Alvin Law: Prejudice…The Choice

In our house, we say “There are no coincidences”, yet last night it seemed like one to me. In the span of one minute, and by complete chance on my part, I was watching some television last evening when a news promo for a Seattle TV Station briefly mentioned how upset some people are about the lack of “colour” in this year’s Oscar nominations. As the news promo ended, the movie trailer for the new biopic on Track & Field star, Jesse Owens came on. In case you didn’t know, or maybe forgot, Owens was the winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. A remarkable achievement on its own but the drama was magnified by the fact Owens was black and Hitler was in the house! Considering the Nazis had their feelings about blacks, it was poignant to see Owens stand on the top step to receive his gold medals and salute the flag and the anthem of the United States of America! The inevitable focus of this movie is Owen’s legitimate battle with race. Ironically, the name of the movie is “Race”. Pretty clever title because it has a double meaning, right? The trailer was quick and the movie doesn’t come out for a month, so I don’t know the actual treatment by Hollywood but near the end, the actor playing Owens, Stephan James, proclaims; “It ain’t about black and white, it’s about fast and slow!” Brilliant!

Do you see the irony? I do. For years, most of my life actually, I have qualified for “minority status”. I have experienced prejudice and some of it hasn’t been pretty. I hate it! So, I get why some “minorities” get angry at this topic and by the way, I am not saying their perspective is “wrong”, but it is to me, bothersome. By the way, I was watching the Denver Broncos play the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game at the time and the Broncos won (yay!).  At the end of the game, shortly after the movie trailer played, the players from opposing teams, exhibiting superb sportsmanship, as is most often the case, interact on the field. Lots of hugs, handshakes, even a prayer circle, are the norm and the players represent diversity, mostly Black and White, but prejudice seems non-existent. These three unconnected moments last night became totally connected in my head, and thus this blog, and I apologize for its length, but this is a big subject!

i could write a book about this topic alone and it is most definitely a “hot button issue”, so please read and ingest carefully. Racism, or in this case, I am using the word “Prejudice”, does exist and that is a given. But here’s a pretty good question…”Why”? Do you ever ask that question? Have you exhibited prejudice, or had it directed at you? Does it make you mad? Does it make me mad? You know, it’s funny. I used to be mad…really angry at the life I was given. I often say, “I didn’t overcome having no arms, I overcame the era”. Was I marginalized?

You know it’s funny to me now. I have a very well worn story in my speech about eating a hamburger in a fast food restaurant in my hometown in 1974. It was a big burger. I had it crammed between the first and second toes of my right foot. It was juicy. It wasn’t pretty! It got noticed and this was not 2016, so we didn’t have “politically correct” manners. A middle aged man and stranger about twenty feet away looked like he was about to get ill. He was staring right at me and was not being even close to polite, I was 14 years old. I was an adolescent. I was angry. I had no arms! That’s not fair! Life isn’t fair! That day is one I will never forget. I put down my burger because I felt like I was going to be ill myself, I asked my Dad to take me home, went down to the basement where I hung out a lot…by myself. I had no friends, right? Everyone hated me, right? I couldn’t even go out for a burger and have a dignified lunch with my Dad. “EVERYONE IN THE WORLD SUCKS…EVERYONE!” I totally believed that.

So leading the anger at the blatant racism displayed by the Oscars Committee are Black celebrities, Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith (Actor Will Smith’s wife), who are calling for a ban on this year’s Oscar ceremony. Failing that, you should at least boycott the ceremony. I’m guessing the fact Black comedian, and one of the funniest human beings on the planet, Chris Rock, is hosting the Oscars got lost in the anger! By the way, I get “protesting” and ” boycotting” but I see things another way.

