I have to admit that this aging dude has a hard time understanding today’s youth. And I have taught college since the early 90s. An upsetting experience I had with a Millennial last night has just added to my perplexity.
I love classic movies, so when I saw that The Jazz Singer (1927) was on Turner Classic Movies, I made a plan to watch it in a student center on my local college campus. The National Film Registry selected this film as one of its culturally, aesthetically or historically significant movies. It is the first full length feature film with sound.
There is a well-known scene in this flick when star Al Jolson puts on black face and then sings. I didn’t even think about that clip as being part of this movie when I turned it on. But with about 30 minutes left,Jolson is shown putting on the blackface in his dressing room before a Broadway play. When he appeared on the screen, I heard a female voice say,”Oh my God. Turn it off!” At first I ignored it, but I finally decided to move to another seat with another TV out of her and her friend’s view. This young lady and her friend were African American students.
But apparently this wasn’t good enough for her. She followed me and told me to turn the film off in my new location. “It’s disrespectful,” she said.
I said,”Ok” and wanted to add “say please” but decided it was not in my best interest and turned it off. I went to get my stuff near them and said,”I get it (why she was upset), but I see it as history.” She wasn’t pleased from her facial expression and I added,”But I turned it off.” She replied (to her credit),”Thank you for turning it off. Have a good night.” She looked away from me and obviously didn’t want to engage me on the subject anymore (Not to her credit.)I sat down for a few minutes, but I felt shamed and left.
Part of the reason I felt shamed was that I am a person who has tried quite hard to understand the African American view on things for a long time, but somehow I missed that perhaps Jolson’s blackface would be upsetting to someone in a classic movie. I actually took the time after I got home to write and call Turner Classic Movies and ask them if they had discussed broadcasting “The Jazz Singer” with African-American consultants.
I wrestled before bedtime with my feelings after my encounter with this girl. I went back and forth. On the one hand I thought she was right to be offended, although I wasn’t sure quite why since the movie was almost 90 years old. On the other hand, I wanted to know where I should draw the line on such things. For example, should I not watch a World War 2 movie which shows a swastika for fear that a Jewish young person might get offended.
I checked in with some people to find out how they felt about my experience. (They were white.) A couple folks understood her feelings, but thought she overreacted. Others thought that the young lady was “punishing me” for not bowing down to cultural norms of political correctness. She could not let my viewing of this movie pass in this public setting, but felt compelled to say something, although privately her and her friends might have watched the film and laughed at is outdated characterizations.
After a night’s sleep I have come to my own conclusions. This woman chose to publicly humiliate me. My problem with this young lady was not in her value system. My problem was in the way she chose to handle her discomfort. The better way would have been to approach me privately, explain to me that what I was viewing offended her, and ask me politely to turn it off. Instead she loudly issued commands to me. This girl’s approach to me was form of fascism.
To her, I had committed a crime and I needed to be publicly punished, perhaps especially because I was an older white male. Neel Burton M.D. (2014) explains:
“To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. To this day, humiliation remains a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression; conversely, the dread of humiliation is a strong deterrent against crime.”
Once she had inflicted her “punishment” on me so that she was satisfied I was “corrected”, she felt no need to continue a communication with me.
Burton helped me to understand my reaction to the woman’s strategy. I felt violated and was not sure how to proceed in trying to maintain my right to view what I damned well please.
“When we are humiliated, we can almost feel our heart shriveling,” writes Burton. He notes that we become focused on our humiliation, experience as plethora of negative emotions and internalize our humiliation to such a degree that we lose sleep, have nightmares, become depressed and even consider suicide.
Not only that, but humiliation also erodes our ability to defend ourselves according to Burton. Negative reactions to the humiliation such as anger and violence are useless in any case, he says, because they “do nothing to repair the damage which has been done.”
Burton adds that the only solution is to learn to live with the humiliation, which takes self esteem and strength, or give up our lives completely.
In practical terms for me, the latter means not necessarily giving up my whole lifestyle, but it could mean giving up watching certain films in public. I suppose this is doable, if for no other reason as it it will show kindness to others like this offended black woman.
I am informed by my Christian faith on this approach. The Apostle Paul talked of welcoming others, but not in an argumentative manner. He advised that we should not put a stumbling block in the way of others because of our insistence on upholding our own freedoms.
So I believe I took the correct approach in my actions last night. If giving up my right to a film somehow adds glory to God, then I am all for it. I will just have to trust him to deal with people like this young lady in the way they treat me and others when they are resentful.