Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hips Don't Lie... But They Do Suck

Okay, so I caught a minor amount of crap from friends and readers for my little tirade against MySpace.

Thankfully, the contrived outrage wasn't directed at my opinion of the website itself or its evil creator, Tom -- had it been, I would've ignored it completely -- but moreso at my supposedly inhumane treatment of an old high school friend. You'll remember his name was Carlos and that I ran into him at my ten year high school reunion. You'll also remember that I took the position that his willingness to state without so much as a hint of shame or irony that he was still an avid follower of our current high school football team constituted a, shall we say, lack of personal growth on his part. I believe my exact words were, "get a goddamned life."

Well, a few people took offense to this. Through comment, e-mail and personal interaction, they were kind enough to once again remind me that I'm an arrogant, unappreciative asshole. I can deal with this. My usual reaction to statements like these is to simply raise my eyebrows, nod and smirk a little -- my face conveying something between pitiful recognition and accepted helplessness.

But I also got called a racist and a bigot by a couple of people.

I can only assume this is because Carlos's name would lead one to rightly conclude that he's Hispanic.

My first thought was to respond to the accusations with a couple of Mexican jokes, but that's only because I really am kind of a jerk. Instead, though, I got to thinking about the taboo subject of race and ethnicity in this country. I say taboo because even though we pretend to talk about prejudice, it seems like we never really do. It's the one subject that's truly too delicate to handle with anything but kid gloves. What we get instead are half-hearted platitudes from some, and self-righteous bloviation from others. There's so much rhetoric on both sides of the debate that after awhile it seems as if there's no debate at all.

So in the spirit of increased understanding, I'm just going to say what's on my mind:

I really fucking hate that Shakira song, "Hips Don't Lie," and I think it's kind of racist.

I'll explain why in a second; first, let me go ahead and address the whole Carlos thing. I can't help but think that a good number of the people who criticized my comments about him did so because they made instant judgments about the respective quality of his life and mine growing up. I'm also betting that these judgments were, for lack of a better word, racist. Being that I now live in Manhattan and work in television, they no doubt assumed that I led a charmed life growing up. Being that Carlos may still be working with his dad tiling floors, they no doubt also assumed that he spent his childhood eating Alpo. The funny thing is, no one would be willing to admit it but I have a sneaking suspicion that part of that false assumption comes solely from the impression of Carlos as a downtrodden, undereducated minority -- a victim who needs to be defended in the face of the affluent white prick. And people call me liberal.

The reality, of course, couldn't be further from the scenario I just described. I'm from Miami, and for those who've never been lucky enough to visit the place where all the crap in America flows to, let me clue you in: Cuban-Americans own and operate the city, top to bottom. Carlos isn't a minority. Not by a fucking long shot. He came from an upper-middle class family who set down roots in Hialeah years ago and have found their fortune in this country. His father ran, and probably still runs, a very successful business of his own. His mother was a real-estate agent. Like anyone in Miami over the age of 60, His grandfather sat around bitching about the bearded devil 200 miles to the south and waxing nostalgic about the beauty of Cuba before the revolution -- he also kicked my car when I parked on the lawn, the fucker. The fact is, Carlos's life as a teenager was as good as mine, if not better. Truth be told, that's why I had a problem with him spending his adulthood sitting on his ass in Miami watching Pace High football. He talked about going places. He had every resource and opportunity, and yet took none; proof that the small-town "I'll get out of here someday" mentality, mixed with complete emotional stasis exists, even in a big city.

I find it funny, though, that some people assumed otherwise about him -- and I know they did. I think that's what my mother used to refer to as "judging a book by its cover."

Something you should know about me: I believe that there's value in judging a book by its cover. There's a calculated reason that the cover of a book looks the way it does. It's there to give readers an idea of what's inside -- to be a logical and natural extension of its contents. If you see a book cover with a handgun and a target on it, with Washington DC in the background -- it's probably safe to assume that the story inside involves suspense and intrigue. If you see a picture of Fabio, you gotta figure the book's a romance. If you see the name Greg Behrendt and the words "He's Just Not That Into You," you know it's ridiculous and cynical crap written by an unfunny hack and churned out for really fucking stupid women. Fact is, though, there are elements of your personal "cover" which can't be changed. Your race can't be changed (unless you're Michael Jackson). Your age can't be adjusted (unless you're Joan Rivers). Your physical characteristics generally are what they are. A person should never be judged on these things.

