1991 Pulitzer nominee News, Spin

White Males Easily Run Afoul of Taboos

Mirthology, 1st run Wednesday 28 March 1990, Arkansas Democrat’s Mid Week Magazine

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Caption for illustration by staff artist Steve Scallion: Artist’s rendition of Andy Rooney in a high-top fade. Rooney had recently suffered some big-time misunderstanding. [“CBS” is “burned” in above Rooney’s left ear; he’s wearing a tux.]

Editor’s note: In a tradition begun just last year, humor columnist Ben Pollock Jr. writes a serious column for the April Fool’s Day edition. He says this is like dedicated partiers staying home and sober on New Year’s Eve. He didn’t how similar.

Steve Scallion augmented photo, 3-28-1990
“To write is to risk misunderstanding. … To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate.” — Steve Scallion augmented photo of Andy Rooney

To write is to risk misunderstanding. That warning may not stand for high school term papers, which often are all but copied from reference books. Yet, if you’ve penned a love poem to someone who’s not ready for it, or taken a stand in a letter to the editor. …

To write is to be misunderstood. That is more accurate.

As a suburban Dallas reporter nine years ago, I wrote a “blotter” item on a woman’s rape in her apartment. The police report had unusual facts. The victim had three roommates. None was home. All four were flight attendants.

I included these facts in the brief to indicate to readers one may not be safe even when living in a house full of professional people, whose jobs require intelligence and strength and whose training includes basic self-defense.

Fair reporting, fair assumptions, right?

One of the roommates phoned me after the story came out. She believed co-workers could identify the victim, whom I didn’t name, because of their unusual living arrangement, although I didn’t give the address. Non-airline people, she added, think all flight attendants are bimbos and by mentioning their jobs implied the victim “asked for it.”

She called me sexist. She was wrong, but I felt awful.

Months later, I got a tip about a nightclub in my middle-class suburb, On weekends for a couple of months, a Jamaican disco had been set up in an Irving union hall.

I drove over one Friday afternoon to talk to the proprietor while he was setting up. He said this was a branch of a club he owned near downtown Dallas. A Trinidadian, he told me in a melodious accent how his clubs kept émigrés from all the Caribbean islands from feeling isolated.

I returned that night with a notebook, camera and date. I already had conceived my feature’s “lede” (opener): Irving has grown so cosmopolitan that it now accommodates such examples of cultural diversity as reggae and calypso music.

A sign above the cashier’s table and money box read: Please check guns and knives.” The club owner explained there’d been trouble in the parking lot a couple of weeks earlier.

A few patrons were dancing. None was boisterous. Drinks were sold from a couple of coolers. I bought my girlfriend a beer and me a soda.

Before writing the story Saturday morning. I made a few phone calls. They caused me to change the story to hard news.

The police, for example, didn’t know about the club but were interested in that sign. The state Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it had not approved a license for “Tropical Delights 2.” The union hall’s manager, who rented it occasionally to make money for the local, thought this was a service organization.

My last call was to the proprietor. He was angry that I interviewed the authorities.

“You must not like black peee-ople. I thought you were my friend. You don’t like black peee-ople,” he said.

I apologized over and over, saying color had nothing to do with thorough reporting. He wouldn’t believe me – or was he trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty? Either way, he was wrong, but I felt awful.

Tropical Delights 2 was shut down, and the club owner fined.

Columnists, because they don’t deal directly with facts but with their impressions of them, have to be even more careful. No matter how straightforward the writing, some readers will miss the point. Some will be offended inadvertently.

Long before the two examples above, I had learned misunderstanding cannot be eliminated. I still write and revise carefully to minimize confusion.

For months, I have jotted notes for a humor piece on how some good-looking, masculine fellows wear shower caps in public.

I am white; the men nursing their “soft-curl” perms are black. I would add in this essay that white women who wear curlers in Wal-Mart and dress their children only in diapers are just as tacky.

Such a column would be called racist. My even-handedness would be called window dressing to disguise prejudice. We’ve all seen this before.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague stole my thunder and wrote deftly about the ridiculousness of the latest hairstyles of young black men and women.

The columnist wrote as if unconcerned with potential criticism. I envied her obvious disdain for disclaimers, apologies and explicitly stating good intentions.

Yet, the column did have implicit protection. The columnist’s “mug shot” shows a handsome black woman. She won’t be called a racist.

My photograph with a similar column, which I now will not write, would, therefore, be a picture not of a social critic but of the enemy.

Wait, I’m not the enemy. Here’s my disclaimer to prove it: I have great intentions, and I apologize for any offense my words will ever cause. I don’t mean anything I say.

Happy April Fool’s Day.


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