By Jason Hamlin, courtesy Let’s Talk Peritoneal Dialysis!
When I was at the University of Missouri I had a work-study job. My first placement was right smack in the middle of the newsroom at the Missourian, the school-run, regionally-distributed daily newspaper. I was researching and copying giant cassette tapes. My workspace was bright and in the center of all the action — there in the newsroom.
Like HBO and stuff.
It was a great gig. So, of course, I hated my boss and could not, at the cantankerous age of 18, manage to be nice.
Like HBO and stuff!
I was transfered within the first week — out of the action and into a dark basement office antithetical to the college experience. Through tiny windows I could see the feet of coeds as they walked by in the Missouri sun.
My new task was filing. I had just left a prestigious summer-intern gig at People Magazine in Los Angeles and now I was in a subterranean concrete box filing things away in mostly-alphabetical order. In truth, what I did most days at People Magazine was file, so … anyway.
My new, preferable work-study boss was Russ.
Russ was a grad student. Russ had a bong at his house. I learned to like Russ.
We hung out and watched David Letterman, munching crab rangoon. He eventually moved to someplace in Africa, on tour with the Peace Corps — still lives there today, owns a bar and ain’t never coming back. Russ’s boss was a journalist named Steve. He was, by reputation, one of the premier journalism professors in the nation. Steve was, in my view, a freakin’ hippy. I like hippies and I think my parents are hippies, too, so no offense to hippies everywhere, but you can be a hippy or you can commit and be a freakin’ hippie. Steve was a freakin’ hippie.
Steve, Russ and I worked together at I.R.E., or Investigative Reporters and Editors. I.R.E. was the place to gather information about investigative reporting. All the big news organizations had memberships, all the big names in reporting. Shit, the hard-hitting Geraldo Rivera was a member and even spoke a keynote at the annual IRE conference that year.
Geraldo was staying in the penthouse suite at the Marriot on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. At Geraldo’s open house party, one night of the conference, I shook his hand — everybody wanted to … you would have. Whatever, he was big deal that night.
Geraldo Rivera shakes hands in a very creepy way.
As I write this, the memory of his limpish hand in mine gives me a little chill down my spine. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with why my daughter isn’t Chinese, but I thought you should know.
In the IRE basement space there was a small transistor radio just next to the front door. Like most offices, the agreed-upon station was nothing anybody really wanted to listen to, but nothing anybody hated. Ubiquitous hits of the eras. Steve, the genius journalist and freakin’ hippy would often stop to listen as he passed in and out of our area; his office across the hall. For this, at least, I loved Steve. His commitment to music seemed like complete freedom, his soul would fill when he heard songs of the 60s — I could see his heart swell with the music he loved. I similarly convene with my music; get carried away to a place no other human shares with me … for a moment. I guess we all do, really. Music is like that.
There’s a certain part of a famous song. I know you know the part, so I’ll be brief — everybody knows the part. It’s that two-guitar solo in Hotel California when Don Felder and Joe Walsh harmonize their instruments. In triplets! It’s one of the most amazing guitar solos in the history of rock — you can argue The Eagles’ talent or pop sensibilities, but nine out of ten guitarists eventually admit the final minute of Hotel California is a brilliant piece of composition. Today, I recognize what Hotel California means politically and socially.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for way too many years now and can plainly attest: you can check out, but you can never leave.
At the time, though, I was far more interested in U2 and felt awkward and contrary when I heard what I perceived as hippy music.
This song came on the station and, in a magical moment, Steve stopped to listen to this solo. He leaned over the tiny radio, gently moved the antennaever so slightly, to make certain there’d be no interference, and fell hopelessly into this song. We all watched: he was clueless to the audience. Like all college students, our first reaction was laughter — you know, here was this super serious dude who was a boss to us all, being human. We certainly couldn’t admit feelings of love or admiration in public, so we made fun instead. Steve was a believer in music and freedom and investigating the hidden parts of our culture. Passionate beyond compare. Compassionate in every way. Eventually, the jocularity disappeared from the room and we all just watched silently.
He just stood there for the whole solo, rocking back and forth, air-guitaring and singing the notes from the guitars. It was magical. From that moment on, I respected Steve in a new way. His display of passion for music allowed me to understand his passion for journalism. I learned to actually study what I was filing away. I became proud to be working at this institution of freedom. Really that’s what IRE was, a place which existed to protect freedom. And I worked there. Cool.
Aside: You’re, like, dude when are we getting to the Chinese part? I’m all, relax, we’ll, like, get there when we get there.
In his spaced-out moment, Steve carelessly left behind a piece of paper next to the radio. After he shuffled off, still singing along, I picked it up. It was a two-column document.
On one side of the page was a common name for people of color or nationality. Each nationality had a derogatory example and a new, accepted title. For the sake of this essay, we’ll go with the example:
Honky = Caucasian
You can just imagine some of the other examples, I can’t bring myself to name them. I took the list and absorbed it. I had no idea why this document existed. What was it called? What was this about? I gotta know what I’m supposed to say when I see a honky.
