Friday, May 21, 2010

My own dalliance with racism and bigotry.

The year was very late 1969 or early 1970, when our family, now under the control of new a stepfather, moved from Colorado to rural Alabama. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to understand that this was a huge change for me, a rather shy, unhappy, impressionable and neurotic teenager just starting high school, moving from a relatively progressive place to a very small town in the Deep South, where the Civil War was still very fresh in the cultural consciousness. The Civil Rights movement was not some distant event that today’s kids read in their history books. We were less than seven years removed from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, attack dogs and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful protestors, also in Birmingham, and the abduction and murder of three young people in Philadelphia, Mississippi whose only crime was attempting to sign up black people to vote. This was the environment into which I found myself dumped, terribly unprepared and uninformed.

My new hometown, which shall remain nameless in this telling, was very similar to every other small town in the Deep South at this time. There was an almost identical town about seven miles to the west. They could have swapped names and it would have hardly made a difference. Unemployment was high, alcoholism was a problem. The towns had very little to offer in terms of employment or entertainment. Both had a white population and a black population that got along marginally well. For the most part, there was no overt hostility between the two groups and there were true positive feelings among a number of individuals. But the subject of race was there. It was always there.

It wasn’t very long after I started in the local high school that I found myself labeled as a “Yankee.” That was, without a doubt, not a compliment. After all, I talked differently. I wore different clothes and tended to have longer hair those days. This was before it became acceptable for country music stars to have long hair. I was an outsider, and that usually means “not acceptable.” Yankee! Outsider! Alien! Looking back, I certainly didn’t do myself any favors. But, at the time, I was just trying to cope with a new family, a sometimes hostile and drunk stepfather and the loss of every friend I had ever managed to make up that point.

At some point in time, I remember being surrounded by a number of the white kids who demanded to know whether or not I was a “nigger lover.” I remember being rather confused by this at the time. I wasn’t certain what that actually meant. My school in Colorado had a total of one black kid in the entire high school, and the football season before I moved away, he had just been voted by the student body as Homecoming King. I don’t remember my reaction to that. I think it was probably confusion, more than anything. I certainly didn’t believe it was somehow “wrong.” However, I do remember that I instantly knew what the answer that my new classmates were expecting from me. I said something to the effect of a very indignant, “No!” I don’t know what would have happened to me if I would have answered otherwise. Probably nothing except some additional ostracism.

The drive-in restaurant in the town (which my stepfather later bought and I was forced to work in when I wasn’t at school or doing school work) had “WHITES ONLY” painted above the walk-up window at the front of the building. There was, of course, the corresponding “COLORED ONLY” sign over the window at the side of the building. This was 1971, not all that long ago. There wasn’t a sign, but it was just an unstated rule that blacks were expected to not come inside into the dining area. Outside was fine, but not inside. During my hours working at the windows at the restaurant, of which there were to be many over the next five years or so, I remember those became my expectations as well. I felt that some unknown code had been violated when a black kid used the window designated for WHITES ONLY to order an ice cream cone. I didn’t say anything, I filled the order. I think it might have been a kid from school. After a few years, that code seem to become relaxed so that the COLORED ONLY window got covered up by equipment so that no one could have used it if they had wanted to. But when it first happened, I do remember feeling uncomfortable.

There was some outward conflict at the school on occasion. I remember one event, which may have lasted several weeks, where there was definitely some animosity going on between the white boys and black boys. It was kid of like a “Jets vs. Sharks” thing from West Side Story. I think it was centered in the higher classes, and I was just a freshman. I remember a bunch of kids standing around, talking, and there were actually some cooler heads trying to prevail. I remember one white kid trying to reason it out saying something like, “Look, if the football team wins, who is it that wins? Is it the colored boys? Or the white boys? No, it’s the team that wins.” Looking back now at that environment and who I remember it was saying that, I am rather impressed. That situation could have easily spiraled out of control. But it didn’t. Everything just went back into the pressure cooker to be heated up a bit more.

The biggest flare up between the two groups of people came not at my town, but the aforementioned town seven miles to the west. It could have just as easily been our town, I suppose. But it wasn’t. The conflict started, if I remember correctly, when several of the white cheerleaders started dating a couple of the black kids who starred on their football and basketball teams. Now, this was definitely crossing a line that the townspeople did not want to see crossed. It came to a head when the two or three couples wanted to go to the prom together. Maybe they succeeded, maybe they didn’t. I honestly don’t remember. But what I am attempting to convey here is my reaction. I don’t remember being outraged. I think my own reaction went something along the lines of, “Gee, those are cute girls. I don’t understand. They couldn’t get a date with a white boy?” No doubt I was feeling a bit left out, like I always did, as I wouldn’t have been able to get a date at that time if my life had depended on it. I cannot say with any amount of certainty what the girls’ motivations were. No doubt they truly liked the black kids, and they were stars on the sports teams, after all. But I imagine a healthy dose of rebellion was in there as well. “You aren’t going to tell ME who I can and can’t date!” I can now respect them for that.

