That Time I Had An Earnest Racist Thought

7 Feb

We were sitting in a community theater watching an amateur production of Hairspray one evening. I had one finger in my ear, not as a total insult to the talent on stage, but out of necessity because the theater speakers were hissing every time Amber Von Tussle decided to hit her high notes with the ferocity of a race car driver.

Despite the offenses, we applauded politely when the ballads were sung and the solos were done, and I tried to smile and tell myself that this wasn’t all that bad.

After a few more hours Tracy Turnblad was sent to detention and met all of the black kids in the school, they sang together but the speakers still hissed and Amber Von Tussle continued to stalk the musical like the Phantom of the Opera.  It wasn’t until past the halfway mark that the black kids got a number together, without Tracy and without Amber.  When these kids sang they lifted us. The audience was no longer sitting in a community theater staring at our watches, we were on Broadway, in the presence of voices so beautiful that they brought tears in our eyes. I could feel the energy in the room, the rush of applause that rose from the crowd when their number was done, we weren’t just being polite, we were praising them as our saviors.

And then I thought to myself: “Boy, black people can sing!”

Huh? Where’d that come from? Well here’s the logic, or rather, where the logic fell apart:

1) I have seen black people sing well in the same soulful voice hundreds of times on TV.

2) There are lots of black singers.

3) These guys in front of me can sing.

4) Black people can sing.

Of course I don’t personally know any black people who can sing, hell, I don’t know any people who can sing. I am rarely found in the company of singers. So why did I attribute their talent to their skin color?

The musical finished and we shuffled out the theater saying “wasn’t that bad…wasn’t that bad.” It occurred to me that the ‘positive’ stereotype of a good black singer wasn’t even positive. I’d read about this before but I hadn’t experience it in action within the mysteries of my brain.  The truth was all of those black singers didn’t sing well because they were black, they sang well because they were better. Those singers turned it out, either trained better, harder, and for longer periods of time than Amber Von Tussle. In fact, Amber Von Tussle shouldn’t be excused, she was horrible, she was coasting. 

If you’re brown or black then–sure–you face more hardships, and maybe those hardships whip your butt into shape, but when you sing or when you write you do it from talent you’ve cultivated all your life. Even if you’re brown or black, the knowledge that someone is good at something because they’re better isn’t ingrained.  It was an enlightening and freeing thing to think that these kids had talent because they’d worked for it. My little earnest racist thought withered out of my brain and died on the sidewalk in front of that community theater somewhere along fifth avenue, and I’m better for having lost it.

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2 Responses to “That Time I Had An Earnest Racist Thought”

  1. fojap February 25, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    I once took a class called “Anyone Can Sing” because I’m a dreadful singer and I’ve always wanted to be better. The teacher was wonderful and now I’m proudly mediocre. I’m white, but most of the students in the class were black women, all of whom sang as badly I did. Whenever I hear someone make the comment that black people can sing better than white people, I think of that class.

    You’re right. That “talent” is attributable to work, work we don’t credit. As a painter, I’ve started talking back to people when they get that weird dreamy look and say, “I wish I was talented like you.” Now I say, “No problem. You just have to spend hours, years really, in front of an easel.”

    Those actors probably put in more hours practicing. It’s hard work, effort, perseverance and all those character traits we seem for some reason to not see in black people.

    • Kevin J. February 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

      It’s a bizarre societal thing too. There was no reason for me to believe what I believed because I am brown (latino) and if anyone said “wow latino people are such good writers” I would have laughed and said “I’ve been read to since I was a kid, I was writing since I was a kid, there was nothing really that natural about it.” Still, that thought wormed its way into my head. It is so insidious that it is shocking.

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