Mixed mes­sag­ing

Her­man Mun­ster can be right on racism and still be wrong, Hank Stuever writes.

Calgary Herald - - YOU -

So it hap­pens, in the United States of 2020, that while the

Rev. Al Sharp­ton was eu­lo­giz­ing Ge­orge Floyd in Min­neapo­lis on Thurs­day af­ter­noon after 10 days of protest and un­rest across the coun­try (and around the world) over po­lice killings of black peo­ple, many oth­ers were on­line ex­alt­ing the wis­dom of Her­man Mun­ster, shar­ing and re­shar­ing a clip from an episode of the orig­i­nal Mun­sters TV sit­com that aired 55 years ago.

In the clip, Her­man (a Franken­stein mon­ster who hap­pens to be a hus­band and fa­ther) is try­ing to teach his lit­tle were wolfish son, Ed­die Mun­ster, a vi­tal les­son in self-worth and ac­cep­tance of oth­ers.

“The les­son I want you to learn,” Her­man says, “is that it doesn’t mat­ter what you look like. You could be tall or short, or fat or thin, or ugly — or hand­some, like your fa­ther — or you can be black or yel­low or white, it doesn’t mat­ter. But what does mat­ter is the size of your heart and the strength of your char­ac­ter.”

There’s noth­ing wrong, per se, with what Her­man (played by Fred Gwynne) says or how he says it — ex­cept it doesn’t quite get us to where we need to be right now. In fact, it’s an­other way for peo­ple (white peo­ple, let’s say) to let them­selves off the hook, by once more declar­ing that race “doesn’t mat­ter,” and equat­ing it with ap­pear­ance (ugly or hand­some, fat or thin). Cel­e­brat­ing Her­man’s sim­ple wis­dom is an en­tirely too facile way of gloss­ing over a mo­ment in which the United States may at last be at a break­through with its own his­tory.

His speech to Ed­die is flavoured, sub­tex­tu­ally, with the same logic that strays in the di­rec­tion of “All lives mat­ter.”

Black, or yel­low, or white. (Or ca­dav­er­ous green — it doesn’t

mat­ter!) I can al­most hear some big, boom­ing voices from decades ago, who al­ways felt com­pelled to add to this sen­ti­ment a list of races that didn’t even ex­ist: “Doesn’t mat­ter to me if you’re pur­ple and polka-dot­ted,” my mid­dle-school bas­ket­ball coach once said to my all-white team­mates and me, 40 years ago, as we pre­pared for a scrimmage game at a reser­va­tion.

But I get it. For decades, TV view­ers have been brought up to be­lieve in the sort of equal­ity that of­ten ex­ists only in the ab­stract, or in speeches from author­ity fig­ures. It was drilled into us to see peo­ple’s char­ac­ter be­fore any­thing else — the size of one’s heart, as Her­man says — and for­get our other dif­fer­ences.

He was about as woke as a sit­com char­ac­ter could be in 1965, speak­ing from the viewpoint of one of many old-school sit­com char­ac­ters (Mar­tians, hill­bil­lies, house­wife-witches) who metaphor­i­cally rep­re­sented the os­tra­cized peo­ple Hol­ly­wood was too timid to di­rectly por­tray. But look­ing past race didn’t bring us to the peace that Her­man and other 20th-cen­tury ide­al­ists might have hoped it would be.

The only un­set­tling part of this is the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment (seen mainly on Twit­ter, where Her­man went vi­ral) that the char­ac­ter was some­how way ahead of his time. In fact, his words are right in line with the lan­guage of those who stood up for civil rights in the mid-1960s.

“It doesn’t mat­ter” is a clunky note to play in the era of Black Lives Mat­ter. “It doesn’t mat­ter” is too close to “I don’t care what you are” — the op­er­a­tive words be­ing “I don’t care.”

What’s still good about Her­man’s lec­ture was al­ways good (try al­ways to be a big-hearted per­son of strong char­ac­ter). And yet, if we’ve learned any­thing in re­cent days, it’s that race com­pletely mat­ters — al­ways has, al­ways will, and not al­ways neg­a­tively. The idea that some­one’s race doesn’t mat­ter con­veys a no­tion that we don’t re­ally care to ex­plore one an­other’s iden­ti­ties, cul­tures and his­to­ries.

Yet that is the thing we are be­ing im­plored by this move­ment to do: lis­ten, care and treat the ex­pe­ri­ence of race like it mat­ters.

Her­man was wise, but his words are too tidy for any­one who is sin­cere about liv­ing in the now and fac­ing the real mon­ster.


An old video clip of Fred Gwynne as Her­man Mun­ster has gone vi­ral.

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