Dressing Up / Dressing Down

This week a photo popped up from the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam of two White classmates – one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes.

Gov. Northam initially said he was one of the young men in the picture, then quickly recanted and said he was mistaken. Then in a Saturday press conference he apologized anyway, noting the photo was offensive and racist but adding he himself had not looked at the yearbook in more than 30 years and that his memory was not entirely clear.

He then further added, or rather admitted, that the very same year – 1984 – he did indeed do blackface as Michael Jackson when he entered a dance contest in San Antonio.  The governor, a medical school graduate whose yearbook nickname was Coon Man, was 25 years old at the time.

So. Many. Questions.

There have been many calls for the governor to step down but as of now he refuses, stating: I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me to duck the responsibility to reconcile.  Coincidentally, his lieutenant governor, the person who would replace him, is Justin Fairfax, a Black man.  Both are Democrats.

Racist actions, racist jokes, and racism generally have no party affiliation, class distinction or sexual persuasion.  On the other hand, given Electoral College POTUS’s statement of “…you had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. eighteen months ago and the proliferation of hate crimes across the country since by various white people shouting or wearing hats trumpeting Trump’s Republican clarion call of Make America Great Again, it is hard not to see this as otherwise.

That boy’s smirk will forever be imprinted on my brain

This is particularly true when one watches news footage of the Charlottesville rally and takes in the anti-Semitic taunts (Jews will not replace us!), the proliferation of White males wielding torches, some in hoods and robes, and the death of one young woman there to protest these actions that was mowed down and murdered by a car driven through the crowd by one of those supremacists.

It almost makes you long for the days of Gov. Northam’s blackface.

Well, almost.

Definitely #TooSoon

Speaking of the mid-1980’s, here’s a story:

Around that time, I was invited to a Halloween party.  I was close to Gov. Northam’s age and as such was also a bit enamored with performers whose look and talents I admired but could never measure up to in real life.

As an out gay guy I longed to do something outrageous but I was not yet ready to dress up as Liza Minnelli.  Still, my sister had left her black sequined blazer in my hall closet and somehow I had asked her if it was okay to use it to play dress up.  Being who she was (and I was), the answer was an immediate and overenthusiastic YES!!!!!!

You know I would have slayed

But who to go as??  Sorry, Liza was (still) out because I was not THAT out.  Yet.  Though I’m not even sure I’m that out now, which I suppose is its own kind of self-loathing.  But I was determined to use the jacket because, well, it was so, so… faaaabulous.

Wait, I have it, I thought.  I’ll do….

BILLY PRESTON!!!

This was a very versatile jacket

Who?????, you millennials might say?  Well, Billy Preston was a big pop star in the seventies and eighties that toured with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Little Richard, and had a series of hit records that included Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles and a duet with Syreeta Wright called With You (I’m Born Again).

Better yet, he wore sparkly jackets as loud and even louder than the one in my closet, had great hair (as I did at the time) was about my height and even rumored to be…gay!!!!

It was a no brainer.  I was going to be Billy.

Um, this story is making us nervous, Chairy.

So being the gay that I am I did several pre-rehearsals of the outfit days before with the jacket.  Only to get just the right pants, shirt and glasses to go with it. (Ahem) I gotta admit, it was pretty good.  But something was not quite right.  Hmmm.  Well, maybe….the hair.

Billy Preston not only had good hair but was known for BIG hair.  I mean, HUUUUUUGE.  Like a ginormous Afro.  I felt a little uncomfortable but this was my one chance to be comfortable being a little flamboyant.  So I went to a costume store on Hollywood Boulevard and bought the biggest and cheapest Afro wig I could find.  When I got home and put it on I gotta admit (once again), it and I looked….fabulous.

OK well, not AS GOOD as Billy

Still, on the night of the party, and me being the insecure gay that I was, um, am, I  began thinking, I could do better.  Looking in the mirror I saw this was really good but in my heart of hearts I knew this COULD BE….great!!!!

There was one basic physical difference between Billy and I, aside from our fingers’ ability to glide across the piano keys from one end to the other and, who was I kidding, it had to do with skin color.  I bent down in the closet, below the full-length mirror, and opened a wooden box I kept inside with a carving of the insole of a shoe and spied a cornucopia of POLISH.  Black, brown, taupe, white…No, it absolutely had to be Black!!!

And then….I STOPPED.

Um, Chair (Note: Not my name at the time but I’ve changed it to protect the guilty), what the hell are you doing???  Are you kidding???  You can’t!!!!

