March 25, 2008

How things have changed

OUR OPINION:  Students broke a modern rule of life[S]ocial mores change—and one of the most important changes of the past generation is our society’s open intolerance for certain racial and ethnic stereotyping.

It used to be common for people to tell ethnic jokes. It isn’t any more. It used to be common to hear ethnic slurs in conversation. That’s gone, too.

It used to be common for Hollywood Westerns to feature Indians saying “How!” and “Ugh!”, for black vaudevillians (or white actors in blackface) to “shuck and jive” on stage and for wartime propaganda to feature wildly caricatured “Japs” and “Huns.”

But that’s changed. And here’s the deal: In the eyes of most Americans, this change has been a very good thing.

On balance, we’re a better society—even a much better society—for our new insistence on treating other ethnic groups with respect. Are there excesses? Yes. Are there hypocrisies—for example, letting certain individuals or groups “get away with” words or conduct that would cause an uproar if offered up by anyone else? Absolutely.

And are there disagreements over what constitutes stereotyping, as the dispute over UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname shows? You bet.

But there’s also a broader point, which is this: On many core issues, there is not much disagreement at all. America has come a long way since the 1950s, as Barack Obama’s candidacy for the presidency shows. And a big part of modern race relations is a broad, societywide disapproval of raw stereotyping.

So, you can’t tell ethnic jokes in the workplace. (Well, you can; but if you do, you’ll be fired.) You can’t use ethnic slurs in conversation. You can’t claim certain ethnicities are inferior to others.

And you can’t dress up like cartoon parodies of American Indians.
Comment:  Our society still tolerates plenty of racism and stereotyping, as you can see in my Stereotype of the Month contest. In fact, thousands of Americans use an ethnic slur daily when they mention the Washington Redskins.

Below:  A cartoon parody of an American Indian.

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