Reflections on Obama Race Speech

Yesterday Senator Barack Obama made a speech about race and politics and religion in America. It’s prompted me to reflect on some themes that he touched on as they relate to my own life. You can find complete video of Obama’s speech on my YouTube channel under favorites.

He spoke about his white grandmother who despite her undying love and dedication to him she expressed her fears of confronting black men on the street and her offensive use of racial and ethnic stereotypes. It caused me to remember my own maternal grandmother who was very much a kind and gentle woman who loved people of all kinds and never really expressed what I thought was much of a racist attitude except for one time. When I was very young, perhaps five or six years old, my parents that I had a membership in the West Lake Swim Club. It was a private swimming pool on the west side of Indianapolis which is no longer there but it was at or near the current site of the West Lake Apartments. In order to be a member of the club you had to show a special photo ID that they would issue you. It was explained to me that this was a thinly veiled attempt to “keep the coloreds out”. I distinctly remember a conversation with my grandmother in which I asked her why we wanted to keep colored people out of our swimming pool. I sarcastically exclaimed “it’s not like the stuff comes off when they get wet is it?” Of course I knew it didn’t and I was being facetious even at that early age.

Grandma Osterman had a tough time trying to justify the situation to me. She explained that colored people had swimming pools they could use. They were public pools run by the Parks Department. They had their pools and we had our pools and so it was fair. By the way I’ve not found my parents to be particularly racist. We join the West Lake Swim Club because it was nearby and had a really great pool. My parents attitude at the time was they didn’t care if there were blacks there are not.

I always found it strange thinking back on the conversation with my grandmother because nothing else in my entire experience of her until her death in 1990 lead me to find hurt to be even the slightest bit racist. She had worked with black people for years and her job at Fort Benjamin Harrison Army Finance Center. She was always very friendly and cordial with black nurses and caregivers who cared for her in her later years. She was never condescending towards them and always treated them with respect.

I think it really wasn’t until Obama’s yesterday that I really got a good grasp on her incongruous comments about the all white swim club. It wasn’t that her attitude about the all-white facility was some expression of deeply hidden racism. It was simply a product of her upbringing. She was born in 1900 and this conversation with her took place in the early 1960s. At that point she had lived her entire life where it was a given that whites and coloreds were to remain separate. It was the natural order of things and she had known no different her entire life. It wasn’t that she saw anything inherently wrong with black people. Her experience, her attitude was simply a statement of fact that this was the way things were and since there was nothing unusual about it there must be nothing wrong with it.

Moving on to the issue of ethnic stereotypes especially in regard to humor. I’ve always been an incredibly politically incorrect person when it comes to humor. Rarely have I ever shied away from telling ethnic jokes of any variety whether it was blacks, Polish, Kentuckians, Jews, Italians and especially my own religion Catholics. I’ve always felt that recitation and/or appreciation of ethnic jokes was not an indication (at least in my case) of any kind of prejudice whatsoever. I should also say that I also deeply appreciate humor regarding people with disabilities. I’ve always had a difficult time understanding how people are offended by humor. I think something either is funny or it isn’t and the level of offense that someone takes at it isn’t significant. To quote one of my heroes Lenny Bruce “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke!”

The only handicapped joke I ever found mildly disturbing was the following riddle…

Q. Why shouldn’t you have sex with a vegetable?
A. Because it’s too difficult to get them back in the wheelchair once you’re done with them?

When I heard that, I laughed really hard and it was genuine laughter… not the kind of nervous laughter that emits when you’ve heard something offensive and don’t know if you should laugh or not. It was not the kind of laughter you generate to cover-up a difficult or embarrassing situation. I laughed because I thought it was genuinely funny. But then I cringed…

Two reasons actually… the first of which isn’t as obvious as the second. My first reason is I’ve always thought that the word “vegetable” was a totally ridiculous use of the word in regards to comatose people. Even the medically correct term “persistent vegetative state” seems ludicrous to me. I think it’s the scientist in me and a lover of words that just thinks the word vegetable is stupid in such circumstances. You don’t call a sleeping dog a vegetable. He’s a sleeping animal. So is a comatose or even totally brain-dead human being. Being unconscious doesn’t convert you from animals to vegetable no matter how unconscious you are! A vegetable is a plant for God’s sake! It’s red or green or white and is stuck in the ground and has no nervous system and makes food through photosynthesis. So I’ve always been a little bit offended by the word vegetable in regards to human beings.

The second reason that I cringed at the joke was a little closer to home. I think all really offensive humor offends people because it has more truth in it than they’re willing to accept. The joke caused me to wonder how many opportunities I had lost at getting laid simply because it would’ve been too hard to get me out of and back into the wheelchair! In the end I had a very deep appreciation for the joke because it got a rise out of me in the way no other piece of humor ever did. It did not however set me off on a political tirade like offensive humor does for so many people.

