Note: The issues that I write about in this essay have been discussed in much more depth elsewhere. The appropriate articles are linked below. I just felt compelled to share my own thoughts in a personal essay.
A Sociological/Cultural Essay in Three Parts
I-The Commute Reminder
I take the bus to work everyday, from Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood to Lincoln Park. The #22 Clark bus has been a part of my commute since high school, and on the days that I'm not reading a book or a newspaper, I'm staring out the window, taking in the streets and the buildings. Sometimes, this is incredibly boring; sometimes, it's strangely familiar and comforting. After about fifteen minutes, the bus approaches Addison, and once it does, I always stop reading or daydreaming to look at Wrigley Field. During the offseason, this can be dispiriting. The ballpark doesn't have the same feel when surrounded by snow and seemingly vacant bars and restaurants. However, during the season, the neighborhood, especially on game days, has a vibe, a definite current of excitement. Thousands walk towards the gates, vendors yell about their available peanuts and parking spaces, and it would probably mirror a Cubs day game forty or fifty years prior, were it not for some of the modern differences, like the websites being advertised on the Wrigley Field marquee.
However, now that I'm back in Chicago, something troubles me. It's something visible among the throngs of people on the sidewalks, among the pennants being displayed, among the momentarily deadlocked traffic on Clark Street. My eyes feel like microscopes as they pick out that something, only a few inches in diameter, looking back at me. It's a cultural reminder found in both the likeliest and unlikeliest of places--a t-shirt on a t-shirt stand. It depicts a panda with slanted eyes behind black Harry Caray-style glasses. In faux-Asian script, the shirt's caption reads "Horry Kow." I see this on display during every home game when I'm on my way to work. This mirrors the same eras of forty or fifty years prior, but not in the vein of baseball nostalgia. This time, one thinks back to a time when Amos 'N' Andy and Charlie Chan were just shows and movies, nothing more.
Welcome back to Chicago for the 2009 season, Kosuke Fukudome.
Allow me to apologize on behalf of a small group of Cubs fans.
I rarely post personal essays here, and I hesitate even further to candidly discuss certain periods of my life, especially in this regard, where it can be viewed as insulting. That said, three years ago I dated a woman who called herself a Cubs fan. She couldn't name any of the players, never knew the standings, and never watched games on television. This would have been marginally acceptable had her fandom been rooted in local pride, but the appeal for her was the embarrassing side of Cubs culture--the unspoken understanding that a Cubs game is a frat kegger/singles bar that happens to have a baseball game going on several feet away. This woman loved the idea that "We (Cubs fans) drink when we win, and when we lose, we drink to mourn the loss." Given the closing of the previous section, this woman was not at all racist, but that culture of "baseball fan" enjoys the game on a non-baseball level. It's a point of contention that White Sox fans claim to be real baseball fans, much to the chagrin of Cub fans who actually follow baseball as a whole (although I'm sure that U.S. Cellular Field has its own clique of fans who go to the game just for the atmosphere). On the Northside, these casual fans get into one part of a baseball game--the taunting and booing of opposing players as well as home team players who perform poorly. This supposed Cub fan base trickles down to another sub-section, the one that enjoys racial stereotypes as a means of taunting or "honoring" a given player. The t-shirt vendor who sells the "Horry Kow" shirts is merely doing it to make money. What makes this even more embarrassing is that it's done in "support" of Kosuke Fukudome, the first ever Japanese-born baseball player in Cubs history.
These "homages" began with Japanese-style headbands, which bordered awfully close to full-on offensiveness, before the t-shirts caught notice. I was living in Seattle during the 2008 Major League Baseball season, so this year is my first exposure to this. Some poeple may very well argue that anyone who finds the t-shirts to be anything but a joke is just uptight and needs to relax. However, was this an issue when Hideo Nomo first played with the Los Angeles Dodgers? When Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Seattle Mariners, there was an awe and fascination with his arrival, not because he was Japanese, but because America was receiving one of the finest international baseball players ever. Watching and attending Mariner games last season, the awe for Ichiro was still felt, but I never saw a fan with a headband or an offensive t-shirt. I'm not at all saying that these items do not exist in the Pacific Northwest, but I never saw a caricature staring back at me. This has gone even further in Chicago. In addition to the Fukudome "homage," fans can purchase t-shirts featuring a sombrero-clad silhouette pushing a lawnmower, with the caption (pick one) "Albert Pujols/Ozzie Guillen/Carlos Zambrano Mows My Lawn." Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the White Sox, even purchased one of these shirts.
If racial stereotyping doesn't get a big laugh, there's always the "Green Bay Fudge Packers" t-shirt available from the same vendors.
Perhaps I'm also perpetuating a stereotype by pointing out a specific group of Cubs fans, namely, the current and ex-frat boy scene that gets a lot of attention at Wrigley Field. In the wake of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. scandal and alleged police brutality in Iowa City, perhaps t-shirts are not such a big deal in hindsight. However, they do serve as a reminder that race and stereotypes are still problems in this country. Some people may roll their eyes and claim that it's just a stupid joke, that nobody really means any harm by the creation of such images.
If that's the case, then the people who produce these shirts should make one featuring Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley holding a piece of watermelon, with the caption "Sorry I'm Only Hittin' .250, Masta." That would not last a full hour at any t-shirt display near the ballpark. How is that any different from the other ones?