I cannot believe this still has to be said, but too many well-meaning people (let's just call it like it is, too many well-meaning mostly-white people) keep doing and saying accidentally racist things and it's just exhausting.
I've said this a thousand times: it's okay to be ignorant. Ignorance, as a state of being, does not make one a bad person. However, if one's ignorance is pointed out to one, and one persists in one's ignorant behavior, (and/or if one has an inkling that perhaps one might be ignorant on a particular subject, or that one might be about to behave in an ignorant manner, but one takes no action to circumvent said ignorant behavior) that's a problem.
So, homepeople, I present to you a quick and dirty bandage (you're welcome for the phrase "quick and dirty bandage" being in your head now) to avoid being an accidental racist.
Do The Black Test!
Before you say something, do something, share something, comment about something, or in any way note, comment on, or point out race, say this to yourself: "If it were a black person or black people or black culture I were pointing to, would it be okay to [insert a black equivalent for what you want to do/say]?" If the answer is "no," simply don't do that thing.
Example 1: Johnny has some social clout and he wants to write in a public forum of some sort about a TV show that is about Mexicans. He wants to interject Spanish words periodically in his writing. Hey Johnny, do The Black Test!
Would it be okay if Johnny, when discussing a TV show about black people, were to periodically and intentionally exchange "axe" for "ask" or, taking it even a step further, interject words in an African language – say Zulu for the sake of argument – into his writing?
No. That'd be racist. So Johnny should not do the same when discussing a show about Mexicans. Good catch, Johnny!
Example 2: Brittani will be hosting an event for a high-end art exhibition of Indian-American art, which will be attended by well-dressed fancy people, and she needs to have the party catered. Brittani's idea is to have, instead of typical fancy hors d'oeuvres and canapés, a local Indian buffet cater the event. Hey Brittani, guess what? You should do The Black Test!
Would it be okay for Brittani to have a local fried chicken place cater an exhibition of black American artwork? No. That'd be racist. Nicely caught, Brittani! You remembered that brown people don't want to spill food on their fancy clothes either! I'm proud of you.
Example 3: Kevin is recording a speech about an upcoming cultural fair that will include a night specifically dedicated to celebrating Greek history. That night will include gourmet Gyros made by a world-renowned Greek chef with several Michelin Stars under her belt, which I, for one, am extremely excited about. Unfortunately, Kevin isn't sure how to pronounce the word "Gyro," but the guy in the recording booth says to just take a stab at it and keep moving. Hey Kevin, what do you think you should do?
"Um......... The Black Test?"
Good job, Kevin! Would it be okay for Kevin, when recording a speech about a black culture event, and when confronted with pronouncing the host's name (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to blindly plow forward and say: "Cheh-WEEtle Edge-YO-fur"? Nope. Sure wouldn't. That'd be, say it with me now, racist! Way to use The Black Test, Kevin!
As Americans, we've got, let's face it, a shit history when it comes to racism. Our country was built on it. Our current president is a tweeting embodiment of it. It's been here all along and it's, unfortunately, not going anywhere. However, we've got a slightly better grasp on when we're being racist about black matters than just about any other matter that may come our way (South American, Asian, Native American, etc). So, it's like they say in writing school, use what you know. If you can draw a parallel between a racial predicament in which you find yourself, and a similar predicament that has to do with black American culture, you may just find your way around your potential accidental racism by using The Black Test.
That said, The Black Test isn't foolproof. So what, then, is the best strategy to avoid being an accidental racist? Here's a handy instructional guide broken down into steps:
Step 1: Ask someone of the ethnicity in question A. if they are able and willing to answer a question of a racially sensitive nature, then, if they reply in the affirmative, B. what they would do in your situation (i.e. what type of catering to order, how to pronounce a word or words, whether or not it would be offensive to sprinkle linguistic translations into a piece of text, etc).
Step 2: Take their advice.
And that's it, homies! That's the whole process!
Again, ignorance, by itself, is not a crime. But ignorantly plowing ahead with your well-meaning but likely ill-informed actions or words will, in all likelihood, make you yet another accidental racist. So! Don't be an accidental racist. K, Becky? K? Thanks.
