My wife and I have a running joke.
Say the doctor informs me he’s going to administer some test that will hurt like heck. When he leaves the room, I whisper to Marilyn, “You know why he’s doing it, don’t you? It’s because I’m black.”
It is, of course, a joke with a point. Namely, that some black folks can read race into anything. Some of us keep indignation in our hip pockets and conspiracy on speed dial.
But we’ll get back to Isaiah Washington in a moment.
First, the obvious disclaimer: I am not saying race is never the reason bad things happen. Au contraire. One often gets pulled over because one is black. One often gets substandard health care because one is black. One often fails to get the job because one is black.
Worse, because those in charge of pulling people over, giving health care or making hiring decisions are seldom clear and candid that race is their reason, it’s easy to become paranoid, to believe everything is race until proven otherwise. So to be black is often to walk a tightrope above a snakepit of suspicions, both founded and unfounded.
Apparently, Washington has fallen and he can’t get up.
He is, you will recall, the black actor from “Grey’s Anatomy” who used an anti-gay slur during a fight with a castmate. Months later, backstage at the Golden Globes, he used the word again in denying he had used it the first time. In the ensuing uproar, Washington apologized, entered what he calls an “executive counseling program,” and filmed a public service announcement promoting tolerance. Last month, after all that, he was fired.
Frankly, it was cheesy of his bosses to wait so long. Why let the man jump through so many hoops just to give him the axe at the end?
But what sympathy you might have for Washington is undercut by the fact that he has gone on a public relations offensive to talk about a firing that he believes happened, at least in part, because he is black. As he told Newsweek: “Well, it didn’t help me on the set that I was a black man who wasn’t a mush-mouth Negro walking around with his head in his hands all the time. I didn’t speak like I’d just left the plantation, and that can be a problem for people sometime. I had a person in human resources tell me after this thing played out that “some people’ were afraid of me around the studio. I asked her “Why, because I’m a 6-foot-1, black man with dark skin and who doesn’t go around saying “Yessah, massa sir” and “No sir, massa” to everyone?”‘
Which brings us to two truths that may seem contradictory but aren’t:
• There is epidemic racism in this country.
• You can find racism where it does not exist.
Forgive me, but Washington seems far more illustrative of the second axiom than the first. For what it’s worth, the creator and producer of “Grey’s” is a black woman, Shonda Rhimes. And Washington is, by his own admission, a temperamental actor who used a hurtful word toward a colleague. Yet he thinks he was fired because he is black.
He – like many of us, black and otherwise – seems knee jerk where race is concerned. I mean is it so hard to believe people feared him because they thought he was a volatile jerk? Or that a white actor of middling fame who disrupted his workplace would have also been fired? In his rush to make himself a martyr, Washington fails to consider these and other obvious questions.
He comes across as one of those brothers the running joke is meant to mock – the kind for whom race is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Unfortunately, like the boy who cried wolf, such people trivialize what is serious and give others license to do the same.
He lost his job for saying an awful thing. I wish he’d stop whining and deal with that.
Step one is to realize that black is not an excuse.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.