I’m kind of a simplistic person.
I believe in one race. The HUMAN race.
I believe the only “African Americans” are the one’s who were born in Africa, and immigrate to America. And once they are citizens of the U.S.A., I don’t believe they are African anymore. They are Americans. People who were born in the U.S. (or it’s treaty domains) are Americans. Some are pale, some are dark brown, and every shade in between, but we are all Americans. Inclusive thinking. (Sometimes it’s good for us.)
After the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves rejected the phrase that had been in use in some places since about 1853(1): “African American”. Being “African” was synonymous with being a slave or a savage(2). No better than a pig or a goat on his owner’s land. But being an American? That meant something. It meant freedom, it meant hope, it meant self-determination. Being called black? They were not ashamed of their different skin color. They were proud of who they were. They didn’t need some special identifying moniker. They were proud to be Americans. Think of the 60’s and 70’s. “Black is beautiful” and “Black Power”.
My oldest son is 18, almost 19. Good heavens, where have the years gone?
When my oldest son was just a little guy of two my mother pointed out to me that he didn’t really speak. I scoffed at first, because he communicated with me just fine. I understood when he wanted cereal, or a cup, or needed his diaper changed, or needed to use the potty. (Bear with me, it really is relevant.) He was an angel faced little guy with wispy, curly, white-blond hair, bright, sparkling blue eyes, and the most infectious grin you could imagine. However, my mom kept at me in her gentle way, and I took him to be evaluated by the people at the intermediate school district building in town. I was rather surprised by what I learned from them. My son had not learned to speak as most people understood speaking. On the contrary, he had taught me his language, and I had been a most apt pupil! In effect, I was the only person who could really understand him, although he understood other people speaking English to him perfectly.
The new catch phrase in our house became “use your words.” Over and over and over… “Use your words”. I began teaching him things I had never realized he didn’t know. We were working shapes, and he grasped that concept quickly. Numbers he understood before shapes even. Colors, well he got them mixed up sometimes he was determined that anything pink was called orange, as was anything orange. Pink was just not in his vocabulary. Of course, because of his “speech impairment” he was quickly inducted into the ISD as a special needs child, and that is a discussion for another time. So, he was going to school three hours a day, as well as being drilled in basic words at home. I was impressed with how quickly he progressed, but then one day, as the words came more easily to him and he had grown past getting angry with us for refusing to allow him to use his own code sounds and gestures (use your words, son. No, I won’t give it to you, until you use your words,) he was merrily chatting about what he had done in school and who he had played with. He was telling me about a new friend he had made at school. He told me this new friend was his best friend, and he loved his new friend. I asked him what his friend’s name was. His reply startled me. He said “The poo-poo boy.” I asked him to repeat it. “The boy with the poo-poo color.” I was aghast. (Have you ever been aghast? How about gob-smacked? Dumbfounded? Oh yeah, those are a good description of how I felt.) I thought about that for a moment, measuring what on earth he could mean. Then I asked him, “Do you mean he’s the color brown?” And this charming, innocent 2Â½ year-old boy replied, “Yeah, the poo-poo color boy”. I corrected him immediately, and told him people with dark brown skin were usually called “black” or “African-American” but never, never “poo-poo colored.” This launched an argument of course (oh my little man could argue! Not much has changed there…), because he knew the color black and black isn’t brown. And as far as he was concerned, Africa was where giraffe’s came from, and I was just being foolish to suggest people lived there.
