This image is my great-great-great-(great)?grandfather Louis Battenotte.
[Warning, this post contains rough language, but I believe it’s important]
I was once called a “Nigger.”
It was when I was walking down a street in Saskatoon, Sask., when I was a kid. A cousin and I were walking down to the DQ from my grandmother’s house, and some teenage kids threw rocks at us and chased us down the street, calling us “prairie niggers” and telling us to get off their sidewalk.
You can guess that “prairie nigger” is a slur for an Indian. And I wasn’t even an Indian, really. My mom is Metis — a French-Indian mix, dating back 200 years. My dad, I thought, was pure French (We found out after he died he also had Metis heritage, as do maybe 50 percent of Canadians born west of Thunder Bay), so I’m anywhere between 50 and 75 percent Indian. We’re not entirely sure. Such is Western Canada.
But, I had a somewhat dark complexion and black hair. My cousin was dark like me, but with blondish hair. I told my parents about it. My mom was visibly bothered by it. My dad thought it was funny.
(As an aside, years later, my brother, sister and I made the mistake of wandering into an all-white redneck bar in Saskatoon, and boy, you could have cut diamond on all the laser-hot glares shot in our direction. We slammed one drink each and scurried out of there. I’m not picking on Saskatoon. It’s gotten much, much better since then, but like everywhere, there is racism there.)
Here’s where it gets really *really* complicated and hard to explain. My dad put up with an incredible amount of shit, apparently, from his racist parents when he married my mom, whose mother (my grandmother) was Cree and Assiniboine. At that time, there was a lot of racism still toward Indians in Saskatchewan. They did not approve of his marriage to this Indian woman. They made my mum’s life so miserable that mum and dad eventually moved to Ottawa to get away from it.
According to mum, dad’s parents were terrible to her kids. Treated them like they weren’t their “real” grandkids. Three of us were born with dark complexion and black hair (In fact, my brother’s nickname in high school was “Mexican-Canadian,” a nickname he still laughs at.). They doted on their “white” grandkids, and they all got money from their inheritance. The Indian grandkids? Not a nickel.
We moved to California when I was a baby, mostly because my dad was offered a job at Rand-McNally in Santa Clara, and when that didn’t work out, he bought a restaurant in Fresno. I never got shit in California about my ethnicity (other than my weird name) … but at my grandparents….
I remember as a kid when we visited my grandparents, they would take me down to the basement. They had games and books down there, but I was told to stay in the basement. When I was little, it didn’t hit me.
But now, it hurts. They didn’t want me playing outside. Outside their house. A little wild Indian boy … in THEIR yard. It killed my mum.
Dad? I don’t know what he thought. It’s complicated. Really complicated.
Dad, unfortunately, was a RAGING racist. He hated blacks. He hated Jews. He hated Mexicans. Honestly, I grew up believing that the word for a black person was “Nigger,” the word for a Jew was “Kike,” and the word for a Mexican was “Wetback.” Because I heard these words — every night — at the dinner table for the first 15 years of my life. It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 until I figured out just how awful those words really were. To me, they were just words.
Dad would rail about the Niggers all living on Welfare and sponging off his taxes and popping out babies so they could get more Welfare. He would rail about how they should all be rounded up and shipped back to Africa where they belonged, except for the really fast ones, who could stay and play football for USC – as long as they knew their place. He really believed whites were quite simply racially superior to blacks, more evolved. He told me so.
He would rail about how the Kikes got what was coming to them in World War II because the Kike bankers screwed the hard-working Germans, and they all should’ve left Germany if they didn’t like it there. They asked for it, and then they exaggerated what happened to them during the Holocaust because the Germans killed a lot more Gypsies and Russians than Kikes, but the Jews owned the media so they twisted what really happened. He actually said once Hitler “only” killed about a million Jews, not 6 million. He would rail about Wetbacks and Illegals taking jobs from Americans (This was a Canadian immigrant, remember). He also liked to tell jokes about Dagos and Wops and Polacks, and would belly laugh at his own jokes.
My dad was a John Bircher. To this day, I’m not 100 percent clear on what exactly a John Bircher is, but I do know we would receive literature in the mail from Aryan Nations and the KKK, asking for donations. He got on their mailing lists. We kept get literature from them years after he died. He thought these pamphlets and newsletters were hilarious.
