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Russell: Political correctness and drawing to an inside straight

Some months ago, I was playing poker in a clubhouse belonging to an apparently all-white organization known for charitable work, which did not make the game legal but made it unlikely to draw law enforcement attention. I do this about once a week, since the nearest casino is a long drive and losing money is my idea of a good time. I could claim that a game of poker is full of important life lessons, but to people who don't like gambling that's like a guy who says he buys Playboy for the articles, so I don't try.

One of the players, in a joking manner, invoked the digitus impudicus, which set off the predictable responses that are equally as juvenile as flipping the bird:

''What's that, your age?''


''Hat size?''

''Number of Caucasian parents?''

We all know that in the mythology of race, ''Caucasian'' means ''white,'' an appellation that is assumed in the absence of any other racial identity. In that world, irrational as it may be, I have only one Caucasian parent. The ''one Caucasian parent'' riposte depends for its humor upon not just racial mythology, but racial superiority.

How to respond?

If I say nothing, the racial hierarchy is never challenged, to the disadvantage of me and mine.

If I say something, I poop the party. If they don't think less of me for only having one Caucasian parent, they think less of me for being a humorless prig.

I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't, and reminded of Suzan Shown Harjo's characterization of P.C. as ''Plain Courtesy.'' If good manners mean anything, they mean you don't put people in such a bind. Of course, the bind did not begin and does not end with some thoughtless white folks at a poker game.

The Spanish and Portuguese colonists bequeathed our South American cousins a finely graduated color hierarchy that valued European blood over indigenous blood. It was a lot like the U.S. idea of blood quantum, only more embedded in language and social status. I used to think we North American Indians were different.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I came to understand that being ''part Indian'' was cool while being a full-blood was not, as far as the white majority was concerned. Our family hero was Will Rogers, but we did not think of him as ''part Indian.'' We thought of him as Cherokee and ''part Indian'' a laughable attempt by white folks to make Rogers one of them.

I guess I finally internalized the dominant culture message the day I came into the barber shop where I had gotten my haircuts since childhood to deliver newspapers. I interrupted a tirade by one of the barbers about the shiftless welfare bum Indians. When he saw me standing in the doorway he mumbled ''Oh, I didn't mean you'' and, that day only, gave me a tip.

It's easier to ignore this kind of poison, but I've come to believe that ignoring it is like failing to take antibiotics for an infection. It just gets worse. So I've been publicly on the wrong side of my entire tribal government when they try to eject tribal citizens for excessive melanin.

You know, it's easier to make grand public statements against race bias than it is to say something in a semi-private context where the downside to speaking up is right in your face and the constructive possibilities are all abstract. But I spoke up to the guy in charge of my favorite gambling den. He told me about his Cherokee grandmother and it was all downhill from there.

I don't expect this story sets me apart. Anybody who has had the mascot conversation knows the terrain, and I'd been praying for the Bosox to make it to get my mind back on baseball and take ''Chief Wahoo'' off my television screen once and for all or at least for the season.

Recently, I was at the same poker game. One of the middle-aged white guys at my table told a joke that will not bear repeating in a family newspaper. It depended for its ''humor'' upon denigration of gay people.

Suppose I was gay? Well, the choices would be to choke down any comment or complain and know that in addition to being thought less of because you are gay, you will be thought less of because you are a humorless prig.

If I were to be consistent with my last P.C. misadventure, I would have to speak up regardless of whether I am gay, which I did - and almost wound up stepping outside to settle it.

That's what happens when you let this P.C. stuff get out of hand. First you can't say ''prairie niggers,'' then you can't talk about queers, and the next thing you know, people expect you to talk to your child if she calls a playmate ''fatso.'' Life is too complicated for Plain Courtesy, 'ennit?

Who says you can't get life lessons from a game of poker?

Steve Russell, Cherokee, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment, and associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University - Bloomington.