This was my son’s first exposure to any person of any very dark skin tone. His mis-use of language really stemmed from my failure to teach him English instead of me learning his communication. Mind you, at our church there were students from Taiwan, but at that time there had been no one in my son’s limited and sheltered experience who would ever be described as “black” or African-American. This brought to mind my own first remembered exposure to black people, when I was about six; I thought how exotic and beautiful and foreign they looked! And I was jealous deep down in my grubby little soul, because I was plain and they were special. (Lets face it, very nearly everyone I knew had fair skin and light or blue eyes, and either blond or brown hair) I had seen and known and loved people from Asia, and my parents, who had been missionaries in Vietnam had spoken with such tenderness and love for the people they met there, I felt a love and respect for any person who appeared to be Asian. Many students from Asia came to the university in the town I lived in, and came to the church my father is the evangelist for. But it just happened that up until that time, there had not been any black people there that I had ever seen or known. I grew up in, and my son was born in a very tiny, remote, little town in far Northern Michigan, 600 miles north of Detroit, and I just had not ever seen black people face to face. In truth, my experience was pretty much limited to the church my parents were ministering to, and it wasn’t by design that I had never encountered black people, it’s just that none chose to come to the church, and so I didn’t see them. My son was as sheltered as I was, however, he entered the public school room much earlier than I did, and the population in the area I was raised was primarily made up of the children of Finish, Cornish, Italian, Irish and German immigrants who had gone to that part of Michigan for the copper mining in the 1800’s. I’ve been told at times, when explaining where I come from, that the area I grew up in isn’t even part of the United States. The Michigan Department of Treasury, and the IRS, disagree, I assure you. In any case, there just weren’t that many people with very dark skin tones in the area we lived in.
Now, please forgive me, this is probably going to sound like Pollyanna-thinking of the most naive sort, but when I left the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to join my second husband overseas in his first military assignment in Germany, I was under the impression that all that “civil-rights stuff” had been brought to a wonderful resolution during the 1960’s; Martin Luther King Jr. had changed the world we lived in, and everything was great! That everyone shared the same view of different skin colors that my parents did, and that they taught to me. I was taught to understand that all people are just people. No one person is better than or really different from any other. I was taught that God loved all people, and that I should love all people too. I assumed that all people loved God and because they loved God, and loved Jesus, they would love all of God’s children too. Once I got over my bout of jealously about the exotic, amazing looks of black people (jealously is a form of covetousness, I had learned by the time I was 8 or so, and I was ashamed and apologized to God for that,) I largely ignored skin tone and just assumed everyone else did too. I met and knew and loved and thought of as part of God’s family, and therefore my family, people of so many various skin tones, and their skin tone just didn’t matter, because they were my brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was in February of 2000 that I received a very rude and painful dose of reality. I was witness to ongoing, hate inspired, unmistakable racism, and it shocked me! This had all ended 30 or 40 years ago! Hadn’t it? There was no more racism in American society! Was there? I learned that there most certainly was. It was while I was working in the AAFES Warehouse in Giessen. It went like this:
(Loud sniffing noise) “Uhg. What is that smell?”
(Loud sniffing noise) “Oh no. You know what that is?”
“Its disgusting. What is it?”
“It’s those white girls, they must’ve walked into the warehouse.”
And then, on St. Patrick’s Day, I wore green. What a mistake!
“Your Great-Grandaddy was Irish? My Great-Grandaddy’s slave owner was Irish. You ought to be ashamed.” I was informed that because of who my grandparents were, I was by descent a racist. I told the woman she was nuts, that I didn’t give two hoots what color skin a person had, that it was their character that mattered. She informed me that saying I didn’t care what color her skin was didn’t mean I wasn’t a racist, just that I didn’t care about the suffering of her people. I asked her who was making her suffer, and she informed me that I, and every white person in the world was oppressing her, and her people. I told her she was nuts, because I don’t run around oppressing people. I told her that until I had met her, I had gone along with the notion that all American people were brothers and sisters, and that everyone loved everyone. She told me I was a liar, and she knew what was really in my mind. To this day, I just don’t understand that woman. I don’t even remember what she looked like anymore, or her name, but her arrogance and her supremely superior attitude drove me nuts. How could she know what I thought or believed? How did she know anything about me? Because I was white? But isn’t assuming you know a person’s character and beliefs, that you know their values because of their skin color, racism?
And then, the woman who had been in the warehouse the longest, an older German woman, retired. The woman who had been there the next longest in her department, a white American woman, got her job. The black women who worked there decided it had nothing to do with seniority, or experience in that department, but decided that one of them should have gotten that job, even though none of them had been there as long, and none of them had worked in that department before. There was a lot of anger from the black women who worked in that warehouse after that. In the warehouse, most of the American women who worked there were black military spouses. There was myself and one other white American woman there, both military spouses. The other workers were either retired or former Army, or German. I frequently heard about how if I had any respect for the suffering of their people I would leave my job, and let it open up for a “sister”. I blew that nonsense off. Why should I quit my job so someone else could have it? I needed that income, just as much as anyone else, and I worked for it, just the same as anyone else would. The women would harass the other white woman too, not the Germans, only we two Americans. We both went separately and together to our managers and complained about the harassment and the racial slurs “Irish cracker girl”, “woo-wee, those white girls sure do stank up a place!” Our managers told us we just needed to let it slide, because they weren’t in a position to deal with “reverse racism.” I thought to myself, that’s pure horse hockey! Reverse racism? Racism is racism, it doesn’t have a direction. Its just ugly, no matter who’s behind it.