Dad was so full of rage and hate. He hated liberals, gays, environmentalists, hippies, Democrats and the Kennedys, too, but he especially lashed out at minorities. I didn’t understand it. When I was about 12, I started figuring out how wrong it all was, how wrong HE was, and my dad’s response to it was to rail about how the liberal schools were brainwashing kids to accept blacks and Mexicans as their equals.
He railed that Martin Luther King was a communist. I am old enough to remember him cheering at the dinner table when Dr. King got gunned down in Memphis. I remember he cheered when Bobby Kennedy got shot and killed, and when the four kids at Kent State were gunned down. My older brother and sister got sick of him and left home when they were 16 and 17. My sister I think came to terms with him later. My brother not so much.
Dad was obsessed with Adolph Hitler. He had dozens and dozens of books about Hitler. After he died, we gave away a lot of his books, but we didn’t know what to do with his 40 or 50 books about Hitler. Ironically, we put them in a couple of Hefty bags and took them to the dump. We didn’t know what else to do with them. We were ashamed of those books.
Remember, this was someone who was chased out of Saskatchewan by his parents’ hatred toward Indians and his Indian wife. He *never* made that leap, that leap of logic that seems so easy to me — that the same racism that made him and his loved ones so miserable was no different than the racism he spewed at the dinner table every night. Indians were OK, because he grew up with them. Niggers, Kikes and Wetbacks, not so much. I doubt very much he ever shook a black’s man hand once in his entire life.
Dad never got it. It was an absolute mystery to me when I was a kid. It’s a mystery to me today. I had this epiphany about him long after he died — I was beyond embarrassed by him. I was quite literally ashamed of him. I wouldn’t have friends come over to my house because I was so ashamed of him …. and his hate. My sister and brother both told me the same thing long after he died.
I’ve struggled with it for 30 years what I’m supposed to think — and feel — about this deeply complicated man. He was a workaholic — he literally put in 18 hours a day, 7 days a week because he wanted to provide for his kids, but he was an alcoholic … and consumed with a mystifying fury.
He died when I was 16 from his 4-pack-a-day smoking habit. I have often — *often* — wondered how he would have turned out in his old age. Would he have gotten worse — like Richard Butler — and gone further off the deep end? Or would he have had some epiphany at some point where he would have said to himself, “My God, what have I become?”
I’ll never know. He never reached that crossroad. He never got the chance to make that choice.
My mum to this day is still kind of racist, in a much more subtle way. She, for some unfathomable reason, hates Asians. When I was a kid, she hated all the Southeast Asian refugees moving in to California. Now, living in Western Canada, she hates all the Koreans and Chinese who have moved there the last 10 years. Again. I don’t get it. She is nowhere remotely near as virulent as my dad, but the racism isn’t hard to see, when she complains about how some grocery in her town has been “taken over” by Koreans. Another time watching her favourite show, Oprah Winfrey, she actually piped up, “Oh, I like that Oprah. She seems so nice for a coloured gal.” My head just about exploded when mum said that. After talking to her about her statement, I saw that she really just didn’t understand why it was racist.
I guess because of my background, my racism radar is pretty sensitive. I know racism when I hear it; when I hear people not-so-innocently say “some of their best friends” are black or Indian, my racism Klaxons ring full-bore.
I had rocks thrown at me one time. I never had a fire hose turned on me. I never had a German shepherd turned on me. I never had to put up with the humiliation of sitting in the back of the bus. The worst it got for me was having to play in my grandparents’ basement because they were ashamed of me. I can’t completely relate to what Dr. King and the others involved in the Civil Rights Movement went through.
But, I heard, in the worst language possible, the dark underbelly of racism for the first 5,000 days of my life, at the dinner table. I know what it is, the damage it does, the corrosion it causes. And I do have a genuine appreciation for what Dr. King accomplished, and a genuine appreciation that much more needs to be done.
