Consider the following hypothetical: An Asian-American and an African-American seat themselves in the front section of a small airplane, after being told by a flight attendant that they can sit anywhere they want. At the last minute, three white men enter the plane and sit in front of the first two passengers. The flight attendant then asks the Asian-American and African-American to move to the back in order to better balance the plane load. They angrily object to the request, stating that they feel they’re being singled out by being asked to “sit in the back of the bus.” The flight attendant is indignant and denies this, stating that she’s just doing her job.
What’s happening here? According to a 2009 American Psychological Association article, the above scenario would indicate that the flight attendant may be guilty of “micro aggression,” behavior which may not seem overtly harassing or discriminatory to the perpetrator, but which reflects bias based on race.
The term “micro aggression” is still fairly new, and the subject is controversial. However, you may be interested in knowing that almost 70 years ago, Hollywood director Elia Kazan examined this very concept in Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about anti-Semitism.
The film’s plot concerns journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who is asked by a New York magazine to write an expose on anti-Semitism. After fruitlessly exploring a variety of angles from which to approach the subject, he gets an idea: He and his family will pretend to be Jewish in order to get a first-person sense of what it’s like to experience prejudice. Because Green is new in town and relatively unknown, it’s easy enough for him to pull off the ruse without any suspicion.
Throughout the course of the film, Green encounters several examples of overt harassment, culminating in his own son tearfully relating that schoolmates have called him a “dirty Jew” and a “stinking Kike.”
The most telling encounters, though, involve comments and behavior which demonstrate a more subtle mindset concerning Jewishness. For example, during a dinner conversation another journalist asks Green whether he was in public relations during the war, because he seems a “clever sort of a guy.” Green asks why the journalist wouldn’t assume that he was in combat. The journalist becomes defensive, stating that some of his best friends are…. (the phrase is left incomplete).
When Green’s mother falls sick, he tells the attending physician that he wants Dr. Abrams from Mt. Sinai Hospital to treat her. The physician responds by hesitating, then casually saying that at least Dr. Abrams is “not given to overcharging….like some do.”
Green endures several examples of similar conduct, and he discovers that all of these together are just as grating and oppressive as any single overtly anti-Semitic epithet or threat. He finally realizes that it’s not really bigots that are the problem; it’s the so-called “nice people” who unwittingly support them:
“It’s just that I’ve come to see that a lot of nice people…people who despise it, and detest it, and protect their own innocence, help it along and wonder why it grows….People who would never beat up a Jew….That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made.”
It should be noted that the term “gentleman’s agreement” as used in the film refers to an unspoken agreement among gentiles that real estate will not be sold to Jews.
Gentleman’s Agreement is frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies and is sold in DVD format on amazon.com.
Elia Kazan, born Elias Kazantzoglou, was a Greek-American director who was known for making movies concerned with social issues. Gentleman’s Agreement was followed by Pinky, (1949) about a light-skinned African-American who passes for white; and On the Waterfront, (1951), about union corruption.
Laura Z. Hobson, who wrote the novel on which Gentleman’s Agreement was based, was also known for tackling provocative social issues. A Jew herself, Ms. Hobson wrote The Trespassers (1943), about refugees escaping from the Nazi’s. In 1975, she wrote Consenting Adult, a novel about a mother coming to terms with her son’s homosexuality.
Gentleman’s Agreement, Prod. Darryl F. Zanuck. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Dean Stockwell. Twentieth Century Fox, 1947. Film.
“Elia Kazan.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 31 July 2016. Web. 02 August 2016.
“Laura Z. Hobson.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. March 2016. Web. 02 August 2016.
DeAngelis, Toni. “Unmasking Racial Micro Aggressions.” American Psychological Association. 2009, Vol 40, No. 2. 2009 February. Web. 02 August 2016.