I became determined that as a matter of my dignity, my pride, my rights as an American, I wasn’t going to be chased out of my $7.50 an hour job no matter who called me what. It was in late March of 2000 that something happened to change my mind. My work hours were 7AM to 4PM, if I recall right. One afternoon my opposite in this struggle, or at least the mouthpiece for the “other team” was gone for most of the afternoon. I was really very relieved, it was a quiet afternoon. She came back an hour before we all clocked out and while we were working at the packing table that last hour she started talking to me in the most friendly way she had for weeks. She asked me, didn’t I say I had a little girl? I told her yes. Didn’t I say my little girl’s name was Emily? I said yes, and I chattered a little bit about Emily’s antics. She smiled nicely and laughed with me at the appropriate places. Then one of her friends asked her where she had been. She said she had been in the housing area that I lived in. I didn’t think anything of it, not my business. She mentioned that all the kids had been getting out of school when she was leaving the housing area. Then she said to me, “Your little girl, Emily, she has long pigtail braids and a (whatever it was) back pack, and a light purple jacket? She wears glasses?” I looked at her funny and said yes, that’s her. Then she said the words that ended my short career with AAFES. “She was so cute when she was at the cross walk. She’s looks like a handful though; ran out before the crossing-guard said they could go, right in front of my car. I said hi to her and she waved. It sure would be a shame if something happened to her.” That was my last day before a planned two week time off because my parents were coming to visit. But I never went back to work there again. And I went away angry and frustrated and… ANGRY! Why was this kind of thing tolerated!? About a week later, the other white American woman who worked at the warehouse came knocking at my door wanting to know why I had quit. I told her what had happened. She told me she had quit a few days after me, for the same reason. We agreed that $7.50 an hour was not worth even an empty threat of violence against our children, no matter how veiled the threat was. A week or so later, two CID agents were in my living room taking my statement. I have no idea what ever became of the investigation, but I wanted no part of it. I was definitely a lot “sadder but wiser” than I had any desire to be.
Wow, that’s a lot of story telling. I couldn’t get away with that on TV or Radio!
I have a real problem with a behavior I’ve observed in folks the last few years in particular–perhaps because I really started paying attention to things, and seriously forming opinions on them. The behavior? Making jokes, that to a sensitive person, or in a sensitive setting, would be perceived as racist. I realize that many of these folks and I probably disagree about what is and is not a racial slur, or a joke with a racial undertone. I am not suggesting that these folks are racists, just that they have become desensitized by the actions and behaviors of others. Comedians that timidly or aggressively knock on that taboo door marked “racism”. Recording artists and the general public who throw around obvious racial slurs; I am of course referring to the tendency of black or African-American individuals to refer to one another as “the N word”. I have even heard my oldest make remarks and comments that I consider way to close for comfort to that taboo door. I am not suggesting that he is a racist, because I do not believe that at his heart he is. But he talks like so many young people do today, with a great carelessness that I am concerned is going to come back to haunt him in the end.
He, like so many folks, is sick and tired of people acting like they have a right to walk up and down his back, claiming he owes them something because he’s white and they’re not. If a person, any person, treats him decently and with respect, he will treat them decently and with respect. But if a person treats him badly based upon the color of his skin or theirs, they aren’t worth his time, and he refuses to make efforts to appease them. He doesn’t treat them badly, but he won’t go out of his way to win them over. He’s big enough that to date, this has not caused him any major trouble. With the violent tendencies of young people, I worry for his physical safety. And, as his mom, I worry so much that his mind has been so seared by the way he has been treated by a few individuals, that he has given up the “Pollyann-ic” world view I raised him with, and given in to the bitterness that runs rampant around racial issues.
