You Might Have a Problem…

contrast-light-from-a-window-1403452662fzn

 

 

I’m never going to finish this or be able to cram the six or seven additional stories into the post, so I’m going to just post it, imperfections and badly expressed ideas left to fester.
.
A post earlier in 2015 on one of the “Remember (your hometown here) When?” social groups made me laugh, grimace and ponder more than it should have. Some inconsiderate poster had sidetracked the post with an inelegant and uncomfortable comment about the people in question being racist. (Not about the current people posting; rather, about people of a previous generation many of the current generation knew.)
.
As an inconsiderate poster myself, I understand the issue from both sides. It is a fine line trying to decide whether to voice contrary – or negative – opinion when a chorus of voices is saying the opposite. I am confident the detractor believes she was correct in claiming that someone was racist, especially 30-40 years ago. She had some very specific anecdotes to substantiate her point, too. It was in bad taste to post as she did – but it is a member’s forum and people should be able to post their respectfully expressed opinions. Unfortunately, it also means that they can derail otherwise great memories. However, not everyone shares the same rosy, glossed-over version of our collective memories. Wanting open and honest discussion only when it fits a narrow line of commentary doesn’t help anyone.
.
We all walked the same streets, perhaps, but our shared hometown was not the same in spirit. Our attitudes about those streets are going to vary. It is possible to grow up in a town and love it passionately, even amidst racism or other social issues. Our human nature pushes us to try to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves.
.
It is a common mistake for those of us who are not minorities to believe that we all experience the exact same reality or that our skin color did not detract or contribute to our lives. “White privilege” is controversial precisely because it pricks at the recognition that we have ideas we hold true which are unrecognizable as truths by those who are different from us. The playing field always looks level to some, and not just because they are more likely to be the ones who own it.
.
One of the regular discussion group members made a generic declaration of this sort: “I’m sure none of us were racist and we certainly didn’t know anyone who was.” Then, people jumped in with the other half of the formula: “If you don’t want to agree with us, go somewhere else with that type of commentary.” Or, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, shut the hell up.” I will agree that it would have been a better choice for the lady in question to skip the commentary – but I am not the person in question and I do not know what prompted the poster to move to action, to cannonball the discussion with accusatory claims of racism. She may have been just stirring the pot to get the Black Sock Mafia in a tizzy. There is a chance, though, that she had suffered directly because of the people of the past in question. I’m not guessing or judging what pushed her to lash out that day. I stick my foot in mouth with such regularity that I can’t legitimately point the finger too harshly at others when they do it.
.
(Sidenote: I was surprised to discover that many regular posters on the hometown group in question were unaware that a companion site almost exclusively for minorities exists – and has more members and participation than the hometown memory group I’m discussing. What a shame that both groups don’t live and interact on social media – or that they can’t.)
.
In regards to the “no racism in our town” argument, I can assure that there was indeed both overt and hidden prejudice infecting the town in question. Racism was a hallmark of youth – and I have stories I love to share. There is a reason that some places still bear the reputation of prejudice today, regardless of the strides made. It is not indicative of how they want to be perceived and I’m not saying it is fair to automatically label anyone from there as racist – that is stupid and unhelpful. The label should only be used where appropriate and not lightly. Like so many important social and civil issues, the people working hard to improve everyone’s lives are striving to get past what happened before, to improve it, and to avoid a repeat of our exclusionary history.
.
(Calling someone ‘racist’ without both strong evidence and a need to do so is no better than calling someone by a racially charged nickname. It is much more helpful to limit one’s critique to the specific words or behaviors, as we all make the major error of adding motive to what we perceive as a wrong action or utterance. People are saying ‘racist’ far too often and without evaluating a person’s viewpoint. I’m guilty of it. Usually, it is more likely the person is just an ass, not that he or she is racist. People lash out in anger and use the hot button words too quickly.)
.
However, speaking from direct personal experience, the towns of my youth indeed had prejudice, and not just the casual “n-word” bombs being dropped with routine regularity. Many whites generally hated minorities. They were vocal about it, at least among people who they believed to be sympathizers. They resented integration, being told they couldn’t call minorities by the slurs they had learned throughout their lives or that as employers they couldn’t treat some people as second-class citizens. If someone had an obstacle in life, it could easily be blamed on minorities.
.
All of these people lived among their neighbors, attending church, running businesses, marrying, and living their lives. Most of them learned to be bigots from their family and surrounding communities. They didn’t ‘stick out’ necessarily. It was not common for them to be forcefully called out on their racism.
.
“It’s just a word. Why is everyone getting offended?” It wasn’t just a word. It was a gateway insult that represented so many worse underlying attitudes about people solely because they were a different skin color. “Well, I wasn’t talking about normal (n-words). This guy is a real (n-word.)” I heard so many versions of that concept. None of them were creative. Whether people want to know it is true or not, if someone is still using the “n-word” in casual conversation (and usually softly or secretly whispered), the chances are that they need to understand that we are looking at them as if their hair is on fire. It’s not the word that is the problem: it is their attitude toward other people.
.
To be clear, I really believe that not everyone who uses the ‘n-word’ is a racist. They might be ignorant or not understand what they are saying, but their attitude isn’t one of denigration or denial toward other people. It’s a small distinction that is often overlooked when discussing racism. People who use the ‘n-word’ tend to be racist, but it is not fair to use a wide brush and label all who use it as racist. It tends to be a sign of poor education or refinement, but most of us can be guilty of that. As humans, we grab the most easily used word, no matter how volatile, to lash out and express our anger.
