Until I'd been in the Navy about five years, I was a racist.
I wasn't one of those fire-breathing backwoods wannabe-lynch-mob leaders. No, I'd learned my first lesson in racism's folly back in the fifth grade for calling a black kid the n-word and received a hard punch in the gut that put me down for a few minutes. The principal told me it was my fault, that I deserved it — and it took a few years to understand he was right.
As the years went by I still kept some racist beliefs — I knew every n-joke in the book, it seemed — even though one of my girlfriends in high school was black. It was understood that it had to be kept a big secret, especially from my family. Such would have been scandalous, ruinous to their social standing in rural Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta (to this day I haven't told my mother, and I do hope she's not reading this blog). The pressure got to be too much and I broke up with her and broke her heart, and I've always held myself responsible for the pain I caused her. It didn't help that a few years back I found out that she'd subsequently had five kids from five different men. I blame myself for that, too.
But I joined the Navy and as the years went by, every word of encouragement from senior enlisted who happened to be African- or Asian-American, and every laugh shared with my shipmates who were of different races, became another brick removed from the wall that had been built between myself and the real world. I began to feel ashamed of where I came from, of the Southern culture that had raised me to think that we whites were the best, most morally upright, most honorable this world had to offer.
I do visit my family in the Delta every year or two, and with few exceptions, I see the same racism in the white faces and in the voices of friends and neighbors there that I'd seen and heard before in my youth. Just as it is much easier for someone from, say, Mexico to read the faces and hear the nuances in the voices of others from the same province of Mexico, such nuances of Delta white folk can't be hidden from me — I know it too well. Of course I do see some racism even here in western Washington (for where there are humans, there is at least some racism)…but not nearly to the extent I see it down South. The two don't even bear comparison.
It's been well over twenty years and scores of hard-learned lessons about race since then, and now I spend time each week, sometimes each day here on Blogcritics – and my comments often concern race. There are those here in the Politics section who think the days of racism are over, that even the traditional racism endemic in the Deep South are no longer serious enough for consideration. But they're wrong. The election of Barack Obama not only brought the nutcases out of the woodwork, but it let the racists know that they are not alone. I knew there would be a hue and cry among the racists…but the level of hateful (and even violently threatening) rhetoric has reached points not seen since the sixties. Even the Secret Service has pointed out that death threats against President Obama have reached historic levels, 400% of what Bush received (even though Obama's nearly twice as popular as Bush). Are we to believe that racists among the Far Right are not largely responsible for that four-fold increase?
So what does this have to do with me personally? I see the racism — it's diminished from before, but it's still there, sadly stronger than I'd expected. It's there for anyone with eyes to see. Is that because I see a reflection of my own dormant racism? If I didn't keep my own racism in such strong check, I'm sure that would be the case. But I think that keeping my own racism under such tight control helps me to see what might not be otherwise clearly seen in the faces, the voices, the actions of my fellow whites.
'My own racism'? Yes, that's what I said. There's a part of me that is still racist. It's small,usually quiescent,not a factor in my everyday life…but it's there nonetheless. I felt it recently when my wife and I discussed (again) our hoped-for move to the Philippines. The racist part of me said, "My youngest son is the only living blood-related descendant of the family of my birth. He and I will turn our backs on nearly 150 years of our family's tradition in the Mississippi Delta and become expatriates. My youngest son will almost certainly marry a full-blood Filipina, and again with his children…and the 'whiteness' of my family will be gone, forgotten. My descendants will have brown skin, slightly slanted eyes, and a language completely different from so many generations of my family that have gone before." But I remind myself that this is the path that I have chosen, and I will not have – will not allow myself to have – regrets. To paraphrase a quote from Heinlein, "When the ship weighs anchor, all bills are paid. No regrets." Yes, of course there are doubts — but there comes a time to deny the doubts, even those strengthened by nearly two centuries of family tradition. I have to believe, to force myself to believe that such racist thoughts and traditions are wrong.
To the BC political conservatives, I would admonish each of you to closely examine yourselves. All of you claim to not be racist, and I am certainly in no position to judge or to believe otherwise…but I also don't think it's wrong to postulate that the tendency to racism exists in all of us at least to some small extent. The difference between those of us who are racist or not, then, must lie in each individual's determination whether to accept it and allow it to wrongly color our thinking…or to dominate and deny that part of ourselves embedded to our collective psyche by untold thousands of years of racism practiced, encouraged, and even deemed essential to survival by our ancestors. It is certainly trite to claim that as I am turning my back on my family's tradition, I am also turning my back on what has been part and parcel of human history since time immemorial…but now is the first time in human history that racism (and sexism) has been deemed wrong and evil by a significant portion (but not yet a majority!) of the rank and file of the human race.
The irony is that even now, in one of the most liberal regions of the United States of America, the nation that welcomes the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of the other nations of the world, it takes an act of strong will for this proudly left-wing liberal to overcome his own racist past. But overcome it I will, for I am still young and strong, and in the same reference as above, Heinlein said it best: "To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods." Anyone who would learn to kick sacred cows would do well to sit at his literary feet for a year or two.