I was incensed and frightened when he came home from school the day after the 2008 election, when all the world knew America had elected her first black president, and told me about his day. White boys and girls were being shoved and tripped and taunted in the hallways by dark pigmented students, and the school staff looked the other way. His own experience had him in the lunch room, being shoved repeatedly as he carried his tray to his table by a trio of boys who said things to him like “That’s right cracker, you our b****now.” “We got the president, whitey.” “Get down cracker, get down and show me who’s your master now.” Our daughters had similar problems. One of them kept getting called “Dirty cracker ho” that day, and for several days after. She was in the 8th grade for crying out loud, a very shy, timid, 13 year old girl. And the staff, largely black and Hispanic, told her to quit being a baby when she cried about it. On the up side, the election of Nov. 2008 convinced all of our children that they needed to be home schooled, if for no other reason than their safety.
My point is, that no matter how harshly my children are treated by people who feel they have a right to mistreat them because they are white, I don’t ever want to see my children, or myself, or my husband, or my children’s friends, or anybody I know and cherish, to ever, ever respond in kind. I’m not suggesting that they take it meekly and allow themselves to be verbally abused, or physically harmed; at the very least, they need to get away from the situation and to safety. But I hope, I pray that they would never, ever respond to racial malice and hatred with malice and hatred of any kind.
And oppression? I don’t buy it! I wouldn’t buy it for two cents! No, not even for one! I will tell you the truth, I have never in my life “oppressed” anyone, unless you take one of my daughter’s part, and believe that my parenting her is really me “oppressing” her. People are people are people are people are…. I will never buy into the notion that I owe any person “reparations” for something that some ancestor may have done in the dim past. Look, my family is not wealthy. My family were farmers and trades men, and homesteaders and janitors, and office workers, and migrant fruit pickers, some of my ancestors were white people who came here in the 16 and 1700’s, a few were even Cherokee. They weren’t wealthy plantation owners, they weren’t slave traders. But even if they had been, even if I came from “old money”, I wouldn’t owe anybody except my parents, my in-laws, my husband and my children, my family a darn thing. Because the truth is that for over three hundred years on this portion of this continent, there have been ways for all people of all races to overcome the oppression of the stupid, short-sighted few, and succeed(3) if success was what they really wanted, even when oppression was blatantly evident and people were held in actual, physical slavery. I am not responsible for the actions of all white people, past, present and future, any more than every black person is responsible for the actions of the black woman who threatened my daughter’s life over a $12K a year job. Let me ask a question of all Americans with dark pigmented skin: should I resent you and fear you because of what that one woman with dark pigmented skin did? Is it fair or right for me to hate you, and despise you and demand you pay me what I missed out on working that job, not only that job, but for the emotional scars her threats left on me, and on my children, and the scars her actions have left on the collective psyche of my family and descendants? You would say, and I would agree, that such a notion is utter nonsense! It isn’t nonsense because I’ve never been black and I don’t understand the hereditary suffering of the black person. It’s nonsense because not every black person did those things, said those things, and made those threats. The only person responsible for that woman’s actions is that woman herself. And you would no more expect for me to hold you responsible for that woman’s actions, than I or any other white person should be held responsible for the filthy, festering blights on humanity that willingly enslaved any human being, your forebears included.
Do you know, black person, Hispanic person, Asian person, Native American person, Indian person, European person, ANY PERSON!!–that I love you? I can’t help but love you, and this is why: Because in my belief system, in the values I was raised on and still hold dear, the values and teachings of Christ, no matter the hate filled actions I have seen and experienced, you, no matter the amount of pigment in your skin, I know you to be my brother or sister because you are human and so am I. Do you know that I love you and respect you because you are a human being? Or do you, like that woman I met 10 years ago, hate me because I’m white? Do you believe that because I’m white that I hate you and hold you in disdain? Why would you assume such a vile and destructive thing? How could you possibly know whether or not I hate you? How could you know what my attitude toward you is? Who has taught you to hate me, and to believe that I hate you? Whoever they are, these nefarious, bitter-minded, hate filled clairvoyants who claim to know my mind, and the mind of every white person before they are ever born, these diviners have lied. Their claims have no more weight and merit than the “Zultare the fortune teller” machine kids drop quarters in at fairs and carnivals the world over. Don’t judge me I beg you, based on the pigment of my skin or the color of my eyes. Come to know me, and then, good or bad, love or hate, interested or indifferent, only once you know me should you form an opinion. Only once I know you, can I form an opinion about you. But until I learn something different about you from experience, I assume that you are a decent and a good person, and I believe that in your soul there is a bright spark of humanity that glows more brightly than a thousand suns. And I love you, not because I’m a terrific person, but because Christ loves you, and I can hold no higher hope, than to live to be like Christ my savior.