By today’s standards, the column on the left contained words most of us wouldn’t even say, let alone write down. And in an ironic twist, most of us wouldn’t dare utter some of the titles in the right hand column, either — we would not use this approved language. It was a complicated, politically-charged piece of paper.
As I understood it, Steve wrote this document. Freedom Steve. Hippy Steve. White, upper-class, important professor at a prestigious university Steve. His task was not easy, I’m sure, but the journalist community, at the time, needed to know the right things to say. Political Correctness had landed, its words were being created, right here in the basement. And, boy, did I fall for it.
I spent many of my college days referencing this list, which I stole from Steve — he never would have remembered where he put it anyway, his brain awash with dueling guitars. I reminded my friends of, nay even scolded them about, the proper name use for each nationality and race. Self-righteous and armed with a document, I was probably a real goddamn pain in the ass.
With time though, Political Correctness turned out to seemingly be more like a burden than anything really useful.
I guess people don’t just dislike being labeled properly, they don’t like labels at all, really.
The meaning may have been altruistic, but the execution was clumsy. I hope any new document allows people to decide for themselves what they’d like to be called, at least in theory. It’s far from settled, of course. We still struggle with things like African American vs. Black or Hispanic vs. Mexican, but our culture has mostly rejected the notion of Political Correctness. Rightfully so, in my opinion. It was irritating and presumptuous.
Plus, it now occurs to me, those two words together are just plain upsetting. I’m no fan of Politics, really — not right now, anyway, many aren’t — and being correct seems a near impossibility. There’s no social correct anymore. There’s a bunch of rights and wrongs, blacks and whites, but when it comes to personal issues in America, there’s no correct. Just Political. Ugh.
I’m no fan of disposable income either. Not as a phrase nor an accepted condition. If you’re disposing your income, something is wrong. This, however, is fodder for another occassion.
Steve was brave to tackle this hot issue in the way he did. He wrote down what others could barely discuss. The combination of the freedom of guitar and the bravery of an editor stuck in my head — together — for eternity. My sensitivity to labels is tremendous, to the point of self-oppression at times. Don’t say that, you might offend someone. But I attempt not to assume anyone’s preferences. It is something I always think about now; it’s part of my makeup. Because of a piece of paper and a song. Cool.
None of the kids at my daughter’s kindergarten class have any idea who The Eagles were, let alone what Politically Correct means.
We are a painfully white family.
Our heritage comes from places, at least for most of history, devoid of color: Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland. My girls are both mostly blondes, their skin is milky. We use sunscreen. Violet, my younger, in Kindergarten, is a beautiful child with all those things magazines say women want in their appearance. She’s blonde, blue-eyed and has a little button nose. She goes to a school on Melrose Avenue here in Hollywood.
Think Melrose Place on TV, but not HBO, and stuff.It’s a white neighborhood, okay? All that Caucasian floating around and it works out Violet is one of only three or four white girls in the two combined Kindergarten classes at her school. As a magnet school, most of the kids aren’t from the neighborhood (including Violet).
Thanks in part to the shuffling policies of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the rest are kids of color and from countries spread far and wide. The majority of girls in her class are Asian and Hispanic (did I say that correctly?). From the first day of school, my wife and I noticed the blend. We cherish this mix, it feels right and normal to see kids of all types running and playing together. Neither of my girls, not the five-year-old and not the teenager, see this. They are basically color-blind. And like any other semi-left-ish-leaning-freedom-fighter-registered-Independent, I appreciate the beauty of the absence of color labels. Steve’s list of approved names would baffle these kids.
So color blind are my kids, their parents, still shaking off PC tendencies, wince when the girls say things like Mexican — dad, she’s from Mexico, she’s Mexican, relax. We still knee-jerk correct our kids when we hear a label from either side of the two-column document. Certainly the left-hand column isn’t allowed, but we still correct towards the right hand. They look at us like we’re crazy. It is beautiful.
And so it came to be, one fine morning, on the playground before school, the kids surrounded my wife, bursting with a pressing inquiry. A tiny brown-skinned kid approaches my wife:
Is Violet Chinese?
No, Violet is not Chinese, why do you ask?
Oh, well, she doesn’t have dark skin so we thought she was Chinese.
My child is not Chinese, our ethnic heritage presents a significant road block to this possibility. But she wants to be. When I was a kid, you couldn’t pull your eyes back to emulate the facial shapes of people from Asia — it was a serious insult under my family’s values. Both my girls would like to look more like they’re from Asia, pulling their eyes back in the mirror to admire how awesome it would be to look like the other kids. It’s magnificent.
My older daughter, also dangerously beautiful, now complains about being white. It’s not being caucasian she minds, it’s the color of her skin she dislikes. All the other kids are brown, I hate being white! It’s a constant subject around here. She reports things like, going to Starbucks is a white person thing … going to Chipotle is a white person thing. Chipotle. Now, of course, this kind of prejudice ain’t all that cool, but try to imagine 1983, when I was my teen’s age. In that era, not too terribly long ago, being white was all the rage.
