I kind of sort of did something I regret.
Remember when I said that I love stepping into character and seeing from someone else’s perspective? Well, sometimes it ends up being a situation in which I cringe at the uncertainty of what I’ve just done. Last night, Solo Sleepover took the stage at the Harrisburg Improv Theatre (on a side note, I’ve got to give a hearty welcome to Gramps, the new house team that also performed last night — you guys were great!). Now, as some of you may know, a house team at the HIT typically gives a half-hour performance off of a one-word suggestion. Last night, we got the word “immigration” (which already lends itself to some pretty sensitive material), and I made the issue even more sensitive by choosing to play a racist boss who called her employee a “Spic”.
Here’s the thing about improv: you can surprise even yourself when you’re on that stage. Up until this moment, I was trying to come up with a way to indicate how awful of a person my character was… the moment that word came out of my mouth, I experienced a kind of downward spiral of panic. I lost all confidence in my ability to continue the scene. I didn’t want to associate myself with a character like this… who did I think I was, calling someone such a name? From that moment on, I realized that for my own personal dignity, I needed to make this character the most despicable person I could, as a further reminder that that was exactly what it was: a character.
I still didn’t feel good about it afterwards. But I suppose if every character we played on the stage of the HIT was PC, then the shows would not be as exciting as they are.
And it really made me think about the meaning behind the words we use. History has provided an onslaught of pejoratives, some of which still, unfortunately, linger. Sometimes it is the original meaning of the words that make them so offensive: the word “faggot” refers to firewood, making a pretty inappropriate comparison to a human being; the term “mulatto” references a mule — the offspring of a horse and a donkey (real nice). When people call Native Americans “Indians”, they use the name provided by Columbus, the man known for their subjugation (that’s a slap in the face if I’ve ever seen one).
And it’s not just the linguistic meaning behind the word that makes it so offensive — name-calling is also an issue of categorization. By calling someone a pejorative name, you are essentially grouping everyone who fits that description into a category and making an assumption about them. Now, it may be an indirect, accidental assumption — maybe you, yourself, haven’t made it, but society has done the work for you. See, each pejorative already has a certain connotation, derived from the history of its use. So whether or not the actual meaning of the word is negative, people use language however the hell they want, and over time it can glean a negative association. This isn’t just an issue concerning racism: think about the connotation of words like hipster, nerd, feminist, hippy, etc.
A bigger example is found in religious institutions. Religions promote love and goodness and humility, and there are so many people who readily embody these attributes… but often we only see the people who deviate from religion’s original purpose: those who exhibit hatred, perversion, and hypocrisy. Terms like “Muslim” and “Christian” now have a stigma attached to them.
It’s a selfish instinct, really: we don’t want to take the time to factor an individual person’s life into our own worldview, so we instead lump everyone in certain categories together — you know, to make it easier. Except that by doing so, we’re not really treating people like people, but like the category we’ve put them in.
I have just as much of a share in the blame when it comes to categorizing people, as much as I’d like to think otherwise. And maybe it is better to address these things, even if it is on the stage of an improv theater. At least that way we can be reminded that there are people out there who haven’t figured this out yet. And, even better, we can take a closer look at the individuals around us who we have yet to incorporate into our world.
I’d like to try to interact with whoever takes the time to read these posts, so… What are some experiences that you’ve had with uncomfortable categorization? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear!