The concept of “21st-century racism” has been coming up in various conversations that I’ve had this week. Just a month ago, I finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I was surprised how well it’s tale of love and capriciousness holds up today. The film focuses on Paul Vorjak, and his infatuation with his next door neighbor, Holly Golightly. The two meet, go on dates, and fall in love over time. However, it becomes evident very early on that Paul (and the viewer for that matter) is only seeing one aspect of his neighbor’s personality.
The other main character that is most often discussed when bringing up Breakfast at Tiffany’s today is her landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. He’s basically a caricature of grumpy Asian men, but there’s something disturbing and dark about Mickey Rooney playing him as a joke for everyone to laugh at. The big teeth, the strong accent, and the thick-rimmed glasses all made me cringe, even knowing that it was coming. The main problem with this portrayal is that it is not only played for laughs, but clearly meant to be taken seriously in the context of the film’s audience. No other character remarks on his absurd antics and they all simply look down at him as the silly landlord who can’t take a joke. Now, it’s easy to say that this was what America found funny in the 1960s, and we’ve changed today. Today, racism is more internal, and is coupled with other negative thoughts that don’t bubble to the surface as flambouyantly as an Asian landlord eating from a big bowl of rice with chopsticks. This is 21st-century racism, and although it’s less offensive than stereotypes, it’s just as harmful to society.
With the rise of the Internet and portable smartphones, people are simultaneously more and less connected. One can read about the triumph of modern social justice on their phone, while simultaneously missing the beautiful girl giving them googly eyes from across the subway car. The initial impression of modern Americans is that we are open to all, yet we have still have some deep-seated problems in our nature. Like Ms. Golightly, what appears on the surface isn’t all that there is. Each and every one of has some sort of bias deep inside of us.
Everyone’s a little racist and a little sexist, but some are better at hiding it than others. It’s the same reason that we can’t in good consciousness take a seat from a pretty lady, and why we always assume that more attractive people are kinder. These ideas are so ingrained in our minds because of films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where prejudice is treated like a background joke. How do we slough off these dregs of a past that we don’t like to bring up anymore, that has become a shameful mark on our history? One way to work towards that is admitting that we are all fundamentally flawed, and allowing these negative aspects to define us.
I didn’t expect the back half of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to go the way that it did. Holly and Paul have a falling out when he finds out that she lives a false life after having fled her family’s farm many years ago, and she prepares to flee yet again. However, in the climax of the film, the two kiss in the rain, and learn to accept each other’s differences as all lovers should. It’s a typical Hollywood ending, but applied to our modern day issue with accepting others, it seems appropriate. Hiding one’s faults only makes them worse, and leads to a culture of people who can’t admit when they’re wrong. If we’re to be like the ending of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we need to accept each other’s inner demons, not pretend that they don’t exist. Because, like Mr. Yunioshi, they’re always going to be there, ready to rear their deformed, unfortunately-shaped heads.