Not Another Laugh Track


I grew up in the age of the family sitcom. Canned laughter accompanied the antics of kids on screen in 2 parent households with resources at their disposal that were magical. Mixed into the entertainment were usually some attempts at life lessons. One of these popped into my head the other day. Kirk Cameron played the entitled and self-focused Mike Seaver on Growing Pains. In the Fortunate Son he took a job at a local convenience store and as the newest employee was assigned the night shift. His mom, concerned about his safety working nights, requests he ask for a different schedule. He is nervous, being new he doesn't expect that to go over well, but he asks out of respect for his mom. Surprisingly. his boss agrees. His not-white coworker, who was very excited about not working nights anymore, resignedly accepts the change and Mike notes his reaction. Mike starts to wonder if he is being treated differently because of his race. He asks his boss about it and his boss says, we have to look out for each other. Still uncertain about how he feels about the situation, he intentionally spills some soda on the floor. When the boss comes out and sees it, he gets angry and threatens to let the other worker go. When Mike confesses that he was the one who spilled it, the boss's attitudes shifts to being understanding. Mistakes happen, right? Mike realizes that he is getting special treatment, better shifts, easier consequences, because he is white. 

I recently shared this opinion article on my Facebook page: Dear 'Persecuted' College Conservative: You are Not Oppressed.  It was in response to another opinion article you can read here. The author identifies, for me, an important part of this conversation. 

"The problem is that you seem to think that sometimes feeling uncomfortable voicing your political views is the same as being a member of a group that is forced to deal with legacies of violence, intimidation, and hatred."

For many of us, the difference between personal bias and institutional bias is difficult to grasp. What can make it even more challenging is that someone can be personally accepting while still supporting institutional bias. At this point most people have heard the terms "white privilege" or "institutional privilege" and their reactions are somewhat automatic. The white business owner who has built a company through years of dedicated hard work has an awareness of every obstacle they have overcome. Each of us has a story to tell that has its own list of hurdles we have overcome; tragedies we have endured; triumphs that felt like miracles. Acknowledging that the ways in which my life is easier because I am a white, college-educated, native english speaking, citizen doesn't negate the hurdles and challenges I face. It does put it into a context that also respects that the people who don't have those same advantages have to work harder to achieve the similar outcomes. 

On the show, Mike quit his job when he realized his boss was bigoted. He was in a position where he didn't have to work for someone with whom he disagreed so deeply. And, not surprisingly, the sitcom solution doesn't account for other life realities. Like when you have to pay your rent yourself or feed your family or don't have any reason to believe the situation will be better somewhere else.