Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Talk"

America is currently gripped by the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in a hooded sweatshirt who was stalked and then shot dead by a vigilante as he was walking home from a shop in Florida. Bizarrely enough, the boy's self-confessed killer, George Zimmerman, has not been arrested because the state has a so-called "stand your ground" law that allows the use of weapons in self defence, even outside the home.

Leaving aside the details of the case, which are still coming to light a month after Trayvon's death, it was in conjunction with this that I discovered a rite-of-passage that black parents across the US feel obliged to go through with their adolescent sons.

"The Talk", as it is known, is not a discussion about how babies are made. "The Talk" is a reaction to the fact that racial profiling is a reality in 21st-century America - an allegedly post-racial society which now even has a black president. It is an acceptance that African-American teenage boys throughout this "great nation" are routinely considered a potential threat.

As such, black parents have to explain to their children how they should dress and behave to avoid being seen as "acting suspiciously", the term George Zimmerman used when telling the cops why he was following Trayvon Martin against their advice.

As one of my wife's colleagues confirmed, black parents tell their teenage boys not to hang around on street corners, but go to friends' houses instead. They tell them to put the hoods of their hoodies down when going into shops, to always be polite to police officers and never raise their voice or get angry towards them, no matter how they are treated, and to keep their hands visible at all times.

Slavery may be long gone in America, but, sad as it may seem, kids of one specific ethnicity have to be taught by their own parents to be subservient to authority figures, even in the face of blatant injustice, simply because of who they are.

I am a big fan of hoodies. I frequently go out to my local shop at night wearing one. Yet nobody has ever confronted or followed me, let alone dialled 911 or accused me of appearing threatening or suspicious. I will never have to have "The Talk" with my son or caution him against playing outside with his friends. There is no need.

Why? Because we are white.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Colour Me Bland

As we were driving through our town one day, my son asked me why American cars weren't colourful.

Surprised by his comment, I looked around me at the other vehicles on the road. To my amazement, I realised that he was right: every car was either grey, white or black. It was like being in a cartoon in which the background had been painted, but the foreground had mysteriously been forgotten.

Henry Ford, the man who revolutionised the automobile industry by introducing the assembly line, famously said that customers of his best-selling Model T could have their vehicle painted any colour they wanted - as long as it was black. The rationale behind Ford's decision to offer only one colour was that this was the cheapest and most durable to apply to a car. However, for some reason, Ford's monochromatic colour scheme from 1914 has remained in force to a large extent to this day, either because all auto manufacturers in North America have adopted it or because Americans simply like their cars bland.

Support for the latter theory comes from the annual breakdown of auto sales. As you can see from the table above, almost a quarter of the cars bought in the US last year were white. In fact, taken together, white, black, grey and silver account for seven out of every ten vehicles purchased in 2011.

Further still, judging by what I see in my neck of Suburbia, it seems as if most the 30% of seemingly colourful cars on the road aren't either, but rather the least attractive tones possible. The reds are more of a burgundy, the yellows a kind of mud, the blues look pale and watered-down, the greens are very dark - and the less said about the browns, the better.

More likely, however, manufacturers simply aren't giving their consumers much of a spectrum to choose from.

Take, for example, the vehicles in this household. The latest model of my car is sold in black, white, silver, "steel blue" and "sangria" (a darkish red). My wife's car is currently available in black, dark grey, silver, "steel blue" and "autumn bronze", a brown so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from black.
In other words, were Mrs Newbie to buy her car today in the land that gave us Technicolor and Disney Channel pastels, she could choose between black, almost-black, grey, shiny grey and watery blue.

It is therefore little wonder that the black-and-white movie 'The Artist' scooped so many of the Oscars at this year's Academy Awards.