Breaking My Own Rule in Order to Speak Out
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”
~~ Maya Angelou ~~
I am breaking my own rule. I have to because I must speak out. I am compelled and convicted to do so.Just the other day, I told someone at the office, “Oh, yeah, I have a blog and it reveals what I do for a living, but I never talk about my work, my colleagues . . . that is all off limits.”
This is the reason:
I am not posting a link to or the name of that blog or its owner, in part, because I hope that by the time you read this the post in question will have been deleted.
Also, my goal in writing this post is to educate, not chastise or belittle a fellow blogger because I have visited that individual’s blog many times before and I truly do not believe that individual has ever posted anything maliciously or in an attempt to be intentionally cruel or hurtful.
The title of the post was “If You Laugh” and the caption under the photo was: “If you laugh, you’re a very bad person.”
I called BigBob in to look at the photo and, at first, he did not see the problem. You might not be seeing it yet, either, so let me help you out: Take a good look at the microphone Mr. Charles is holding.
The blogger in question encouraged readers to come to the conclusion that, since he was blind from the time he was a young child, Mr. Charles was unaware, when the photo was snapped, that he was holding the microphone the wrong way, thereby making fun of him because of the fact that he was a person with a disability.
Ladies and gentleman, buying into that conclusion and, based upon it, laughing at that photo doesn’t necessarily make an individual “a very bad person.” It does, however, make that individual extremely ignorant and disrespectful.
Ironically, I stumbled upon that post just a few minutes after posting about how living daily for the past six years with the ongoing threat of blindness as a result of full retinal detachments (for which I have undergone four surgeries and retain only useful peripheral vision in my left eye), not to mention tears and lattice degeneration in my right through which I see the world around a tangled mass of ever-present floaters, has changed my whole perspective on life and informs my daily commitment to my professional endeavors.
Growing up, I used to think Helen Keller jokes were the funniest things I’d ever heard. And when I graduated from high school, we didn’t have awards for “most likely to” so one of my classmates wrote a whole parody about what we were all going to do after graduation. Since I have played keyboards my whole life, he joked that I had a brilliant future in front of me as Ray Charles’ page turner. Everyone thought that was so witty, clever, funny.
I look back at those days and cringe . . . with embarrassment, shame, and revulsion not just because I am a civil rights attorney employed by the largest state-run civil rights employment agency in this country, but because my duties include teaching and speaking about those topics, particularly teaching employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities vis a vis persons with physical or mental disabilities or medical conditions. And I appreciate in a very personal, tangible manner just how hurtful and un-funny such inappropriate humor truly is.
To anyone reading this who is tempted to say “Oh, get over it . . . it’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humor?” I respectfully ask you to consider whether you would think it funny if the photo were posted in order to make fun of the color of Mr. Charles’ skin, his religion, his gender, his sexual orientation or any other immutable characteristic. There is no hierarchy among the protected categories enumerated in the United States’ and California’s laws prohibiting discrimination, harassment or retaliation. A person with a physical or mental disability or medical condition is entitled to the same respect, dignity, tolerance, understanding and opportunities accorded persons who are members of other protected groups. Too often, that fact is unknown or, worse, ignored or overlooked.
Making fun of, degrading, denigrating or stereotyping an individual because he/she has a physical or mental disability or medical condition is, under any circumstances, patently unacceptable behavior. Period. In the context of that individual’s search for, acquisition or enjoyment of employment, housing or service from a business establishment, it is illegal. And were that photo posted, bearing the same caption, in a California workplace, it would be violative of the appropriate workplace “zero tolerance” policy which every employer should draft, adopt, disseminate and enforce. Such posting would be deemed harassing. Repeated violations can result is legal liability and an award of damages to the person(s) affected by the unlawful conduct.
BigBob, by virtue of living with me all these years, reacted to the photo this way when I asked him to look closely at the microphone: “It looks like he’s pointing it toward the audience to hear them singing ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ because people always sang along when he performed that song.” Right answer, BigBob. That’s exactly what I suspect might have been going on, especially if you look at the expression of happiness on his face.
Another plausible explanation? He may have picked up the microphone and then realized it was in the wrong position, but the photo was snapped before he had a chance to juggle that task with playing. I have spent many years playing keys and singing in rock bands . . . sometimes the microphone or its stand does not cooperate and requires adjustment which can be a tricky maneuver when you are using both hands to play. Given Mr. Charles’ breadth of stage experience, I find it highly unlikely that he did not know which direction the microphone was facing.
It is indeed ironic that inappropriate humor was directed at one of the icons of both the music industry and civil rights movement. Not only was Mr. Charles one of the first African-American artists to successfully cross over to other genres, including country-western music, thereby paving the way for other artists follow suit, he quietly performed extensive charitable work and fought for equality, refusing to play venues where audiences were segregated. About that, he said:
“A promoter insisted that a date we were about to play be segregated: the blacks upstairs and the whites downstairs. I told the promoter that I didn’t mind segregation, except that he had it backwards. . . . After all, I was black and it only made sense to have the black folk close to me . . . Let him sue. I wasn’t going to play. And I didn’t. And he sued. And I lost.”
This was the incident that propelled Ray Charles into an active role in the quest for racial justice, the development of social consciousness that led him to friendship with and moral and financial support of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s.
“. . .[E]arly on, I decided that if I was going to shoot craps on anyone’s philosophy, I was putting my money on Martin Luther King Jr.
I figured if I was going to pick up my cross and follow someone, it could only be Martin.”
Despite his deep commitment to King and the cause of black Americans, Charles came to the logical conclusion that there was no place for him physically in the front lines:
“First, I wouldn’t have known when to duck when they started throwing broken bottles at my head. And I told that to Martin personally.
When he intentionally broke the law, he was hauled off to jail. And when you go to jail, you need money for lawyers, for legal research, for court fees, for food for the marchers. I saw that as my function; I helped raise money.” His awareness of racial injustice was not limited to the home front: The same years he fought the war against racial injustice in the American South found in Charles a growing awareness of racial injustice abroad, particularly the notorious policy of apartheid in South Africa.
Modest to the point of mum about his humanitarian and charitable activities, Ray Charles made an exception for the State of Israel and world Jewry.
Among the many, the world leader Charles most enjoyed meeting was David Ben-Gurion, with whom he had a conversation of many hours during a concert tour of Israel not long before Ben-Gurion’s death.
And the award among the hundreds he claimed touched him the most was the Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith’s tribute to its “Man of the Year” in 1976. Even though I’m not Jewish,” he explained, “and even though I’m stingy with my bread, Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting.
Blacks and Jews are hooked up and bound together by a common history of persecution. . .
If someone besides a black ever sings the real gut bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
Ray Charles was a phenomenal musician and humanitarian who, merely incidentally, had a physical disability. That is how we should honor his memory.
When I teach, I stress that we are all human beings who have different attributes. I train employers to look at job applicants’ and employees’ abilities, not disabilities, and refrain from making assumptions about or stereotyping other people when interviewing and selecting candidates or evaluating employees’ performances.
When blogging, I strive to adhere to those principles and challenge all other bloggers to do the same. After all, your audience is vast and varied. If one of your posts ridicules or reviles another human being because of his/her immutable characteristic(s), you could do a great deal of damage to that person without even realizing it. After all, you could join the ranks of Americans with a physical or mental disability or medical condition in the blink of . . . well . . . my damaged left eye! So, as the commercial says, “please
drink post responsibly.”