Was I a Racist? Am I Still?

COEwebsitesizecrop©The Shakespearean Tavern Playhouse

Why doesn’t racism ever go away? Why, after yet another round of protests and reforms, does it still rear its noxious head? In a word: Us. As in humans. We can change “the system” again and again—and we should because systems always need changing. But we humans still have onion-layers of racism (along with other noxious isms). And these must be personally peeled away layer by layer year after year.

I was so enlightened when I was 20-something. Or so I thought. Fresh out of college I formed a comedy group called The Right Pithee Players. There were three females and myself; we could never find a suitable second male. Still, we had great fun performing Elizabethan improv (something we more-or-less invented) in period costumes at Shakespeare festivals and Renaissance fairs.

We met a talented young black actor named Henry at one of these and became fast friends. One night after performing at a festival in L.A. we drove in Henry’s car to an all-night Denny’s. Around 2 a.m., Mary, Teri and Henry walked outside while Monica and I paid the bill.

When we came out, the car was gone. We grinned and walked across the street to a dimly lit bus stop. Sure enough, a moment later Henry and the others cruised by and began harassing us in the guise of a stereotype pimp and his “girls.” So Monica and I instantly turned into an uptight middle-aged white couple. “Look, we don’t want any trouble!” I shouted. Monica urged, “Just give them your wallet, honey! Don’t make things worse than they already are!”

This was great fun. Until the two cops who’d watched the whole thing from their cruiser across the street, hit their siren. Before we realized what was happening, they’d raced over, pulled Henry out of the car and slammed him up against it, shouting, “Spread ‘em!”

“No!” we screamed. “It was an improv! We’re actors!”

The cops didn’t think it was funny. After lecturing us and threatening to arrest all of us (for improvising without an audience?) they finally left. Were we ashamed? No! We were too clever to be ashamed! And in our own way, we agreed, we’d made a statement against racial stereotypes!

And yet I never asked Henry to join the group. Why? “Because there (most likely) weren’t any black actors in England in that era,” I reasoned. Mary, Monica and Teri disagreed, but Henry good-naturedly went along.

Duh! Why did it matter? This wasn’t a freaking history class, or even a documentary—it was a silly improv group! Henry would have been amazing in the group–and frankly would have outshone me on the stage! But I was blind. My reasoning made sense to me.

Blind sense.

Do I still have layers to peel away? I’ll answer that with another question: 

Am I still human?

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Culture, Humor, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Was I a Racist? Am I Still?

  1. Heidi Viars says:

    Thanks, Mitch. I think it starts with openness like this, honesty and realizing we are human … all of us together. TO GET THERE and TOGETHER have a heck of a lot in common!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. adguru101 says:

    It’s refreshing to read an honest post about bias. I suspect we’re all better — and worse — than we think we are.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Hmmm. Was it really about racism, or was it about not wanting to be upstaged by an excellent male actor? 😉

    I ask, because I have struggled with not wanting to be upstaged, myself. 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      Oh, I really was stubborn about being historically correct. I even thought of forming a second group so Henry could be in it. But, yeah, I was also subtly jealous of him.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I understand wanting to be historically correct. I’m dealing with this, as I’m writing a memoir about events that happened more than half a century ago. Just yesterday I was wrestling with the question: Did my elderly, newly widowed, catatonic roommate speak for the first time when she was awakened by the nightmare that caused me to cry out in my sleep? (She said I sounded just like her daughter.) Or, had she already started talking, after her electric shock treatment?

        It happened in 1968 — does it matter? Yes it matters! I want everything to be accurate in my memoir.

        Alas, human memory isn’t perfect. But try telling that to my OCD!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • mitchteemley says:

        Yep, I get that.

