Shades Of Gray

Among the many, many things that worry me about America’s contemporary tribalism is a concern about the conduct of our overdue arguments over inclusion and diversity. I worry because those conversations have displayed a tendency to become “either/or”–you are either pure in word and deed or you are a bigot beyond the pale–and as a result, we risk losing our ability to see shades of gray, to distinguish between the genuinely offensive  and the merely tone-deaf.

There is a very significant difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, to cite just one example, and blurring that distinction actually inhibits efforts to combat misogyny and sexual assaults.

Every so often, I’m reminded of a joke incorporating a cautionary lesson that my mother used to tell. There used to be a radio station on the top floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. There also used to be people who were elevator operators  (you incredulous young people can google it). One day, a man entered one of the elevators and the operator asked which floor; the man–stuttering badly–said “t-t-the r-r-radio station.” They were the only two on the elevator, and the man further offered that he was “a-a-applying f-f-for a j-job as an on-air radio an-an-announcer.”

As luck would have it, the same operator had the same passenger about an hour later, and once again they were alone in the elevator. The operator couldn’t resist asking how the interview had gone, and the stutterer replied “T-t-terrible. T-t-they hate Jews.”

The (obvious) moral of the story is that not everyone who dislikes me is an anti-Semite (I clearly have other qualities that can put folks off…) and not every thoughtless or stupid remark signals racism or homophobia. Not every female professor denied tenure was the victim of sexism (although some clearly were). Etcetera.

I thought about the lesson embedded in my mother’s joke recently, when a friend of mine resigned her position after being accused by her co-workers of homophobia. The media account I read didn’t include a description of the incident or incidents that triggered that accusation, but I know that her best friend of many years is an out and proud gay man, and in the years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her utter a disparaging word about LGBTQ people–or for that matter, about any minority.

These days, such accusations are flourishing and damaging, and although many are well-founded, others are not, and telling the difference is important.

If we are going to root out genuinely toxic and bigoted attitudes, we need to recognize that we all see life through the “lenses” we’ve developed during our unique experiences, and we need to take care that those experiences don’t distort our perspectives. Another friend of mine–herself a member of a minority group–once opined that humanity was a lot like a pecan pie–the nuts are pretty well distributed throughout. Every group–every slice of the human pie– contains exemplars of the group’s most hurtful stereotypes, and every group contains wonderful, caring, talented people.

I’m not saying it is always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness. If you are a member of a marginalized group–especially if your own “lens” has been formed by personal experiences of bigotry–a negative reaction (or over-reaction) to a hurtful remark or unfair rejection is very understandable. I’m not counseling silence in such situations, but I am cautioning that painting with a too-broad brush ends up trivializing precisely the behaviors we need to condemn–and can push away people who might otherwise be valuable allies.

We absolutely need to call out bigoted and hurtful behaviors, especially in the workplace. But when we fail to distinguish between truly reprehensible attitudes and behaviors and occasional unthinking reflections of social attitudes that are–thankfully–now being examined and rejected, we retard, rather than encourage, social progress.

We lose the Al Frankens.


  1. Years ago, while working as one of two purchasing agents in the Health & Hospital Corporation, I became the victim of racial discrimination. The other agent was a black woman, the only black in the office. During training I was told that the process was I would hand my typed purchase orders to her to edit, she would hand me hers. We were then to receive our orders back to make any corrections. I was then told NOT to return her orders to be corrected but to correct them myself. When I questioned why I was told that they feared she would file a discrimination suit if given her errors to correct. I then asked how I could file a discrimination suit due to the unfairness of the order; I couldn’t file because I am white. I soon figured out it was only the “fear” of the supervisor who made the decision.

    It is not always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness; that situation appeared to be a combination of both.

  2. This is not limited to race, gender, religion, etc. Business people, especially middle management sorts who are trying ever so hard to be seen by the big bosses so they can join the key-to-the-restroom club can be special sorts of bigots.

    The bright, inventive, competent professional often presents a major threat to these people who suffer from inferiority self-images. If they fear being shown up by their staff and that the staff’s ideas are appreciated by the upper management, well… that career below the middle management person is doomed to wallow in place or be terminated through a variety of prejudicial assaults.