I have read all the enlightening comments on this post. I wasn’t going to comment myself, as I felt I had nothing to say. But, I just couldn’t leave, not just yet. My Father who is still with us, is Oglala Sioux. He was born at Pine Ridge Reservation in SD. He has never been comfortable admitting to his heritage. I look at pictures taken on the reservation by the missionaries, and my Dad is the only one trying to look “white”. He is wearing shoes, (of sorts), a watch, and a button up shirt. The name he was given was Standing Soldier, and my Grandma had to travel to the county clerk’s office after his birth to file for his citizenship. The clerk would not accept the name Standing Soldier, so, my Father’s name is Joe Smith. My Father likes his name because it does not reflect his heritage. Growing up, my Father was intolerant of other races and cultures. I will not say he was racist, but, he was, in a quiet way. My Mother, on the other hand, embraced all cultures, and it was wonderful. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I realized, I was racist. I was a quiet one, but one, nonetheless. I looked down on Hispanics and thought they were inferior. I had many African American friends, no problem, but no Hispanic people, never. I went to a multi-racial high school, and when I walked home I never went home on the side of the street where the hispanics hung out. My racism never set well with me, it gnawed at me that I couldn’t like “these” people. One day, I had an epiphany. I realized I didn’t like “them”, because they spoke another language, they would make comments and I didn’t know what they were saying. I knew nothing of their culture, language, etc.
I realized then, that my racism was born out of IGNORANCE. My ignorance made me fearful, my fear made me racist. I made sure I did some research on their culture, language and their everyday way of life. So, when I see or hear racist these days, I can pretty much be assured that their comments are born out of fear and ignorance. Enlightenment is the only way to be unafraid.
What an exceptionally truthful comment moongal6. I wish that everyone could dig as deep as you did to find the real reasons behind their racism. People do fear the unfamiliar and people who are different to them and unfortunately this fear can blind them for the rest of their lives. Thank you for sharing your story, it is much appreciated.
Very honest article, Pepe, and hopefully cleansing.
I cannot relate to your upbringing, and I thank God for that.
I cannot recall how old I was at the time Martin Luther King Jr. died, but I
Pepe, it is a wrenching adventure that you’ve had under the shadow of racism, thank you so much for sharing it. That moment of realization you described, when you grew old enough to look back and recognize the prejudice that kept you in the basement at your grandparents, is very resonant.
As painful is it is to read and confront someone with the prejudiced sensibilities as your father, I’m left optimistic by the inner sense of what was right in you and your siblings, you would not be corrupted by him.
It is a conundrum and a challenge to openly discuss hate-speech and hate-think while avoiding hurting others with the very presentation of the hateful words and thoughts one is condemning.
I faithfully believe in Freedom of Expression and openly bringing the ugliest things about our society into the light so we can confront them. I think it is important do so honestly but prudently, openly expressing truths while doing our best to balance the impact such words can have on others.
In the last two days alone, we have had frank and open discussions at The Planet about race and religion. On most sites that I know, such threads would soon have become war zones. It is saying something special about this community that we can have discussions about such primal and explosive topics, thoughtfully and openly.
This is an addendum for choicelady and anyone else interested…. it is from today’s NY Times. Good article on “Colorism”.
Pepe, mon ami! What a story! Very powerful stuff to share with others. I have mentioned on HP that I had a crazy bigoted mother. Dad was off and on with it. I had the advantage of living in mixed neighborhoods in Chicago and learning about others. We had to share the ‘hood because we were all so stinkin’ poor! Chicago is super segregated to this day. You have my sympathy and admiration. Self-disclosure can be really hard to do. And you did it really well. Bravo!
Pepe, it’s an honor that you shared this deeply personal story with us. I think I speak for most all of us when I say thank you for the confidence in the Planet/Planeteers that this shows.
Like so many others, I have to say that the way you transcended the attitudes that were expressed throughout your childhood is nothing short of amazing. I heard a lot of the same stuff in my youth, not so much from my parents, but from the generation before them. My grandmother (who, as so many have also said, could be a remarkably sweet person) was so prejudiced that she would not use any given stall in a public restroom if she had seen a black woman emerge from it. That would be laughable, if it weren’t so sad! (So…if the black woman had been there five minutes before my grandmother entered the room, did that somehow make a difference? Ridiculous and aggravating all at the same time.) It took years to sort through all of my early programming; and to be perfectly frank, I still have to examine my attitudes closely, since those youthful experiences can still work their way up from my subconscious at odd times. It’s a never ending task.
But getting it out and talking about it all surely helps. And that’s one of the many reasons why your article is so valuable. Thanks again.
My other grandma would thrown away any food prepared by a black person. Wouldn’t make a fuss, would politely pay, and walking out, just throw it away. I never witnessed this, but it’s what my dad told me when I was a little older. Must be hard, because he loved his mom. And she was really sweet, I honestly had no clue whatsoever, but looking back should have picked up on some of the subtle clues.