I got along, for the most part, O.K. with the black kids in my class. I didn’t know what to say to them, really. The black boys were on the basketball team, on which I also played. By “played”, I really mean, “sat on the end of the bench a lot.” The black girls, I just didn’t know what to say to them. But then, I usually didn’t know what to say to girls anyway, so that’s no big surprise. Two of the black girls seemed really nice kids and they were rather well liked. The black boys got into no more or less trouble than did the white kids. Maybe less, now that I think about it. I was treated no better or worse by the black kids than my white classmates.

So, now I come to the reason I started to write this. Racism and bigotry have raised their heads again. We have a black man as president, and that doesn’t seem to be going over very well with a segment of the populace. Thoughts and feelings that have been submerged but still present in our society since my days in high school are popping out all over. Things that used to go unsaid are now being overtly trumpeted by the right wing media personalities and even some local politicians. The focus is now more on Latinos and Muslims instead of blacks, but it’s the same thing. “You are not like me. Therefore, you are bad and are to blame for all of my problems.” I won’t try to rehash the current societal mess. It’s just that I can’t help thinking that I have seen all of this before. I “know” the people who say these things that you would not expect to hear in America in the 21st Century.

Why? What is it with people that we can be trained to view with hostility anything different than ourselves? Based on what I know of history and from my own experiences that I recounted here, I have come to believe that human beings are extremely susceptible to manipulation. Some people may call this “tribal knowledge” or “learning at the feet of your elders.” However, manipulation is as good as any term that I can come up with. I believe that you can get a human being to believe anything if you start early enough and repeat it often enough. Children can be taught values when they are young that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. I remember being taught about The Golden Rule when I was in kindergarten. Now, I may not have always practiced that as diligently as I should have, but I have always believed it. Of course, there is the other side of the coin. Children can be taught distrust, hatred and prejudice as well as what most of us would consider to be more positive attributes of society. Protestants can be taught to hate Catholics. Germans can be taught to hate Jews. Many tribes of Native Americans hated each other and were in a constant state of conflict.

For my part, I am rather ashamed that I fell so easily into that trap. Of course I was not a “nigger lover!” How dare you think that about me! I now hope that was more just a knee-jerk reaction to my intense desire to be accepted than it was to my real beliefs at the time. As I said, I do not remember ever really disliking black people because they were black. I have been uncomfortable around them sometime, as I never knew how I was supposed to act or react, and whether they were going to be hostile to me. But then, I can also remember other times, like working with a black guy at a job at an office supply store, and we got along very well together. During one delivery trip, he and I, along with one other white guy, stopped off at a nightclub where a lot of black people hung out. The club band was practicing and we sat and listened to them for a while. My work buddy introduced us white guys to the rest and we sat around and got high. Being a head trumps being a racist, I suppose. I suppose I can feel somewhat mollified by the fact that really don’t believe I ever felt any animosity toward anyone because they were black. I was just reacting to the pressures of the times and of high school.

I am now married to a very nice Asian woman and have been for almost 20 years. We adopted her niece, who is also Asian, it should go without saying, as our own daughter. I have known many black people and gotten along with them well, as I have other “different” people such as gays and lesbians. I am a “good” progressive. The only time I really dislike someone is not because of their skin color, religion or sexual orientation, but because I perceive the person to be a jerk. I am extremely proud of the fact that the United States of America, with its very messy and unfortunate history regarding race relations, has a black man as President. I am the epitome of open-mindedness and acceptance. Until I look past the surface and into my own thoughts and history. Then, I sometimes begin to wonder. Why did I not object to the WHITES ONLY sign above the serving window of our family restaurant? I never questioned that at all, and I wonder why and am rather ashamed that I don't have a good answer. Should I have stood up to the bullies who demanded to know my feelings about my black classmates and told them where to get off? I still dislike thinking about that event and the answer that I so immediately and easily came up with.

Are we ever really truly free from fear and distrust of “The Others”, especially if we have been immersed into a culture that condones that fear and distrust?

It’s an interesting discussion I sometimes have with myself.

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