"In West Texas we're known for being strong," said Odessa Mayor David Turner after the September 1st shooting rampage that left seven people dead and twenty-five injured (including a seventeen-month old toddler of whom the mother said, "toddlers are funny because they can get shot but still want to run around and play," [USA Today] a sentence that should not have to be said by anyone ever).
Let's sit with that for a while: "we're known for being strong."
The question is, then: what does it mean to be strong?
Merriam-Webster defines "strong" as: adj. 1. having or marked by great physical power, 2. having moral or intellectual power, 3-12. colors, wind, smells, blah, blah, blah, 13. not easily upset or nauseated.
And there's the rub. We, as a culture, skipped from definition one (which is pretty self-explanatory) to definition thirteen without any heed to definition two: having moral or intellectual power, and it's that thirteenth definition that bothers me, as that's the one that seems to be the root cause of much male–driven strength–talk; i.e. "the strong silent type," "don't be weak," "suck it up, don't cry, be strong."
What makes a man (or woman, or person, or child) strong in our toxically masculine culture then? In my experience, socially speaking, strength is more commonly defined as hurling back an insult when one has been insulted, refusing to back down when confronted by an aggressor regardless of the circumstances, taking what one wants without thought to how it may affect others, aggressively defending the belief that one is right in all contexts and interactions without heeding any evidence to the contrary, or, if those options are unavailable: silently brooding and denying the existence of any "weak" emotions whatsoever (such as fear, sadness, compassion, being wrong, or empathy), allowing only anger to manifest openly. It's not being easily upset or nauseated, right? That sounds like a big, strong man to me.
But we missed the point. That second definition is where we tripped, fell over, rolled down a hill, and smashed our collective American head into the boulder that is definition thirteen.
Strong: adj. 2. having moral or intellectual power.
Moral power is not "I'm right and you're wrong." Moral power is actively engaging in a dialogue with someone with whom you disagree and finding the win-win solution to the problems we collectively face through compromise and empathy for the greater good, rather than focusing solely on your own personal gain. Intellectual power isn't "you're dumb so screw you." It's thinking outside the box, collaborating, and working together to achieve those win-win solutions.
It is not time for us to be "not easily upset or nauseated." It's not time for us to be "strong and silent." It's not time for us to "nut up or shut up" (Zombieland, 2009). It's time for us to be furious and outspoken and loud and distraught and upset and disgusted and, yes, nauseated at the Second Amendment camp and the NRA and our federal and state legislators who are completely "not upset or nauseated" at the gun violence tearing our communities apart. Their concern is not the safety of their constituents; their concern is maintaining their political power, wealth, and influence, and protecting a Constitutional amendment that was enacting shortly after the Revolutionary War (a full-blown domestic conflict with a foreign power, let us remember, which is a vastly different situation than, as the gun rights defense often goes, a bad guy with a gun who needs a good guy with a gun to stop him) and at a time when guns could carry one (I'm'a shout that real quick: ONE) round per firearm and were a pain in the ass to reload (peep that scene in "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) when the protagonists are trying to keep the path clear for a messenger to get through the enemy line).
Sandy Hook Elementary School: 26 dead (20 of them children).
Harvest Music Festival: 58 dead, 422 wounded.
Summer 2019: Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Odessa; 44 dead, 88 wounded.
That list goes on and on and on and doesn't include all the accidental shootings in people's homes, the gang murders, the domestic violence, or the suicides that could all be prevented by removing the one and only common denominator: open access to all firearms.
Now I'm not saying, "ban all guns." And I'm not saying that better mental health services wouldn't make a difference (they would). But there is one – and only one – common denominator in all of these mass shootings.
With all that in mind, if you can look at the faces of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, the toddler playing while the shrapnel wounds in her face slowly heal, and the weeping friends and family members of those who have been senselessly gunned down and say, "I'm not upset or nauseated about gun violence," then yeah, bro, congratulations. You big and strong.
We desperately need to be upset and nauseated. We desperately need to exercise authentic moral and intellectual power. We desperately need to find a win-win and we needed to do it decades ago.
The Internet changed how intellectual property rights work. Streaming services are still changing how our cinematic awards are judged. Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman: Dream Country" changed how the Pulitzer Prize is awarded. Things change.