Khirad, I didn’t see your comment until this morning. Isn’t it amazing, the superstitions (that’s really about what it amounts to, no?) that earlier generations clung to? At least we seem to have made a little incremental progress in the last few decades.
I want to personally thank you for sharing this incredible and poignant piece of yourself with us on MLK Day…
MLK Day is a good day for all of us to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still need to go…
Throughout, reading I started thinking of scenes from quite a few movies. That’s my only frame of reference. This is all just so foreign for me…
I’ve heard my dad tell stories, and my parents talk about the 60s – and yes, I was schocked about how late black athletes were allowed in football. But, as for our church going, extremely conservative grandma? She sees race through her Christianity, never seemed to be a problem – though when we get together, we all still work on her on the gay angle – to see the same connection.
With black people, the only problem I’d ever have is relating to taste in music, cultural or class issues.
And, as far as I know, I don’t have any trouble with M
A sad story Pepe, I’m glad that you made it out of all this racism which was so much a part of your childhood.
My own story is not about racism but rather my xenophobia experience as a child of 9 when my mother remarried and we moved to England with my new father, a Welshman.
I arrived in England from Germany, not speaking the language, I could say only yes and no. The Catholic schools were full and my parents found a Protestant school about 30 minutes walk from our house. Lucky for me the Headmaster spoke German and he laboured after school hours to teach me English.
The first sign of trouble started about 3 weeks into my arrival there. I was pushed to the ground, my school books were scattered and kicked in the playground and I was spit on by boys much bigger than me. The violence escalated, I was hit on my head, my glasses ripped off my face, stepped on and smashed while these boys screamed Nazi and Kraut in my face.
On my walk back from school one day, a stone hit me squarely in my face, my nose bled endlessly and I could no longer hide the abuse from my mother. She went to the school immediately and confronted both my teachers and the Headmaster who said that they had no idea that this had been going on, I hadn’t told a soul, I was 9 years old and was afraid to say anything to anyone, fearing the violence would become worse if I did.
My mother took me out of school, contacted my grandparents and I returned to Germany for a year, continuing my education there. Aged 11 I returned to England and tried to settle back into my old school. I continued learning English but now there seemed one more reason for the kids to bully me, I was a Roman Catholic and after a religious class, where the teacher stated that Jesus had many brothers and sisters, I asked to be excused from the class, causing a virtual hailstorm when my teacher decided to admonish me in front of the class for trying to be “special” and the beating began again.
For a second time I was taken out of school and returned to the safety of my grandparents loving arms. The next time I returned to England was when I was almost 14. My father taught me how to defend myself from blows, he taught me how to fight back. I returned to the same school, continued my studies and was prepared for just about anything. They left me alone for about a month this time but were waiting outside the school gates one afternoon. The biggest bully was almost a foot taller than me, when he tried to grab my hair, I kicked him hard in the “family jewels” and punched him in the nose which bled on to his white, school uniform shirt. The others had backed away and I left with my head held high, continuing my long walk home. The next day I was expecting to be called to the Headmasters study, the call never came but one afternoon we passed each other in the hall, he smiled, winked and patted me on the back.
I continued my studies in peace I was way behind of my class, managed to learn enough English to make myself understood and tried hard to not let my experiences with this group of xenophobic kids cloud my vision of the entire British population.
When I was 19, I became a naturalized British citizen, this passport allows me access to just about every country in the world. “God save the Queen!” 🙂
Remind me to never mess with you! 😆
No worries Pepe, I took ballet classes as a kid, there is no way that I could ever manage a high kick now, I’d fall flat on my arse. 🙂
You and E’Cat, both, I’m steering clear.
You’re like the Ian Lapierrere of PlanetPOV! 😆
😆 You should see me now, I’m a weak little pussycat, although I can still roar like a lion when necessary.
What a story, Kalima! I guess when you’re dealing with someone like that bully kid, the only thing he understood was violence. Weird.
My father was in the army stationed not far from my grandparents house, he was a family friend, madly in love with my mother, heartbroken when she married my good-for-nothing Estonian father and knew me since I was born. On his visits he would bring me gifts from the PX at the base. Once he bought me a tiny transistor radio, that’s how I found, “American Forces Radio” and fell in love with the Motown sound.
