What a Game Show has Taught me about Racism

I grew up in Carsondale, a suburb of Washington DC established and marketed to African Americans returning from the Korean War. When I rode the bus home from school every day, my parents were still at work. I hated a quiet house, so I’d be sure to turn on the TV as soon as I walked in the door.

Back in the 70s’ there were only five channels that came in from the rabbit ears antenna on top of the TV. Ours was usually tuned to NBC on channel five; at the time I got home from school that meant the game show Hollywood Squares.

If you’ve never seen the show, it goes something like this: nine celebrities, like Mel Brooks and Linda Day George, were each sitting in boxes, arranged in a grid. Three were sitting on the bottom row, three in the middle, and then three more on the top row.

Just nearby was the host of the show, with two contestants, one on each side. The contestants were competing in a game of Tic Tac Toe. One of them would choose a square, and then the host would ask the celebrity in that square a question. It might be a question with multiple answers to choose from, or just open ended. The contestant would guess whether the celebrity’s answer was correct. If the contestant was correct they would get an “X” or “O.” For example, the host might ask, “What color is the Black Forest?” and that celebrity might answer “The Black Forest is obviously black.” They might in fact have no idea: it was just guessing. But whether they knew the real answer or not, it was always said with such confidence and humor, that the contestants had a hard time knowing if the answer was true or false. I found all this highly entertaining. Just like with Tic Tac Toe, if either contestant could get a row of three “X”s or “O”s, they would win the game, and get a cash prize.

For me, Hollywood Squares was just on in the background, it was something to watch while I was figuring out my homework, or playing with my little sister.

That show was a daily staple of my childhood. It was my white noise all the way through high school; I even switched it on sometimes when I came home from college.

Back in the early 70s’, Hollywood Squares just seemed like light-hearted fun, but as the show evolved over time, those celebrities in their boxes took on a deeper significance. They always made sure there was a balance of men and women, gay and straight people, black and white people, Asians, Latinos, Native American and East Indian people. It was one of the first shows to feature a trans celebrity.

At first, Paul Lynde, a flamboyantly gay man was always in the center square. Later he was replaced by Whoopi Goldberg, a black woman. If a black woman left the show, they’d make sure to replace her with another black woman. So over time the upper right square, for example, or the lower left square, was not just associated with a particular celebrity, but with the sub-population they represented. For example, John Amos wasn’t there all the time, but when he couldn’t be on the show, he would always be replaced with another black man in the same square.

The show was subtly reflecting to us, through humor, how we create archetypes in society, and divide against each other.

People would exaggerate their archetype: Jewish celebrities would make a lot of jokes about their love of money or, a gay man might appear overly flamboyant. The celebrities would make fun of themselves: their religion, their skin color, their cultural stereotypes.

Recently, during the pandemic, I went back and watched some old reruns of Hollywood Squares on YouTube. It was much more apparent to me now, looking back, how much this was an early attempt to represent diversity in entertainment. The show was making comedy out of the relationships between different kinds of people in society.

When I went back to watch the reruns I saw the role of the host (always a man) in a new way. He always appeared mild-mannered, funny, and affable. He didn’t get nearly as much airtime as the celebrities: most of the screen time was on the stars ribbing each other and joking around.

But now, as I look back on it, I realize that the host had much more power than was apparent at the time. The host could affect the celebrity’s brand by goading them to appear arrogant or hostile. Likewise, the host could interact playfully, and the audience would perceive the celebrity to have a warm, likable personality. The host also controlled the airtime, making some celebrities appear more commanding and even significant.

Looking back on that TV show — that has been a backdrop to my whole life — I realize how much I have been indoctrinated by the notion of boxes, and how much Hollywood Squares was a mirror of how we all live life together.

Sometimes it’s like that, isn’t it? Something that is happening throughout all of society, something big and complex, may not be obvious. It may take something specific to shine a light on it. For me, it was a random game show on the TV.

When we identify ourselves as belonging inside a particular box, we create customs together, making our own shared box more insular, and making it harder and harder to understand people from another box. In time, we forget about the origins of the habits within our own box.

We learn to be identified by our box, and then to protect it.

For example, for most of my life I’ve attended a black church where we express religion very differently than in other cultures. We have different styles of music. When we have gatherings, the food we share and how we prepare it, means just as much as the social interactions.

When a newcomer steps into any box and is unfamiliar with the customs and traditions, they can easily feel uncomfortable, and wonder if they belong and how to behave. Those within the box may have similar questions about people from the outside.

We develop irrational prejudices about the boxes to which we do not belong, and we distrust the people who have prejudices about our boxes: which means we all gradually lose curiosity about each other over time.

There was something about Billie, a white kid from the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia I met at a track meet when I was seven. His parents had told him that blacks are inferior, and their DNA is flawed. So many moments like that influenced me as a child to grow up to be suspicious of white people, which means I gradually lost curiosity to know how they think and act.

No one can even remember how these prejudices got started, they have all been going on for such a long time.

On Hollywood Squares, it was nine boxes stacked into a game of Tic Tac Toe. But in real life, the board stretches almost indefinitely to accommodate any group of people who have the resources, the need, and the relationships between themselves to create their own brand of insular box.

As I became aware of how much power the host had on the show, I began to contemplate: what is the equivalent of the host in the way that we create boxes in life? I think it is the people who have the most wealth and power. They are not necessarily on our TVs very much; we don’t know much about them.

You may have heard plenty of interviews with people who represent Black Lives Matter, Feminism, gay rights, or Evangelical Christians. But how many times have you heard an interview with a Rothschild, Oppenheimer or Fanjul?

The people with money and power are in the background. In many ways, they are orchestrating — with the power that money affords them — the boxes in which we all live.

Once I recognize the camouflaged forces running the world, I notice an immediate instinct to want to judge people with wealth and power. But I understand now, from my own experience, that we would all jump to become the host in a heartbeat: everyone and anyone would take more money and more power, given half a chance. It’s got little to do with race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, none of that matters: given the opportunity, very few of us will say “no” to having more because of our idealistic principles.

We have come to accept as normal the sense of there being an invisible host setting up the game. We have become accustomed to living in a society in which wealth and power are more important than the idea of a shared common humanity.

Over the last years I keep seeing more and more reports of unarmed black kids getting shot. Thinking about systemic racism keeps me up at night, feeling the terror for my own son and his friends.

When I talk with my peers, we ask ourselves sometimes, ‘How are we going to get rid of systemic racism?’ I don’t think we can possibly do that within our current acceptance of boxes as normal. The solution is not to promote or demote a particular box, or to create even more boxes. My passion is all about breaking down boxes: the walls that exist between people. I know I am not the first person to present this idea of being inclusive. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights heroes and heroines have been powerful role models for me and many others. MLK was all about breaking down boxes, which finally got him a bullet in the base of his skull. He was hated by many white people, but there were black people who also hated him, because he was not only committed to defending black people against whites, he was also intent on finding our common humanity and breaking down boxes.

We hardly know how to do that anymore. We have forgotten how to look at our own box objectively, how to be curious about someone else’s, how to have vulnerable conversations about our common humanity. We only remember the language of reinforcing boxes.

The most important thing I believe in — to counteract some of the madness between us all — is to notice when I am reinforcing a box that is unnecessarily restrictive, and to gently let that old habit go.

I’m committed to paying less attention to which box I check off as my identity, and more attention to the humanity which we all share, which has no borders.

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Aaron Copeland

Aaron Copeland

Entrepreneur and forward-thinking community advocate with 20+ years of experience in education and mental health services.