Leavitt: My day as a racist

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

I wore a racist costume on Halloween.

It would never have happened if not for my grandfather.

Always on the prowl for a quick buck, Al Goldman had discovered trading with the Far East. Along with the jade and quartz he wanted, his overseas pals sent him gifts he had no need for. One of these was a replica ancient Chinese outfit, fit for a king, or at least a prince.

It was a very shiny red and gold affair that was begging to be worn, and I wore it.

Somebody in our household — I can’t remember who, but it might have been me — had the bright idea that not only should my Halloween costume look Chinese, but the rest of me should, too. So my sister made me up with a white face, almond-shaped eyes and painted eyebrows. I looked like a Tang Dynasty debutante.

I walked to school in this getup, feeling way over-the-top, but pretty pleased that anyone as cool as my older sibling had spent so much time face-to-face with me without drawing blood.

The whole school headed toward the gym to parade around in costumes. In the hallway, I suddenly remembered that one of my favorite people on Earth would be there — a fellow 11-year-old named Donna, whose parents came from Japan.

I had completely forgotten that real Asians were allowed in Nelson School. They might not like my looks.

I looked around for a place to hide. But too soon, we were at the gym, and I thought to myself, “Please, please, let Donna be absent. Or that she came as a Jew.”

Across the gym, I saw her. She looked a bit like me. She was dressed in a Kabuki outfit of some sort, white face and all.

I had to find a way to make this right, because for years, I had pictured the two of us married, and that eventuality was not looking good right then.

Shyly, I said something to the effect that, hey, we decided to go in the same direction, and isn’t that great?

“I am Japanese,” she said. “You are Chinese.”

She was smiling, but it looked like one of those embarrassed Japanese smiles.

Over the years, I tried to apologize, but we never even really talked to each other again. So no wedding.

I felt guilty for a long time, but rationalized that I had quickly realized I was wrong. And that was not so obvious in those days.

After all, Charlie Chan movies were still popular. The Chinese detective was played in 16 movies by a Swede named Warner Oland.

When Oland died, Charlie Chan was immediately replaced in filmgoers’ hearts by Mr. Moto, a Japanese detective played by Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, and then by Henry Silva, of Brooklyn.

In all, Westerners donned makeup to play Asians in American movies for about four decades, and they filled up theaters.

Asian-Americans disliked what was going on, but no one seemed to hear them. And then, relatively suddenly, it was no longer acceptable for occidental actors to dress up like Asians, and it was no longer acceptable to see their films.

“Don’t go to that Fu Manchu movie. That’s uncool.”

It was a strange phenomenon. People were inferring their friends were racist for doing just what they had done a few weeks before, when they were still unenlightened.

Oland, such a big star that he singlehandedly carried 20th Century Fox for years, was suddenly persona non grata. He didn’t mind, however, being dead and all.

Silva wasn’t getting any more Japanese parts, but it was still perfectly acceptable for him to play an Apache in “Five Savage Men.”

It was not yet Native Americans’ turn for respect, apparently.

There have been other times when I was wrong, and it took me, and most of America, a while to figure that out.

For years, I thought civil unions would give gays all the legal benefits of being a couple, and actual marriage should be reserved for two people of the opposing gender.

I learned later that I’d been lied to, and civil unions didn’t really provide all the legal benefits of marriage. And I also decided that any two adults who wanted to be legally married should have the opportunity to do so. And get divorced, too.

I came to that conclusion around 2009. Millions of people had decided the same thing before I did, and even more people, I think, did so afterward, including President Barack Obama, in 2012.

Yet many straight proponents of gay marriage are very impatient with those who still disagree. That makes little sense, since it’s against the religion for most of the holdouts, and that’s a hard call for them to make. And most of their straight critics didn’t make up their own minds until, most likely, just a few years before.

Another time I was wrong: Up until Feb. 5, 2003, I agreed with the then-upcoming invasion of Iraq.

I was stuck all day in a hospital waiting room with a TV set — the day Colin Powell made his speech to the U.N. about weapons of mass destruction. Seeing it in its entirety convinced France, Russia and me that those aerial pictures of buildings were just aerial pictures of buildings.

No one else I knew had the leisure to see it. And consequently, very few people I knew opposed the invasion.

Yet it’s hard to find people today who say they weren’t against the war. It’s like the hundreds of thousands of people who say they were there the day that Disco Demolition closed down Comiskey Park. No, you weren’t. You just saw it on the news.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the journalism business, and I’ve found that I almost always have an opinion going into an issue I’m researching. We humans have opinions on everything.

But my opinions often change by the time I’m ready to write. I once told that to a judge questioning me for jury duty, and he said I was wrong.

We should all go into every situation with no opinion, and just wait for evidence, he said.

“You, Your Honor, are an idiot,” I said, but only to myself, after the idiot told me I wasn’t fit to serve on a jury in Cook County.

And, with that paragraph, I am once more a bigot, according to quite a few people. Using the terms “idiot” or “moron” is insulting to those who are of low intelligence.

Not everyone knows that it is also bigoted to indulge in “slut-shaming,” which until relatively recently was fair game. But we now know that it’s used to unfairly hold women to a higher standard than men.

I don’t know why women would aspire to sink to our level, but still.

Conversely, when an older man hits on one of the aforementioned women, or any younger woman, for that matter, it is perfectly all right to call him “a creepy old man.”

This will not last. It’s ageism, no? It’s already déclassé to refer to an older woman seeking a younger man as a cougar.

So what will we do two years from now? Will we pretend that we never said “creepy old man” just because a guy in his 50s hit on a lady in her 30s?

If we know what’s good for us, maybe we should. The Old Guy Anti-Defamation League may be pretty tough by then.

“Fat-shaming” is already a thing. It’s getting to be a bigger one. Pretty soon it will be time to pretend we never referred to anyone as fat.

No, we won’t say that we used to call people fat, and learned the error of our ways. If past is prologue, we will just castigate the remaining fat-shamers as if we never dreamed of doing such a thing. We will insist they resign from public jobs.

It’s good to avoid labeling people. It’s not political correctness. It’s being kind.

But it is also kind to be patient with people who are trying to stop doing the same things millions of folks did before we got religion.

There is nothing worse than a reformed sinner.

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