Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 10, 2011

What I Didn’t Know About Racism

By N.S. Palmer

I recently saw the movie “The Help,” which chronicled the insults and indignities suffered by black people in the early 1960s.

Its basic theme, of black people humiliated and oppressed by whites who were either racist or oblivious, rang true. It was consistent with my experience in life, though it took me many years to understand that experience.

As a child, I knew almost nothing about racism. It never occurred to me that racial differences were significant.

I don’t say that to establish how virtuous and enlightened I was, because I wasn’t. Virtue requires conscious choice. And children, no matter how clever, are almost never enlightened. I didn’t choose not to be a racist. I simply wasn’t one.

In my primary school class, Greg was the only African-American kid. There were no Hispanics or Asians, so except for Greg, we were all white. As far as I could tell, no one treated Greg any differently from the rest of us. I never noticed anyone make hostile remarks about him or pick fights with him. Of course, as a nerd, I wasn’t attuned to that kind of thing. However, I would have noticed it if it had been intense or repeated.

Much of the time when I was a child, one or the other of two black ladies took care of me.

Margie, my parents’ housekeeper, was from Alabama. She’d previously worked in an ice cream shop, which to a seven-year-old boy seemed like a glamorous and exciting job. She taught me how to scoop ice cream “the professional way” and how to make chocolate sodas. She praised the childish comic strips that I drew and she encouraged my artwork. She nagged me to practice for my piano lessons.

Bea, my grandparents’ housekeeper, was a plump, good-natured lady a little over four feet tall. Whenever my father saw her, he jokingly asked Bea if she was standing up or sitting down. She was devoted to my grandparents and to me. She taught me a lot, including personal hygiene.

And yet, there was something odd about Bea’s relationship to my grandparents. I didn’t understand it at the time. My maternal grandfather loved Bea but hated black people. That wasn’t what he called them, but you can guess the word he used.

After a while, I realized the inconsistency of my grandfather’s attitude: he hated black people in general, but every black person who heĀ  knew personally was “different.” The ones he knew were all right. It was only the ones he didn’t know who were — well, whatever he thought they were. He never elaborated on the subject, at least not to me.

In high school, one of my best friends was John, an African-American who again was one of a very small number of black students at the school. Everyone, including John, made jokes about race, but as far as I could tell it was all good-natured. Just as with Greg in primary school, I was never aware of anyone being unfriendly to John or saying hateful things on account of his race. He was a very likeable guy, and as far as I could tell, everyone liked him.

In college, one of my friends was Charlie, a pre-med student. That was when I first became aware of race as an issue, though I was still fairly obtuse and insensitive about it. Charlie was one of a fairly small number of black students at our college.

My perception might have been unfair, but it seemed to me that most of our black students confirmed the worst racist stereotypes. I thought that they weren’t serious about their studies, and that they complained constantly about real and imagined insults. Looking back, I’d guess that my perception was biased by those very same racist stereotypes, but that’s what I thought I saw.

Charlie was different. (That sounds just like something my grandfather would have said.) Unlike the other black students, he wasn’t on scholarship. Whenever you saw Charlie, he was doing one of three things: studying, participating in class, or working at one of the part-time jobs he held to pay his way through college. The other black students thought he was “acting white” and viewed him with disdain. He graduated with straight ‘A’s. I’m sure that he’s now an eminent doctor somewhere.

How much hurt and anger lurked beneath the smiles and easy-going demeanor of all those black people? Were they really as happy as they seemed?

I hope so. But I suspect it was partly because they knew what happened to black people who expressed dissatisfaction or stepped out of line.

What have I learned from all that? I suppose it amounts to this:

  • A just society doesn’t treat any group of people as second-class citizens.
  • Even if people smile when they’re mistreated, it doesn’t mean they’re happy about it or that they think it’s okay.
  • An injustice done to any person is an injustice done to all of us, and we should treat it as such.

As well as what I always knew:

  • All people have infinite worth and importance. To the extent that we can, we should treat them that way.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

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Responses

  1. I had a different experience. My elementary school was all white until the school system was integrated under threat of court order. (Not that nonwhites were disallowed, but real-estate redlining had tended to cluster people by skin color in various parts of the city.) I’ll never forget the first day of school the year integration happened. A single bus pulled up in front of the school (because everybody else walked) filled with black students from elsewhere. Two of them were in my class, and frankly many other students made their lives unpleasant. Most of it was just teasing because they looked different, but some of it was hateful.

    One of those students came to the 25th high school reunion. I hadn’t seen her in all those years. When I had a moment to talk with her, I said that I had felt sorry for the poor treatment she received. She rapidly changed the subject.

    • Jim, I’m sorry that you had such a bad experience with racial integration. However, you seem to have come out of it okay.

      Talking to your former black classmate about the discrimination she suffered was a good move, though I also understand why she probably just wanted to forget about it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us. Racism is a interesting and deeply divisive topic that is exploited by many. I was fortunate to be raised in a family environment that placed a high value on all people. When I was about seven years old we had a young foster boy in our home who was African American. I don’t remember it feeling odd at all. In spite of my upbringing I have still found myself struggling at times to remain impartial.

    The most eye opening experience I had with racism was the time I spent in Africa. Being the only white person around for days at a time did feel odd, but I was treated with great esteem (probably because they all wanted to be the American’s friend). But while being the only white person was eye opening, I was SHOCKED at how they classed each other by tribe. They rarely married outside of their tribe even in the cities. I could barely tell the difference between them (skin tone, cheekbones, stature, etc) but it was huge to them. I left Africa with a much better understanding of what racism truly is. It is an ugly, pompous, brutal, self serving, side of human nature. It seeks to raise one’s own value by the belittling of others.

    • Hi, Jet —

      Thanks for the informative comment! It sounds as if you’ve had more eye-opening experiences with race relations than most of us. When were you in Africa? Was it some kind of charity work, or for school, or what?

      The problem with racism, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s natural. By that, I don’t mean that it’s inevitable, good, or even acceptable. But we’re biologically programmed to trust, help, and protect the people who are genetically related to us, starting with our immediate families. The less genetically related people are to us, the less inclined we are (biologically) to trust them. And people of different races are clearly and visibly not our close relations, so we tend to distrust them. They are the ones against whom the animal side of our nature tells us that we must “protect” our biological kin.

      For mere animals, there’s no moral dilemma. They act according to their biological programming. But human beings are not mere animals. They are thinking beings — well, they are at least capable of thinking. However imperfectly, they can discern the difference between right and wrong. The great moral and religious teachers throughout history have called us to a higher standard of conduct: not merely to love our families and friends, but to love those who hate us and are our enemies. Although the people of other races are not our enemies, that teaching applies to them, too. To be fully human, we must transcend the merely animal side of our nature and do what we know is right. That means treating everyone with love and respect. It’s not easy for any of us, but we have to try.

  3. NS,

    I spent about 3 months over there a few years back. I was invited by — and hosted by — a local bishop. Is was a great experience. I had my first experiences with Muslims there as well. Quite an eye-opening time for me as a young man. I hope to go back someday. The locals there gave me a tribal name cause I just went with the flow and fit right in. We take so much for granted here in America.

    Jet

    • Jet,

      Well, you have my admiration. I find the idea of going to live in Africa quite intimidating.

      But as the Bible says, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” You’ve done more than talk the talk: you’ve walked the walk. God bless you.


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