Every White Person Has To Own Their White Privilege If They’re Ever Going To NOT Be Racist

A recent production of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” in Washington, DC.

First things first: racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not up to the racist or the person who might be racist to decide whether or not they’re racist. They’re a little too close to the subject to judge.

So — no white person can say “I’m not a racist”. It’s not up to you. I know — that makes it tricky. “How do I know I’m not being racist at any given moment then?”

You don’t.

The fact is, we’re all “racist” in that we differentiate between ourselves and our immediate tribe with everyone else. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Other social animals do it too. Survival instinct, ya know?

But, being intelligent animals (or, at least, fancying ourselves intelligent), we have the ability to check our impulses and native instincts. It’s a little like not shitting the moment the urge hits you like, say, a horse might. Humans have learned — go elsewhere to do that — may we suggest the bathroom? Just like with moving our bowels, sometimes it’s just not convenient to do it. So we hold it in for as long as we need to.

Because we can.

It’s not a matter of denying our racism, it’s a matter of keeping it in check at all times. The goal is, in time (with personal experience), eliminate those feelings altogether. It’s a little like changing one’s bowel habits — to extend the metaphor. A bad diet produces bad bowel habits with plenty of bloating and discomfort and difficulty that only gets worse over time. If you change your diet though — voila!

I was having prostate issues. I cut back on caffeine. Now I don’t have prostate issues.

And we all know how important it is having adequate roughage in your diet to help clean everything out. Maintaining a diet instead of eating whatever you like is hard work.

So’s not being a racist — and you have to do it every single day.

I know the moment I realized I was an “institutional racist”. Now, I grew up an “other”. I’m Jewish. I was told by my culture that I was a “Chosen People”. Considering the cruelty visited upon my tribe, perhaps it would have been better for us if this god creature had chosen someone else. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust where institutional racism became industrial racism.

I am old enough, sadly, to remember knowing there were quotas — unspoken but understood: a certain number of Jews or Blacks or Latinos or Chinese or Japanese or Indian (if any) to be invited into “the club” — a private school, a country club, a college.

I do know the sting of not having privilege.

But I don’t know it — personally — on the scale my black and brown brothers and sisters have been forced to endure. Having white skin, there was always the chance for me to “pass” for a bit — until the real white people heard my last name or stopped to reconsider the shape and cut of my nose. White Europeans are bullies — cultural and otherwise. But certain tribes were always excluded from Christian privilege. Romani people were one. Armenians were another. And, of course, there was always the Jews.

Still — white European culture and bullying are pervasive enough — and, by the time I was born American Jews had begun assimilating enough — so that I was afforded a significant amount of white privilege even though lots of that privilege was denied me. I still had some white privilege where others had none.

It’s just a fact.

I grew up outside of Baltimore, Maryland in the 70’s. My parents were ardent theater-goers. There was a big theater downtown called “The Mechanic” (after one of it’s big donors — last name Mechanic) where big touring productions of Broadway shows played. A few blocks away was Center Stage, an Equity LORT theater that staged original productions using Equity actors. Real quality stuff. Great plays with lots of great actors — known, unknown, about to be known.

It was 1982. The year after I graduated from college. I was visiting from New York. My parents had subscriptions to both the Mechanic and Center Stage but couldn’t make that night’s Center Stage performance and didn’t want to waste the tickets. They gave them to me. I was able to use one of them.

The show was James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”.

Right off the bat — though I loved theater, though I’d just graduated from Vassar College as a DRAMA major — I hemmed and hawed. “That,” I told myself, “Is going to be a boring couple of hours.” That was my fear. How could a show about black people possibly be interesting to me?

Assuming that other peoples’ cultures are uninteresting is… if not exactly racist, it’s stupid. Let’s call it racist adjacent. In my defense, I went. I was lost but not a lost cause.

The Amen Corner‘ is about Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a storefront church in Harlem. Margaret is fiercely protective of her teenage son David — especially when her estranged husband (David’s father) Luke (a jazz musician) returns to them because he’s dying. Margaret has always painted Luke as a weak man who left his family because he loved playing music more than supporting them. To Margaret’s growing unease, her son David is showing a similar passion for music over a passion for, say, God.