Finally we come to the topic of being held accountable for the bizarre statements of our religious leaders…

On a worldwide level there are a number of statements and positions by various popes and other upper-level church leaders with which I have had serious disagreement. I don’t particularly see myself as one of those “Cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose which doctrines they are going to believe in which ones they are going to ignore. The particular issues with which I disagree with the institutional church are issues which I’ve taken the time to study and understand the church’s position. I understand the position completely. In many respects I understand why they profess what it is they are professing. I simply disagree. I’m also aware that not everything that comes out at the mouth of a pope or a church official or a bishop or priest has the same weight of authority. Some issues are core issues of dogma that you either accept or you need to start looking for a different religion. Some issues are in the form of guidance which you should seriously heed but are not necessarily going to cost you your soul if you don’t.

Among the teachings of the Church which trouble me is its attitude towards homosexuals. In one respect I’m extremely proud of the Church in that it is much more accepting of homosexuals that many more fundamentalist Christian faiths. The Catholic Church recognizes that most and perhaps all homosexuals are simply wired that way. Their stance is that a homosexual orientation is not in and of itself sinful. However it firmly believes that sex outside of marriage is sinful. Marriage is only for heterosexual couples. And therefore all homosexual sex is sinful. So basically they say you can be gay all day long at longer
you don’t do anything about it. In some ways it treats them a lot like it treats me: a single, not likely to be married, heterosexual. It acknowledges that I am a sexual being but until and unless I can find someone to get me in and out of that wheelchair every day in the state of marriage… I need to keep it zipped.

That said… I really think committed, monogamous, homosexuals ought to be free to go beyond just being homosexually oriented and become homosexually active.

I am so embarrassed by the Church’s position on this issue that it cost me a friend in a very strange way. Many years ago I became good friends with a Catholic priest. He was a good spiritual director for me. I continue to teach classes in the Catholic faith based upon some of his classes and homilies. I have great admiration and respect for him. At one point he felt it necessary to leave the priesthood and come out of the closet and live an openly gay relationship with a partner. It completely destroyed my ability to continue my friendship with him. I’m not homophobic… I’m just damned embarrassed as a Catholic. I’m pissed off that he had to leave the priesthood. I’m pissed off that he is unwelcome in the church. I found it impossible to continue to share with him what was going on in my life because so much of what I do revolves around my work in the church. I’m embarrassed that my life in the Catholic Church goes on and he has to find alternate ways to express his faith and do God’s work because of an institution I belong to. So much of our friendship was based on our shared faith that I just don’t have the guts to spend time with him and talk about it anymore.

So I really understand what it’s like to be embarrassed by the proclamations of your religious leaders.

On a more personal note there have been a number of things which various priests whom I’ve considered friends have said things that I totally totally disagree with. Here is a short list in no particular order.

  • Although it’s okay to use Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as excellent symbols of the battle of good versus evil. Harry Potter ought to be banned because all witchcraft is evil! In short light sabers are good… magic wands are evil. It’s okay to kill Darth Vader but it doesn’t matter if you’re battling Lord Voldemort who is evil.
  • The film “The Last Temptation of Christ” ought to be banned because it would dare to suggest that Jesus was never tempted by sex. This is despite the fundamental dogma that Jesus was not only divine but he was human in every way. Of course the opposition to this film was vehemently stated without ever having seen the film itself.
  • People who have a vasectomy or tubal ligation have engaged in self-mutilation because they cannot control their baser instincts.

Those stances were held by priests who I consider to be very good friends then and now. They are men of God for whom I have the greatest respect. However they… like Obama’s grandmother and mine are products of their time and upbringing. They’re a part of my heritage and history and while I completely disagree with them I cannot disown them.

There have been other things that priests I know have said and done which have caused me to lose complete respect for them personally but I managed not to take it out on the Catholic Church in general. I continue to worship in the Catholic faith despite its many flaws.

Even the horrendous cover-up of the whole child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church which is a major embarrassment has its roots in its history and heritage that cannot be denied. In the face of the Protestant Reformation the church became fanatical about the idea that the Church must be seen as a pillar of perfection. Therefore any imperfections have to be hidden from public view at all cost. That’s an insane and inadequate defense for the cover-up but it is an explanation that makes a twisted kind of sense no matter how misguided that is.

In conclusion I think the real strength of Senator Obama’s speech yesterday was not what he said about race or religion or politics. It was that he touched a chord that resonates with virtually everyone. Our ability to love friends, leaders, and institutions despite their most aberrant flaws is a real paradox. But it’s part of the human condition and it’s something that we ought to appreciate, recognize, and honor.
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