    Yes, shades of gray should be part of everyone’s operating philosophy, but with churches, social media and the communications industry continuing to feed us that tribalism in one form or another, I see little hope for your wonderfully idealistic environment. Sure, today’s TV commercials show the racial diversity we on this blog appreciate, but once you enter into news or other disinformation sources, that song no longer plays.

    I too was treated to the joys of discrimination because of my religious preferences (I have none.). I dated, briefly, a very beautiful Jewish girl. She and I hit it off and were going places. Then her father stepped in with his “traditional” values and disallowed his delightful daughter from seeing me, a non-Jew.

    I think our tribalism is simply part of our species-specific survival instincts.

  3. Bigotry and cluelessness, yes. Often neighbors, but not twins. Great piece – thanks for this and so many others.

  4. I’m still fuming over the Al Franken catastrophe! Compared to what the former guy was accused of, and how many women accused him, Franken’s behavior was trivial. And I can’t forgive Kirsten Gillibrand for insisting that he resign.

  5. Vernon Turner
    “I think our tribalism is simply part of our species-specific survival instincts.”

    You’ve hit on it.

    In 1916, D.W. Griffith, demonstrating this point, showed four scenarios going back centuries in world history. He titled his film, “Intolerance.”

  6. I am often called out for my bigotry against the rich because they suffer from pressure from bankers who want collections for their loans. People wonder why I can’t see how obvious that’s also racism since many of the rich landlords are black renting to white tenants. I suppose there is a fraction of the percentage for whom this applies. I didn’t see how obvious my broad brush was in painting rich people as white also supports my cluelessness.

    The point is I don’t give a shit if I offend the petty or the bourgeoisie and whatever race they belong.

    I’ve been getting a kick out of listening to the loudening of voices calling for reparations. However, if you listen closely, they want the government to pay out the reparations. Why?

    Some of us white folks actually fought and died to free slaves. My ancestors paid the ultimate price to free their black brothers. So why should we also reach into our pockets to pay for financial sins we played no part in?

    When I point this out, I’ve now been called a racist for not wanting to help. When I point out that maybe the white women denied real estate ownership and AA’s denied wages and home appreciation, do a little more research to pinpoint the bigots who denied them, I’m told to sit down and listen to the demands of POC.

    When I point out to the young black leaders that the Oligarchy is turning you against their fellow workers once again, I am told that my bigotry against the rich is due to my envy which is the sin of Christianity.

    I still shake my head when I hear AAs sing the songs of the Jews.

    Before we address bigotry, we need to eradicate cluelessness. Ignorance is our sin, but we are being taught ignorance so we can be manipulated — oppressed. Critical thinkers aren’t obedient because they stop and ask questions first. This is why our Founders denied democracy in 1776 and why they are still fighting it in 2021.

    Could you imagine MSNBC and Fox News all on the same page in teaching us the truth about our own history??

    Good God, Bezos might stay in space to avoid being lynched.

  7. Grey goes both ways. How about those folks who proudly display their BLM and “We believe this” signs in their yards and do nada about their and the world’s implicit “isms”?

  8. Brava, Sheila! I still have a problem with Al that is totally related to policy, but he is preferable to so many of our current crop of Senators.

    It’s not just the reputations of our friends and neighbors that worries me. It is also the lack of an historical lens when looking at notable people from our past. We are all a part of the world we live in and the world has changed.

  9. Excellent points.
    I was a passenger in a not-yet friend’s car, the other night, when we passed an electrified American flag on the side of someone’s home. The wife of the driver commented, that displaying the flag thusly was a “Wonderfully patriotic” thing to do. My first thought was that she was dumb, or naive, in today’s world of flags appearing to signal quiet support of Trump. Well, I could be wrong about that assumption, in the first place, or, I could be guilty of the absolutist thinking Sheila points out. In any case, I kept my mouth shut.

  10. Bravo, Sheila! This has needed to be said for a long time and will need repeating. Spot on analysis from where I sit.

  11. Thanks Shiela for bringing up this topic. As a lesbian woman, I have encountered not only bigotry but microagression. I adopt the attitude that when people demonstrate microagression or bigotry towards any minority that I have an opportunity to teach, to explore with the person where they got their attitude. For me it’s important to respond with open ended questions to further understand what has created that person’s intolerance or if you will, ignorance.

