OPINION — I am not one of those folks who see celebrities as larger-than-life icons to be worshipped and admired. Usually. But the recent deaths of Jessye Norman and Diahann Carroll hit me in the gut because those two amazing women were at once larger than life and so very real. The reactions to their accomplishments also illustrate an American or perhaps universal trait — the ability to compartmentalize, to place certain citizens of color or underrepresented citizens on a pedestal, at once a part of and apart from others of their race or gender or religion or orientation.
It allows negative judgment of entire groups to exist alongside denials of any racist or discriminatory intent. There are a lot of problems with that way of thinking. It places an unfair burden on the icons, a need to be less a human being than a flawless symbol. And it uses them as a rebuke to others who never managed to overcome society’s obstacles.