Tarnished Treasures

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TW: Racist image and language

My friend Anna made a comment that has me thinking. Good friends will do that. We’re both Generation X, affectionately Xers, folks born between 1965 and 1980. We’re the generation that, in a recent widely-viewed CBSN piece on the differences between generations, were forgotten. Left out completely. Yep.

“Don’t you forget about me…don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t…”

If you have that tune in your mind now, that doesn’t guarantee you’re an Xer, but I guarantee if you are an Xer (and grew up in the U.S.) you now have that Simple Minds song playing in your head.

The quickest search on google declares that our generation is “typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless.” As a writer, I appreciate that both “typically” and “perceived” can be taken as qualifiers. That’s just a stereotype and it is merely how others view us, not necessarily objective reality about the 60-plus million of us who are left. I can’t resist riffing on this for one moment before I go on: we, the generation left off of a chart of generations–no one noticed that little gap between 1964 and 1981?–are perceived to be disaffected? Huh. Now why would that be?

I’m a guy who believes in God’s grace for each of us individually, so I’m not inclined to lump huge groups together that often, but I have a deep fondness and affinity for our generation. We were children of the Seventies and Eighties. We survived being dressed in pull-over velour short-sleeve sweaters with zippers in the Seventies. We recovered from our self-inflicted mullets in the Eighties. The last Xer born on December 31 of 1980 still got to enjoy Michael Jackson in his prime and could understand, at least to some degree, what it meant that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and the Berlin Wall came down. We still love our music and maybe we are disaffected but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

Back to Anna’s comment. She told me she wants to show her kids some of the beloved movies from our childhood, but they have glaring racism.

“Oh? Wait, which ones?”

I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive survey of the movies we watched in the Eighties and how they influenced our lives, but Anna is, of course, right. Sixteen Candles. Goonies. Oh, Lord, Goonies. We all loved Goonies. We still speak of it fondly in my family. Some of you are balling your fists because I’m mentioning it pejoratively right now.

Well, this is exactly the point I’m hoping to make: it’s easy to see the blatant racism in cultural fixtures for which we feel no connection. Whites-only baseball. Segregated schools. I’ve repeatedly seen this photo and am appalled and sickened each time.

This is from a fair in Wisconsin in 1943. “Versions of the original ‘African Dodger’ were still found in the 1950s.” And yes, unfortunately it’s real.

That didn’t happen at our county fair, which my little Illinois town, as the County Seat, hosted each year. I also have fond memories of the Fair. We didn’t have a lot going on in our town, but that week every year, people flooded in, we rode The Zipper and Tilt-a-Whirl, threw the ping pong ball in the fishbowl to win a goldfish that would die three hours later, and ate the cotton candy, corn dogs, and elephant ears. I saved money all year to blow at the fair. We had a Miss Henry County pageant, a demolition derby, and even quasi-headliners in concert, there in our own little town. I hope you can feel the nostalgia bubbling up in me. I spent countless quarters to win stuffed animals for girls who saw me as a “good friend,” which was basically death for a seventh-grader, but slow, staked-to-an-anthill-and-basted-with-honey death. Like I said, great memories.

Time for one of those uncomfortably honest moments. We didn’t have “hit the N—– baby” at our fair. Thank God. But I loved our fair and therefore I can see how someone who also loved their fair could feel some affinity and fondness, even though something so appalling as this was played. Some folks from the Silent Generation still around today played that game. I enjoyed Goonies and Sixteen Candles, which, among too many other things, in the former made a character who was dropped in acid as a baby and, because of that deformity is now chained like an animal, the punch line* and in the latter discusses date rape so casually that we’re led to assume it’s the norm (which, tragically, it was). Both movies depict extreme racial stereotypes of Asians.

I’m not saying that laughing at Goonies is the exact equivalent of winning a prize for your sweetheart by playing “Hit the N—–Baby.” I’m saying the cultural entertainments, especially those that became fixtures of our culture and our generation, become easier to excuse, accept, or even defend.

Consider Back to the Future. If I was playing softball before, this is hardball. Sixteen Candles and even Goonies are blips on the cultural landscape compared with Back to the Future, which is a franchise with staying power even now. When they do the five-image montage of the 80’s, you’ll see this movie poster.** Of course there’s racism in Back to the Future. No, I don’t want to have to admit that. I want to love Back to the Future like I always have. Especially now that I’ve read Lucky Man. In Back to the Future II, Marty goes back to Lyon Estate and it’s gone to hell. It’s poor, it’s violent, and…oh, there’s a Black family living in Marty’s house. But don’t worry, these aren’t those bad, violent Black people, like the rest of the neighborhood. These are good Black people.

Oh, and Goldie is the mayor now. One of two Black characters in the original movie.

Um…

Damn it.

Another honest confession: when I dig into this stuff, I feel tired. I find myself trying to explain it in my head to people who don’t want to see what I see–imagine, then, how exhausting that is for Black people to try to explain–and also grapple with the part of myself that resists examining these things without my rose-colored lenses. I want to pretend that this “innocent” enjoyment has no lasting effect on my attitudes or perceptions of race. I have to work to make myself keep looking at it honestly and as objectively as possible.