But Margaret, it turns out, hasn’t been entirely honest or faithful to the truth. Luke didn’t leave her — causing her to find God for salvation — she found God first. Her single-minded devotion to God — to her own religious impulses — caused her marriage to break up. Luke didn’t leave her, she left Luke — who still loves her.

The play asks a lot of hard questions about faith and culture and religion and community and love, and, of course, racism. Racism sits beneath everything.

Whether or not “The Amen Corner” is a great play from a literary standpoint — I don’t know frankly. I’m amazed it hasn’t gotten more attention. If theater is meant to not only entertain but inform, “The Amen Corner” checked off every box there was and then some.

I walked in the door, figuring I’d get a little sleep and ended up so emotionally drained that I was literally the last person to leave the theater when the evening’s performance was finished.

The leads — Frances Foster and Bill Cobbs — as Margaret and Luke — were exceptional. The story grabbed me early and would not let go of me. But that wasn’t what left me drained and touched so deeply that — as I write this, I can feel the same awe I felt then. I was racist to think Black culture would bore me.

That night, James Baldwin, Frances Foster, Bill Cobbs, director Walter Dallas and the rest of the magnificent cast opened my eyes. Of course it’s not boring! It’s human! And all human drama is interesting. All human drama teaches us something. Only an idiot or a racist would turn up their nose at learning more about the other people with whom we share the planet and the present.

That Black culture was as rich as my culture wasn’t the point. That Black culture touched me as deeply as my own — that I understood its values and its struggles and could see myself in their place and care as deeply about their pain as about my own.

That’s what happens when you realize how much we all have in common.

Important point to make here: I do not deserve a medal for this. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise even.

I’m just meeting an obligation — the same obligation everyone has — to come clean. As the name of my blog says — I aspire to live Bullshit Free. It would be bullshit, for instance, for me to say I’ve never benefited from white privilege.

Now jump forward 39 years to 2001.

I’m in my second year as a Co-Executive Producer on Showtime’s sci-fi anthology “The Outer Limits“. I adapt in interesting idea that was pitched to the (all white) Outer Limits writers room about an invention that can “mine” the talents and skill sets from seniors so they can be “passed on” after they die. But those talents and skill sets can also be stolen — “mined” from these seniors before they’re fully ready to “surrender them”. It was, at heart, about warehousing old people.

We shot “The Outer Limits” up in Vancouver but the main production office was based in Los Angeles. While we cast most of the show in Vancouver, LA always cast the lead or leads. I never had any real say over who my main actors would be but I can’t think of a time when the actors cast for me let me down.

The episode — “Fathers & Sons” was about a black family. The dad (played by Anthony Sherwood) was a middle-of-the road guy with a middle-of-the-road job and approach to life. His very ordinary life was a kind of rebuke to his dad — an itinerant jazz musician — who lived with the family (because he was pretty much broke). The dad was especially fearful of the impact his father was having on his son — who aspired to be a jazz musician just like his grandpa.

Gee, it even sounds like “The Amen Corner“. The two leads LA cast were the grandson Ronnie Dell — they got Eugene Byrd — and the grandfather Joe Dell. For Joe, LA cast Bill Cobbs. I didn’t write the episode (borrowing heavily from “The Amen Corner“) expecting to get Bill Cobbs. I just got Bill Cobbs.

Sometimes you have to think the Universe is speaking to you. Or trying to.

I didn’t even make the Joe Cobbs — “Amen Corner” connection immediately. To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Joe’s work. Or, I didn’t think I was. Joe’s like a lot of great character actors: they work a lot but you don’t necessarily know their names (even when you cast a lot of actors).

When I looked up Joe’s credits out of curiosity, there it was: “Luke in ‘The Amen Corner’ at Center Stage”.

Ho-ly shit!

I won’t bore you with the long conversation Bill and I had about “The Amen Corner”. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with some huge actors (well, their names were “huge”) — Kirk Douglass, Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt, Whoopi Goldberg (just after she won her Oscar too), Steve Coogan, Joel Grey, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Tim Curry, Ewan McGregor & Timothy Dalton to name but a few. Working with Bill Cobbs was right up there with those guys.

