Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Rascist in Me

Ah, my racist roots. Where shall I begin?

I grew up in a white working/middle class family in Southeastern Indiana. Need I say more?

My dad, a forklift driver for Monsanto (again, please forgive me) for over thirty-five years was a hereditary racist. Not outwardly hateful, but basic, a black person is different and therefore less racist. He, a man with high school education and a solid hold smack dab in the middle class via his factory job, considered himself better than anyone of color. Or at least that's the impression he gave us through his words.

I later understood that part of what we heard was fear. He feared that his place in the middle class was threatened by the encroachment of minorities which were, in his world, African Americans. That fear mirrors the fear and racism now being displayed towards Latinos, especially in places like where we live here in Georgia. Factory jobs have all but disappeared and the sames kinds of jobs at in that pay range are scarce. Blame the Mexicans. It's easier to do that to rail at the powers that be who made the financial decisions to close the factories and outsource the jobs.

What uneducated people understand better maybe than educated people do is the law of resources. They understand that if there are people on top, they are supported by lots of people down below. They also understand that when things are limited, it's a fight for survival to hold on to what you've got and it's an even greater struggle to obtain more. That was my dad. He understand in a very basic way that there were only so many jobs to go around in that factory on the Ohio River bend in Addiston. And if all the sudden a lot of "them" were getting those jobs, then a lot of "him" would be losing theirs. The jobs were not limitless. Quotas became a buzzword. Reverse discrimination was murmured. Rumors were rampant about how "things were shifting" in that factory and many others.

To be honest, I never saw my father be disrespectful to anyone of color. In my mind's eye, I can see him, like most white people I knew (and even now, know), treating people of color with a "certain kind" of respect, a careful respect, a subtle arm's length approach that said "let's just get through this with these fake smiles as quickly as possible because, dammit, my cheeks are starting to hurt." That kind of respect. Not exactly grudging. Not exactly sincere.

But the words. Oh my. My own cheeks burn a little when I think of the string of epithets we kids used to hear coming from our dad's straight-toothed grin. Holy cats, some of those phrases would peel your skin off, leaving you there a strung together diagram of sinewy flesh and moist bones like a picture in an anatomy text book.

I won't list those words and phrases here. But there were plenty of them and they were quite colorful. To my child's ear, some of them were funny and lyrical, comical really. Some referred to continent of origin, I suppose. Others were based, naturally, on darkness of skin. My father didn't make up those words, of course. He learned them from his parents and the other superior, but poor, whites he grew up around in that small Ohio River town.

I remember once riding my bike down to see if Dad was at my grandparents' house. He wasn't there, but Grandma was. She was sitting on the back porch snapping green beans from her garden.

"Do you know where Daddy is?" I asked, leaning my bike into the grass and hopping up the cement step onto the porch.

"Well, I think he went out to help the ni**ers with something," she answered in her crackly grandma voice.

I did not bat an eye at this. I was probably ten years old or so. It was nothing for my grandma to point out my summer color. "You're getting brown as a berry," she'd say, adjusting her whistling hearing aid. "Better watch it or people will mistake you for a picaninny."

Let me just tell you right here and now if anyone spoke that way in front of me now, I would make such a nuisance of myself explaining why that is unacceptable.

When I hear racist language from unrelated adults, I don't call them out. I hate to admit it, but if an adult uses that kind of language in front of me, I leave, I don't school them. I figure they know that they are doing something wrong and choose to behave that way anyway. If they say something racist in front of my kids, I leave, taking my kids with me and I explain why that language is unacceptable.

Believe me when I tell you that this is not a defense of my father's racism, but back when he used those words, it was more common, even in "polite" society. How horrifying. My mother, once distressed that I used the N word, instructed Dad to talk to me and make sure that I never said that word again. I'll never forget the day he told me that if I even thought that word, the nearest ni**, he stopped himself, the nearest black person would come and cut my ears off. Thanks, Dad. That was brilliant. Make me afraid of black people.

But that is how racism is. It's part of who we are. Some of us are raised with it. It comes in different varieties - mild to scorching, but it's there. It's what we do with it that defines us. See, it would have been very easy for me to simply absorb my father's attitude about African Americans and to go through my life assuming superiority to people of color simply because I'm white and of European descent.

Never mind that most of my ancestors were extraordinarily poor, one was brought to Virginia as a criminal/slave for fighting against the British in Scotland. When the lady on the rock invited other countries to send their poor, my ancestors were pushed onto the damn boats - steerage, of course. Even so, we were taught that we were superior somehow.

Instead I chose to reject my family's racism. When Mathman and I started our family, I informed my father that racial slurs would not be tolerated in front of our kids. He has complied. I once got into an ugly shouting match with my paternal grandfather in our front yard because upon learning that I was dating a Moroccan while in France, he had the nerve to ask me why I just couldn't date nice American guys?

Nice American guys is code for white, of course.

There's my proof that I will call my family out on their racism. I may share the DNA, but I do not share their views. I wish I had the spine to be just as forceful with unrelated racists, but I don't. I'm quite convinced that nothing I could say would change their behavior if they're an adult in 2008 and still using racial slurs.

Now that we're about to see racism of all varieties on the most public display since the Civil Rights Era, I'm curious to see just what kind of character America has.

Let's just say, I'm not terribly optimistic.

Originally posted June 13, 2008


  1. What you wrote was excellently stated!!!!

    I think that another common thread amongst us White Folks (my partner is Black though) is the:

    "I'm not racist" position - which might technically be true, but masks the fact that either the person knows virtually No People of Color or that s/he knows People of Color only at such a distance that s/he knows nothing of what being of Color really is.

    A parallel perspective is for example that for White People a neighborhood is integrated when it has 5% Black People. For Black People the similar percentage is around 25%. Thus, the Neighborhood is "turning" - just at the point where Black People don't feel totally isolated (in the minds of the White People).

    It can be similar in how "un-sexist" we Men are, but then how little we know of and really at a deep level accept in women.


  2. Thank you, amensproject. I'm glad you're here. And yes, you're right about neighborhoods and men in that regard.


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