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Doing the Right Thing

I've been immersed in the world of cinema the past few days. The 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival has been taking place in my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois this week. Ashley & I have been to every festival since 2001. So many great movies have flashed across the screen of the Virginia Theatre during the long days of the festival over the years. Last night saw director Spike Lee host a screening of his 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. It was my first time watching the seminal film about race relations in America, and it definitely provided food for thought.

Perhaps it's unfair, but I use myself as a barometer of prejudice in America. The product of a black father and white mother, growing-up in a small Midwestern city and knowing people of different races and political persuasions all my life, it seems credible to say that I'd have a fairly broad outlook on all things prejudicial. Sadly, the results of both internal and external observations could be better.

The intervening 25 years since Do the Right Thing first arrived on the scene has witnessed the first non-caucasian President of the United States, but how far have we really come? During the Q&A after last night's screening, it was obvious that Spike Lee had been irritated with critics who'd lamented the riotous destruction of Sal's Pizzeria, while saying little or nothing about how the police had killed Radio Raheem. I found myself seeing his point, although what of Raheem nearly choking the life out of Sal only moments before the police pulled him off?

The fact that I consider excuses for the whites/Italians in the film gives me pause. It doesn't help that this comes on the heels of my reading about a Minnesota man on trial for murdering two teens who'd broken into his house. What stunned me was the reaction I had to seeing photos of the two teens. A guy and a girl, they were both white and preppy looking. 'Wait,'  I thought. 'What were they thinking? Were they really breaking-in? Maybe they were high, or confused?' The excuses raced, automatically, through my mind. The shaming thought then occurred that, if the teens had been black, I wouldn't have given their break-in a second thought. So it goes.

Also within the past week, a co-worker was very earnestly asking what I considered Ashley to be. "Do you call him your husband?" she asked, and I winced. She seemed confused. I fumbled for the correct words. Finally, I was honest, and remarked that it seemed odd to me for two men to refer to each other as husbands. Yes, I actually thought and said that. Me, a gay man, an advocate for gay rights and marriage equality! Perhaps it is a generational thing, growing-up during a time when being gay got my ass kicked? Regardless, it was a prejudiced thing to think and say.

There are other examples out there, some I'm too ashamed to admit in this public forum, but, there you go. A bi-racial gay man is capable of both racial prejudice and backwards thinking on marriage equality (to an extent). And if I'm that way, then it stands to reason that others are, too (and even worse). Instead of denying it, however, I acknowledge these shortcomings, and continually work to improve upon them. When we all acknowledge that none of us are perfect, that we all bring our own life experience and shortcomings to the table, only then can we better ourselves.

Perhaps that's what doing the right thing is all about?


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