He cared about me even before my mother accepted his proposal, and I was 7 when they married. When he found out about the abuse he went ballistic but my mother asked him not to go to my school, she would handle it. On my final return to England, he taught me how to fight and how to shoot a rifle but I have never touched a gun since.
To this day I’m eternally grateful to him,yes, the only way to stop this obnoxious bully was to fight back and make him look a fool in front of his friends. I never fought with anyone again during the rest of my life. It had to be done and I have no regrets. The next time, he might have killed me.
Good for you and good for him too! I might have sounded as though I disapproved of the good trouncing you gave the guy — I don’t! He asked for it and it’s delightful that you had the guts to give it to him.
Escribacat, I didn’t take your comment as disapproval, I’m against any sort of violence. It was either that I stood up for myself or have my father paying a visit to see the kid’s father, and I imagined a father twice the size of the kid, beating up my father who has on occasion shown quite a Welsh temper when really annoyed.
Yup, ya gotta stand up to ’em. Bullies prey on the easiest most pliant victims. Make it so it’s not worth the trouble. 😈
I think in the end I accomplished that Khirad, he wasn’t expecting it. After all these years, I can close my eyes and still see his wide eyed, shocked expression as I first kicked him and then punched him in the face, my right hand hurt for a week.
I was an easy victim because I didn’t speak their language, couldn’t defend myself with words then as I could after learning English. The fact that I was the only RC in a Protestant school, just gave this little group of bullies more fuel to beat the crap out of me. My mother handled it the only way she knew how, which was to remove me bodily from the danger. My schoolwork suffered a great deal but I caught up in less than a year and my extra time with my wonderful grandparents was a bonus that I will never forget.
I used to live in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. When I walked around alone I always took on a posture that let people know I’d be a major pain in the ass to attack. The worst thing you can do is come off as weak in a situation like that.
Your inner strength is amazing Kalima. I was always a little bigger than most kids and I hated when kids were bullies. I was the anti-bully of sorts and found out most of them backed down when confronted. Actually they rarely fought after that.
Now bullying has gotten worse from what I understand, especially between girls which I rarely saw in my youth.
There is also cyber-bullying, which wasn’t around in the old days. Don’t underestimate the viciousness of cyber-bullying.
We all know a little of it ourselves.
But yes, it can get much, much worse. Imagine how vicious teens can be already… I’m so glad I just missed out on ubiquitous cell phones and texting.
I wasn’t exactly “small fry” I was the second tallest girl in my class but I was skinny, was short sighted from a bout of German measles when I was 6 and couldn’t understand a word they were screaming, except the obvious one, Nazi.
Looking back I think that I was lucky that I did what I did, they could have tried to follow me home, attacked me on a quiet country road I had to walk on before I reached our old, converted farmhouse, and killed me.
Which brings me to the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” 🙂
Fantastic essay, Pepe. You grew up inside a tornado. I’m so glad you escaped becoming part of it somehow. The most amazing thing about your dad’s story is that he married a Metis and lived on the suffering end of his own parents’ racism. Yet he still didn’t get it. I truly don’t understand how that could be. Being nosy, I’m dying to know how your mother coped with her husband’s racism. She was hurt when the grandparents exiled you to the basement — what was your father’s reaction to her hurt? I also think that when booze is involved, all bets are off. Ranting and booze are a close partnership.
I think dad’s reaction to my mum was “Don’t cause trouble…”
Well, mum shared some of his racism toward blacks and Mexicans, frankly, just not as overtly. Now, she’s just kind of apologetic about it. She has said the exact same thing I said that, “I wonder how he would’ve turned out?”
I have a question I’ve never been able to answer. Why is race relevant? I was raised in a mostly white environment, though for my first 9 years it was working-class Italian, and I’m so WASP I buzz. But I never EVER understood race or any other characteristic as a factor in liking or not liking people. For me it is the equivalent of height – you don’t dislike someone because they’re tall or short, do you? I just don’t get it. Never have.
People ask am I not uncomfortable in a Black crowd where I am what a friend calls “the polka dot”. Sure – but not a whit more uncomfortable than being the only woman with a roomful of men; the only (cough) middle-aged person with young ones; the only short person in a room of tall ones, an academic in room of steelworkers, the only brunette in a roomful of Nordic blondes.
It’s always uncomfortable being the stranger. Once that’s done – who cares? Then people are just people I know and like or dislike or feel nothing about. Then in any setting, you walk in the next time seeing people whom you know, greet, talk with, and nothing is different from any of the other places where you do that.
