July 10, 2011
Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner?
The Socially Accepted Racism
Every once in a while, the conversational equivalent of going for a walk and stepping in a steaming pile of dog crap happens to me. I'll be speaking with someone I know, and that person will come out with a bigoted, racist comment. I'm always nonplussed. Sometimes the comment is so beyond the pale, I'm too shocked to react at that moment though I will usually address it later (depending on the relationship I have with the person). If the person made a statement of "fact" then I'll dispute the fact like recently when a friendly acquaintance of many years let me know he thought that Whites and Blacks had differing standards of lawn maintenance (and you can guess who had the lower standards). I disagreed and told him so. I could have used my yard as an example as I have far more weeds than grass. But, then again, I'm neither White nor Black so that wouldn't have worked to refute the argument. If I had thought of it --- and I didn't at the time ---- I should have mentioned some of my neighbors who are White and whose lawns are just as bad as mine. So, if I'm not too shocked, I do try say something then or later.
What I don't do is blurt out, "Oh my god, you're one of them." But having realized that attitude about someone, I can't unrealize it. It forever colors my image of that person. It's not that I think that racism is a thing of the past; it's just that I don't quite realize how many bigots I number among my friends and acquaintances until I get metaphorically slapped in the face with it.
I grew up in the post-Segregated South and my parents were not Southerners (though I consider myself to be one). We were transferred to Mississippi when I was seven. When I first learned about Segregation I was ten years old. I didn't believe it. Or I wouldn't have if I hadn't learned about it in school. I knew adults could be pretty stupid but...........separate drinking fountains? What did they think Black people had? Cooties?
However, post-Segregation didn't mean post-racial. (We were not and are not a post-racial society and definitely not a post-racism society.) When I was growing up, it was a time where the phrase "n-word" had never been heard. People out and out said, "nigger." Fortunately, even then its use was becoming less prevalent. Still, if you wanted to use a derogatory comment for a Black person it was "nigger" while the derogatory term for a White person was "honky." But my childhood was the beginning of the time when it was becoming socially unacceptable to use derogatory racial terms. I can remember the one time my father referred to someone he worked with as a "nigger." I gave him a shocked look and then I gave him a lecture about how you weren't supposed to call people by that name. I've got to admit he took being lectured by his 12 or 13 year old daughter pretty well and, perhaps in his own conscience, he recognized it was wrong because my father never used that term again in front of me.
Then there was the time I think I was in my early teens. A new family, a Black family, had moved into the house two doors down. They seemed normal to me: military family, NCO, two parents, children ------- very typical for our neighborhood, fit right in. I was in the front yard when our next door neighbor came over and started complaining to me about how the Black family was going to bring down property values in the neighborhood. First, I don't know why a middle aged woman of about 50 would be talking to a kid forty years younger than her about property values..........like I cared at that age. Second, I thought she was nuts. Why and how could this one family possibly devalue the neighborhood by their skin color?? Nevertheless, it was a time when some people still thought that's what happened when Blacks moved in next door to them. (Incidentally, the neighborhood was already integrated. It's true there weren't any Black families on our particular stretch of road, but there were Black families living in the subdivision.)
In the intervening years since I was a teenager, times have changed to the extent that there has been some improvement in the unacceptability of being openly racist. Only once in this decade has a White person referred to Black people as "niggers" in my presence. (Since this was during a tirade about how terrible living in Pensacola was and how he'd like for Pensacola and everything in it to be wiped off the face of the Earth, my response was to recommend the best realtor I knew of and suggest he move.) Doesn't mean that word isn't still being used and used often ------------ based on the crap passing for music that I hear booming out of speakers (said crap frequently being listened to by young White people not just young Black people).
But a lot of racism has been driven underground.
Last year I was at the birthday party for the young daughter of friends. It was a big party. As usual for them, the parents had rented out an entire amusement center and hired an entertainer. I was asking about the children who were there. Some I knew as they were from the neighborhood. The others turned out to be in the birthday girl's class at school. As I was looking around I began to notice something that struck me as odd: none of the children were Black. Now I know the school. There's a significant proportion of African Americans that go to that school: this community is very racially diverse. There were a lot of kids at this party, yet not one single Black child. I looked through the party guests with a dawning suspicion. It wasn't just White people; there were other races: Asian, Hispanic. But no Blacks. It was like a version of that famous quote from Mel Brook's 1974 movie Blazing Saddles: "All right... we'll give some land to the niggers and the chinks. But we don't want the Irish!" It seemed to me that a line had been drawn in inviting the party guests.
So that got me to thinking about the people I'd seen coming and going from the parents' home: the cookouts, the friends that stopped by ---------- none of them were Black either. The daughter played with a lot of the other little girls in the neighborhood, but never had I seen any of the Black girls from the neighborhood invited over to play. Never (to my knowledge) had the girl been to any of their houses. In fact, the only time I'd seen the daughter play with a Black child was with the two boys that lived a few houses down in some of those spontaneous get-togethers that occur when a bunch of kids are out in the street. The boys had never been invited to the house. And yet I'd never heard the parents say anything even remotely racist. Still, this complete absence of Blacks.........it was hard to believe it was accidental.
The moment that crystallized it for me was when the birthday girl opened one of her presents. It was a life-size babydoll........of a Black baby. Around the room there were gasps and embarrassed laughter from the adults. The hapless husband who bought the doll got a shove in the upper arm from his shamed wife. He looked completely befuddled and so was I. What was wrong with the doll? Because it didn't look like her? My perspective's a little different from most people..........you see, I'm biracial. I didn't have a single doll that looked like me growing up. They didn't make them then. They don't make them now. Plus, my father was in the military. When he was sent to another country, can you guess what he would bring back for me? Dolls, from that country dressed in native clothing. They didn't look like me either. It was never an issue to me. I was not unable to play with, even to love my dolls because they didn't look like me. You could try to explain this so-called gaffe to me until the cows come home at night and leave again in the morning, and I'm never going to be able to understand what the big deal was. It's just not in my mental map. This birthday girl had received several dolls at the party. She had a bunch of dolls at home. She can't have one doll that's Black? Apparently not. Pretty, little, blonde haired, blue eyed, White girls aren't supposed to play with Black dolls. (And what's the worst that could happen if she did? She might actually get the idea that there's no difference between White babydolls and Black babydolls, and who knows where that could lead.)
After the birthday party, I found myself contemplating the nature of modern racism here in America. The parents in this case are still my friends. How many of my other friends and acquaintances are doing this? Working alongside Blacks, going to church, living in the same neighborhoods, but drawing the line at socializing with Blacks?
You can use the law to desegregate the schools, the lunch counters, the workplaces and the housing. You can't legislate who someone's friends are. You can't force people to invite someone else to their homes or their children's birthday parties. That's sacrosanct. It's the last bastion of socially acceptable racism in today's society to say, not with words, but with your actions, "No Blacks Invited."