September 29, 2007

Role Reversal

I am going to do something that I think may be utterly unique in the 500 or so posts I've written to this point:

I'm going to defend Bill O'Reilly.

Okay, I know, settle down. I have a reason.

Bill-O recently visited a Harlem restaurant called Sylvia's, as you probably know, and ended up with this (among other things) to say about it:

"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks [and has a] primarily black patronship."

Yes, he sounds ignorant. And yes, it's implied that he thought what he was going to see was the worst sort of nightmare of old white folks; some kind of mutated hybrid of Cribs, Pimp My Ride, and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

And that's pretty much my point.

His amazement at the civility - nay, the very normality of black people reminded me of my own grandfather, and probably several of your own, too. It's not that he is particularly racist, it's that he was too lazy to correct his ignorance. (In O'Reilly's case, anyways: my own grandfather was racist - couldn't stand East Indians for some reason. Never found out why. Anyhow:)

That it took him decades before he went to a soul food restaurant is a little embarrassing, sure; but he went. O'Reilly was clearly out of his comfort zone, and made something of a fool of himself when he commented on what he found ("My God! They're just like people!") but he did try a new experience, and decided to share what he found.

We mock him, sure; but to how much of his audience was what he said a revelation? Think about it: what he found about Sylvia's may have actually been a surprise to much of his viewers! Consider the demographic; consider what people that demographic is likely to be living near; and consider the odds of any of them ever visiting Harlem.

Okay, they're as likely to avoid it because that's where Bill Clinton set up his office after he left the Presidency as for any other reason, but that's not the point.

Flashback to college: remember the first-years who were out of the house for the first time in their lives? And they had to tell everybody about all the things they were discovering, "out in the real world, man!" Everything was big and neat and new and intense. They bugged the hell out of me, sure, but it was cute to watch them learn. All part of growing up, see.

It's like that, if you're lucky, for your entire life. you keep thinking, keep discovering, keep learning things that are big and neat and new and intense. It just happened that O'Reilly discovered this aspect of humanity quite late in the game: he bugs the hell out of me, sure; but at least he's learning. Hopefully, he took some of his audience along with him.

Because frankly, the more folks who discover that "The Other" is actually just another name for "people we know nothing about" the better.


May I suggest: if you want to see just how jarring this experience can be, try Richard Poplak's Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa.


posted by Thursday at 11:11 pm


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