AHHHHH!!

Still, I longed to go that extra yard, to make that difference.  To be fabulous.  And really, who would know?  Just a handful of people at that party.

As I reached for the polish it was like the ghosts of every Black performer and person I ever knew slapped my hand down and gave me the stink eye.

I don’t think so, they collectively warned.  You will NOT have that thrill.  You CANNOT use this to get yourself off for five minutes and call it a day.  You WILL not.

Oh thank god #relieved

And so, I quickly closed the box, shamed I had ever thought about it.  More than 30 years later I am ashamed, to this day.  Only now I am actually appalled, so appalled I hesitated to recount this story.

We are all flawed and we ALL have our prejudices.  Some are right out there, some are just below the surface and others are so deeply engrained that we still fail to this day, to even recognize them, much less cop to them.

But here’s the bottom line to the Northam argument:

You can have murderous thoughts – we all do from time to time in our lives.  But that doesn’t make you a murderer.

This is helping me process Zac Efron as Ted Bundy.. keep going

You can also have racist instincts, sexist desires or homophobic leanings, but this will not make you any of those isms.  Unless you ACT OUT on them.

And the good news is that even if you do ACT OUT there is hope.  You can admit what you’ve done, take your lumps and chastisement, work to do better, go out of your way to make amends, and then remind yourself many times over in perpetuity that you will always NEED to do better in this area, and then pass on that message to others.

What makes you guilty, and one of the ISMS, is when you mumble and gurgle and squirm, twisting yourself into an amnesiac pretzel, all in the name of self-preservation.

Bye Gurl. Bye Boi.

If we’re to survive as a country of honest to goodness humans (Note: And so far the jury is out), we all need to rip the Band-Aid off and take our medicine before the collective We can get any better.

This doesn’t make me of any one of the rest of us much better than the Electoral College POTUS or Gov. Northam.  Just more evolved and self-aware than we were when this all started.  Which is at least a start in itself.

Billy Preston – “Nothing from Nothing”

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Don’t Other-ize Me, Bro!

There is a moment in Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman where a Jewish police detective, who has gone undercover as a KKK member, laments being put in this position by his Black counterpart.  It’s as if he’s forgotten (or never fully understood) the Ku Klux Klan were not only rabidly anti-Black segregationists but also virulently, and quite openly, anti-Semitic.

I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be, says the character played by Adam Driver.  No Jewish rituals, no deep education about Jewish history, not even a bar mitzvah.  I was just another white kid.

Exactly.

Did someone say bar mitzvah?

Suddenly, and much to his chagrin, he’d been OTHER-IZED.

Somehow a movie set in the early 1970s has managed to become the most timely filmic statement now out there about Trumpism.  Based on the 2014 memoir of real-life Black police officer Ron Stallowrth, it tells the story of how Ron made phone contact with the KKK, pretending to be an eager acolyte, and worked with his White counterpart, Flip Zimmerman, to pose as his physical self while in their presence.

Two Ron Stallworths.

Part comedy, part drama and many parts many other things, it tells not only a racial story but speaks to the type of numbness all of us can fall into when traveling in circles where THEY are in the majority and WE are just the unwanted, or at least unfamiliar, INTERLOPERS.

To be OTHER-IZED is not a choice so much as it is a condition of where you live, where you travel and overall what you choose to do or need to do with your time.  A room full of jocks of many races can OTHER-IZE the lily Whitest of nerds just as a gaggle of snow White Hollywood BROs in power can OTHER-IZE any Brown-skinned woman of color – or any FEMALE of ANY color for that matter – who may be twice as smart and/or talented as any one of them.

Or all of them if you’re Oprah.

Gurl, you got that right. #badassbish

We are all nothing if not multi-tribal, depending on where we live, how much we make or what we do for a living.  The one tribe that trumped (Note: Ahem) all in the U.S. used to be American, but what being a REAL AMERICAN is seems to be quite up in the air these days.

In actuality, it seems to depend on which other TRIBE you belong to – or at least choose to identify with.  And with that comes a full handbook on who one needs to OTHER-IZE.

Yes.

The fact is, it is no longer feasible to be a part of ANY TRIBE where SOMEONE is not generally THE OTHER.

Right, that’s what it is Gretchen. #dontotherizeme

We here in the Southern Californian #Resistance headquarters seriously distrust Trump voters of all stripes – and that’s the best case scenario of when we’re not foaming at the mouth angry at what we see as the nasty, racist…well, so many things I can no longer count… those voters have allowed.

