Race to Judgement

“The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you’ve lost your innocence.” –        Bruce Springsteen 

There’s been a lot of fuss in the news about some television personality named Paula Deen and the use of the “n” word.  I know nothing about Paula Deen except that she apparently has some kind of cooking show, and, from what I can gather from the headlines, the “n” word in question isn’t “nutmeg.”

Race is and has always been the most sensitive, complex and divisive issue in American history.  We are a nation of immigrants, the “melting pot” where opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are considered inalienable rights granted to us all.  Our ideals are undeniably noble, while our reality undeniably falls short.  The words at the heart of what we believe and aspire to, “all men are created equal,” were written by an unrepentant slave owner.  We became a country by vanquishing the Native Americans who were here first.  We were the last industrialized country in the world to formally abolish slavery, after more than four years of bloody civil war.  As a nation, our innocence long ago lost, we struggle to maintain the idealism we were born from.

As a middle aged, middle classed white man living in the Midwestern suburbia, I am amazed at the number of men belonging to the same demographic who’ve had no hesitation in telling me about their hatred for other races.  These are typically casual acquaintances, people who know who I am but don’t know me.   When my sons were younger and playing sports, on more than one occasion I had other fathers approach me on the sideline to make small talk. You know what small talk is – polite and safe topics meant to pass the time agreeably and to make a good impression. Small talk in these instances included things like, “your son is really improving,” or “how about the weather?” or “I’ve had it with those lazy black people.”  I had another man say to me, “I know it’s prejudiced, but I just can’t stand Mexicans. At least I admit it,” like that somehow makes it better or more rational.  Most recently, I was having a nice conversation with a guy about rising health care costs; we were pretty much on the same page until he pointed out that a big part of the local costs were all the black people from Illinois who were coming across the Wisconsin border to make fraudulent claims.

It always amazes me that these attitudes are still so prevalent, but even more how casually and comfortably they are espoused.   I don’t know what it is about me that makes me so approachable, that makes them think that not only wouldn’t I find offense but that I would agree with them.  The only thing I can think of is that, like them, my skin is white, and since we have that in common, we must think alike, too.  Normally, in an attempt to be civil, I bite holes in my tongue and don’t say anything in response, sometimes I give a brief I don’t agree with that remark.  I’ve long given up trying to argue or point out the hatred and bigotry behind their remarks, because I won’t change their minds.

The various people spouting off these opinions have come from different classes, from working blue collar to corporate executive, from retired to freshly entering the workplace.  The only things they have in common are that they are white and male.  Oh, and none of them use the “n” word, and none of them are racists.  Just ask them.

This is my problem with the “n:” word.  (By the way, the “n” word in question is “nigger.”  There, I’ve said it.)  I agree that it’s offensive, especially when used by a white man.  But I don’t believe that a word should be used to determine who’s racist or not, because it is too simple to hide behind.  Not using the “n” word doesn’t acquit one of being a racist any more than using it is an automatic conviction.  Racism is much too complex to be determined by a single word.

Besides, my writer instincts tell me that no word by itself should ever be forbidden.  Whether it’s Richard Pryor or Chris Rock, Mark Twain or William Faulkner, or David Duke using the word can make all the difference.  People have a right to be offended, but it’s in the context of the use of the word, just like any other word, like “fuck,” for example.

My father, rest his soul, was born in 1926 and raised on a farm in rural northwestern Wisconsin.  He was a good and kind man, who I loved dearly.  He was smart and funny and, more than anything, good company.  He was also raised in a geography and time that had no exposure to people of color.  As a result, when I was born in 1958, he still had unsophisticated and uninformed and unsubtle attitudes about race.

When I was four years old, in 1962-63, we’d just moved from northern Wisconsin to an all white small town in the southeastern part of the State.  We had a black and white television set – mainly white, because there weren’t many black people on the air at that time.  I remember watching Louis Armstrong on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and he was a genuine curiosity. My brothers and I were all amazed at his lips and how white the palms of his hands were while his skin was so dark.  I’d never seen anything like it before.

It was about the same time that my mom took me with her grocery shopping at the Sentry store in Racine.  We were standing near the frozen food section when I saw a real live black man for the first time in my life.  My mom was getting something out of the freezer while I stood there gawking, and as she returned to the cart, I said to her, plain and loud enough for all to hear, “look, mom – a nigger.”

