Real Talk about Race: Chapter Four
In chapters one, two, and three, we've talked about fear of being lumped in with bad people who look like us, the legacy of slavery in the U.S., race and politics, and defining hate crime, among other things.
Today I wanna talk stereotypes and pros and cons of political correctness.
First, how many of us know the formal definition of "stereotype?" Dictionary.com says its sociological meaning is "a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group."
I ask about that definition, because in the comments section of Chapter One, my friend Og honestly asked about black men and razor bumps and black men and straightened hair.
I gotta give him props. A lot of people would have stayed away from those sorts of questions for fear of sounding bad, looking bad, whatever.
But Og didn't say anything disrespectful to me or about me. He simply asked about two physical characteristics that he's seen in/on black men and that he did not understand. And the fact is, under a specific circumstance lots of black men get razor bumps when they shave their faces.
Political correctness (by some other name, please!) can serve a purpose: to keep a seed planted in the backs of our minds that we should exercise common sense and basic respect when talking to or about someone else's differences. Too much PC - which, in my mind, is almost any - is a bad thing.
So when does political correctness go from common sense caution to overkill? When you get angry about a comment or question that is rooted in fact - the exception being when you say it or ask it in a tacky, tasteless way.
Remember, just 'cause something is a stereotype, doesn't make it false. I love to eat chicken, for example. And anyone who doesn't like that can bite me.
From the beginning of our race relations discussions, I've said if we can't talk about ALL of it - the complicated and the simple - then we're doomed to maintain at least a smidgen of misunderstanding between us, even in the best of times. Best way to break barriers and avoid embarrassing situations involving our differences is to just talk about 'em.
So in the spirit of real talk, Og here's the deal with the razor bumps: Many black men have coarse, curly facial hair. While this may be aesthetically pleasing, it's a pain in the behind when it comes to shaving, because when some of us use straight, traditional razors our facial hair is cut so short that it begins to curl virtually from the second it starts to grow back. And sometimes when that happens, the hair can grow right back into the skin, creating an ingrown hair effect. It's why, when I was a kid my dad would use this smelly concoction called "Magic Shave," to to chemically lift the hair off his face, so he could get a clean shave. Magic Shave prevented razor bumps. Otherwise, a straight razor would have really done a number on his skin. It's why I don't use a straight razor. I shave with an electric shaver - the same kind they use in the barbershop to shave your head bald. It gives a clean shave, but not so short that your facial hair has a chance to grow awry.
There. That wasn't so painful.
As for the processed hair, like I said in the comments section back on Chapter One, Og, that's a much more complicated explanation. And no doubt it will vary depending on who's giving the explanation. I was always taught by my elders that black men started processing their hair back in the day - as early as 1930s, my grandmother always said - so that they could style their hair after the stars of the day. It just so happened that the stars of the day were almost exclusively white, so they had hair that was straight or wavy. In order for black men to achieve that effect with their own hair, they had to essentially put heavy perms in it. My grandfather used to call it getting his hair "conked." He said when he was young and dumb he'd get his hair conked or fried, dyed, and laid to the side. Fortunately, as he exited childhood and entered manhood he recognized that his naturally curly, coarser hair was just fine, and that he didn't need to chemically torture his scalp to look like something he wasn't and feel cool.
Now, I know I'm not the only one with stereotypes to answer or to ask about. After putting myself out there, I'd better get a helluva lot of feedback. I want to know what you'd like to know...about one another. If you have a question about Asians, or women, or whites, or Latinos, or blacks, ask it in the comments. And whichever of you has the answer, knock yourself out. Just keep in mind to be respectful.
So let's wrap this up with a brief cautionary tale of political correctness overkill. I spent last night at a surreal neighborhood association meeting that was supposed to be a meeting of the minds between association members and reps from the city, police, etc., and a welcome to prospective new members. In a matter of minutes though, the meeting turned into a free for all of angry people trying to out talk one another. I'll blog more on the meeting this weekend, but one incident stood out to me.
I had walked out of meeting hall to go to the rest room. While I was out, apparently a shouting match started. Tones and tensions escalated, and Mrs. B, reasonably afraid, got up and walked to the back of the room to find me and get close to the exit, in case we needed to scram. Things calmed down eventually, and another woman who had been sitting next to Mrs. B came to the back of the room and struck up a conversation with her. Nice lady. In minutes the two of them were comparing notes about the 'hood, talking about getting together to walk dogs, and so on. Mrs B then introduced me to the other woman. We exchanged pleasantries, and I turned my attention back to the meeting.
As Mrs. B and the other woman chatted and discussed neighborhood issues and crime prevention, and so on, the other woman, whose house was broken into...while she was at home sleep two years ago, talked about how paranoid she can be sometimes. Well, one of the rabble rousers who started the shouting match in the meeting walked by. And the woman made a comment to Mrs. B about being nervous and wondering where "that black guy" had gone.
Almost immediately, she turned to me and apologized profusely, insisting she shouldn't have said "black guy." And it wasn't right.
Why not? I mean, I guess she could've described him as the guy in yellow shorts, or the guy in the blue baseball cap. But human nature is that we tend to hone in the most prominent feature. And that's how we describe people in a snap: the fat guy, the tall woman, the guy with the Mohawk, the woman with the jaundiced skin. Whatever.
My response was "Don't be sorry. I'm not mad. You weren't talking about me!"
Let's get logical folks. If we can't simply mention another person's obvious features, we are way past the point of trouble. We've gotta lose those sorts of hangups, in the interest of eliminating race as a "problem" topic.
BTW, that woman was really nice. I hope she and Mrs. B do end up hanging out. And from the short conversation I had with him, I have no doubt I'll end up tipping a pint with her husband....without regard for his appearance.