By Seana Sperling 2000
Defamation of character—via accusations of being prejudiced, became the weapon of choice in the late twentieth century. Gore Vidal, one of the Government’s most tenacious critics, has been accused of being anti-Semitic because of his views on the National Security State’s support of the Israel Lobby. This tactic of discrediting an opponent is frequently being used as a weapon and it seems that you don’t need any evidence in this atmosphere of Tabloid truths. The accusation alone is enough to create doubt.
I was an English Second Language Teacher for years and in 1999, a new colleague that had just started at our school began to make insinuations that I was racist. Ironically, I had interviewed this man and recommended him for the job. He was very nice to me at first, but then he befriended a former friend and colleague of mine. Individually they were fine, but when they were together, they would fling subtle barbs. After a couple of months, he began scrutinizing everything I said for racist comment. For example, I had been at China Gate’s Karaoke bar for a friend’s birthday party and a Hong Kong version of the Sir Mix-A-Lot video, “Baby Got Back,” was playing. In the video there were rail-thin Caucasian women in one-piece swimming suits and the camera focus seemed to be on their actual backs. One friend remarked that it was funny that none of these models had back and that the video maker had obviously missed the point. When I relayed the story during lunch in the Teacher’s room the next Monday, he interpreted that as being racist. I thought, Huh?
After that my former friend and one of the other Teachers (both female and white) would walk around saying, “I’ve got back.” The Instigator continued with his racism Schtick and would say “Lots of people are prejudiced, but they say they aren’t.” How do you respond to that? It is so vague. Which people are prejudiced? Caucasians? African Americans? Asian Americans? Rich? Poor? Comedians? Who are they prejudiced against? Was he saying only Caucasians were capable of prejudice since he was African American and I look white? (I’m very ethnically mixed and also bi-racial.) The comment was directed to me in front of all the Caucasian teachers in the room. If that had been the case, why did I choose to work with students from all over the globe and why would I have recommended that my boss hire him?
It was always at lunchtime in the Teacher’s room that they would throw barbs. On one occasion I was talking about my family and I mentioned that my Step Mother was Panamanian and I had half-brothers and sisters. One of them asked why I didn’t just call them my brothers and sisters and insinuated that maybe I only cared about the white half. It was hurtful and ridiculous.
A couple of months elapsed and two new coworkers and even my boss began treating me differently. A tale had been spun and evidently embraced. Over the years my boss (and the former friend that was now spreading the slander) had met many of my friends from all different races, orientations and backgrounds. They knew better, yet even my boss picked up the mantra, “Lots of people are prejudiced, but they say they aren’t.” I started having serious health problems as a result of all the stress and began using my insurance. I was also in my forties and the new hires were all 20ish or 30ish.
The slander went viral. I was at a birthday party for one of my colleagues when another colleague’s husband launched an unprovoked attack. I lived in Boise, Idaho on and off as a teen and later for college. His wife knew this of course as I had known her for a number of years. In his little French accent he began asking me about Neo-Nazis and Nationalists and insinuated that I might be one of them. I told him that I was not and asked him about racism in France. He got very angry and defensive and slurred that everyone got along in France. Then he said, “So you’re a racist.” I was tired of being baited and harassed and told him I could barely understand his speech. Then he said, “So you’re racist against French people.” I just looked at him. I happen to be a smidge French and again, it was a ridiculous accusation. My friends that had come with me were shocked by his outburst and we left shortly after. I held my temper, as I didn’t want to make a scene at the party.
The next morning, I was still angry and left a lengthy message on their answering machine. I asked, “Who the hell I was supposed to be racist against since I have had friends, roommates and dated nearly every race. “ I also told them I was from a multi-racial family. That part my colleague already knew. It was just harassment from her bullying husband. When I saw his wife later that week at school, she tried to explain it away as French humor.
All my life I have been on the receiving end of hate-monikers such as Fag-hag (90’s through the new millennium) and Nigger-Lover (60’s through mid 80’s) because of the company I keep and the beliefs I hold. I’ve many times been accused of being too PC and now this reversal? Just because I thought OJ Simpson was guilty doesn’t make me prejudiced against all six-foot, African –American movie stars.
Next the boss began whittling away at benefits I had earned after seven years of working there, such as changing my work schedule and retracting a project that I’d been assigned to. (I later found out he had offered this to a new employee at a much lower wage.) He claimed that my schedule was unfair to the other employees even though most had been there less than a year.
Friends in Thailand invited me to stay with them for a couple of weeks and since I had not had a real vacation in years, I decided to take one then. When I returned the boss had pared things down even further.
In Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, pizzeria owner Sal is accused of being racist because he doesn’t have any pictures of African-Americans on his wall. He only has Italians and Italian-Americans. The argument was that it was that almost all Sal’s customers are African-American and that he should represent them too. Sal explains that the pizzeria is an Italian restaurant, so he has Italians on the wall. Sal’s reputation and career is ruined when the neighborhood turns on him and destroys the pizzeria.
Nowadays racism is still a touchy subject and in Seattle especially I have seen some people turn tail and run when the topic is brought up. I have witnessed and even experienced racism here in the U.S. and abroad.
Rather than widening barriers or even creating non-existent ones we need more dialogue about this social illness. The reformers of the 1960’s were not divisive people, but inviting all to help change a broken system. We should not be fighting among ourselves, especially over a “He said/She said,” rumor. We need to stop accusing each other of ridiculous things and combine our creativity and power to help cure the social ills that keep evolving. A divided country is easy to control and by fighting among ourselves we are making it easier for the Haves.