When Sean Penn announced the best picture Oscar by saying,
“Who gave this son-of-a-bitch his green card,” my instant reaction was one of revulsion.
But of course, it had more to do with the things I have heard directed at me as a Mexican-American than it had to do with Sean Penn’s infantile sense of humor. It was, in essence, a moment of resentment.
The next day I posted my disgust with his crass statement on Facebook, and a lot of my white friends commented that “It was just a joke,” and “They are close friends.”
That still doesn’t lessen the sting of a statement that highlights white privilege in the worst way, and adding to the pain is the realization that the white people uttering those sentiments see nothing wrong about it.
“I’m only joking!”
Why does mention of the man’s race and immigration status have to be important?
When I was younger and less enlightened, I took great pleasure in the failures of others, and it was a great joke to me. As I’ve aged and matured I realize that the pain of others is nothing to laugh at, I’ve learned a little bit of compassion.
I used to like to put people down; in anyway I could. It was mostly because of all the put-downs I’d endured.
The victim becomes the bully in the right circumstance, and it is a self-perpetuating cycle of viciousness. This in turn leads to the low-self esteem of minorities, who in turn lash out at the perceived oppressors, i.e., white people, in any way they can.
In the bigger picture, on a worldwide scale, the horrors of ISIS and ISIL are based on their feelings of lack of respect from the western (read Judeo-Christian) powers. They are essentially saying, “We matter too.” Where does it end?
And before Rudy Giuliani condemns me for apologizing for the western powers I have to say that what ISIS and ISIL do is beyond horror, it’s inhuman.
But the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was inhuman. Not murderous like ISIS or ISIL, but inhuman nevertheless. Again, the victim becomes the bully.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of black and white movies from the ‘30s, and a pronouncement I heard more than once from a character on the screen was, “I’m free, white, and twenty-one.” And I knew instantly that when I reached the age of twenty-one I wouldn’t be uttering that statement of total self-control.
I also heard a lot from working with white men (and the occasional woman)
“Do I look like a n—-r to you?” When I asked them to do something.
The world has changed a lot, but the message is still there, subliminally, “We are up here and you are down there,” and until that changes there will continue to be resentment, strife, and war throughout the world.
In response to the people who said it was just a joke, don’t be so sensitive, I say; I’ve heard stuff like this all of my life. The most recent example was a couple of years ago. I’d been in the U.K. and when I came home I answered an email from a white friend of mine.
“I was in England, I don’t know what happened,” I replied in response to something he’d asked.
“Oh, they let you back into the country?” Was how he prefaced his reply. I’m sure he though it was hilarious, but to me it was just another example of “We are up here and you are down there.”
I’ve always ignored statements like that because I needed the job, or needed to stay in someone’s good graces, but inside I seethed.
Chevy Chase would open his SNL Weekend Update segment with,
“I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” It’s actually pretty funny, but it brings into focus the privilege some folks feel about their race. I just hope enough of those folks start using that privilege in a more responsible way. Then maybe we can all start being equal.