When It’s Not Okay to Be Takei

Image from George Takei's Facebook page
Image from George Takei’s Facebook page

In recent times, George Takei has been an inspiration to many.  Perhaps best known for his role as Sulu on the original Star Trek series, he has taken Facebook by storm, garnering 8.7 million followers.  In 2011, when the Tennessee legislature was considering a bill preventing their teachers from discussing homosexuality (or “don’t say gay”), George Takei suggested using his name instead of the word “gay” and thus declared that it was “okay to be Takei”.

Recently, however, Mr. Takei was rather upset by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ position stance against gay marriage in the Obergefell v. Hodges case.  As a result, George Takei declared Thomas, the lone black member of the court to be a “clown in black-face”.

Now, I could understand why Mr. Takei would be upset with Mr. Thomas.  After all, they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum on this issue.  And, when one is upset, one will sometimes say things in the heat of the moment that one normally would not, such as using a racial slur like “clown in black-face”.

Given what I thought I knew of George Takei, I thought he would realize his mistake and issue an apology almost immediately.  Instead, Mr. Takei defended his remarks saying:

“Blackface” is a lesser known theatrical term for a white actor who blackens his face to play a black buffoon. In traditional theater lingo, and in my view and intent, that is not racist. It is instead part of a racist history in this country.

I feel Justice Thomas has abdicated and abandoned his African American heritage by claiming slavery did not strip dignity from human beings. He made a similar remark about the Japanese American internment, of which I am a survivor. A sitting Justice of the Supreme Court ought to know better.

Although I highly doubted he would read it, I went to his Facebook page to share my disappointment in his words writing, “I’m disappointed in your comments about Clarence Thomas. I thought you were better than that. 😟”  I was aware that doing so, of course, would open me up to comments from his fan-base.  Perhaps not surprisingly some were quick to defend him and condemn me.  For example we have, “Then unfriend him and go away” and “You are insignificant then. If you can’t respect what he’s been through and his opinions, you must be a redneck if you think he should respect yours.” and “Well, you can always go f*** yourself. There’s always that option.”  

Yes, I certainly empathize with the horrible treatment and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  It is a stain upon our country’s honor and must be taught so that it will never be forgotten or repeated upon any group of people regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or other common bond.  Given that President Franklin Roosevelt created this unjustified act through his executive order, perhaps it is prudent to rethink his legacy and finally remove his image from a place of honor on our dime.  Nevertheless, whatever traumatic and unjust acts were done to Mr. Takei and his family by the hands of the federal government, it doesn’t give him or anyone else carte blanche to speak and act however they wish without repercussion.

Unfortunately, in our increasingly polarized society led by talking heads on the right and the left, we are taught that civil discourse is an evil to be avoided at all cost and that tolerance should be reserved only for those who agree with us.  As these Facebook fans have demonstrated, if someone has an opposing opinion, then that must mean that they are ignorant, or, in this case, a “redneck” or simply ought to f*** themselves.

When I began writing this piece, as you can guess from the title, I was worried that it would end with this sour note of intolerance and hatred, but about an hour ago Mr. Takei released the following statement on his Facebook page:

On the eve of this Independence Day, I have a renewed sense of what this country stands for, and how I personally could help achieve it. The promise of equality and freedom is one that all of us have to work for, at all times. I know this as a survivor of the Japanese American internment, which each day drives me only to strive harder to help fulfill that promise for future generations.

I recently was asked by a reporter about Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent in the marriage equality cases, in which he wrote words that really got under my skin, by suggesting that the government cannot take away human dignity through slavery, or though internment. In my mind that suggested that this meant he felt the government therefore shouldn’t be held accountable, or should do nothing in the face of gross violations of dignity. When asked by a reporter about the opinion, I was still seething, and I referred to him as a “clown in blackface” to suggest that he had abdicated and abandoned his heritage. This was not intended to be racist, but rather to evoke a history of racism in the theatrical arts. While I continue to vehemently disagree with Justice Thomas, the words I chose, said in the heat of anger, were not carefully considered.

I am reminded, especially on this July 4th holiday, that though we have the freedom to speak our minds, we must use that freedom judiciously. Each of us, as humans, have hot-button topics that can set-us off, and Justice Thomas had hit mine, that is clear. But my choice of words was regrettable, not because I do not believe Justice Thomas is deeply wrong, but because they were ad hominem and uncivil, and for that I am sorry.

I often ask fans to keep the level of discourse on this page and in comments high, and to remember that we all love this country and for what it stands for, even if we often disagree passionately about how to achieve those goals. I did not live up to my own high standards in this instance.

I hope all of you have a wonderful, safe and joyously free July 4t, the first where all married couples in the U.S. can enjoy the full liberties of matrimony equally. It is truly a blessing to be an American today.

I’m glad that Mr. Takei chose to offer his apology and, even more importantly, I hope that his legions of fans will heed and follow his words.  Celebrities are people too and with it comes all of the greatness and flaws that define the rest of humanity.  None of us are infallible, none of us should be treated as such.

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