Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
So, I guess The Wiz: Live! was kind of amazing? Like, almost-made-everyone-forget-about-the-rage-they-felt-over-Peter-Pan–and-The-Sound-of-Music amazing? Like, people-were-mad-that-they-couldn’t-hate-watch-it amazing?
I haven’t gotten to watch it yet, but that’s apparently the consensus. So, good on you, NBC. You finally did something right. It was about a decade after we all quit watching television, but, y’know, A for effort.
Part of me really wants to say Yeah! Get those racists!—and then I realize that what’s talking is my own tribalism.But apparently it wasn’t without its controversy. Not, like, real controversy, I guess—just the usual parade of you-won’t-believe-what-we-found-some-random-idiots-saying-on-Twitter articles. You can click the link if you want to see the (epically, embarrassingly) moronic tweets, but the basic gist of them all is, “How dare they make The Wiz with an all-black cast??? If they made it with an all-white cast, people would call them racist!!!”
Obviously, the joke (or tragedy) here is that The Wiz is a classic Broadway show that was literally, specifically written for an all-black cast—and, perhaps more to the point, it’s an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, of which there are already multiple all-white versions, including the classic 1939 Judy Garland vehicle, which you can almost definitely watch right now if you’re anywhere near a cable-connected TV.
In other words, what we really have on our hands is the all-too-common trope of white people playing “me too!” with racism.
It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Internet was supposed to connect us all and finally bring humanity together, but instead it’s just become a place where we all yell our stupid, racist opinions at each other. It’s more like a Sharpie and a grody restroom wall than it is a distinguished public forum.
If you’ve ever met a human being, though, this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise you. Theologically, we know that all people are terrible and always will be, and scientifically there’s mounting evidence that people are naturally “tribal”—we instinctually define ourselves in terms of who “our people” are and who our enemies are. Everyone needs both family and opposition just to get through the day.
In other words, racism would seem to be the natural state of the human heart and mind, and not something we should expect to end anytime soon. I’m (of course!) not saying we should give up on combatting racism, but I would argue that maybe we ought to be careful with regard to how we combat it. After all, anti-racist types are just as instinctually tribal as everyone else and are often too quick to define themselves as the opposition to Those Horrible Racist People instead of being the opposition to racism itself.
If you don’t see the problem there, consider that direct opposition is much more likely to get people to dig in their heels than it is to convince them to change their minds. If we all need someone to hate, and you give people exactly that, they have no motivation to change and every motivation to get worse. (See also: the recent Internet fistfight over gun control, where 99% percent of the posts were about mocking either gun-crazy redneck stereotypes or naïve pansy liberal stereotypes, and almost none had anything to do with moving forward meaningfully on the issue.)
With that in mind, I’d like to express a tentative skepticism for The Other Racism-Related Thing I Saw on the Internet This Week that Wasn’t an Article about Donald Trump: a new billboard campaign in Brazil called “Virtual Racism, Real Consequences.” The campaign seeks to “call out” racists by screenshotting their racist Facebook comments, blurring out their names and faces, blowing the images up, and posting them on billboards near their homes.
And part of me really wants to like this idea. Part of me really wants to say Yeah! Get those racists!—and then I realize that what’s talking is my own tribalism. Once again, I’m defining myself not only by the group with which I identify (People Who Don’t Like Racism) but also against the group I hate (Those Horrible Racist People). Once again, I’m feeding off of my own hatred, even if its a hatred that’s en vogue at this point in history. And honestly, is public shaming likely to get these people to change their minds—or will they just dig in their heels in opposition to the people behind the billboards?
St. Augustine once famously wrote that the Church ought to act “with love for mankind and hatred of sins”—it’s where we get the significantly-less-eloquent phrase “hate the sin and love the sinner.” That’s an unfortunate translation, because it has a tendency to trivialize what Christ calls us to do: to love everyone, not just the ones whose behavior we approve of. The racists. The child molesters. The mass murderers. The very nature of such a call is literally humanly impossible, which is why even Christians have been tribalists—and racists!—but “with God, all things are possible.” It’s another overused saying (but hey, at least that one’s actually in the Bible!)—but it must be true if even NBC can manage to air a live musical that doesn’t suck.
That means, yes, you and I are even called to love clueless white people who don’t understand why The Wiz: Live! had an all-black cast. And, with God’s strength, we can (probably?) do so.