The next thing I felt was my arm seemingly being pulled out of its socket as my mom grabbed me, and I remember the look of disgust on the man’s face.   I’d obviously said something very wrong, but I didn’t mean to – I was just repeating the word my dad always used.

So was I, at four years old, a racist?  Was my dad for teaching me the word?  Was my mom for tolerating that language in her home?

This is where things get complex, get a little grayer. It’s the “r” word, the companion to the “n” word.  Nobody accepts that they are a “racist.”  I swear, you could interview an entire Klan of sheet wearing fanatics at a cross burning and not one of them would admit to being a racist.  If any word is more reviled than the “n” word, it’s the “r” word.

Racism is as insidious as it is pervasive, and it seeps in to our conscious and unconscious thought patterns.  No matter how enlightened or open minded we like to think we are, we all have, deep down inside us, prejudices and stereotypes that we to some extent, whether we want to admit it or not, believe.

A few years ago, I was in the drive-thru lane at a fast food establishment. The voice on the other end of the loudspeaker had to belong to a complete and total idiot, as he could not get my order straight.  I was finally, after the third time repeating that I did not want fries, able to get through to the tinny voice on the other end of the speaker.  I approached the first window eager to put a face to this moronic voice, when I saw that it belonged to a small middle aged black woman.  I was overcome with liberal guilt and waited with kind and tolerant patience as she struggled to get my change correct, and I thanked her when she finally handed it to me.  If she had been the white teenage male I was expecting, my sarcasm would have undoubtedly boiled over.  This strikes me as not only unfair to the white teenager, but also condescending to the black woman.  My liberal bias refused to accept that a black person can be just as incompetent as a white person. This is exactly what many conservatives see as wrong with liberals, and there is some truth to their argument that by being “compassionate” liberals are really lowering expectations and perpetuating social injustices and inequalities.

So it’s important that we get to the substance.   All racism is evil.   Not all racists are evil.  A racist is a human being, and all human beings I believe have the potential for both exploitation and redemption.   Racism is institutional, racism is fear and hatred, racism is a means to an end.  Watch newsreel footage or read newspaper headlines from the 1940s, while World War Two was being fought – you’ll find frequent use of the words “Japs” and “Nips” as well as ugly caricatures in reference to the Japanese.   At the same time, we were interring Americans of Japanese descent in prison camps.  Racism was deemed an accepted tool in fighting the war against Japan.  We’ve seen the same attitudes rise against Muslims after 9/11 and in proposed legislation to profile Hispanics on the U.S. / Mexico border.   With such strong and pervasive institutions as the government or the media making its arguments, it’s not difficult to see why people accept racism, and how the perpetuation of it creates an unending pool of racists.

The United States became as strong as it is by taking the best of people from all over the world.  Our strength comes from the aggregation of our differences.  Racism is the fear of these differences, and plants the seeds of hatred in otherwise good people.  Like any evil, there are those who profit from perpetuating it, those who capitalize on our fear.

This is the unspoken subtext that is really behind the Trayvon Martin shooting and the George Zimmerman verdict.  What I haven’t heard in all of the discussion is what planted the idea in Zimmerman’s head that Martin was so suspicious looking to follow in the first place, what was it that made him carry a loaded pistol with him.  Zimmerman was acting out the fears that the gun manufacturers and their mouthpiece, the NRA, have been relentlessly pushing, the fear of the hoody wearing black man.  It doesn’t matter that Martin was unarmed and had committed no crime, the “stand your ground” laws imply that fear of the hoody is a valid reason to shoot first and ask questions later.  The gun industry has been so effective in promoting these fears that sales are off the charts, and all states now have some form of concealed carry laws.

But in the process of fearing each other, we are weakened.  Only when we acknowledge and accept our differences can we see the common humanity we all share.

I don’t know the first thing about Paula Deen, if she is a racist or not , or if she deserved to get fired from her show.  The only way that Paula Deen matters is if she makes us take a long look in the mirror and see our own prejudices and fears.  Maybe then we can remember that whatever the color of our skin, we are all members of the human race.