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April 27, 2010, at 5:18 am — Blogs / /

X marks the spot

Last week, my coworker dashed over to my desk right about the time when my post-lunch food coma had begun to hit, clearly beside herself with excitement. It took me a moment or two to recognize that she was essentially bouncing off the walls of my cubicle in silent celebration; in my sleepy state, I thought her frantic waving was just a friendly greeting. She had — in an attempt to stave off her own food coma — just entered the lottery to be selected as an audience member for a taping of “America’s Got Talent,” and lo and behold! had scored tickets for the show the next day.

Attending events or screenings or store openings without having an assignment or an interview attached to it was a rarity, so she and I rounded up an intern and the three of us made our merry way to the taping the following evening. The premise of the show is simple: In a format similar to Britain’s “X Factor,” various contestants boasting various skills come onstage in front of a live audience and have 90 seconds to impress both the audience and the three judges with their talents. The judges can choose to either “X” a contestant or approve them and pass them on to the next round.

What followed was honestly the saddest series of “talents” I had ever seen, ranging from a man who claimed he could speed-eat five pizzas in 90 seconds (he failed) to a man who insisted his injured Chihuahua could play poker (the nervous pup stopped responding to his commands and curled up in a ball on the poker table onstage). This was what constituted talent in America? I guess the Europeans are right.

Then a tall, frumpy man strode onstage, maybe seven acts into the show. At this point, everyone in the audience was ready for somebody, anybody, to be halfway enjoyable. He was a ventriloquist, he said, and had a knack for different ethnic puppets. The red flags rose up in the audience as minorities leaned forward in their seats, intrigued yet daring him to try to pull racist puppet jokes in New York City. Sure enough, when his 90 seconds began, he reached into the giant duffle bag at his feet and pulled out a sumo wrestler puppet.

I felt myself tense up. This guy was not about to do an act that insulted or poked fun at the Japanese culture. Short of trying to spark a reaction, I couldn’t see how this could possibly be okay. And the act was, indeed, offensive. He made quips about the sumo wrestler attire (nothing but a loincloth) and slow, backwards way of thinking (the whole idea of a sophisticated west and barbaric east). But at some points, I found myself chuckling a little too, then caught myself — was I somehow betraying my culture by doing so?

New York City is by nature a melting pot of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds; part of the reason it appeals so much to anyone who has an inkling of a creative spark in them is because these differences make life that much richer. It is assumed, therefore, that New Yorkers are accustomed to diversity and are therefore more tolerant people than, say, people in the midwest.

But the truth is, the difference between people living in an urban environment like New York, where Jewish delis rub shoulders with Thai food joints, which lean up against hole-in-the-wall pizza parlors, and those who live in more rural areas, is not a matter of being prejudice or not. Everyone is. There are just as many intolerant people in the city as there are out west, but it’s just that people in more diverse places are more settled with their bias, or so I’ve found. They recognize that it’s there and know a little bit more about why they might have those judgments.

Being tolerant suggests that the person who is tolerating is somehow superior to the person or situation that needs to be tolerated, the way a teacher might tolerate rude behavior from a young student who doesn’t know any better. Tolerance is saying that one person is less than the other, or that one culture is better than another. So in that sense, being tolerant doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot to do with being PC, just with having patience, I found.

When that ventriloquist took the stage and began his offensive banter, I expected the audience to boo him off the stage. But he turned out to be the one act who was okayed through to the next round. No patience for the man eating pizza, but encouragement and applause for the guy with the racist puppet (Avenue Q should have come calling)? What to think of tolerance then?

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