Monday, August 10, 2009

Lee Corso's Racist Comment

Dear Reader,

I'd like to share a true story of something that happened several years ago. A story that, not for the first time, but in one of the most blatant ways showed me how much discrimination and hate against African Americans exists in the minds of the business leadership in Orlando, FL.

Up until recently, I was living and working in Orlando. Over the past decade I have worked there for various organizations in various capacities - basically, doing the best I could to get ahead as a marginalized person. For most of that time I was afraid. Afraid of working in a state that didn't value my equality as a gay person and afraid because those who 'managed' me seemed to more times than not ignore my plight and instead play into the unconservative (They would call themselves conservative, but really, what are they conserving?) hands of the business elite in the community.

While working for a creative agency in 2003-2004 I attended many mandatory Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce networking events. This story takes place at one such event sponsored by the chamber and produced by a now defunct organization known as Breakfast Club of America, LLC.

The goal of Breakfast Club of America LLC was to provide high level networking opportunities with the business elite in Central Florida. The price tag for membership - $10,000. The hook - networking with other elite business people while having access to a sports celebrity guest speaker at each of their events. The business model - elite business people like sports figures and therefore this would appeal to the most elite leaders in the community. I shall not use this post to go into detail on the clearly discriminatory claim behind this business model. We can only be grateful the organization went out of business.

The organization I worked for was able to finagle a business membership in trade for producing a marketing video and some other creative materials for Breakfast Club of America. This business trade granted me, the one and only sales associate for the company access to the other members of the organization in hopes I would build relationships with them and acquire them as new clients for the company.

Oh joy of joys! I got to schmooze with the good ole boys! I got to kiss their asses in order to pay my rent. Wasn't I just the privileged one?

Now, mind you I had suffered discrimination on the job at this point from a previous employer. (I'm sure that story will be told at some point.) And I had seen how many Orlandoans felt about giving LGBT people employment protection within the city a few years prior. But I had no direct knowledge of any of these Breakfast Club of America members’ views against LGBT people or other marginalized groups. Having been taunted by the sports types as a kid, I figured the sports affiliated business leaders who were part of this networking group were the grown up version of my past oppressors. I admit I judged a whole group based on who they 'seemed' to be like. That is not right. But as it turned out, my correlations between the marginalizing forces of middle and high school jocks, a past white male employer and certain citizens in Orlando that ‘looked like’ these people was as it turns out not without some comment on white culture in Central Florida.

Back to the event. I did what I always did at these things. I worked the room, meeting as many people as I could before settling with the group that seemed at the top of the heap. This was a buffet style after work happy hour event set up in a country club banquet room. I networked by butt off, ate a bit of food and then sat with sports commentator and special guest, Lee Corso and some members of the organization. I have no recollection of the body of conversation these white men engaged in. All I remember is what happened next.

As I sat, the men were well into a discussion about, you guessed it - sports. I was not even recognized as I joined their happy circle, something that is always odd, but not particular concerning. Then, in a random comment in regard to athletes, Lee Corso compared some African American athletes to "porch monkeys." The table, sans me provided a knowing laugh, as if they were in on some fraternal secret. Then, by identifying eyes it was realized by the group a young, professional African American female was sitting at the table next to us. And finally, a mention, I don't remember by whom, expressing gratitude there wasn't a microphone nearby, which there could have been since one was used earlier in the evening.

I sat speechless, questioning if what I heard was REALLY just said. I couldn't believe it was true. But, as I sat there in confusion and shock I had to accept the fact that this did just happen. Then, as this realization sunk in, I had to grapple with what my response should be. I wasn't going to stand by and let this incident go unpunished. And as I thought of what I was going to say to combat this blatant hate, I thought of my African American niece and how this comment, if made about her would make me want to jump across the table. I found my speechlessness and anger yielding to...more speechlessness and anger. And then, as I was building the courage to confront this head on, I became afraid. Afraid of standing up to these goons and being treated as I was in front of the jocks of my youth. Afraid that the delicate balance known as ‘me making a living in a hostile environment’ could be disrupted to the point where I would easily be the outcast of this whole organization. Afraid of the place I had never gone - the place that says my voice is as loud as yours and will be heard.

I still ask myself, if I were a straight man who saw the injustice of this comment would I have said something to show my dissent? Would I have felt any kind of bullying memories weighing on me during my moment of inaction? Or, out of modes of survival, would I have done the same thing - nothing?

It is not enough that I am sharing this experience now after all this time. It doesn't erase the fact that I didn’t stand up for plurality. That I didn't stand up for my loved one who is part of the group they were marginalizing. And still, after all this time I question - am I only speaking out on this now because I feel safe that the powers that be in Orlando have no control over my voice anymore or that I can say what I want to whom I want without fear of losing my job due to being seen as a polarizing activist?

Even my most recent job was with an organization that may be refusing to embrace a heightened understanding of multiculturalism. Depending on what this unnamed organization does or does not do in the near future will determine how I speak of my experiences working there. If I publicly shared this Lee Corso story while at my last job would I have put myself at risk?

In an attempt to see if Lee Corso has his own Facebook page, (Because isn't that what we do when we want to get to know someone these days - send them a friend request?) I found a Lee Corso individual member who may be the actual Lee Corso. I sent him a friend request. If it the actual Lee and he does accept my request I'll be sure to share this blog post with him. If you happen to have a connection to Lee, I would be more than interested in following up to make sure he knows his racist comment wasn't forgotten and is now out there for all to see.

And who knows, maybe a beer between Lee and I would clear the air like it did as of late between Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley. Except, I would say to him, having been there and knowing all the facts that Lee did indeed act stupidly. And in case anyone asks, I would probably have a Bud Light. Maybe, just maybe the new Bud Light Lime.

Some Facebook group names involving Lee Corso I uncovered in my search, some offensive, some funny, some just plain stupid:

"Lee Corso is an Eskimo"
"Lee Corso is a god"
"Lee Corso is an idiot"
Several "Fuck Lee Corso" groups
"Lee Corso is a DOUCHE"
"Lee Corso is the devil!"
"Lee Corso resembles a sea otter"

Thanks for reading.

Alan L. Bounville