhere (except perhaps off the grid) and not know (or at least suspect) that the color of one’s skin affects the perceptions of others. Simply turning on the television or picking up a magazine will confirm this. You may (that’s may) see male celebrities with a rich dark skin tone, but you rarely will see a woman with anything darker than a mocha skin tone. Pop culture may not be good for much, but it does paint a picture of our collective taste/desires.
You might also think that all is great on the gay front. People are marrying; coming out all over the place and letting kids know it gets better. But they’re also getting arrested in Louisiana for agreeing to have sex with undercover police officers. And the California federal appeals court is deciding if gays can be barred from a jury. This issue has come up because a drug company (defending a drug used in the treatment of AIDS) wanted to bar a juror who seemed gay. Clearly a gay man could not be neutral about drug companies, corruption, unethical medical practices or corporate greed. After all, are such “gay” issues. The assumption that a gay man (versus anyone with an ounce of compassion or a shred of decency) would feel strongly about AIDS and our storied history with the disease is absurd. But there you have it. Our legal system (that system we rely upon more and more to make very important decisions for our society) can view people as nothing more than their most visible characteristic.
We have come a long way baby, no one can reasonably argue that. But there is a danger in letting our guard down now. Things have changed enough on the surface that we can slip into a complacency that hinders progress and may in fact turn time back. We are so close to what we can be. Just consider how far we’ve come in only forty+ years. In 1967 interracial marriage was so rare as to be the entire story line of a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie. It was a serious and moving message movie. There was a little bit of levity of course; like when the “Negro” groom offers proof of the naivety of the Caucasian bride: “she feels that all our children will be president of the United States!” A laugh line has become a wonderful reality. But we must be very careful to not see that and other equal rights strides as an end point. Our work is not done here.