Monday, June 22, 2009

The racist bassist

About a month ago, my place of employment required all of us to spend two hours in a course on "the respectful workplace". It wasn't anything I didn't already know, and I must say I was more than a little insulted at having to sit through a lesson in be-nice-to-your-co-workers. In many respects, the sample scenarios were based on thinking that I thought we had left back in the 1980s. I remember hearing the late Richard Pryor talking about someone using the word "nigger" in an argument, and thinking to himself, "man! Are we back to that, now?" And that was in 1981 (his Live on Sunset Strip performance).

What was really insulting was that at least one of the scenarios was predicated on a statement that may have been true, but was not politically correct. Freedom of speech -- according to this teaching -- depends not on truth but on whether it's "nice".

Jesus would have been so busted!

In other words, the "respectful workplace policy" -- at least, when it comes to freedom of speech -- is largely predicated on individuals' being dishonest, and I have a very hard time with that. I'd rather someone state, honestly, what they think of me than internalize it and have it come out in other ways.

Anyway ... some time after that course, I was MC for an event that included a blues performer and his band. His road manager mentioned in her notes to me that he's from the Mohawk Nation, but in my exuberance when introducing him, I mentioned where he'd performed and that he'd be playing in August at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, but forgot completely to mention the Mohawk Nation. I knew it as soon as I put the mic down and went straight to the manager and apologized. But before I could apologize, she told me it was a great intro, and when I did say, "but I forgot to mention he's Mohawk", she said, "oh, no problem! It was great!"

I was relieved. After all, a person's race shouldn't matter when it comes to the performing arts. Do we enjoy jazz musicians because they're black or white or because they're great? Where does ethnicity separate George Shearing, Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck? Sonny Rollins or Paul Desmond? Ray Brown or Niels Henning Orstad Petersen (who played bass for Oscar at one time or another)? Is Jonathan Cheechoo a great native hockey player or a great hockey player?

You get the picture. So after the band has played its set, I'm chatting with the bass player, and she's talking about her mother, who had just flown out from New Brunswick, having been miraculously cured of cancer -- just prior to scheduled surgery. "I had to rescue her from some honky doctor who wanted to cut her open."

Excuse me? What kind of doctor?

Of course, I didn't say anything, but there is some potential to dwell on that statement. There is a notion, for example, that the doctor's motivation would be racial: that somehow, a white doctor wouldn't perform surgery on a white patient, but would be willing at the drop of a hat to cut open a native Indian woman. Is surgery an inferior cancer treatment, or a "quick fix" that a doctor might palm off on one kind of patient but not on another? Does the bass player have some innate, racially-ingrained, sense of what the most appropriate cancer treatment might be that would be superior to that of a qualified MD?

You see where this can lead.

But the big question that came to my mind was, how can she get away with tossing off a racist remark like that and I couldn't? Not that I'd want to, but isn't educating people about racism a two-way street? She probably had no idea it was a racist remark: maybe she's used to saying things like that about white people and having them go unchallenged because it's generally accepted that she has a "right" to because of the injustices inflicted on natives by white people over the years.

So at what point do we break out of the cycle?

"Social Justice" is a wonderful catch-phrase, but too often it refers to a struggle fought in human terms. A friend of mine told me recently that the new lady in his life has adult children who are "really into social justice". There's an elective course in some school districts about "social justice", which, as far as I can figure, is really about political correctness. But Jesus is social justice. All complaints about hatred, poverty, sexism, homelessness, drug addiction, inequality in society, even environmental issues and the "respectful workplace" have ready solutions in the Word of God.

Maybe the reason why we haven't moved past that thinking is because our society refuses to look at that Truth. Martin Luther King knew it, and the seed he sowed have done more than anything else to bring equality between black and white people in the US. But those who came after cannot be said to have carried on that work: how much real progress has the "kill whitey" mindset achieved?

For native Indians like the bass player, forgiving whitey and letting it go is a necessary step to break out of that cycle. Take a look at the state of the aboriginal community and see how much they have benefited from walking in unforgiveness, demanding "land claims" and "aboriginal rights" and endless apologies and compensation. Jesus' Two Greatest Commandments -- love God and love your neighbour -- and "forgive your brother seven times seventy" apply. Land claims? "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," which is something brought to mind not by some misguided white apologist but by Clarence Vickers, a native Indian evangelist.

The Bible has been described as a sword, and that's absolutely true: it's the sword that cuts through the Gordian Knot that we've tied around our social issues over the generations; the seemingly endless cycle of hatred and mistrust and demands for "justice" on our own terms for past wrongs. Forgiving, letting go and starting from Square Zero with God in control may seem like an overly simplistic solution; but more and more it's appearing like it's the only way to move forward.

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