So I do NOT understand at a gut level what point racism serves. Just do NOT get it, never have.
On the other hand, I am SO aware of racism – because I’m “privileged” to hear it from white people who assume I agree. Or, on the flip side, I experience it because I’m “not with my own kind” so get treated like those with whom I’m standing. As a young woman working with kids in a tough inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA, I got assaulted because I was walking with a Black man in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood. It was terrifying and an amazing, eye-opening experience at age 19. It let me see what hate looked like when it wasn’t being falsely polite. Nothing I’d seen on TV of Selma etc. had prepared me for the actual experience. I was forced to leave my apartment that night because a mob was waiting for me and my friends – I had to evacuate or…? I will never forget it or forgive it, not for what it did to me, but for what it did to the young man who had been with me, in terms of his fear and sense of being forever outside. OK – I won’t forgive the goons for what it did to me – but I can walk away. I have that privilege. He couldn’t escape his identity in a bigoted world, and that plus the whole of his life cost him his mental stability.
Me? I have protective coloration. I will never be arrested for Driving While White. I go to a doctor reasonably confident he or she will hear me (OK there is that woman thing, but still…) I get pulled over for a tail light out? I don’t get attitude or pulled out of the car. Just does not happen to us respectable, middle aged, middle class WHITE people. It just doesn’t.
The flip side of violence is the white Messianic racism. I saw it in the 60s and even now. White people who overidentify, wear dashikis or some other ethnic garb, learn the street slang of whatever group, but never EVER yield their dominance over every damned thing affecting other people’s lives. That, to me, is almost worse because it is more subtle.
It is, IMHO, the thing that leads us back to previous conversations about the narcissistic white privileged people who are “so over” Obama. I think they never really trusted him in the first place because, Harvard education or no, he is, well, Black. So. Obviously he can’t be as smart, hip, savvy, with it as these white elites – who never have gone outside their own comfort and comfort zone. And criticizing Obama means: they can revert to their neo-racism by pretending to be “brave” enough to critize a Black man; they can continue to see themselves as victims because Obama (you know – that Black guy) did not fix everything immediately; and as victims, they do not have to pay attention at ALL to the persistence of inequality and bias that whirls around them. They can blame Obama, not themselves, for poverty and want. Very neat, don’t you think?
Our national obsession with pigeonholing and then hating or at least denigrating someone else in a different box is absurd and dangerous. I really do hope, given the polls, that the younger generations will continue to affirm that boxes don’t matter to them, that race is irrelevant to them, and that they live far more easily as a diverse society than my generation and even the one immediately younger than I. Time may be on our side. I hope so. I want to grow very old and NEVER hear or read stories such as Pepe’s again.
Life is too damned short to waste it on these damned fool attitudes that do so much harm.
Racism isn’t a totally artificial construct. People have a genetic disposition to distrust people who look unfamiliar. And if you live your entire childhood — studies show — with one type of person, you are going have a very hard time looking at other people as the same kind of creature as yourself.
That’s why young people are so much better at being “tolerant.” They’ve seen all kinds of faces since they were young. So that biological reflex doesn’t kick in.
Politically, it’s just a wedge to keep people from having too much power. And, unfortunately too many people are looking for somewhere to put a lot of anger and frustration — and bigotry is as good a place as any.
The only idea I will challenge is the idea that people of color feel like we’re on the “outside.” I don’t. I don’t know any person of color who does. We don’t aspire to be white or of the “white experience.” We don’t aspire to be apart from or a part of any particular community other than what is in our lives. I’m speaking for myself — but I know I’m also speaking for family and friends when I say that.
I remember a phrase from women’s lib — we just want the social construct to take its giant foot off our necks. That includes our legal system, our media, and our government.
Hi nellie – remember this was c.1965 when it was dangerous, even in “the city of brotherly love”, to be Black. The people I knew then DID most decidedly feel “outside” of all parts of that city – politically, economically, socially. It was hugely segregated then. No one I knew wanted to be white, but they really did want an equal opportunity that included them. I happened to live next to the Zion Baptist Church, home of Rev. Leon Sullivan who built the OIC that created new job opportunities that city had never experienced for minorities. He went on to be on the board of GM, and from him came the “Sullivan Principles” about how the US corporations would do business – or not – with South Africa. Times have RADICALLY changed – even as some things have not changed much at all.