On the other hand, Trump voters all over the country call us snowflakes, and at best see us as weak and anti-working class – or so I’m told from the few of them that I can still bear to talk to.  At their worst, well they prove the very points we’re trying to make, probably daily, about them, though I’m sure they’d put it quite differently and probably a lot less delicately if I gave them the chance.  Which I’m not any longer.

I’m done.

The funny part is there are Black, White, Jewish, Hispanic, LGBT, straight, poor AND rich members on BOTH SIDES.  In that sense, we’re all getting OTHER-IZED daily, and perhaps hourly, by somebody, and often in ways we don’t know about as we go about our day.

Of course, there are times when we do realize we are being cast as THE OTHER, and it is at these moments we are faced with THE CHOICE.

I’m trying my best Jamie Lee!!!

Ah yes, you do have any number of CHOICES when you realize you’re the only _________ in the room – or at least woefully outnumbered, discredited or discounted in that person or group’s mind/think about those in YOUR TRIBE, depending on your looks, skin color or affect.  They are:

  1. BLEND – This is the easiest or hardest of the options depending on your denial system, how much therapy you’ve had, or both. Am I GAY????  Not a chance, I hate musicals and I have season tickets to The Lakers/Knicks/Eagles/_______.   Jewish?  Whatever gave you that idea, I don’t like those _______s any more than you do.

I was born in the 90s! I swear!

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny you’re Black if you are very dark-skinned or pretend you’re not poor if you are three months late on the rent and about to be evicted.   Though even in the latter case of ZERO money, there’s always the chance that person is just being…irresponsible.  #AreYouWokeYet?

  1. HIDE – This is not a pleasant alternative but there are advantages to just going along and being an under-the-radar, quiet part of a group. In my younger days I’ve heard straight guy locker room talk about women that offended me to the bone, not to mention bitchy talk among my gay brothers about lesbians that I should have stamped my feet more adamantly about. Yet too many times in my teen and early twenties I did neither.

Sadly, most of us are not always up for a FIGHT, especially when we have the luxury to sit behind the tallest person in class and go unnoticed.  At least metaphorically. I, for one, have also spent time with one or two Republicans I admit to have gleefully watched squirm at Southern California dinner parties rather than blow their cover to the other guests in the room.  Sure, I told myself it wasn’t my place to say or do anything to help them but these days I realize my sadistic inner self rather enjoyed OTHER-IZING them far more, in secret hopes that this would somehow wake them to their senses.

You tell ’em Cher!

  1. DENYOh, he can’t be a sexual harasser. My roommate told me he had a torrid affair with Mary Jane and she would never put up with someone like that.  And no, just because she’s from Paris and her visa expired and he’s an American citizen doesn’t mean she’s tolerating it or pretending they’re an item.  Please.  Besides which, she’s NOT marrying him for her green card to be with her lesbian lover!  Come on!!

Okay, perhaps the last example is a bit fanciful.  But it is possible to be into vintage and thrift stores and old school tech because you want to seem cool when you’re searching for work.  In the same way you can DENY you are RACIST by producing one of two Black co-workers or acquaintances of color even though there are dozens more who heard you use the N word when they were in the room.  And no, just because a videotape of that has yet to be produced doesn’t make it any less so.  Or mean that when it is it was somehow doctored. #ApprehensiveApprenticeTapePart1

Oh jesus, does this mean more Tom Arnold??? #HELP

  1. FACE THE MUSIC – The best alternative because even if you hide, blend and deny most effectively you will NEVER prevent EVERY single ONE of THEM from seeing YOU as something OTHER than THEY are. Implicit in this is that to some people you will ALWAYS be INFERIOR. And that’s in any version of the perfect world that is viable at this moment in time.

Yes, it’s easy to advise be yourself when YOU yourself don’t run the risk of being killed, permanently maimed or beaten up for doing just that.   But the way we’re going soon there will be nowhere for any of US to hide in certain circumstances. That is a condition that will be inevitable for pretty much ALL OF US at some point in our new GLOBAL REALITY.  #ThisISUs.

Meaning blending in, denying or hiding behind HATE simply won’t cut it anymore, if it ever did.  That is unless we want to live out the rest of our days as petulant junior high schoolers playing an eternal game of spin the bottle where we kiss the same people for all the wrong reasons in one unsatisfyingly long loop of endless hell.

“Too Late To Turn Back Now” – Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose (from the soundtrack of BlackkKlansman)