Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Book And Its Cover


     The other day I heard a woman describing how her husband-to-be had taken her to the rodeo on one of their early dates. Without consciously meaning to, I immediately envisioned what her spouse looked like. And when I met her husband a few days later, my pre-conceived notions about him turned out to be fairly accurate.
     But I have to say that I was a bit disappointed in myself for taking a minor tidbit of information and creating a virtual biography of this man in my mind before we had even met. I wish he had turned out to be a scholarly, academic type who walked around spouting Shakespeare or Keats, instead of a "dumbass hillbilly." (That's how he referred to himself.)  If it had turned out that he wasn't a hillbilly, I would have been forced to rethink my unfairly judgmental assessment of his looks, education and background.
     For many years, I have been a fan of professional wrestling. Take a moment now to conjure up what my other interests should be based on that small piece of information. I can guarantee that you are wrong about most of what came to your mind.  In fact, people who know me through my other interests are most often shocked (and that's not too strong a word) to find that I like 'rasslin'. They usually follow up with the inevitable "You know it's fake, right?"
     If I'm in the mood to engage them in conversation, I point out that I have been aware of the cooperative nature of the pro wrestling dance from the first time I watched it as a five-year-old.  I knew instinctively that, unless I was knocked out, no one of my approximate size could keep my shoulders on a mat for three full seconds. But guess what? I enjoyed watching the story unfold anyway.
     The same people who would ridicule my love of pro wrestling have no issue with my enjoyment of, say, Jackie Chan movies. They don't try to tell me Bruce Willis didn't kill actual terrorists in Die Hard. They seem to understand that movies are entertainment. They cannot understand that entertainment comes in many forms, from opera and ballet to mixed martial arts and monster truck shows. I like it all, to varying degrees. And I contend that what I like says absolutely nothing about my level of education or sophistication.
     But back to the point. I'm as capable as anyone of making inferential leaps. Even though my better self would rather judge people on their individual merit, I often find myself deciding that a person has "too many" tattoos or piercings to be taken seriously. I need to stop that.
    You have, perhaps, heard of a man named Charles Ramsey by now. He's the black man who helped a woman in Cleveland escape her kidnappers this week. When asked about what happened, Ramsey was quoted as saying, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something's wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she's homeless or she's got problems. That's the only reason she run to a black man."
     I find that statement both enlightening and sad. It rings more true than most of what I hear from so-called pundits as they talk about race relations in this country. In Mr. Ramsey's view of his neighborhood, something has to be wrong for a white person to seek out the help of a black person. I suspect the reverse is also true. And yet I continue to hope.
     In addition to pro wrestling, one of the things I watched as a child was the original Star Trek series. That was the one where a black woman, an Asian man, and a member of a different species all worked together without concern for skin color. (Or blood color, for that matter.) Somewhere along the way life experiences cause us to put people into convenient categories. Rednecks. Thugs. Jocks. Nerds.
     Sometimes, those stereotypes prove accurate, and they form the basis for some of the funniest stand-up comedy you'll come across. But, while I love a good ethnic joke ("Watch out, Scratchy! He's Irish!"),  I'd also like to squelch my baser instinct to automatically and unconsciously judge the book by its cover.