When Mookie stares down Sal’s Pizzeria towards the end of Do The Right Thing, he is perplexed with a single question: what is the right thing? After Mookie’s friend Radio Raheem dies via police brutality, the people take to the streets to find justice. Looking upon Sal’s Pizzeria, a symbolic site of whiteness and “the man,” Mookie has a choice to either start a riot against his boss, a man he gets along with, or disobey his own people, his Black brethren of Brooklyn, who need someone to pay for their crimes. Mookie’s dilemma becomes philosophical: hurt the business of someone who did him no harm because someone (symbolically) must pay as retribution or just try to shake off the storm. Thinking for a brief moment, Mookie throws a trash can into the window at Sal’s, condemning the restaurant and sealing their fate…….
Yesterday I took part in a panel at TCU for the Women and Gender Studies department. The panel was titled “Micro and Macro Aggressions: Violence, Identity, and Accessibility Online.” Along with two other scholars from the library and Communications departments, we collectively discussed the roles of access and the violence against people of color and women that occur frequently online. Specifically, I talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how leaders reappropriate racism to support their own causes and gain followers. The talk, overall, was fascinating and had over 50 students and scholars in attendance.
But I haven’t been able to shake a question a student asked, a question I have asked myself for quite some time. A student at this event asked the panelist about how to call out friends for microaggressions. A microaggression is when someone (typically without intent) says something offensive or essentializes a group of people. For example, asking where the doctor is when a female hospital employee enters the hospital room could be a microaggression because it assumes that all men are doctors and women are nurses. The student, concerned with how to deal with these topics in the real world, asked an important question.
“What do we do when our friends say these things?” she asked politely. “I don’t want to lose my friends over them saying certain things but I also don’t want them to be offensive.” The other two panelists jumped into the conversation and began talking about ways to approach friends on the matter. “Use humor to calm the situation,” one panelist said. “That is a really tough question,” the other responded.
I hesitated to answer for a moment because a pain existed within me from my own experiences with this question. What happens when your understanding of the world differs from your friends? What happens with the racially insensitive things yours friends used to say in a joking manner don’t seem funny to you anymore? What happens to your friends when you change? Looking down for a moment, I thought about how to answer, not just for the young woman asking the question, but for me too.
“That really is a tough question to answer because I have experience with this as well,” I began to respond. “I lost many friends because of the nature of my research (investigating how residents in my hometown talk about race and racism), and I have been publicly chastised for my viewpoints.”
I took a moment before I continued because I had to find that truth for myself.
“But I think the best way to answer is to say there is no wrong or right way to handle it. It absolutely a personal choice, and we all have a line that cannot be crossed. I began losing my friends when I changed that line to better reflect who I am as a person and a scholar. I began calling out my friends when they said something racist or sexist, and I lost a few friends because of this. It hurts. It will always hurt. But you can take solace in knowing you are doing the right thing.”
The Right Thing. Do I do it? Is being confrontational leading me or my friends to a better future? Maybe not….
The Right Thing? Does Mookie do it? Does throwing the trash can into the pizza place make up for the death of Radio Raheem? Maybe not….
But maybe, just maybe, the trash cans we throw, the risks we take at an attempt for justice, carry much more righteousness than we as individuals ever could. Maybe the right thing exists in simply trying.