So would it be any different for me if I came from a different generation and our “innocent” entertainment was more starkly full of racial stereotypes and motifs that make us Xers (and many others) cringe?

I titled this post “Tarnished Treasures,” but that probably isn’t adequate. “Tarnish” is a loss of luster due to exposure to air or moisture. We’re talking about inherent flaws. Maybe flawed treasures. Or, less charitably, rotten spots in the fruit that spoil the whole thing.

You tell me. If I said, “Yeah, I loved that county fair we used to go to, and sure, there was that one maybe racist game that they played, but that doesn’t mean the whole fair was bad.”

Remember, this is hard work. It’s good and necessary work. It’s much easier to define racism as “bad people want to lynch Black Americans and call them ‘n—–‘ and I don’t.” But you know what? I’m not helping the current racial conflict nor dismantling systemic racism by reminding everyone that I haven’t lynched anyone. If “suburbs” functions as a code word for “where it’s safe for white people to live,” then I have to acknowledge that a movie I’ve enjoyed from my youth reinforces that stereotype. If I am willing to admit that Asians are suffering race-motivated violence because “they” (every Asian, regardless of birth place) are accused of bringing us the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, then I must also admit that Data in Goonies and, even worse, Long Duk Dong, the utter stereotype from Sixteen Candles, contribute to Asian stereotypes and, unless I address and rewrite it proactively, continue to influence my views.

Okay, I can hear the voice saying, “Come on, Mike, my view of Asians isn’t effected by Long Duk Dong and neither is yours!” Do me a favor? Go back and read my friend Stephen’s post he wrote for this blog. Where does this stereotype of “meek” come from? In addition to making fun of Asian accents and his, um, romantic inclination, the main trope of his character was weakness. Or consider,

“Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called ‘Donkers’ in junior and high schools,” Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University, wrote in the book Theological Reflections on ‘Gangnam Style.’ “They were taunted with quotes of Dong’s stilted English lines, such as … ‘Oh, sexy girlfriend.’ “

From the above cited article, “What’s So Cringeworthy about Sixteen Candles?

Here are my conclusions:

1)While it’s worthwhile to call attention to racism in our collective national history (and I do this often), it’s harder and more personal to consider our own direct exposure to racism , especially any that has gone unconsidered.

2)The more fondly we connect to something, the more difficult it will be for us to think on it critically. That’s just an obvious truth. But it’s really important in the context of racism.

Is our church racist?

“God, I hope not! I love my church!”

Yes, me too, but is it?—-

3)This leads us to dig in hard to a better understanding of “racism.” Correct, I have never owned slaves, whipped anyone, nor called anyone “n—–.” I have never done that. Being innocent of these actions does not clear me of racism. Further, racism is neither all-or-nothing nor, if I am racist in some way, such an absolute damning of my character that I am therefore pure, irredeemable evil. I think the question “Did I commit a racism?” is more useful than “Am I racist?” I’m not given over to racism; I do racisms, mostly not consciously.

4)Therefore, this being true, my work–I hope our work–is to become more conscious of the ways I do racisms, the way I still carry unconsidered racist attitudes, assumptions, or stereotypes, and, most challengingly, the ways our culture perpetuates and reinforces these that I do not see but that benefit me. Identifying and confronting these “small” things like recognizing the flaws in our treasures, the seam of racism that runs throughout not just “U.S. history” but my personal history, help us to speak up against racism, even in ourselves, rather than defend and deny it…even in ourselves.

A theme I keep seeing, and of which I need constant reminding, is that how I feel about all this is not the center of the issue. How we treat one another in our country is the center. Worded differently, how we love our neighbor is the center.

By the way, as it turns out, “disaffected” does describe me and, I hope, most of my generation.

Disaffected is defined as “Dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them.”

*I know, the Goonies help Sloth. It’s that whole light-hearted, torture-of-a-disfigured-family-member-as-kids’-entertainment thing that leaves me unsettled.

**Along with Thriller, Pac-Man, Magic and Bird, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the Miracle on Ice. And The Empire Strikes Back. And these.

U2 - Live / Under A Blood Red Sky (CD) | Discogs
U2 - War - Amazon.com Music
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Specialty Pressing, Vinyl) | Discogs
U2 - The Joshua Tree - Amazon.com Music

But that’s more than five.

2 thoughts on “Tarnished Treasures

  1. Trish G

    I am relieved to hear someone other than myself point out flaws in our popular culture.

    You note date rape. Movies of our youth were invariably sexist as well as racist. Most still are.

    Don’t get me started on Doonesbury ~

    • They were so invariably sexist it’s tempting to shrug and say, “Well, those were the times.” But that’s exactly what i mean by leaving these formative messages unchallenged.
      The main character’s girlfriend is passed out drunk.
      “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.”

      “What are you waiting for?”

      Those are the protagonists. The assumption here is that he’s a really good guy for choosing not to do that, like extra stand up guy.
      I’m not being too picky or PC about these movies.

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