Guns have evolved so dramatically over the last two centuries give or take that they are nearly unrecognizable from where they started (those 10th or 11th century Chinese hand cannons were a remarkable innovation to be sure), yet some of us hold so strongly (see what I did there?) to the laws of the past that we are unable to move forward as a society at the same pace as our technology.
So let's redefine strength as the moral and intellectual powerhouse it ought to be. Let's cry openly, let's express all of our feelings, let's use our words, and let's find the win-win on this head-bashing-into-a-brick-wall argument over gun control. Or are we too strong for that?
P.S. Here's a tangible way you can help right now: https://everytown.org/donation-information-actblue/
Let's talk about race.
I'm also Scottish, Irish, English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and, if memory serves, like 2% Neanderthal (but that part only expresses itself when I try to talk to women. Sorry about that, women).
I've been called "spic," "wetback," "white boy," "guero," and "asshole" (I earned the last one).
On stage and on screen, I've played Jewish, Mexican, Dominican, Chilean, Puerto Rican, generic white,* Nuyorican, Indian (from India), English, Spanish (with an English accent [because, as we all know, anyone from a time and place other than America Right Now had a modern Received Pronunciation English dialect]), a rat, a raccoon, a plant, and a bunch of other things I can't remember off the top of my head.
I'm brown in the summer, and fair in the winter (and certain parts of me are fair year-round. Again, I'm sorry, women).
So... what am I, then?
Am I Mexican enough to be playing Latino† roles? Am I white enough to be playing white roles? Am I Indian enough to be playing Indian roles?º I speak a little Spanish, but I'm not fluent, though the assumption consistently is that I am, or at least ought to be (insert the stand-alone stage direction: "He mutters something in Spanish"). I grew up in a household without ofrendas or sugar skulls and in which we spoke exclusively English, but my family reunions were filled with mariachis, thousands of hand-made tamales, and tíos y tías hablando en español. And on the flip side, my dad, brother, and I attend the Scottish games every year and hang out in the Clan Mackintosh tent along with other descendants of the same historical bloodline.
So what – I ask again – precisely am I, then?
Here's how I try to look at it:
I'm a sassy-ass straight boy who makes and cracks whips, does stunts, sings tenor (though please, for the love of Dionysus, cast me in some baritone roles once in a while), works out a lot, pretends to be other people for money, occasionally does drag, turns heads at karaoke bars in the Midwest, has a lot of feelings, loves a glass of good whiskey, will go to the mat on behalf of his brother in a heartbeat, has no tolerance for intolerance, can ROCK a moustache, spells "moustache" with a "-u-" and "theatre" with an "-re" because it feels fancy, and also happens to be Mexican, Scottish, Irish, English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and, if memory serves, like 2% Neanderthal (women... I can't express this enough... I'm so sorry).
It's all PART of who I am, but it isn't Who I Am.
So, sorry not sorry; I don't come with an easy-to-read label. I'm not ketchup.§ I'm Andrew Joseph Perez and you don't get to box me in because I'd be easier to comprehend if I were just one thing.
That said, if you're ever nervous when you're talking to – or about – me, or anyone else whose race / identity / whatever you're not sure of, here's the best thing to do:
(I know this is gonna sound crazy, but here it is anyway...)
Now, don't say: "So.......... what....... ARE you?" That's rude. Also don't say: "Where are you [or 'where is your family'] from?" unless you REALLY want to get a sassy retort intended to make you feel exactly as accidentally racist as you're being.
But just ask. "Hey, I'm curious and I want to get this right; what's your ethnic makeup?" or some such.
Race is confusing. And complicated. And it's a sensitive subject, so we've got to be sensitive when approaching and discussing it. People of certain races have been historically and systematically oppressed by people of other races since the dawn of human civilization; we're tribal creatures with a biological imperative to separate the us's from the them's, and, as a result, nowadays, a lot of assumptions get made on both sides of those divides. Sure, there are genetic traits that express themselves consistently throughout generations of homogenous groups, and so those traits can act as indicators that an individual has ancestors that lived in this or that part of the world (Elizabeth Warren knows a lot about this, but I think there are more pressing things to ask her about right now), but at the end of the day, we're all humans and we all have to live here. So before you try to pigeonhole anyone as X or Y, take a second to think about one of my favorite classic jokes, and remember how much it sucks to be known as only one thing out of the myriad things that make you YOU.