That day way back in 1974 was what I can vividly recall being the “darkest” day of my life, and trust me, I’ve had more than my fair share of dark ones. After going to my basement and slamming the door, I slumped on our worn old couch, started to cry and then I gave up! I can actually, and uncomfortably, state I considered the value of my life and what ending it would do. I had never sunk that low. But it made sense, right? I had zero control over my life. Having no arms was the primary definition of my existence, right? It was as if my Dad knew what I was contemplating. The slammed door was meant to signify “Leave me alone” but Dad came downstairs anyway. I really didn’t feel like a “chat with Dad” moment. Long story made short; Dad spoke these words…”Son, I think you have two simple choices here. I understand you hate being stared at, but you are eating a big, messy hamburger with your foot! Son, that’s going to get stared at! So if you don’t like it, just stay home! Never leave the house again. You can live down here and your mother will toss you some toast every now and then, so you won’t starve, but your problem will be solved!”

All I said was…”That’s stupid!” Dad answered, “That is stupid! And you know what, some people are stupid too, you’ve met a lot of them and they will follow you around for the rest of your life. But son, you aren’t stupid. To learn what you’ve learned, to do what you can do, people may not always see that but you can teach them. Things may never change but you can’t live like they never will!”

We went on to discuss a strategy. The next time we went to my favourite fast food place, (A & W) and squished a Papa Burger between my toes, and got the predictable stare, I turned the tables. I put my burger down, looked the stranger right in the eyes and with my dripping right foot, waved! It was an amazing moment! It opened a portal that I stepped through and my life was never the same! My Dad was right, yet again. The world may never change, but I can!

On a side note, I actually and secretly, dreamed of being a famous celebrity! In seventh grade, our Junior High put on the musical, “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown”, and it was one of the highlights of my young life, I was cast as Snoopy! I was a hit, honest! I had a very high voice, was an accomplished tap dancer and since Snoopy had no arms either, I was perfect for the part! I even carried my dog dish in my mouth, just like Snoopy! It was also my last significant role in musicals or drama club all the way through Grade 12. Did I want to be the star? Sure. Was I disappointed when I got the part of “townsperson” or something else unimportant? I suppose but what I should have been was more focused on being happy for my peers who got the leading roles, were the stars, got the standing ovations! Why aren’t Spike Lee and Pinkett-Smith congratulating their acting peers for their nominations? Because they, like way too many people, like to tarnish the good and focus on the bad!

Its funny to me now. I estimate I have received over 3,000 standing ovations in my adult life, almost all of them as a speaker. I appreciate every one of them and “never” take one for granted…ever! I live every day with the intention of “Gratitude” because I can step far enough away from the obvious and see that I “have” far more than I don’t! I am also far from perfect, but I do believe one of the greatest gifts my Dad gave me was…”Acceptance”! I spend most of my public life talking about what my Mom, Hilda Law, did for me, and what she did was significant. But my Dad gave me something too. You’re going to think I am making this up but when I was struggling with my identity, Dad would talk about the “Thought Leaders” of the time and one of my absolute favourites was Dr. Martin Luther King. Ironic because Yorkton Saskatchewan had zero black people and thus, no “race” problem in that regard. We did have First Nations people who were regularly treated poorly and with sometimes extreme prejudice but that is for another blog. Still, my Dad held up people like Dr. King as not just leaders but heroes who would change the world and although they did “protest”, they did it peacefully and respectfully. They may have been angry inside, so was I, but they placed their attention not on what “had happened” in the past but what “could happen” in the future.

Here is what I remember the most. Dr. King had a lot of quotes but my absolute favourite was, and I will paraphrase; “I have a dream where people will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character”. Is it just me, or does the Jesse Owens quote…”Its not about black and white, it’s about fast and slow”, not have a profound resonance?

By the way, last night while watching football and seeing the movie trailer and the news promo about #Oscarssowhite, I had completely forgotten today, the third Monday in January, is Martin Luther King Day! That’s kinda weird isn’t it? Not the “Day”, but the coincidence. So on this day, and especially if you are black and/or have experienced prejudice, do you choose to focus on what’s wrong with our world or do you choose to celebrate what is right? It may sound like I’m being extremely biased here and that may be true, but really, there is no “absolutely correct” approach to this. It is a choice. I “choose” to wave at the stupid people instead of throwing my burger. I “choose” to see the smiles, not the frowns, to see the joy, not the misery…to see a world where content of character is everything. Thank you Dr. King!