    I once met an attorney who was afraid to go to a residential treatment center for people with substance use disorders. He feared having a gay roommate. I managed not to laugh at him and then assured him there were no gay people there at the moment. I don’t know why he was afraid of gay men. I never got the back story.

    One of my co-workers was definitely homophobic. I later found out she had been sexually assaulted by some black girls at a camp when she was a kid. Such traumatic events can lead an individual to fear those of a different race or sexual orientation.

    Thanks Todd for sharing your views on reparations. It has given me good food for thought. At the same time it makes me think more about how we might create policies that diminish the wealth inequality suffered by African-Americans and yes, Native Americans.

    There will be a meeting in August with state legislators for the citizens of Indiana re the plans for redistricting in lieu of the 2020 census. I hope some of us are going. I want to.

  12. Al Franken was one of my favorite Democrats. He was smart as a whip, extremely clever and funny. Although a liberal, he was moderate in tone and knew compromise was the way to get things done in D.C. He was a thoughtful, serious politician. They ran him out of town because he had lewd jokes when he was in his previous career as a comedian. They turned him into the Harvey Weinstein of the Senate. It was beyond reprehensible what they did to him. I can never forgive Sen. Gillibrand for her role in ousting Franken.

    One of the failures of the Me Too movement was to label all offenses as equally bad. Another failure is to treat all men, upon accusation, are guilty…the woman must be believed! Proof or intent doesn’t matter. Context doesn’t matter. We almost had another four years of Donald Trump because of the excesses of the Me Too Movement. Fortunately, Biden’s campaign didn’t get derailed by an accuser – Tara Reade – who, upon examination, was not credible. It was an examination of the sort that the Me Too movement previously refused to engage in.

  13. What Franken, a professional comedian, did was consistent with the schtick he was famous for on SNL. Harvey was not a comedian. We lost a good one when he slipped through.

    Once again, Sheila, you’ve hit the nail on the head, and then tRump(ty) Dumpty gets away with the most outright egregious behavior, boasts about it and it increases his popularity?????? When are the Democrats going to figure out that if you fight fire, you must fight it with fire unless you have a very powerful, fully effective fire extinguisher.

  14. There is little, more annoying, than a privileged self righteous liberal white male who proclaims out loud he is not a racist.

  15. The whole Al Franken fiasco made me realize that the “Me Too” movement is quite capable of going way too far and even lying about events in order to justify running down men. When I looked at the photo of Franken supposedly “feeling up” a sleeping colleague, I got the distinct impression that the whole thing was staged as a gigantic joke.

  16. Could we have an article on “Facing Reality” now? The new book?
    I need a better read on the opinions of this group.

  17. The heated and over-the-top comments from both liberals and conservatives in electronic newsletters and on social media demonstrate your points, Sheila. So do behaviors of belligerent customers in restaurants, on commercial airlines, and elsewhere.

    We can disagree without being disagreeable, inflating grievances, and generally over-reacting. While some organizations and individuals actually make money and generate ratings by over-reaction, they are dangerously infecting the rest of society with an unwillingness to consider context, understand nuances, investigate other points of view, abide by the rule of law, and even to accept the rules of governance in a democracy.

    Unless we are willing to live as self-sufficient hermits, we are inter-connected and need each other for survival. But living peacefully together requires us to live by some neighborly rules if we are to be safe, secure, and to prosper. If we also want to be happy and comfortable, we need to be good and pleasant neighbors who watch out for each other. Unfortunately, I fear our country is on increasingly thin ice when it comes to watching out for each other.

  18. Yes. I miss Al. I was very looking forward to his democratic presidential nomination in 2016. With his rapier wit his debates with Mr. Trump would have been world class television (and he’d have been a great president). A missed opportunity.

  19. You are spot-on, Sheila. I am a moderate person. I have no problem with teaching our kids items about American history that may not be comfortable for people on the right to acknowledge. However, on the flip side, I think there are those in the “woke” community on the left who truly are guilty of “cancel culture,” much as I hate that phrase. The person I think you’re referencing in this piece was a victim of it.

    But in the modern environment, impact matters more than intent to these folks, and if a minoritized individual says something was racist or homophobic or whatever, it simply is – they cannot be challenged on it. One wonders if we’ll be able to have disagreements with anyone who is BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ without them saying we’re disagreeing with them BECAUSE they are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+.

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