The man I was walking with was devastated emotionally by racism. He was so wounded by this experience and a million others, he really lost his ability to function at all. It was heartbreaking to see. Of course not everyone was that traumatized, but it had a role in the peripheralization of too many people who were left afraid and bereft in a world that, at that time, had no room for them. A huge, huge loss.
choicelady, I have to push back on this. People of color are very aware of racism. It is not a new idea to them when they are 19 years old. We are exposed to this attitude from birth.
I’m sure your friend was afraid. He may have been surprised by the violence he had to confront. He may even have been traumatized by this personal experience to the point where he abandoned any further activism. But I don’t believe for a moment that he was naive about bigotry — especially in 1965.
choicelady another marvelous response.
I do feel different being the only white person in a room with only African Americans, I feel with I’m with my wife and in a room with only African Americans, the same when I’m with all white people with and without my wife, or with all woman with and without. But along the lines with what you said my comfort level has much more to do with how many strangers are in the room more than anything else.
Having been in the situation where I was the only white person in a blues bar and the only white person in a country bar I can easily say the redneck bar was more uncomfortable for me. That’s why I don’t deny that I’m bigoted toward some ethnic groups. I’ll admit I’m bigoted towards rednecks, especially in the South. Of course I know that because my wife gets on me about it. She’s actually much more tolerant toward what I would call rednecks then I am. But I am making progress and do not nearly have the Yankee chip on my shoulder I use to when I first moved down South.
I think your perceptions about president Obama’s one time supports is much better stated than I could ever accomplish.
I do understand about feeling more comfortable in a blues bar than redneck one. Only people who ever trashed me were well educated white liberals. Never had much grief from communities of color or, for that matter, blue collar people. Don’t know a lot of rednecks, but I am pretty comfortable anywhere. Oh, I[‘ve had disagreements and all with Black people, but REAL harm – undermining you, stabbing you in the back, lying, cheating, and all that good stuff? White people, period. Educated, affluent white people.
One thing about those bars – have you ever noticed that if there is dancing, both groups do the Electric Slide? Go figure.
But then how can one explain two photographs where you can’t tell which is a gay leather bar and which is a white supremacist party?
I’m not a cultural anthropologist, but it sure seems like a fun field!
I agree with, and am moved by, nearly everything in your post, Choicelady. I am going to, as I so often do, take exception to what you write about racism among white liberals and progressives. Believe me, I am not foolish enough to deny that it exists. But I am going to conjecture that, had either Kucinich or Edwards been elected at the time, and amidst the zeitgeist that was Bushamerica, using populist slogans such as “Change we can believe in” and “Yes We Can!” and then done the same things with the banks, Afghanistan, etc., you would hear the EXACT same complaints from the exact same people.
Because the enemy is not race, I feel, in this case for the most part. It is corporatism. Many people are concerned that President Obama is too close to corporate interests, that the power that corporate and military elites hold over the nation is too strong. Now, they may be wrong, perhaps off by a mile. But I believe they would be just as wrong, given the same situation, and just as angry at President Kucinich or President Edwards.
Hi whatsthat – you know, you may well be right. I just think the white, employed liberal/progressives would not have gotten so mad so soon if it had been Edwards or Clinton. If it had been Kucinich, it might have gone the same way as Obama since he’s ethnic white, but I’m not sure. I hear so much sneering against Obama that implies he’s “not one of us” that it creeps me out.
On the other hand, I just may need a new and better class of acquaintances?
You may well be onto the more fundamental problem that we no longer can distinguish any sort of progress if it’s not 100% what we want NOW. We may simply have lost the ability to be patient. Corporatism is not going away anytime soon, and we were naive to think it would.
But I still hear too much “boy” in white progressive analysis of Obama. Not SC’s Wilson, to be sure, but a sense of white, male superiority that I find disgusting.
Hi, Choicelady. I enjoyed your post, and I have some long-standing theories to try to answer your questions. First, victims frequently become perpetrators, aka, the sh*t rolls downhill theory. Also, humans are intensely tribal primates and we are not that far removed. We know our own and we know the other. There’s a lot of hormonal and neurological processing that happens before we even make a conscious response to the “otherness.” Lots of helpful info in reading basic anthropology and psychology articles. It’s going to take a long time, hopefully we can evolve sooner than later.
But you made the leap and arrested what in too many families is transmitted as efficiently as any genetic code.
