Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clichés I Hate, Part 1: "Black Don't Crack"!

If black don't crack, does that mean Blair Underwood would look so good at 47 no matter what?
Since we were talking about people who don't look their age, let's continue along those lines and zero in on one line that I absolutely detest:

"Black don't crack"!

Aside from the fact that it's annoyingly ungrammatical, it isn't even true. Black does crack, as any black person who has suffered from ashy skin with no soothing lotion on hand would tell you. Oh, and we age, too. Some of us even show it. I will resist the urge to name names because this is not about hurling insults. And yes, for the most part, black people do age extremely well.

But why must people compliment us individually by saying we look younger than we are, then qualify it with a generalization delivered as if it's the most original thought in the world? The main reason I hate it when people say "black don't crack," though, isn't that I loathe stereotypes, even when they are positive ones. It's this: When someone compliments me on looking great for my age, and then assigns it to everyone who shares my skin color, are they really saying anything about me? It's like telling me you think I'm good-looking and then adding how much you love black men. Is it about me, or about the color of my skin?

I suppose white beauties have their own crosses to bear. When people acknowledge that Jennifer Aniston looks stunning for 43 (and would for 23, too -- indeed, she is my role model for aging gracefully), there's always a qualifier (usually provided by women, often so much harsher than men when judging their own sex): "I wonder how much work she's had done," or something along those lines.

In 1995, I fell in love with Julie Christie after seeing her in a West End production of the Harold Pinter play Old Times. How could she be so stunning at 54? (50 wasn't yet the new 40 -- or the new 30, which it will be when I get there!) After watching her in Afterglow (the 1997 film for which she received her third of four Best Actress Oscar nominations), I actually started to question my sexuality, the same way Jonny Lee Miller started to question his marriage to Lara Flynn Boyle. Wouldn't anyone?

Last year when I saw Red Riding Hood on a plane, and Christie played Amanda Seyfried's grandmother, my ardor had scarcely subsided. If I were to sleep with someone who is old enough to be my mother, and Dame Helen Mirren, 66, was busy, I'd go looking for Christie, who turns 71 on April 14.

Of course, when I first fell for her in the '90s, nearly everyone tried to convince me that she only looked so good because she'd had work done. Why, I wondered, can't white actresses look good for their age just because they do? Why must it be because they've had work done? And if someone is lucky enough to find a plastic surgeon who does excellent work, shouldn't she get some credit for it? But I refuse to believe that every gorgeous woman over 40 in Hollywood stays that way by going under the knife.

As for black not cracking, it's just another example of how people, no matter how enlightened and color blind they claim to be, rarely see past color. When I was a kid, my sister told me a story about a classmate who was looking at a photo of a woman in a magazine and declared, "She's pretty for a black girl." My sister was furious. Why couldn't she be pretty -- period? Why can't a black person look great for his/her age -- period? Why must there always be such a predictable over-awareness of skin color?

I know it's how we are conditioned to think, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to evolve to a place where it's not always the first thing we see. I was once talking to a guy in Argentina, and I asked him what he sees when he looks at me, and he said, "Veo un chico negro." Groan. Why couldn't he simply have said, "I see a man"? That's what I see when I look in the mirror.

I'm sure the guy from Indonesia I was having drinks with last week gets that sort of thing a lot. I hear it all the time, that Asians don't age either, which is preposterous. I've spent seven months living in Southeast Asia over the past year, and when I walk down the street I never feel as if I've fallen through the looking glass into the Portrait of Dorian Gray. I see young people, I see old people. I see young-looking people, I see old-looking people. Basically, I see people.

As for my new Indonesian acquaintance, I figured he had to be 25 tops, not just because of the braces he wears on his teeth, or because all Asians allegedly look 10 years younger than they are, and despite the fact that his pop-cultural references could have placed him at least a decade older. To me, he simply looked like a young guy. When he revealed that he was 34 years old, I would have fallen off my bar stool had I been sitting on one.

"Wow! You look so much younger than 34," I said. It was a compliment reserved specifically for him. The thought that Asians his age all look 25 never entered my mind because it's simply not true.

"And you don't look 42 at all," he responded. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it... I was waiting to hear him say, "Black don't crack," or some other qualifier to explain my own youthful glow, but it didn't come.

I'll drink to that, I thought, and I did. That's how you give a compliment!
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