As I try to educate this new generation of young people about history and systems of inequality, I encounter a resistance. It is not an overt denial nor an ignorance, and it has baffled me for some time. Young people today have access to more ideas and information than ever before. But within this data dump, the artifacts lose their meaning, fools gold and 24K gold are never cut into the discover the true density. And now, racism lives in what is unsaid. It is hard to record or identify, tag, and label because it lives in absence.
A recent episode of Modern Family on ABC illuminated this for me. This show has received accolades for its portrayal of a current day complex family; the sexy Colombian second wife, the gay husbands with the adopted girl from China, the quintessential nuclear white family with quirks and disappointments at every turn. The creators and writers of this show create humor from observations on just how we can all relate and find something very familiar in what at first can seem very different.
And it was within this creative feel good depiction of American life that racism screamed out into silence. The gay husbands are rushing to get ready for work and get their daughter off to school. To their surprise, she is dressed, packed, and ready, declaring “I’ve been ready for an hour.” To this, one of the father responds, “Sometimes I forget to factor in the Asian.”
Yes we can decry it as a played out repetition of the stereotypes of Asians as disciplined and scholarly, but it is in the unsaid that racism is fed. Would the joke have worked if the ethnicity of the child were different, what if it had played “Sometimes I forget to factor in the Nigerian.” What then was the viewer expected to infer. Or “Sometimes I forget to factor in the Latino.” Or if the fathers were Black and they declared, “Sometimes I forget to factor in the white.” Not only would the storyline be different, but the writers would not have even thought of the joke. And in these ways we are all invited to concede defeat to racist thinking, to laugh incautiously, where racism lives in the unsaid.
We, as a society, have managed to hide racism, to tuck it into corners, camouflage it with feel good diversity quotas, and token representatives, but we have only managed to obfuscate it, not obliterate it.