Black and White and Sad All Over


August 14, 2017

Picturesque Americana, the old country store on the corner of nowhere Virginia where we stopped for ice and bait and cold Coca-colas, clapboard white with beer signs nailed everywhere in no particular fashion, seemingly inconsequential and vague, yet a wave of disquiet accompanied that broken down store which haunted me for years. My father chatted with the locals while I waited in anticipation for the black Labrador retriever that padded across the floor, ready to perform a trick for a pat on the head and a little attention from the little white girl waiting by the counter. Out came the dog and his proud owner, the same man who owned the store, and he cleared his throat and clapped his hands to signal that he and Duke were ready.

Using the stage voice reserved for this performance, the old man inquired, “What would you rather be, Duke, a nigger or a dead dog?” and the dog rolled over on his back with his paws in the air to demonstrate his preference for death. And I squealed and giggled with delight, and whether it was for my sake or for the dog’s, the weathered old white men around the stove laughed too. Fishing trip after fishing trip, it was the show that kept on giving.

Yet someone else, another white pundit, another white commentator, spoke out on television just this morning to assure the whole panel that no one in his family or her family or any of the families they knew ever used the “N” word or exhibited a whiff of racism. I am amazed at their forgetfulness or their truth-dodging skills, or maybe they truly did live in a land of righteousness I never knew. I suspect however that political prevarication prevails, and we sigh and shake our heads and conveniently forget decades of family reunions where Crazy Uncle Freddy calls the gas station attendant a “Towel Head” and the teenager at the Chinese carryout the “Chink Kid with the good chow mien”, let alone the choice words reserved for the African American man walking to the bus stop on the edge of town.

 I can’t be the only white kid who grew up in a racist family in a racist neighborhood, but to be fair there was enough fear and animus left over for any person or thing that didn’t look white enough or heterosexual enough to represent good old-fashioned values, whatever they were at the time. The boys in our neck of the woods embraced versatility—if you can’t catch a nigger out alone, beating up a faggot will do nicely. And to be fair, not all the boys felt that way. But there were enough bigots to make an impact then, and there obviously are now. The question is: how do we heal them?

Doesn’t it reason that the way to end racism is to heal the racist? My father’s hatred regularly exceeded his love, and it took a long time and years of therapy, but even as a child I suspected his bigotry was connected to his own self-loathing and frustration. He wanted to be better than somebody, anybody; and all the powers-that-be benefitted from his choice of targets. Keeping poor folk divided, separated by race and ethnicity, works well for the owner of the factory.

Pardoning the pun, the world may not always be that black and white. Human beings are complex in their simplicity, and not all racists are suffering from low self-esteem. I can think of another family member, whom I’d better not name, whose deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance fuel his prejudice. But he was born too late for Hitler, so he’s a big Trump supporter. Even if we give folks the benefit of the doubt and lots of grace, we have to start admitting that while all Trump supporters may not be racists—all the racists love Trump.

But before I start polarizing the pages even more, let me suggest that as white folks we’ve got to start coming clean. In her book, Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America, Thandeka explains the socialization process that has to occur for bigotry to seep into society and into our bones. We have to learn to be white, Thandeka tells us, and the lessons have consequences. And if white folk started to think about all the ways they’ve been encouraged to be bigots, slowly and surely over the years, chided and pressured and threatened in subtle and not so subtle ways to join the white crowd and take on the mantle of superiority, then we may have a chance to turn things around. But we have to be honest white people, and we have so much invested in our superiority that it hurts us to think about it—much less admit that the indoctrination might be working.

After all, I’m sure it had no effect on me whatsoever that my sixteen year old neighbor showed me the “lynching tree” when I was twelve years old and then tried to French kiss me in the front seat of his father’s car or that my own father set down the rules early in adolescence, assuring me that if I ever “brought one home—he’d kill both of us”. Maybe I am the only white kid who grew up in a racist family in a racist neighborhood, but then I watch the news and realize things might be changing. Maybe white people are finally beginning to own their racism. In Charlottesville, at least, the hoods were off.

~ Darlene L. Kelley




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