.
Yes, the racists get terribly angry when their attitudes or behaviors are labeled. Each racist, though, feels that his or her attitudes were legitimately earned and that their conclusions were reached via rational thinking and practical observation of the world. For anyone to tell them that they are both wrong and in need of education is just about as offensive as anything else you could say to them. They are the first to scream “Political Correctness” or to sidestep away from the glare of accusation. They didn’t earn their prejudices, but it is almost impossible to get an otherwise smart person to stop and consider the loose sanity upon which most prejudices are built. Some of the worst lashing out and retaliation I’ve ever seen resulted from people being called out on their prejudices. They do not let go lightly. Prejudices scar people’s self-awareness.
.
We are moving incrementally away from prejudices. It is built into our nature, though, and it takes work from all of us. It is difficult to believe that I once sat as a very young boy with my mom eating soup one night and couldn’t believe it when she told me that integration was so late coming to the place of her childhood. She told me that integration was one of the worst ideas ever devised. She loved it when we moved north, where blacks were a rare presence. When she worked for Southwestern Bell, there were a couple of times she was furious because she claimed that blacks got special treatment in scheduling, promotions, and raises. She blamed them for many of the workplace problems – yet later she was proud as anyone could be when a black co-worker she had picketed with got a huge raise and better hours for all of them.
.
I don’t know how to describe much of her racism. If there was a problem in her life and blacks were present, it often became their fault. If no jobs were available, it was because minorities were taking them all or getting welfare to sit at home. Taxes too high? Deadbeat minorities. And on and on. Ignorance of the world and a failure to understand that people are people and remarkably similar no matter where you find them.
.
My mom was guilty of saying and doing some of the most hateful racist things. Yet, the person she would have identified as one of her best friends before her death was black. Mom genuinely loved her. It’s that type of complexity that proves that people can slowly learn and move away from the idiocy that poisoned them when young. She was still very prejudiced until the end of her life, but the door had been opened. She rationalized it by thinking of her friend as different from all the rest. While I was growing up, I’m sure I heard my mom say the ‘n-word’ at least as often as she said the word ‘hello.’ Sometimes, she screamed it through a rolled-down window or across the street. It made some social interactions interesting, if that is the right word to use.
.
Therein lays the key to surviving all the hate: we are all individuals. Lumping us into definable groups is a shortcut for other goals, but it allows many to point hate toward those who don’t deserve it.
.
There is no shame in admitting that our ancestors were indeed racist. Don’t defend it, call it ‘our heritage,’ or minimize the magnitude of it. The shame is moving forward without stomping out the last vestiges of prejudice or turning a blind eye when it comes out in our modern world.
.
For those who say we should just ‘move on,’ I think almost all of us would love to do just that. But in so doing we have to address the very real shadow on ongoing racism and prejudice. It’s easy for the majority to want to move on, to forget past stupidity and hatred.
.
The towns of my youth were overall no more racist than the average small town in America. I’d like to think most people weren’t racist and didn’t appreciate its presence. Racism was pervasive, though. Insisting that it didn’t exist is a disservice to the past and to ourselves. “The good old days” for many whites do not harken to the same memories as those of minorities. I wouldn’t understand someone who blamed me for the sins of my parents or some of my family. They own their prejudices. I was lucky enough to get past most of it. Not all of it, of course, because racism leaves a stain that tends to inspire guilt or an awkwardness where none should be present.
.
If you aren’t racist, don’t get mad if someone accuses your ancestors of being so – because many were. You’re not responsible for their attitudes. It’s just a fact of history. Our country condoned owning other people, disallowing women the right to vote, rounded up people and put them in camps all because of their appearance.
.
We’re learning and improving as a country and as a people. The world is a much better place now and it continues to improve. I’m proud that we elected a black president. Even though people often get angry when it is mentioned, he wasn’t elected because he was black. He was elected because he was qualified for the job. That’s the way things should work.
.
Don’t get mad if someone reminds us, even inelegantly, that our ancestors were sometimes bastards. We probably believe some things now that will be interpreted as horrifying to future generations.
.
As for the woman derailing the ‘remember when’ post with specific allegations of racism, she only galvanized more anger. Her message was packaged in a way that no one would listen to it. It would be impossible, though, to get her to believe that the stories of racism she knows aren’t true, because many of them must be.
.
The fringe conservative movement of late has emboldened some to be more aggressive in voicing or acting on their racism and xenophobia. At its heart, racism is a focus on ‘the other,’ ignoring the shared human experience we should all be enjoying. It encourages people to jump to unsupported conclusions while fanning the ignorance of distrust and fear of ‘the other.’
.
It’s strange to hear the “n-word” from people I love dearly, or to know that they think less of other humans solely because of skin color. I understand it though. And I see clearly that it will lessen with each generation, unless the younger members of the family somehow immerse themselves in another pocket of prejudice.
.
I know a couple of people who have re-embraced their racist roots and do so because of their exposure to poverty and crime-filled areas. They see symptoms of poverty and crime and assume their genesis arises from skin color. It’s an old formula for social failure. With their prejudices comes the tired anger.
.
I feel sorry for them. Telling them so would only provoke anger and defensive posturing.
.
And so it goes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s