My daughters and I watched much of the inauguration yesterday. Like many, we were deeply moved by Obama's speech, but were perhaps the most happy simply watching the Obama family hang out together. Between that moment and his affirming his belief in equal rights for gay Americans, we truly felt like our president and his family represent us not just in ideology but in the core way they aspire to live their lives.
Later in the evening we happened to turn on a Happy Days rerun. The episode featured an African American character named "Sticks" Downey. When he enters, Richie, who has never met him but only had him recommended as a drummer, has just been trying to fix him up on a date, though he doesn't know his race yet. As Sticks walks in, and his prospective date turns around to meet him, the audience gasps and oohs and ahhs and chuckles, in anticipation of the coming calamity. His prospective date turns around and sees him, horrified, unable to talk or breathe, holding out her hand with wide eyes, kind of frozen in panic as she is led from the diner and out of the episode. From here the episode continues to explore racial stereotypes -- the main characters are completely awkward, referring to fried chicken, watermelon, Sticks' natural rhythm, etc.
In a way, this was a 1970s interpretation of 1950s racism. By the end, Sticks is playing at a party with Richie and gang. No one will come from the diner to the party because there are African Americans there. The family and friends rock on anyway. At one point Richie says "I'll have 30 Negroes at my party if I want to!" And the Fonz says, "Now hold on, are you only having him here BECAUSE he's a Negro, are you trying to prove something, or do you really want him here?" And Richie says that he does want Sticks there, simply, as a person. Then they do the limbo.
It definitely is an attempt to confront racial issues in an honest way. The set-up, though, provides some perspective, being a 70s interpretation of the 50s. The assumptions that are still safe to make (it's a 70s audience that gasps and laughs when Sticks first walks in) are surprising from today's perspective. When Sticks says he just moved to town and doesn't know many of "our people" it almost makes you cock your head like a confused puppy. Yes, separation exists today, of course. But the assumption of its totality is surprising, and in that case it was a 1970s presumption.
The thing that made me happy in the situation is that my daughters had no idea, at all, what this show was really about. They are 8 and 11. They literally could not make sense of it. They had no idea why the audience was gasping, what the big deal was, why these characters were acting this way. I had to try to explain to them about the stereotypes of fried chicken and watermelon, and then thought, of course, "why the hell am I doing THAT?" Maybe it's valuable as a historical lesson, in some way, but I don't even want it going into their consciousness.
As much as I abhor the uber-corporate nature of Disney, and as little as I hope my girls watch the Disney channel, interracial relationships of all kinds are prevalent on many of the shows geared towards younger people on that network. Friends, families, lovers.... on many of these shows, the racial identity is not even a question. It's increasingly just not an issue or a consideration. Movies and TV in general now treat interracial relationships as the norm and, i think, increasingly deal with gay relationships in the same way.
Watching the inauguration with my daughters, I saw the president, the son of an interracial couple, speaking with eloquence and power about defending equal rights of all kinds. I heard him say that if we are all equal, surely our love for one another is no less equal. It moved me deeply.... I know how far we've come.
My girls have grown up in the Obama era and will now have another 4 years, thank God. Many of the issues of race from the past are not even fully comprehensible to them. Yes, horrible things still happen. Yes, racism lives on in some. But our society has changed. When an African American character walks onto a screen to possibly date someone of another race, no one gasps or chuckles with the "uh-ohhhhh" sitcom humor we all know too well. Some may choose to cling to old definitions, but as I watch my girls come into their own the fact that they are baffled by old racist patterns delights and inspires me.
If people choose to live in those patterns, so be it. But our country has moved on. Those people choose to cling to something that even they acknowledge, now, is no longer the majority..... they claim something has been taken from them, and in so doing admit the shift of this nation. In the world of my daughters, we are all simply Americans.