After talking so much about the weather recently, it’s time for me to turn to . . . politics. Well, only sort of, but this has been on my mind for awhile, so I’m going to go ahead and air it.
It’s the state of the state (really, a commonwealth) of Virginia that’s been on my mind. Presumably you know that an old yearbook photo surfaced, allegedly of the white governor (who admitted but then denied it) wearing blackface (or possibly under a KKK robe, although he is adamant that one isn’t him). The black lieutenant governor now stands accused by two women of sexual assault, and then the third in the line of succession, the white attorney general, admitted to also wearing blackface on at least one occasion.
Less this political debacle, it’s a couple things around it that are on my mind. First is that there appears to be an entire body of academic research in the field of medical school yearbooks, and so far not a single person involved in this research has been surprised by the appearance of this photo from 1984. I’m gathering, from what I’ve read, that images like this are fairly common — along with a lot of photos objectifying women, up to and including Playboy-type centerfolds. In yearbooks.
The medical profession was apparently very slow to accept non-white non-men types of people, and part of the means of remaining a He-man Woman-Hater club was (still is) the belittlement of people who “shouldn’t” belong.
It’s hardly just the medical profession, and it’s certainly not just Virginia. I was in the lobby of what was then First National Bank in the late 1980s when two prominent local men were holding a very loud conversation about how the world just might come to an end because Robb Austin, then the hospital administrator, had invited women to join the local Rotary club. I laughed at these two men, to myself, because they really were convinced that somehow the very fabric of Rotary would be completely destroyed. And at least one of them had a wife who was extremely involved in civic life and probably deserved to be the president of Rotary.
The second point about what we could refer to as The Virginia Debacle has caused me to expend more brain power trying to self-examine my own life. When this was all front-page new, my sister Terri pointed out that it was 1984, and that pre-governor Ralph Northam, just a couple years older than us, should have known better than to wear a costume like that.
So I’ve been reviewing my life, what I can remember of it, trying to find lapses in judgment to see if I would have done — or actually did — something that goes beyond plain stupid into hurtful, possibly even hateful.
I grew up in Gunnison. Even 30 years ago, a little boy of my acquaintance — he was three or four — saw his first episode of The Cosby Show, and he wanted to know why the people were purple. There just are not a lot of black people here, although we do now have a population of Cora (an indigenous people from a mountain region in Mexico), and are more racially diverse in general than we were. Which I think is a really good thing.
There was a dark rumor some years back that Western Then State had suppressed a report, surveying students to see what brought them to Western. It turned out that many upper-middle-class white families were sending their children here so they wouldn’t have to interact with minorities. And up the road to the north, Basalt’s public schools became disproportionately hispanic because once brown people started moving into the area, private schools started popping up to provide opportunities for “white flight.”
So while it might be easy to think we in Colorado are more enlightened than, say, Virginia, there’s an ugly underbelly here too. But I don’t think I’ve participated in it, other than choosing to remain somewhere that’s probably still 90 percent white. (Which wasn’t a factor in my calculations to remain here.)
While Crested Butte’s town religion is wearing costumes, I have never enjoyed Halloween, or any other occasion that calls for costume. I did, in college (in Boulder) get talked into going to a Halloween party at the last minute, so I shoved a pair of work gloves into my back pocket, put on clothes I already owned and often wore, and went as a cowboy. And yet, this innocuous-sounding costume is the one that got me into the most trouble.
At the party, a drunk from Montrose angrily demanded to know if I was a real cowboy. He was ready to punch me until one of my friends (who probably believed this to be true) assured him I was from a ranch in Gunnison. As soon as he learned that (and I made no effort to correct the misinformation), he was my best buddy until I could extricate myself from a party I wasn’t enjoying.
Obviously we can offend even when we’re not trying to, and accidents of birth can play into not even being aware of your own privilege. Living in Gunnison where there are no purple people can make you completely oblivious to the fact that your college/university could be a haven for racists. Not overt racists, mind you — just people who don’t want to be near people who aren’t the same color.
But there are ways to hurt people that have nothing to do with skin color (and I would refer you back to Humanae, where photographer Angélica Dass has documented 4,000 shades of human skin), and since attempting self-examination I keep coming back to a mistake I made early in my newspaper career.
I went out to the golf course to interview a tournament winner, a college golfer not much younger than me. This is what he said of his opponent — and what I put in the paper: “He was a fat old guy and I wanted to beat him.”
Now, doesn’t it seem obvious that such a quote does not belong in the newspaper? It’s so obvious that it should have been clear even to a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter. (One might wonder where a seasoned editor was, to help the cub avoid mistakes like that, but even from the outset at the paper I operated with very little oversight.) It wasn’t until it was in print and someone not on the staff (I don’t remember who, just the shame I felt when the obvious was pointed out) told me how inappropriate that was.
The older gentleman (by now I don’t remember his name) remained a fixture of local golf tournaments long after the college student graduated and moved on, hopefully to lead a humbler existence, and he never said anything, but putting such a quote in the public eye must have hurt and possibly humiliated him — and it never occurred to me to pick up the phone, or, better yet, go to the course and apologize.
So while we might sit comfortably far away from Gov. Northam and maintain we would be smart enough to know better in an enlightened year like 1984 (quite possibly the year of my golf quote), we might also consider how easy it is to be thoughtless, and hurtful, whether we intend it or not.
And since I don’t want to disappoint all of you, it is currently -5 in Gunnison, and our 10 percent chance of precipitation just manifested itself in the briefest of snow flurries.