Tags: African Americans, European Americans, George Earl Johnson, Jr., misconceptions, Oklahoma, race, The Oklahoma Observer, tolerance
In an article published in The Oklahoma Observer last month (11/25/11) entitled “Lesson In Tolerance, Only In America,” by George Earl Johnson Jr. he related two experiences that he viewed as unique to an African American living in America. He also called the experiences lessons in tolerance. On closed examination, we discover that he might have misjudged these experiences.
Johnson writes about two experiences where stereotypical concepts of well-dressed African American men were used with him as the victim. One experience he apparently viewed as negative, the other as positive. The first experience occurred when he was standing the in the lobby of a classy hotel in Washington, D.C. and he is mistaken for a bellman by a European American man. The man approached him with “’Hey boy, get my bags.’ In doing so he stuck out toward me a fist full of hotel baggage claim tickets. Going along with the man, I smiled and said in reply, ‘Yes sir.’”This experience Johnson referred to as a lesson in tolerance because he did not take the opportunity to correct the perception of the man regarding him as a bellman.
The second experience encountered by Jackson involved several young European American Interns in an elevator who mistook Johnson and a colleague as congressmen. This experience was viewed by Johnson as positive, but again, he made no effort to correct the misconception. To allow the Interns to think of him and his associate as congressmen was not a lesson in tolerance; in fact, it was a failed opportunity to correct a false image.
In the first incident where Johnson is approached in the hotel lobby by a European American man and given a claim ticket, Johnson missed an opportunity to correct a stereotypical image of African Americans men. The European American man apparently thought the only reason for a well-dressed African American man to be standing in the lobby of a Four-star hotel was to be employed as a bellman. Therefore, he does not hesitate to go to him and give him the claim ticket and refer to Johnson as a boy: “Hey boy, get my bags.” Johnson could have taken the opportunity to challenge that stereotype and refused to accept the claim ticket while informing the European American that he too was a customer and to look elsewhere for a bellman. Johnson’s by accepting the claim ticket, in effect, supported, encouraged, and promoted the negative stereotypical concept held by the European American that all well-dressed African American men standing in a hotel lobby are bell hops, not customers. This experience was not a lesson in tolerance.
In the second incident, Johnson allows some young European Americans Interns working in the capitol to think of him and his colleague as congressmen. Since Johnson took an elevator generally reserved for congressmen where he met these young interns, the general impression taken for him and his friend was that they are congressmen. Johnson does nothing to dispel this incorrect image. He instead, led these young people to think that if African American men are well-dressed and riding an elevator reserved for congressmen, then they must be congressmen and not ordinary people.
Again, Johnson missed an opportunity to challenge a stereotype by not telling the young European Americans the truth or at least that he was not a congressman. Instead, he contributed to the false concept of well-dressed African American men being congressmen held by the Interns. This experience was not a lesson in tolerance. Johnson seems to think that if the African American was not seen in a negative light that all was well. Unfortunately, whether the concept was positive or negative, if it was incorrect and supports a stereotype, it should be challenged.
For Johnson to call his experiences lessons in tolerance is a mistake, because these experiences did not contain any sense of tolerance. What was tolerated? The stereotypical concepts of African Americans held by the European American were not challenged or changed and consequently, will occur over and over again, thanks to Johnson’s lack of constructive action. What Johnson seemingly calls tolerance can easily be seen as passive acceptance. Had Johnson in the first incident refused the claims from the man who took him to be a bell hop, he would have challenged that man’s stereotypical concept of well-dressed African American men standing in the lobby of a four-star hotel being bell hops. That action could be seen as a lesson in tolerance—allowing the European American to break through his pre-conceived concept to a new and informed one of the African American male.
What was troubling about Johnson’s experiences and his reactions to them was the fact that he never realized that he contributed to the stereotypes held by the various European Americans he encountered during these incidents. He believed that his lack of action should be interpreted as lessons in tolerance when they should be seen for what they were—failed opportunities to correct misconception about well-dressed African American men. A long as African Americans take the path of Johnson by ignoring the opportunity to address a false conception by European Americans, these false conceptions will continued unchecked. Letting the opportunities go unchallenged is not tolerance, it is a form of indifference.
While Johnson’s experiences might appear to be inconsequential on the surface, they in effect, represent a troubling situation in America. For Johnson’s experiences to be considered as lessons in tolerance the European Americans should have walked away from the experience with a different, more accurate and acceptable view of African Americans outside of the stereotype. Tolerance suggests open-mindedness, something Johnson did not display. He actually supported the status quo by choosing non-action over corrective action. By Johnson not taking the opportunity to correct a misconceptions, nobody benefits from the experiences—not Johnson, not the European Americans. Whether in America or on Mars, not correcting a false impression or false concept of one’s self image is a missed opportunity—not a lesson in tolerance.