Most of the time, when you cry, no one sees your tears...
When you hurt, no one sees your pain...
When you're happy, no one sees your smile...
But you fart just one time...
*For real, though: when do we say "White" and when do we say "white?" This is perplexing to me and I would appreciate assistance.
†Again, the "Latino / Hispanic" thing is a conversation for another post.
**Never "Drew" (except when I was a child dressed as a cowboy, at which time I was referred to exclusively as "Cowboy Drew") nor "Andy" (except by my late grandfather, and the Artistic Director of Capital Stage in Sacramento).
§More on ketchup later, too.
Here I am, one little Ricky surrounded by a pile of Lucys, tapping my little boy heart out.
I loved dance. (You can be sure of that since the competitions my studio entered were named "I Love Dance" and I have a closetful of first-place trophies to prove it.) I was pretty damn good, too.
And then came the bullies and the hormones and the pressure to fit in and be liked. And here's what sucks: they won. I quit. I got chubby. Then I got into swimming and water polo. It took me a few years and a chronic injury to find my way back to theater. But I never got back to dance.
I didn't have the strength to do it all; to stand up against the rest of the world who all pointed and laughed and keep dancing anyway. I couldn't do it. And it is genuinely one of the biggest, if not the single biggest regret I carry.
There's a line that Stanley Tucci has in "Shall We Dance?" that goes: "A straight man who likes to dance around in sequins walks a very lonely road." That line burned itself into my memory the first time I heard it. Because it me.
Or rather, it was. And I miss it. And I regret letting the bullies win.
So, Lara Spencer, your meager apology is too late and too little (and are you joking with the stock photo?). DO something to make amends. Volunteer at a dance competition... Work for an anti-bullying campaign... I don't know what, but you need to DO something. Because some little boy somewhere out there just threw out his ballet shoes because of you.
I was washing a dish while my coffee was brewing, and the [72-year-old gay white] man I live with was bemoaning the myriad red Solo cups that had been left on the sidewalk in front of our house following a party that our [Mexican] neighbors had thrown (side note: these neighbors are, truly, unbelievably dismissive and obnoxious. They're the ones on whom I've had to call the cops multiple times after repeated attempts to get them to shut their parties down at, for example, 2am on a Tuesday). We spoke of something pertaining to people's nonchalance when it comes to littering, at which point he shrugged and said, "Well, it's cultural."
I put my dish down, my espresso machine continued to steam, I picked up the towel, began to dry my hands and explained:
"No. It's not cultural. It's an endemic failure on the part of our educational system in this country. At a predominantly white, affluent school, children will be taught how litter adversely affects the water cycle, the animals in the oceans, and, inevitably, us. However, at a predominantly Hispanic or black* school in an impoverished area, the lack of funding and resources mean that the teachers can barely cover the required material to get the kids into the next grade, let alone something like waste management or storm water pollution. As awful an experience as I had with my environmental protection school show, I have been to nearly every elementary school campus in LA County, and I consistently observed that not even the teachers in poorer schools knew the material we would cover about litter and pollution, whereas at nearly every affluent charter school, the student body was predominantly white and/or Jewish and, with shocking frequency, they had not only separate bins for trash, recycling, and compost, but on-campus organic vegetable gardens and student-run environmental protection groups.
"It's not cultural. Mexicans are very clean people. It's economic oppression and systematic social segregation by means of inherited ignorance."
He said, "Oh."
Then I had my coffee.
P.S. That said, I have also been informed this morning that I am "everything that's wrong with the world" by an Instagram troll after I commented my displeasure regarding a derisive video — taken and posted without consent – which featured a teenage boy misusing a BOB Training Dummy — posted by a martial arts account I generally enjoy, so what do I know? (The video has since been removed.)
A. Help me out here, please. When do we capitalize "White" and "Black?" Microsoft Word is adamant about "Latino," "Hispanic," "Asian," and others, but... help.
B. The "What Do I Call You?" conversation about people who are generically from Spain, Central and South America, and/or Mexico, and who the asker wishes to lump together with the others, is one we can have at another time.