A girlfriend of mine, I’ll never forget, stayed out of the sun at all costs — she wanted to look like Siouxie, of Banshees fame. White. Translucent. This would be antithetical to my kids.
Naturally, I want them to admire who they are and what they already look like, but the reversal of this simple act fills me with hope. The presence of color or shape differences are exalted and revered, not at all ammunition for ridicule. When the kids call her white, they’re enjoying the difference — they love her, all her friends. Each color is equally desired and revered, everybody wants to look like everybody else. There is no accepted normal skin tone. So color blind are my kids, here in Los Angeles, they don’t recognize those traits we middle-agers can’t even say.
My girls generally lack prejudice without effort. Dad, it’s okay, he’s actually gay. My oldest daughter wears a rainbow LGBT shirt in support of community she empathizes with/for, she does so without any pretense, she doesn’t care if people think she’s homosexual. She’s just aware of an inequality and would like to right that wrong.
Oppression she sees, labels she cannot.
I don’t know if the kids at school make fun of her for this shirt, but assume they do not — she still wears it every week.
She — the Elder — last week, accused us of racism.
We drove a boy home from a party at Dave and Buster’s in the Hollywood/Highland shopping center. He was particularly well-spoken and noticeably not on his phone. My wife and I were immediately thinking the same thing — our daughter should date this young man. He walked up to his house and after the obligatory wait in the car until he’s in the building thing, we mercilessly embarrassed our girl with suggestions of a romantic element to their friendship. Her first reaction is distain — he’s ugly! He was not ugly, but she prefers what her friends prefer, a brown young man. Then, unexpectedly, she drops, You only like him because he’s white! I had to think. Could that be possible? Did I racially profile my daughter’s dating life? We eventually determined we did not include race as a factor. He was, in truth, the only child invited into our circle who did not pick up his phone. He talked with us! We liked him because he was a gentleman. But the idea of being racist, well that was a real challenge to my values. My daughter was swift enough to see the possibility of racism and immediately quash the injustice. Cool.
I understand my family lives in Los Angeles. Our reactions and conversations are not representations of the nation. Not yet. We, the people, still need to write down our guidelines for identifying our people.
News organizations still need labels. Accepted, non-offensive labels. Wolf Blizter needs to know what to say when a honky opens fire on innocent people. Even Wikipedia has guidelines for writing and labeling. I looked them up. In fact, there are terms here in these very paragraphs which were driven by those guidelines. I agree with these guidelines — be specific, Zimbabwe not Africa, Missourian not Midwesterner. It’s an agreement not unlike the one I had with Steve’s list. They’re selling approved terms, I’m buying.
Why do I buy? Why so eager to re-enter waters already labeled dangerous? Because, unlike my children, I grew up surrounded by labels. Nasty, unrelenting labels. Fortunately, within this world I was taught (and lived with) diversity. I spend conscious effort wrangling with terms — taught labels and banned ones, too. I need guidelines because I do not have the lack of prejudice my children seem to possess. What would Steve think? Does his list still have merit, even in today’s browning of America?
At the Thanksgiving table this year, I brought up labeling. I must’ve been crazy, or wasted; I loath discussing politics at dinner. The contention is quick to build and hard to deflate. Anyway, I did it. Labels are inevitable, I suggest, we cannot help ourselves, humans categorize. To some extent, I believe what I was saying, though I mostly just threw it out to hear a reaction.
My parents were forty when I was in college, so they’re close to Steve the Journalist’s age; they saw Political Correctness form and change their lexicon right in front of them. They were journalists too, naturally, so writing a story or a news release required the list, if even just an imaginary one. I was curious to hear their take on PC.
Dig this, my stepmom says this: Politically Correct culture destroyed any chance we ever had at creating racial equality in this nation.
Is it possible we destroyed the last chances of creating equality in an effort to not offend anyone with a label? Probably this is too great an equation for our little chat here today. I say, without any authority, there’s probably no one thing which ruined chances for equality among the people of America. Those chances may not have even been ruined. Yet. It’s all very complicated, I understate, all this labeling business. Even Politically Correct is a label.
I start thinking of Russ, instead. What do people in Russ’ country call him, when they call him by race or nationality? If it’s Honky, there’s some justice in the world. But what if, when Russ opened his bar somewhere in Africa and in a strange twist, he became American-African? I prefer to think, in his host nation, they call him … Russ. Russ the Bar Owner.
Post-script: My eldest read this essay — she reads! — and wanted to be sure to correct my errors. One, she does not prefer brown boys, she now claims to prefer lighter-skinned young men. Two, the young man who did not get on his phone in our car ONLY because his phone was stolen. And, three, she never did that eye thing in the mirror — except she did, she just doesn’t remember. As a little volley back, I offer this little discovery: