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'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner': The private shame of racial disloyalty
When it comes to the most intimate relationships in our lives - who we choose to date, marry and procreate with - racial antagonisms can cut deeply and personally. Most Americans, at least publicly, agree that we should judge each other by the content of our character rather than by invidious distinctions such as color, race, religion and even, dare I say it in this day and age, gender or sexual orientation. But most of us, in our heart of hearts, continue to harbor deep-seated prejudices when it comes to who we will welcome into our inner circles.
The seminal 1967 movie, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," features an interracial couple played by Sidney Poitier (John) and Katharine Hepburn (Joanna) dealing with the dynamics of an interracial relationship. The movie came out at a time when at least 17 states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books that forbid interracial marriages. Just three weeks after the movie's release, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, struck down racial miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
In the movie, Joanna's white, socially liberal parents live in San Francisco and pride themselves on their unbiased views about race and class. But when confronted with the prospect of their daughter dating a black man - even an accomplished doctor and professor - they express deep reservations. Her parents claim they object to the union because they fear she'll face discrimination if she is seen with a black man. John's parents also object to the union, for more or less similar reasons. Ultimately, the couple say they are ready to eschew their identities as a "black" or "white" person and identify as "man" and "woman." They affirm their intention to marry for love and, as the credits roll, sit down with both sets of in-laws for a lovely dinner.
This movie was controversial for its time, but would not make much of a splash today. That doesn't mean some of the issues it highlights are any less salient. Sure, it is easy to spout platitudes about racial harmony and equality, but when it comes to interracial marriages, navigating family traditions and politics can be tricky.
Even within African-American families, the pernicious strain of "colorism" has been a factor. One of my closest friends, who is darker-skinned, faced such a conundrum when marrying a light-skinned woman. Her father apparently prided himself on being the progenitor of a lighter-skinned African-American clan, and allegedly threatened to disown his daughter should she marry and have children with my friend. This man, a Harvard-trained professional with so much going for him, faced colorism within the black community.
No matter what our inner demons might be, rarely are we forced to publicly face them. This came to mind this week as I watched the drama unfold involving racist and sexist comments that Fox News host Tucker Carlson made in the past on a radio show. The question is, does our duty to society really require that we banish private prejudices?
In what is perhaps one of the most interesting and profound social experiments in recent memory, a private video surfaced online in which pro wrestling icon Hulk Hogan is overheard despairing to a friend that his daughter was dating a "f---ing n---er." He lamented that if that had to happen, "I'd rather have her marry an eight-foot-tall, $100 million basketball player."
Obviously, journalists at Gawker, the magazine that published the story, were trying to embarrass Hogan and gain notoriety for its publishers. But the story ended up depicting the ways in which we privately behave when we think only those close to us are watching or listening. After the video surfaced online, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame suspended Hogan and removed his plaque from its walls. No evidence has ever surfaced that Hogan racially discriminated against anyone in a public setting, or that he actually forbid his daughter from dating anyone based on their race. But the damage was done - Hogan's reputation took a hit. Even a subsequent civil court victory against Gawker for defamation and later reinstatement to the Hall of Fame didn't end the backlash over his private musings.
In this age of political correctness, blunt conversations give way to solipsistic meandering around the point and vague platitudes meant to assuage any hint of interpersonal conflict. Rather than face our prejudices, we hide them - and then engage in a weird, public game of plausible denial. We use props to prove our racial bona fides, shedding the "real" in favor of simplistic, rhetorical slights of hand designed to throw our antagonists off our trail. By covering our racial wounds with bandages of self-denial we often end up stunting our healing as individuals.
And we fail to live up to our solemn promise, wrought by outright civil conflict, of perfecting our American union. There is still great prejudice in America - in all communities, white, black, Asian, Hispanic. Trying to expose prejudice and shame, and destroy people for speaking even a private word, has the effect of driving prejudice underground, rather than allowing it to be educated, and ultimately healed, by what we all need: more honest conversations around the dinner table.
Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of "Reawakening Virtues."