I hope like hell I didn’t creep poor Bill out, I became so reverential. It’s nice to be able to tell performers you like how much they mean to you. It’s even better when you can tell them that while you’re working with them.

Having an open mind means having an open mind — not a semi-open mind. Being legitimately too tired to go to a show is one thing. To not go because you’re a systemic, institutional racist?

You NEED an evening of theater to sort you out.

What If We Could Make Sports As Virtual As We’re Making Everything Else?

Back in the day, I was a Co-Executive Producer for two years on a Showtime sci-fi series called The Outer Limits (it was a re-boot of the sci-fi show that ran on ABC in the 1960’s). Thinking “sci-fi” comes naturally. Not being a hard core sci-fi guy though (like everyone else on the staff was), I tended to think character first, technology second (my favorite episode was sci-fi lite — it was about a neurotic, nosy woman who’s suddenly able to hear what all her neighbors are thinking; Jane Adams played the role & Helen Shaver directed the episode).

I once wrote a short story about a future world where war has been taken off the real battlefield and put into a virtual battlefield. By international agreement, the world’s countries have agreed to make their armies “imaginary”. They reflect all the manpower, machinery and dynamism that their country can realistically produce — and in what amount.

The threat of losing virtually — and being forced to either cede territory as a result or sue for peace (and have to negotiate a surrender) has made war rare except among rogue states. Among the first world nations though — virtual war is the only war. When America is forced to fight such a war — and loses, the General responsible commits an act of murder in the aftermath — an ironic (if heavy-handed) reflection of just how civilized humans can ever really be.

In a sense, the architecture already exists to make all war (old-fashioned bombs n bullets war, that is) virtual. The same goes for sports.

We know how to turn real world data into a virtual player whose skill sets and animation accurately reflect that data. With some tweakage to accuracy — and ways to bring in all the real-time data points that would reflect real time action (in a football game, that would be a minimum of 100 data points — 2 teams with 40-man rosters + coaching staffs + officiating crew) all producing real time assessments, predictions and animations that — with some additional tweakage to the humanization of the players characters — look and feel almost like the real thing.

So — in real time — both coaching staffs would call virtual plays in real time to virtual huddles from which the virtual players would all break to go run — or audible out of. Each player would be responsible for his own character (even if his character is sitting on the bench). If the Quarterback character runs an audible and calls the snap — all his players will have to do what they were going to do — which the massive server being used will animate in real time for a world-wide audience to see. All 22 virtual players (being run by their real counterparts) will have to react to the ball (which will have its own set of virtual real time rules to follow).

Now, keep in mind — the players won’t be able to live on their laurels. They’ll be training the whole time between games — just like they were going to do. There will be metrics and measurements that they’ll have to input (via devices that actually measure the data) so that their data and all opposing players’ data is always completely up-to-date and “real”.

Because the computer knows instantaneously what the play’s outcome will be, the computer also can visualize the play and how it plays out with perfect coverage that “just so happens” to always be in the right place at the right time — with multiple perfect angles. Because the computer knows for a fact what happened on the field and what didn’t — with its physics pretty much always perfect — there won’t be any call for “field officiating”. Refs will be left in (at first) mostly for nostalgia purposes. I’m not sure yet what (if anything) game related they could do, but — in time, their role, too, will be automated. You know Major League Baseball wants to go here already, don’t ya?

Want to watch the game? That will cost ya. We could do this in tiers. The more you pay, the more inside dope ya get. The closer to the actual flow of data you get. Perhaps there’s even virtual interaction with the players. Perhaps we create virtual stadiums with tweaks to view you get (and, at any time, you can also watch the basic “here’s the game” view the general, cheapest-tier-buying pubic will get.

The cheapest tier would be exactly like what we have today. It’s free — except there are ads. Buy a subscription and the ads go away — replaced by actual content.

