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 he 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.