It reminds me of the idiocy of similar-minded people who rail against Health Care when it would benefit them. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a neurochemical basis for the inability to make that”leap”
A brain disease with unknown etiology and as of yet unknown cure. Evidenced in people with anxiety, hatred, anger, virulent religiosity and a penchant for Nascar, hairspray and Brylcreem.
LOL! I do believe there may be some truth to what you put humorously. I assume you’ve seen the brain scan studies between conservatives and liberals?
Thank you for this candid and heartfelt reminisence Pepe. Thank you for sharing all the depth of your life with us.
Happy MLK, Jr. Day with the hope of better things to come.
I would like to share this story about racism and get your thoughts. I lived in Detroit on the SW side. When my daughter was 2 we boarded a public bus, which the school system paid to bus the schoolchildren, and it was full of them, mostly 1 per bench that seated 2, but no empty seats. After walking slowly through the bus waiting for someone to move over to give us room and having young person after young person put their feet on the bench, simply because we were light skinned, I started to see red. I finally firmly asked a young lady to remove her legs and let us sit down but the hostility was palpable. This was a younger generation, and as far removed from Dr. King as could be. They did nobody proud and I wondered what their parents would have said if they had been there.
That reminds me of a time when I was a sports editor when I attempted to interview an Indian girl at a little rural high school who was a starter on the football team (back then, that was pretty rare). I drove all the way out there, then was told I couldn’t talk to her because her grandmother didn’t want a white person talking to her.
I didn’t bother bringing up my Indian heritage. I was too offended and annoyed.
There’s bad lessons being taught on all sides, I guess.
Unless there had been some prior unpleasant experience. You never know.
Wow! I found this essay hard to read, honestly. The more you revealed about your dad, the more demoralized I felt. But the positive side is of course that you, and your siblings, rejected his poisonous mindset, even though it was fed to you like mother’s milk when you were small. That says something about human potential, and the power that truth ultimately has over lies, in the long run. Most of the time, anyway.
To be honest this story and these types of stories are difficult to read for me as well. They must be told and they must be absorbed so we can understand the mentality of some people out there, but it does not make it any easier. It’s like eating some vegetables we don’t pretty much favor to strengthen our bodies but in this case to strengthen our soul.
I don’t think it’s possible to understand bigotry. It’s irrational. And it’s very personal — it comes from different places for different people.
In my experience, you chip away at bigotry by showing people the truth. And if people respect themselves, they’ll see the error of their ways. But if the scars are too deep, they won’t.
Understand is probably not the best word just realizing these attitudes exist is important for self protection at the very least.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve literally seen some people’s attitudes change at least a little bit when then they see my wife and I together and how in tune we are. I really think that example has even surpassed words at least in our lives.
To be honest, I care less about people’s attitudes than I care about institutionalized inequalities. Where racism really does harm is in our legal system — just like LGBT legislation does systemic harm to that community.
If we could stop red lining, get school funding and good teachers into underserved communities, fire teachers who are unfair or incompetent, support local economies and jobs — don’t even get me started on treaties and life on a rez — that would make much more of a difference to this country. Just like voting rights made the real difference, rather than changing people’s attitudes. Attitudes will follow when people are allowed to live on equal footing.
I believe the institutional inequalities come from Americans’ bigoted attitudes, especially with LGBT issues now. While I’m all for changing legislation and I know you can’t change everyone’s attitude legislation usual comes after attitude changes.
Maybe I’m losing something in translation but I just see no downside in trying to change people’s attitudes and think that has to be part of any progress we make as society.
I disagree. I would bet the voting rights act did not reflect the opinion of this country. Civil rights legislation did not reflect it either. Probably the emancipation proclamation did not.
As for changing people’s minds, I get tired of trying to win people over. It’s not my job. I have a life to lead, and I’ve had my fill of people using me as their personal therapy session. I guess I sound a little bitter in that regard, but I have my reasons. 🙂
Let me give an example. The country elected Barack Obama. How did it happen that we came so far to do that? Because Harvard was told — you have to let people in, you can’t keep people of color out. Businesses were told — you have to practice fair hiring. The federal government was made to practice fair hiring. So, decades after these laws come into place, everyone is accustomed to the idea that an African American can be highly educated and competent.
Hey Nellie, I am interested in treaties and life on a rez — if you ever get some spare time I hope you’ll write something about it.