Wednesday, April 7, 2010

No difference

No difference by Shel Silverstein
Small as a peanut
Big as a giant,
We're all the same size
When we turn off the light.
Red black or orange,
Yellow or white
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to just reach out
And turn off the light!

A few things have conspired to put race/ethnicity in my mind. I guess my thoughts here apply to a lot of differences that people use to separate groups into 'them' and 'us'. Does it really matter what the 'other' is?

I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett for book club. A major theme of the novel is race relations. It takes place in Jackson, MS, in the early '60's. At the discussion, one mom brought up the idea from a book she'd been reading that we all need to talk to our kids, as young as 3 and 4 year olds, about race. Another mom, who happens to be African American, talked about how she actually did that with her older daughter, which helped with schoolyard confrontations. A third mom mentioned that she doesn't even think of herself as Asian unless someone points it out to her. And yet another mom who works at a school for children with learning disabilities pointed out that they really strive to not define the children by their difference: they have dyslexia, they aren't dyslexic. Interesting distinction.

Last night I watched an interesting movie, Dancing in September, which follows a fledgling show at a fledgling network. There is a lot more to the story, but the show is about black characters, written and produced by a black woman, at a network that is trying to appease activists because of backlash about the lack of representation for African American actors on tv. It's a really good movie and I recommend it if you want to see a little of what happens to shows we love. Because the show starts as a really good, heartfelt show and slowly becomes that cliche of dumb black characters through suggestions from the network. Because it's all about ratings and keeping advertisers happy.

One of the things that irritates me about a lot of 'ethnic' shows in the last decade or so is that the characters are all caricatures. It doesn't seem to matter if the show centers around a black family or a Latino family, they all seem to have to be dumb. (That's actually even true about comedies centering around white families.) Why do people watch that crap? And why can't we have more shows where the characters just happen to be black/Latino/Asian or whatever? Seriously, the reason The Cosby Show was so good and popular was because the Huxtables could have been any family. They just happened to also be black. It was funny. It was heart-warming. That's what I miss about family comedies.

There is some hope with dramas. At least characters are allowed to be real, normal, and not stupid. I admit I don't watch much tv these days. Between getting the boys in bed and the late schedule, I find too many shows start to feel like a chore. The only serial series we watch regularly are Castle and The Big Bang Theory. Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs and Man Vs. Food are other shows we watch, but it's ok if we miss an episode. So there may be some quality shows out there that I just don't know about (and please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.)

But back to the topic. First, what is the difference between race and ethnicity? Because I think race is a loaded word used purposely to highlight something that is really a matter of ethnicity. Here's an interesting chart that points out one of the major issues for me: race is defined by governments, not science. And my background is science. The government in the US defines race by skin color, but not all skin colors.

Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't define people by their ancestry? Or by their difference from us? Can we get to a point where someone is a person who happens to be (fill in the blank)? I know it's idealized, but maybe if we all try to change how we talk, we'll change how we think. And if we can't change how we think, maybe at least our kids will think in that idealized way. And maybe one day people will be so mixed (multi-ethnic or multi-racial is a growing demographic as it is), it won't be an issue.

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