What is the Foundation of Racism?
I remember my first lesson in racism.
It all started when I saw a black man walking down Main Street.
Seeing a black man in town was something of an event at the time.
You see, it was during the 1950s, and I’d never seen a person who didn’t look like me in the small town where I grew up.
I decided to ask my parents about it that evening at dinner.
My father’s response wasn’t exactly pleasant. I don’t remember his words, and I couldn’t write them here if I did because every other sentence contained a curse word or two.
His reaction was a bit of a history lesson. He explained that our little town was something called a “Sundown Town.” I was only seven or eight at the time, but I remember those two words distinctly.
He went on to explain that no one of color was allowed to be in town after the sun went down. (Of course, he didn’t use those words. His were much more colorful and by today’s standards, inappropriate.)
I learned that the man was a preacher. I remember he had a bible under his arm when I saw him.
Then, my father introduced me to a graphic explanation of what would happen if the man remained in our town after sundown. (Sundown Towns)
“A Rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself. That is exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is — a biting of oneself. We think we are harming others in holding these spites and hates, but the deeper harm is to ourselves.” E. Stanley Jones
Mother Portrayed a Milder Form of Racism
I was afraid for the safety of the man.
So, I looked to Mom for further explanation.
She told the story of a black man who broke into her home when she was a little girl and how my grandfather made the man leave. It happened in the middle of the night, and the window he came in just happened to be in the bedroom of Mom and her little sister.
Mom considered herself a southerner because she was born in Missouri. She finished her story by assuring me I could stay safe by staying away from black people.
“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” Bertrand Russell
A College Turnaround
I graduated from high school and headed off to college.
Like all freshman girls, the thought of joining a sorority was appealing. Mostly, I just wanted to fit in.
There was quite a bit of snow on the ground the night my life changed forever.
It was nearing midnight when my sorority mom arrived at my dorm room with a book in her hand. I was up late studying for midterms the next day.
“It’s nearly midnight, and I need this book taken back to the library. It was due today, so hurry, so I don’t have to pay an over-due penalty.”
I have to admit; her demand made me angry. I quickly switched my pajamas for a pair of jeans, sweatshirt, and parka.
A Lesson in Racism
There was no doubt in my mind how angry my parents and boyfriend would be if they found out I was out on campus after curfew.
I delivered the book to the library and was about halfway back to the dorm when five young men came out of nowhere. They were faster than I was, and my attempt to flee landed me on my back in the snow along the walkway.
One boy grabbed at my jacket and hit my flailing arms away while another held my boot-clad feet firmly on the ground. Another held my head down so I couldn’t attempt to get up.
Suddenly, I heard someone yell. I could feel the boys ripped off my body, one at a time. Although I couldn’t see much, I could see the white faces of the boys who attacked me that night.
I curled up in the snow, sobbing as I heard the grunts and curses of the commotion all around me.
Have you ever experienced the feeling of being limp with fear? I had survived the evils of abuse as a child, but I couldn’t comprehend the fact that it had nearly happened again.
Fear paralyzed my body.
“I plan to stand by nonviolence because I have found it to be a philosophy of life that regulates not only my dealings in the struggle for racial justice, but also my dealings with people, and with my own self.” Martin Luther King Jr.
Suddenly, I felt someone pick me up out of the snow.
The arms around me didn’t seem threatening, so I opened my eyes and looked into the face of the biggest black boy I’d ever seen.
It was a January evening in the late 60s.
“You stupid little white girls!” The black boy lectured. “Why do you think everything is safe in the world?” He yelled at me with every step toward the men’s dorm, where he deposited me at the feet of my boyfriend with a brief description of what had happened and a plea for Mike to return me safely to my dorm.
That young black boy’s name was Rick Price. He’d been named “Favorite Man on Campus” the previous year and played on the football team. To this day, he is one of the biggest heroes in my life.
“I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit.” Miyomoto Musashi
It was that night I remembered one of my grandfather’s greatest lessons: “There are good and bad people in this world. Your job is to surround yourself with the good ones and avoid the bad.”
Grandpa most certainly didn’t say white people were kind and black people were evil.
Rick Price taught me that some of the best people in the world have skin much darker than mine. He went on to become an educator and inspiration to children who grew up in poverty as he did.
“It is clear that the way to heal society of its violence . . . and lack of love is to replace the pyramid of domination with the circle of equality and respect.” Manitonquat
Racism and the Next Generation
I grew up, got married, and had two sons.
My oldest child and his best friend, Conrad, were inseparable.
By the time the boys were in second grade, it was time for the sleepovers to begin. Conrad was allowed to spend the night for my son’s birthday. A few months later, my son ran through the door after school, more excited than I’d ever seen him. Conrad had invited him to spend the night at his house on Saturday night.
