I grew up a bigot…

Filed in Gather News Channel by on April 29, 2010 0 Comments

It’s true!  I did.  I grew up in Ohio during the ’40s and ’50s. The KKK was still a political force, and blacks lived in enclaves out in the hinterlands where I grew up. In twelve years of school, I never shared a classroom or even a school building with anyone more exotic than Tony, an olive-skinned boy of Italian descent, whose parents came from Mediterranean shores.

A couple of years ago, we were at a dinner with several couples, including the Luvly Laura’s best friend.  Some of the conversation turned to her friend’s days in London, England, when her husband was assigned there by Ford.  Laura said England was the one place she’d really like to visit.

Her friend’s husband said that it had been really nice when they were there, but it wasn’t worth going now.  I asked why not.

“Well, when we were there, almost everybody was British, French or American.  I went back a few years ago, and everywhere I went I saw as many black faces as I did white.”  He put a forkful of food in his mouth.

“And?” I asked.  Just “And?”

He tried to answer around his food, but his wife cut him off after a half-dozen mangled words.  Very  huffy, and in a voice filled with sarcasm, she asked, “You don’t have a prejudiced bone in your body, do you?”

“Not any more,” I said.  “Had an operation back in the early ’60s.  Had ‘em all taken out.”

Half the table laughed.  She did something between a “humpf'” and a “snerk.”

I went back to eating.  The Luvly Laura was furious with me, and refused to believe that my question was not a deliberate shot to embarrass her friend and her husband.  But it wasn’t.  It was an attempt to point out that the statement was absurd.

So far as I can tell, she was right.  But I grew up prejudiced… (It’s true, Elizabeth and Hannah… and it wasn’t all G’Pa either) and patronizing toward black people. Not “ethnic” groups… just blacks.  I couldn’t get behind the idea that everybody who hadn’t emigrated from the UK was somehow my inferior, but the Old Man never met an ethnic group (except for the British and the Dutch) that he didn’t mistrust, and for which he didn’t have a derogatory name.  He would swear by the Bible he read daily, that it wasn’t bigotry. That it was simply what was observable to anyone. He truly DID have people he thought of, and spoke of, as Wops, Spics, Polacks, Frogs… you name it… who he also thought of as his friends.  He saw no irony in the dichotomy in his own mind.

Mother had a blind spot about Jews, based on her religious upbringing that taught that it was the Jews’ fault that Jesus had died (God’s plan that he die being, apparently, irrelevant).  Later in her life, her best friend and greatest supporter and admirer was a Jewish lawyer from Cleveland.  She told him one day of her previous views.  “I know, Pat,” he said,  “I’ve always known.  But people who learn to trust their better emotions are worth keeping around, no matter what they USED TO think,”

Like me, she had little discomfit about other ethnic groups.  And she would not allow ethnic slurs to be used in her hearing.  I said the word “niggers” once.  I have, as of that moment, an absolute knowledge of what the phrase “Wash your mouth out with soap” truly means,  Ivory soap tastes TERRIBLE!

But it was her view of ‘darkies’ (her West Virginia way of avoiding calling them ‘niggers.’) that was deeply, patronizingly racist when I was a small boy.  Her view was that black people were somehow ‘children.’ During the early days of “urban renewal” she was appalled that some of the darkies in the squalid black neighborhood outside of town were given seats on the board that decided what the new federal money was to be spent for.

But Mother learned. She worked with those board members, and with black nurses’ aides and technicians in the local hospital, and eventually a few black nurses (Ravenna, Ohio, WAS the sticks.  Nurses were hard to come by, and they couldn’t afford the luxury of forever turning down qualified nurses because they were black), and for a while she spoke with amazement about how intelligent and hard-working they were. And eventually, much to her Mother’s and sisters’ dismay, many if not most of her actual friends were black.  But I had already been “casually, if not carefully, taught.”  It was not to last.

I had “every prejudiced bone in my body” excised one day in the early ’60s.  I sat that day in the back seat of a brand new Buick driven by a Baptist preacher who made the mistake of explaining to Hattie Larlham that she “just didn’t understand” why he couldn’t have a racially mixed congregation in his church.

When she ran down about an hour later, as we drew close to home (having begun by pointing out that she’d grown up in the southern style in West Virginia, and she damned well DID understand, in fact that she knew all there was to know about THAT argument), he had learned everything I had long known about saying stupid things to my mother.

When he dropped us off at home, he asked her to pray for his soul… and his job… because he was going to do some “cold calling” and invite some of the people from the black neighborhood to his church. Apparently her prayers worked, because he was still there five years later, and the congregation was fully integrated.

Me?  I learned the final lesson that day that I’d been slowly learning for most of my young life… that color was about the least important characteristic a person carried, unless you were looking for someone and wanted to describe him/her.

I also learned, growing up with the Old Man, and with white Mid-westerners, how the language of bigotry changes, blends and hides as it becomes less and less acceptable as public speech.  How the winks and nudges go, and how the REAL bigotry comes out when people assume everyone around them is ‘down’ with what they’re saying.  I’ve watched and listened since it became apparent that Barack Obama MIGHT have a chance against Hillary Clinton.

When I see pictures of the President, who has done no evil thing, has started no war, has enriched no already-wealthy cronies beyond most of our least believable dreams, as “The Joker” from batman, as an exaggerated ’20s and ’30s style black man, as a nearly nude African in lion-skin costume and feathered headdress, and his wife as a stompin’ steatopygous caricature of  “darktown” dancer… I know racism is afoot.

It’s not satire, it’s not about ‘policies,’ or politics… it’s not ‘just editorial cartooning,’ nor is it, by ANY stretch, funny.

Calling the President the “Usurper in Chief,” “Barry Soetero” (as if his name isn’t his own), “Traitor in Chief” and others too numerous to mention, I know it’s not about “Socialism,” or “One World Government,” or a desire to “take over American business,” or even “one more step in his consolidation of power.”  Constantly yammering about his birth certificate, school records, driving test, and a thousand other nonsensical ephemera is meaningless noise, kept up only to attempt to de-legitimize this president.  These attempts to make him non-legitimate as president are simply a way to make him somehow “less,” so people feel more justified in belittling and denigrating him… and it’s engendered by his color – NOT his politics.

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...but I'm a WAY better listener than most people think, and a better advisor than anyone knows.

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