Thursday, September 20, 2007

Working the Casino

I thought I'd follow up yesterday's casino story with another experience I had in a casino in Reno a little over a year ago. This involves an encounter I had with a musician who was performing at one of my favorite video poker bars. (I told you I like to gamble!!!)

One evening, I was sitting at a video poker bar, happily playing my quarter machine. There was a great musician who was playing on the stage in front of me. It's a great deal. You can sit and play at the bar, listen to great music and enjoy free beverages. This particular musician was really great. He was playing a mix of classic rock and country rock. I was really enjoying his music.

The bar was pretty full. Most of the video poker machines were full, including the machine next to me, which was occupied by my gambling buddy. I was having such a good time. It was really my 'play time' or so I thought.

The musician announced that he was going to play a 'patriotic song.' I instinctively got a little uncomfortable. Call it instinct. The musician starts to sing a horrible song about getting on an airplane and seeing some Arabs on board. He proceeded to sing (in a 'humorous' fashion) about these Arabs, how uncomfortable they made him and what he was going to do about it, which trust me... wasn't nice. It was full of racist, inaccurate stereotypes and nationalistic, fear mongering drivel.

There I sat. Aghast. I had really been enjoying this guy's music. Now, he was being offensive and racist. Most of the people at the bar seemed to be OK (at the very least) with his song. Suddenly, I knew it was probably time for me to 'go to work,' and I have to admit it isn't always a pleasant realization when I figure this out. :)

I took a personal 'creed' a number of years ago after hearing Maya Angelou speak about the damage we do when we listen to other people make demeaning comments about another person or group of people. Our silence 'validates' what they are saying. What she said was so compelling to me, that I took a personal oath at that moment that I would never sit silent while another person was saying something destructive about 1) another person 2)another group of people or 3) themselves. I MUST at the very least, let them know I disagree. I cannot validate self destructive or racist comments to be made in my presence. I simply cannot do it.

This has gotten me into a number of... shall we say, interesting situations. This night in the bar was certainly one of them.

Here was this musician, slandering Arabs. I have many Arab friends and each of their faces came into my mind and heart at that moment. How would they feel if they were sitting next to me? This is always what happens to me when someone says something racist or against another person's religion. I have friends all over the world, so almost always, a person's face pops into my mind who is being slurred in that moment. It makes it very personal for me. I feel very protective of my wonderful friends all over the world.

In this case in the casino, I knew it was not just me I was putting in potential jeopardy by taking action. My gambling buddy was with me and I knew that if it got 'ugly' with the musician or other guests, that he would feel honor bound to protect me. So, I was also considering putting him in harms way with whatever I was about to do to live up to my 'oath' and 'creed.'

I simply had no choice. I had to express my disagreement and disappointment. One important aspect of this creed is that I try not to embarrass or humiliate anyone as I do it. This is a very very important aspect of what I do. If I embarrass or humiliate them, they are likely to write me (and what I say) off as being the rantings of a.... not so nice person. I try to do it in ways that are respectful and private, when possible.

I chose to look away from the singer (and focus on my poker machine), shook my head in disappointment, and took the perma-smile that he had seen all evening long, off of my face. He definitely got the message. I was pretty obvious, but not too many people noticed, except for the bartender (who I know pretty well) and my buddy sitting next to me.

When the musician finished the song, he walked to the stage right in front of me and off mic said, "I can see you aren't happy with my song. Would you be willing to tell me why?" I told him that the song was racist and stereotypical in a very inaccurate and inappropriate fashion towards Arabs. He looked shocked and said, "No... it's not racist.... its supposed to be funny!" So, we had a little talk about why it was racist, and how my Arab friends would feel if they were with me. He was still being a little defensive and he said to the bar tender, who happened to be Hispanic, "So... is it OK with you if I sing a song that makes fun of Hispanics?" The bartender smiled and said it was OK. I said, "How about you go back to singing the great music you were singing... and not make fun of anyone? Would that be OK?" He apologized to me several times, said that he truly did not want to offend me (or anyone else) and said he hoped that I would stay and continue listening to him. I did stay. At his next break he came and sat down with me and asked if we could talk further about it. We did. I answered all his questions about my objections to the song, and how language can be a very destructive, divisive weapon in our world. At the end of our talk, he thanked me and said, "You know... I've had bad reactions to that song before, but I never understood why. No one has ever explained it to me before. I thank you for that. I understand now."

I don't think he'll ever sing that song again. I hope not, anyway.

As I debriefed with my gambling buddy, I apologized for potentially putting him in a bad situation if that had gone down differently. He said he was really proud of me! That was nice to hear.

These things are never easy for me, but they are simply something I feel compelled to do. I simply can't observe that sort of behavior without at least expressing a different opinion. It's something I hope I have the strength to do every day of my life.

My main lesson in this is that no matter where we go or what we are doing... we can be a voice for a different way of living this life. One that is respectful of all peoples... whoever they are.

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