This essay has really gone in a different direction than I intended. So I’m going to try and get this back on track.
I am challenging all of you, every person who reads this essay to take a serious hard look at yourself, and try as hard as you can to look deep in your heart and mind, try with all your might to put away all your preconceived or pre-learned notions about racial matters and civil rights, oppressors or oppressed. Try, try so very hard not to think from a white perspective, or a black perspective, or any perspective other than HUMAN. Now ask yourself, am I harboring racism against any of my fellow human beings in my heart and mind? Am I fearing, distrusting, disliking, or feeling superior to any person because of the pigment of their skin or my skin? Without regard to your own skin color, or the ideas you have been taught to believe, trying to forget the history of hatred and divisiveness that has riddled human history from the beginning of time, focus on yourself and ask yourself if you are now, or have ever been guilty of picking on a person, teasing them or calling them names, or doing more serious unkind or wrong things to persons, because of the pigment of their skin? Ask yourself, would you treat a person who shared your skin pigment the same way? If someone treated you in those ways because of your skin pigment, would you believe you were a victim of racism? This is hard thing I am asking of you, but I urge you to try your very hardest to do it.
Do you have children? Or do you remember hearing as a child “Just because Billy did ‘X’ to you doesn’t make it OK for you to do ‘Y’ to Billy!” or “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” Please, please, think about this. Is there any way for there to be peace and reconciliation between people of different skin pigments so long as you or I are still trying to retaliate against Billy for whatever crime “X” was? There are those, I am sure that there are those that would scoff at my simplistic view of this terrifying, and destructive issue of “race relations”. They would declare that something this complex can’t be solved by the simple expedient of “Forgive and forget” or “…do to others what you would have them do to you…” Or “…first take the plank out of your own eye…” I disagree. All the complex legislation and special action groups have done nothing to cure the disease of racism in this county or any other; I assert that much of the legislation and most of such groups have done more to damage the potential for real healing by dragging up the animosity of past years and encouraging us all to stew and fester on that infection and picking that scabrous, pus oozing wound open, again and again, like a stubborn child who just doesn’t care how deeply he scars. I have said before, and I maintain that the strength of this Union of States hangs upon the weakest will of it’s weakest member. That real “change” in this federation starts with you and starts with me, each individual person in their own heart, in their own mind, and in their own day to day practice. Real “change” in the hearts of men and women and children cannot be legislated or organized. It comes from within.
If you want racism to cease, then you and I, and every individual person must stop blaming anyone else, must forgive the sins of the past, must allow others to change within our own minds, and start by not being racist in any way ourselves. Stop distrusting your fellow humans, and start looking for that beautiful, bright, glowing spark, and perhaps even believing that they see the same spark in you.
Christ said “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” He didn’t say, if you love the people who’s skin pigment matches yours. Racism, hatred, these end when each individual person deliberately, every hour, every half hour, every minute chooses, and determines for him or herself to no longer harbor any shred of hatred or racism within themselves. It ends when each individual person makes that choice such a habit that it no longer requires thought. Forgiveness. Please God, give us all the strength to Forgive our fellow humans for our human-ness, and give us all the strength to allow our fellow humans to change in our own eyes. Amen.
Are you up to the challenge folks?
2 Although I do not agree with every sentiment in the article, this was a source of information I used: http://www.africultures.com/anglais/articles_anglais/41cremieux.htm “Hence African fell into disuse. With the end of the slave trade -which remained intense until 1833 despite its abolition in 1807- the absence of massive new arrivals rendered the term obsolete. African became an insult.”
3 Frederick Douglass by Booker T. Washington, pub. 1907, start around pg 153 for this specific sort of information.