        Like

  4. revruss1220 says:

    Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing this story about your blind spot(s). This time of national outrage and sorrow reminds us of the serious peeling we all need to do. I pray it is not too late.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Erika says:

    Yes, we are definitely all human and that’s the reason we are here: to learn the human way. It is only important that we do want to learn.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. K.L. Hale says:

    I had this feeling you were human. ❤🤍💚

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yeah, you’re human. So am I. (Don’t tell anyone.)
    My sister and I attended a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” where Romeo was black, Juliet was Hispanic, one of the fathers was Asian, the other father was in a wheelchair, one mother was a flaming redhead, the other was deaf and signed her lines … I may not be remembering every detail exactly, but you get the idea. Interesting production.
    Probably whatever you guys would have done would have been fine. (Racist, or did you just not want to get upstaged? 😉 )

    Liked by 3 people

  8. gpavants says:

    Mitch,

    Until the Lord returns it won’t be perfect. Humans go back and forth to extremes. We have terrible balance in everything. However wIth the Holy Spirit in our lives you have a the right way to love all the Henry’s in your path. We model this as believers and the Lord will do a great problem.

    In Christ,

    Gary

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Chandra Lynn says:

    Thanks for your honesty…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Always with these layers and I think that ongoing commitment to seek within and shine a torch on our thoughts. It’s the best thing we can do at the moment – awareness is the only way that that racism will ever be stamped out.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. There are many times when we don’t ask because we make their excuses for them. “Oh they’re so busy!” “They wouldn’t like this.” “They would be offended by doing this.” “They probably don’t want to be ridiculed by their peers.” Then it’s easier for us not to ask.

    I suddenly saw myself as my friends of color see me. Don’t you hate when the Great White Hope comes in to fix everything and they don’t understand the problem? “I can fix all your financial problems because I’ve been where you are!” “Oh? Have you been given a job and all your coworkers think they have to cover your butt because you couldn’t possibly be qualified? You know they’re thinking I’m a quota drone…a token to point to. Have you been guilty of being a POC while walking, driving, shopping, or working?” No. I guess I haven’t. But I do have information and tools that you don’t. I know how to use them. Wouldn’t you like to know? “We’re fine…thanks.” (They’re not.)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pam Webb says:

    Oh, having just read The Hate U Give I am very aware of my whiteness and though I see changes for the better since I attended high school, in many ways it’s worse. Good post, Mitch. Even when we think we are enlightened, we are so very far from being truly accepting.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. jeffw5382 says:

    Honest self-examination is the call I hear-to be transformed by submitting myself to The All-Time Winner

    Liked by 2 people

  14. c.f. leach says:

    Mitch:
    Thanks for attempting to weigh in on the subject with such transparency. At least you recognized the issue. Which is the need of a true self examination, as Jeff stated. There is too much finger pointing at others and not enough at ourselves. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”(Romans 12:2) Until humanity learns to cut off the head of this malignant serpent and allow the hand of God to move upon their minds and hearts. It will continue to rear its ugly head and poison further generations not matter what century we are in. Blessings and Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Of Course, I did some research!
    Despite common representations in media, Europe was not homogeneously white but was surprisingly ethnically diverse during the Middle Ages.
    When author George R.R. Martin was criticized for depicting his fantasy reproduction of Medieval Europe as overwhelmingly white, the author replied that his creation “fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world” and was historically accurate. Despite being a widely held idea of Europe, regarded as only diversifying in recent decades, Europe has, in fact, always been a melting pot of demographic diversity. Race was not viewed conceptually in the same manner that much of humanity does today, with racial slavery not yet introduced, and whilst tensions and discrimination existed communities co-existed relatively peacefully.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Racism is a tough thing to face in ourselves. I applaud your courage.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Yep… still have layers… still human! 🤦🏻‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Like so many people who disavow racism, I am sometimes ashamed to find myself thinking of a person who is unlike me in some way (race, gender, whatever) as an exemplar of all those who are unlike me in that particular way, rather than as an individual human being with their own mix of good and bad.  Am pretty sure I have gone a few decades w/o actually saying or doing something based on the colossal fallacy of assuming that how somebody is categorized tells me most of what matters about them, but memories are notorious for spinning.

    BTW, the unlikely smash hit *Hamilton* had black and brown actors playing characters as pallid as I am.

    Dunno who played Othello in Shakespeare’s time.  Maybe a white guy in blackface?

    Liked by 1 person

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