Good grief, how do I handle this one?
I’d never had a discussion with my kids about people of color.
They saw I had friends of all colors and backgrounds. We never pointed out anyone based on their physical differences. We made every attempt to show our sons the
I knew my parents had certainly not provided appropriate direction on the topic.
In the house I shared with my husband, we treated all people equally. We made every attempt to describe people based on their kindness and accomplishments.
But this was different.
I’d spent time with Conrad’s parents at various functions at the school. They were a delightful couple, but my son had never met them. Conrad’s dad was a huge man, rather like Rick Price, and his skin was very dark. Conrad’s mother looked like me.
I was most concerned that my second-grader would say something or ask a question that might be hurtful to Conrad or his parents. We’d never discussed that people are different.
We’d tried to raise our kids believing people are people, period. We’re all together in this life.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I said, “Honey, I need to explain something to you. Conrad’s dad is a black man, and I don’t want that to cause you any confusion. He’s a very nice man.”
My son didn’t seem to hear my comment precisely the way I intended.
“Conrad’s not black! He just has a really good tan.”
Okay, sometimes you realize you’ve done things right in the examples you’ve set for your children. But, I also knew I couldn’t control anything he may have heard in school. Like Mother always said, “Better safe than sorry.”
I shouldn’t have worried. My kid grew into the kind of man my grandfather would be proud to call his family.
The conversation finished. I shouldn’t have worried. My son was perfectly capable of judging people with compassion and heart.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
A Grandson Changes Everything
I am so in love with my grandson. He is bright, funny, gifted in athletics, and so very curious about everything. He makes me laugh at his jokes and antics.
For the past few days, I have become more and more terrified about the future for this sweet little boy who is fast approaching his teen years.
You see, he has far more melanin in his skin than I do. His beautiful brown skin will soon be considered a threat by those people who learned to judge others unfairly as I was at the beginning of my life.
Even more terrifying, my sweet little boy lives in Minneapolis. Minneapolis was the city where I raised my sons. I still consider it my home. And yet, it continues to burn day after day, night after night because a few Minneapolis police officers showed a willful disregard for the safety of a man with brown skin like my grandson’s.
The man who died was beloved in his home state of Texas. He spoke and lived by the scriptures and tried to inspire other young black men. He had a name. That name is George Floyd.
What can I say or do that helps my grandson understand that the privilege he grew up with will evaporate when he becomes a teen?
“One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.” Franklin Thomas
Racism and Hatred
Do I tell him about Ahmaud Arber, who died because he dared to go out for a jog?
Should I explain to him why I’ve never bought him his favorite hoodies like Trayvon Martin wore and why I never will?
Today, I’m angry.
I’m angry that my city is burning.
Without a doubt, I’m angry that my grandson will never experience the freedoms I’ve enjoyed throughout my privileged life.
I’m angry that at some point I have to explain to my grandson that there are haters among us. I can’t describe them so he can watch out for them. There is no way I can try to help him understand why people who have never met him will hate him.
My son and daughter-in-law picked this child from all the children in the world. He is that special and unique.
Is it necessary that we strip this beautiful young boy’s innocence away and share with him the ugliness that exists in the dark corners of this world?
Why can’t I simply teach him what my grandfather taught me? There are both good and bad people in this world. Surround yourself with the good ones.
How can I arrange for him to spend time with a man like Rick Price, a man who had more courage than I have ever been able to muster?
I want what you want for your grandchildren. This child deserves the best of opportunities. He knows already that he needs to earn your respect, but he needs a chance to prove himself.
“Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument.” Samuel Johnson
Let’s All Honor George Floyd’s Memory
It is with a desperation that I beg you to teach your sons and daughters what my grandfather taught me. Don’t listen to what my parents said. Their generation was a significant part of the problem.
Bad decisions can’t continue.
Let’s choose right over wrong.
We’re all struggling with the tragedy of Covid-19 and the senseless deaths we continue to experience in our black communities.
Let’s agree to keep our cities and our children safe.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hope and Justice
There is a collective feeling of anxiety in this nation.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and yet we watch our cities burning.
People are scared and angry.
Heck, I’m angry, but that isn’t going to solve our problems. I ache for hope for my grandson and all the children in this country who are approaching adulthood and who do not look like me.
We need to find compassion for our fellow citizens, regardless of color or country of origin.
It’s time we celebrate the incredible contributions made to this great land by people who look just like my grandson.
I don’t want people like John Pavolvitz to be angry because we haven’t lived up to our collective responsibilities and vision for the future.
Let’s all agree to change the attitude to one of “Hope” for this great land that promised us our dreams could come true.
I’m angry because racism is going viral and hatred is having a renaissance and compassion is facing extinction.