The Giant “What-if” we’re going to have to solve — “what if we could never feel safe again in huge crowds where anyone in it could literally kill everyone else — without even knowing?” The venues, the teams, the networks broadcasting the games — everyone will have to worry about getting sued for contributing to all that death. It won’t matter how long it takes to snake through the system, the nuisance of it, the cost — it will all be burdensome and it will hang over everything.

Two years from now (at a minimum) when not only is a viable, safe vaccination created but is distributed and given in sufficient numbers to get us all headed back to whatever normal is, then we may begin to fill stadiums again. But, sci-fi being what it is, by then another unintended consequence may be threatening our health. Climate change has already melted parts of the perma frost, releasing organisms into the present that have been literally frozen into the past. We have no idea how our bodies will react to or handle these things.

Maybe that’s more horror movie than sci-fi. I’ll put my Tales From The Crypt hat on later.

Movies I Adore: “Don’t Look Now”

Every now and then you have to quit bitching and moaning and shout your love for something. Being a filmmaker, movies have always “spoken to me”. I adore it as a form of storytelling. It’s so easy to get wrong. Soooooo easy.

But when a movie is right. It lives inside your head. It’s the storytelling and the look and the characters and the dialogue and the music and the casting and even the greens and set dec — it’s all sublime. There are lots of “directors” but only a handful of artists. I’ve had the pleasure of working with an artist — Bob Zemeckis.

In a way, Bob’s an “artist of the impossible”.

Bob was one of my Executive Producers when I did Tales From The Crypt for HBO. I wrote most of the episodes he directed. For starters, he is an incredible collaborator. He truly knows how to get the very best out of everyone he works with. Which is where the “impossible” comes in. At some point, in a Zemeckis piece, there’s going to be at least one shot that — if you’re looking and realize you’re watching it — is impossible. Meaning — yeah, the shot’s there in the movie but how the hell did they get it? It’s impossible!

When I was a young buck, a terrific documentary filmmaker I had the honor to know — Greg Shuker — turned me on to Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” — a psychological thriller starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

Don't Look NowI don’t want to give away a great ending but — that the ending works as effectively as it does, that it’s as memorable as it is — it’s a testament to the masterful work director Nic Roeg has done up till then.

Water plays heavily.  The color red, too.  Sutherland plays John, an art restorer preparing for a project he’s about to start in Venice, Italy.  He and Christie’s Laura own a farm out in the country where their two young children are playing on a rainy day.  Their young daughter drowns in the pond — something her father “senses”.  He rushes outside but too late.  He pulls her body — clad in its red mac — from the pond with a doleful wail.

It’s a few months later.  They’ve buried their child.  Their son is at boarding school as the restoration project in Venice begins.  On their first night, Laura and John make love (for the first time since their daughter died) then go out to dinner.  At the next table are two elderly English sisters.  One is blind.  They happen to be in the ladies’ room when Laura enters.

The blind sister is psychic.  She says she’s seen Laura and John’s daughter.  She was happy.  Laughing.  Laura is blown away.  She doesn’t know what to think.  But John — when Laura tells him — thinks it’s all nonsense and wishful thinking. 

And yet.  As the movie goes on, John begins to catch glimpses of a fleeing figure in red.  Is it the spirit of his daughter — or something else?

Roeg was a director of photography before sliding into the director’s chair.  His films look great.  He captures Venice’s wateriness — its dullness.  Its greyness and fog.  He captures the feeling one gets — being there — of wandering in circles — hopelessly lost.  But the Roeg’s real genius as a director was in how he cut.  He had a way of intercutting two scenes that no one else could touch.

An excellent example — the scene where John and Laura make love for that first time since their daughter’s death.  Roeg intercuts the sex — which is very intimate (there have always been stories that the sex between Christie and Sutherland was real) — with John and Laura, post-coital, get ready to go out for dinner.  You really get the feeling that they’re a couple — which makes the sex we keep intercutting back to feel more organic and real.

For my money, the sex scene in Don’t Look Now is one of the best 2 or 3 sex scenes in all of movie history (the caveat being that most sex scenes suck).  And — here’s the kicker — it’s between a married couple.  That’s a sex scene you never see — between married people.

Nic Roeg died a few months ago.  I still owe Greg Shuker — for introducing him to me.