Do you remember the controversial 1967 Columbia Pictures movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Portier, and Katharine Houghton? This was a terrific movie that turned racism into an enduring, time-honored love story. Each family, each race, had something to learn about the other—turning a negative into a positive.
Why are we still at odds about our differences a half century later?
This awe-inspiring film reminded me of a friend of mine—a black man—who was married to a lovely white Jewish girl in the early 1950s. They bought a home in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District in 1953, which is where he continues to live today. The demographics of the neighborhood has changed considerably since.
If you remember America in the early 1950s, you will remember racial tensions at the time. Marvin received death threats from her family. Neighbors shunned him and took a very dim view of her. They hated him, yet they had no idea who he was. They only knew he was black. She was wholly and completely committed to him. So much so that she said goodbye to her family forever. Marvin and Helene were deeply in love with one another. All they wanted was to be together and live in peace. Sadly, she died from breast cancer, ironically, in 1967 when this movie was made.
My buddy is 87 these days and in poor health. He never remarried.
When I consider this one interracial couple story, I think of how far we’ve come since the mid-20th century – or have we? I am troubled by the ongoing discussion about race because we still haven’t come to accept our differences and live together peacefully. Race is that 800-pound gorilla in the living room Americans have been uncomfortable discussing for the better part of our post-war lifetime. Question is—why did race ever need to be discussed in the first place? What makes humans so uncomfortable with the physical and cultural differences that exist in one another?
What shakes us to the core about our differences? Because humans are uncomfortable with anything or anyone who is different than we are. If I speak English and you speak Spanish, German or French, that makes us uncomfortable. We perceive ignorance in one another because we don’t speak the same language. In truth, we speak different languages and that’s all it is. Think of it as Apple versus IBM PC—a failure to communicate and interface.
Race is all about perception—what we believe each other is whether it is true or not. There was a day when whites believed blacks could never make it in baseball. Or, a day when it was believed a black man would never be president and live in The White House.
It was the election of Barack Obama in 2008 that surfaced our decidedly ugly racism like sewage rising out of the muddy soil. Whites looked at President Obama with a raised eyebrow. There were whites who just couldn’t live with the idea of a black man in The White House while proclaiming some their closest friends were black and their criticism of the man wasn’t racism at all. Racism, which was never really discussed in a post war America, has become a topic of conversation again a half-century later.
Because we still haven’t come to terms with our differences.
Instead of discussing race, perhaps it is time to walk the walk. What about peaceful interaction without extensive discussion and judgement? Is it not possible to just view one another as Americans – human beings – without thinking of skin pigmentation?
What about that?