But if you're black, you can choose to dress like a hip-hop thug. If you're a young girl, you can choose to wear tiny skirts, a bellybutton-ring and midriff-bearing tops. Guess what, though -- if you make choices like these, you forfeit the right to bitch when people make natural assumptions about who you are as a person. I'm not saying it's fair. In a perfect world, maybe everyone would be so fully actualized that there would be no prejudice. But you're not living in a perfect world, and ignoring the fact that there are certain consequences to the image you choose to project is just irresponsible and goddamned stupid.

Case in point: I have tattoos. Several. I don't pitch a fit when some people think I'm some kind of serial killer. I don't call them ignorant for not being able to see through to the "real me." I knew what I was signing-on for when I got the things. I accept the consequences of my actions. Maybe I'll prove to them that guys with tattoos are actually quite nice.

Okay, I'm back now after taking a five minute laugh break.

Another thing I've come to believe -- though I try not to prejudge based on race or ethnicity -- is that stereotypes exist for a reason, and that many of them are true. Not across the board, of course. But there's a reason they became stereotypes. No one woke up one morning and said, "From now on, I'm gonna think of all Italian guys as track-suit and gold-chain wearing, pasta-eating, Vitalis-using, bad-suit owning, Mafia capos." Post hoc ergo propter hoc, folks. The reality was there before the image. It created it, and some could easily argue that it now perpetuates it, creating an endless cycle that eventually turns stereotype into archetype. Incidentally, I'm Italian. I know plenty of people who fit the aforementioned description perfectly. Somewhere along the line, there were enough Jews who were thrifty, enough blacks who enjoyed fried chicken and enough Russian women who gave really great hand-jobs at Midtown bars -- wait, that's not well known?

Which finally brings me back to Shakira and her God-awful song. I knew I could somehow pull that off.

I realize that I just said that stereotypes exist for a reason, but I also know that most of society frowns on them, regardless. So why in the hell doesn't somebody complain that just about every Latin "Singing Sensation" tries to perpetuate the idea that Hispanics don't give a shit about music unless they can shake their asses to it? Isn't that mildly offensive? Shakira's a gorgeous woman, with a great voice. She's also made some really decent music. But her new song once again seems to remind the masses that Latinos and Latinas only value music in proportion to how well they can dance to it. Maybe it's just that I did actually grow up in Miami, which means that I still have post-traumatic stress disorder whenever I hear Miami Sound Machine, but I have to think that somewhere out there, there's a group of sad, rhythm-deficient Hispanics who feel the same way about this that Asians with no math skills feel about that particular stereotype.

Oh, and, add Wyclef Jean to the mix and you literally have the worst song in the history of recorded music.

Anyway, the true test of this post -- this airing of my opinion, free of any intended offense or venom -- will be the reaction. What will I be called this time?

I guess I shouldn't get into what I think about the idea of using the term "The N Word" in discussions about racism instead of just saying the actual word itself. So much for being adults.

Like I said, kid gloves.


musashi270 said...

Yes, I have to agree with you; stereotypes do exist for a reason. The problem in this country currently is that people don't understand it doesn't work to apply one to an individual but is usually dead-on for a group. This is particularly true in the inverse. Some image will be in the mass media that shows someone engaging in an identifiable behavior (Eating chicken, pinching pennies, killing babies, whatever). Immediately this will be denounced by someone feeling that it is unfair to the group which is recognized by the behavior. They never see the irony in this. At least it is usually good theater when they have an opposing view on at the same time.

alicia said...

Agreed. If there were no underlying tensions between social groups, there would be no nervous titters over these generalizations.

PC language is another way this shows up. There's nothing wrong with describing someone whose brain didn't develop correctly as retarded; that's what retarded means in the strict sense. But we're embarrassed for those poor little retardeds, so we try to dress their condition up in nice language. And as soon as "mentally handicapped" starts to take a stigma, we have to come up with new polite wording, to let people know we really do think they're ok, even though, well, you know. And the language cycle is even shorter when you're describing race.

Worst case I ever saw: some woman on public access TV saying the phrase "wheelchair bound" offended her, because it was her wheelchair that gave her freedom. Sorry, lady, but your legs don't fucking work, and you're stuck in that chair; that makes you wheelchair bound. I feel no need to apologize to you for who you are. If anything, you should thank me.

Jayne said...

Alicia, that's really funny that you said that, because I can't tell you how many times I've seen Chez get into an argument at a party over that same thing.
One time involved a very sweet girl saying "There's nothing that you can do that a blind person can't!" and Chez responded- "yes there is- can they see?!?"

alicia said...

Niceness 1, Intelligence 0.

Sarah said...

Chez, I now realize I was wrong when I thought we would never agree on anything...

Anonymous said...

WoW, enough said. thought i was the only one who thought that way. good way of putting the book by the cover thing. i mean its not a sterotype when they are fitting it exactly.