Last night I watched CNN as Anderson Cooper conducted live phone conversations with Aretha Franklin and Little Richard.
They kept saying he was a nice man, and he understood the industry, but there was no gushing. They paid respect to the moment and the man.
Anderson Cooper missed the story behind the story.
What wasn’t said was that American Bandstand was not initially an integrated show.
Come on, we’re talking about the 1950’s. I want to assume Dick Clark evolved like all the rest of us white folks who remember American Bandstand.
I googled Dick Clark on racism and found a reference to a time when, on the Pyramid game show, he offered a clue for things that are whipped: “Slaves that are disobedient” –then Clark added – “Of course, that was appropriate in a different era”.
It was a classic example of offensive statements that whites, often unthinkingly, make about blacks.
It’s not unlike the first line supervisor I heard of recently who wanted to compliment his line of workers, many of whom were African American, and sent them a “good job” card with a monkey on the front clapping symbols together. Most everybody agreed the first line supervisor was a “naïve offender”. Maybe that expression fits for Dick Clark as well.
But some African Americans wanted to leverage the naïve offense to talk about racism. What does that tell us?
Whites often see race as the first thing that blacks reach for to explain unequal treatment– generally characterizing that as “playing the race card”. Yet, the story we hear most often from African Americans is that they go to great lengths to avoid attributing different treatment to race. When blacks do bring up race, they usually have already gone down a checklist of what else it might be, and can’t explain what happened in any other way.
African Americans who wanted to leverage the thank you note to talk about racism, were not trying to “use the race card” for personal gain. The goal was undoubtedly to leverage an opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room. That elephant is the subtle way that racism creeps into today’s workplace.
American bandstand has evolved along with the rest of the U.S. social landscape, which, as Eric Liu observed. “…. finds itself ever more in flux: between a white self image and a colored face.”
So how can we move forward and acknowledge that we really are a multiracial, multicultural society? And what will it take to effectively manage the mix?
One way is to learn to communicate better with those who are racially and culturally different from ourselves. The place to start there is to see the present dis-connect between how we see others and how others see themselves.
One example that comes to mind is a story my friend Ken tells of a white woman who he had worked with for many years who said to him one day in the office, “Ken, I don’t even notice you’re black any more”. He responded, “You know Gladys, “I don’t even notice you’re a woman anymore.”
In playing down Ken’s race and seeing him as just “Ken”, Gladys was probably commenting on the comfort level of their working relationship. But in doing so she also misrepresented his reality, which was as he pointed out in his reply, was a both/and, not either/or, racial identity and experience, just as Gladys had with gender.