Growing up in the desegregating south of the 1960s and 1970s, I pretty much heard the worst of the bad stuff coming out of the mouths of white people. Some of it I believed, some of it I ignored, and most of it I rebelled against. Somehow, a white kid who shook both the hands of George Wallace and Jerry Falwell, I grew up believing Martin Luther King was a great man and both of those guys were bad people.
Even though, in their old age, my parents spent a lot of time watching Fox News and believing too many lies about President Obama and Secretary Clinton, when I was a child, they taught me, in their different ways, to not be like so many of my cohorts. Mama was a big fan of Dr. King, and Dad, who wasn’t exactly for equality, still felt that Wallace was wrong about almost everything, and a crook, to boot.
So, I became a progressive southerner, a fighter for civil rights. This fight is with me today, and it now extends to include the rights of gays, Muslims, women, and generally people who are singled out for skin color, race, sex, religion, or national origin. I have been sympathetic to Black people since I was a kid in the 1960s. I embraced the rights of Muslims since I met a group of black Muslims in Cincinnati in the late 1970s, and was very open to a group of Iranian college students I met at a gas station in Alabama.
I supported the Islamic Revolution a year later. I have to admit, like the Cuban and Venezuelan and even the soviet revolutions, it has failed on many levels, at least it is not the direct result of American meddling in the affairs of another state. Though, I might add, our embargoes have caused untold suffering and death.
Yet, for all of this, whatever this is, until a few years ago, it never occurred to me that race was not real. On the face of it, race is obviously real. I remember the little Jesus song about all being precious in his sight: Red, Yellow, Black and White. And while the song kinda got the colors wrong and there seems to be very few people I ever met who were “black” I have met a few people almost jet black in skin color. White folks are from alabaster, especially white people in very cold climates, to reddish brown like me, “black” runs from a creamy light brown to very dark brown and the yellow and reds were really just other shades of brown, but I took the meaning of the song to be that yes, we were very distinct races, but god loved us all evenly and equally.
If god loved everyone, I should, too. And I did, and I do. The thing is, and it has taken me over 50 years to realize it, race isn’t real. RACISM IS. It took me a decade of playing with this concept to finally “get it.”
I had a dear friend, a black lawyer from Detroit who helped me along the way, but she finally got so frustrated at me, she said I was secretly a racist and that until I got to the point where I quit identifying as white, we could no longer be friends, so we aren’t friends anymore, which makes me sad. I am grateful to her, even if our friendship ended.
The last year or two, I have been dealing with the reality, that my entire life, especially my work life, has been based on a lie. It is the big American lie. The big WHITE American lie. That we treat all people equally, that bad people discriminate against minorities, but that most of us do not. Yet, I have come to realize this: if was not a white male, I probably would be dead by now. I have, more than once, challenged a law officer, not with weapons, but with words, sometimes angry and often defiant words. I am not a criminal, these were traffic stop incidents that I escalated. Invariably, the officers took a fatherly approach and encouraged me to calm down and reminded me they were just doing their jobs. I have no doubt if a six-foot, 250 lb., black male had done the same thing, the same number of times, at least one southern white cop would have shot him dead.
As to my jobs, I was so arrogant and undisciplined that I dropped out of college and never completed my degree, even though I had skipped my first year and college was basically free for me. Yet, I have earned a middle-class income most of my entire adult life. Every good job I have been given, was given to me by a white male who looked a lot like me, and most of them talked a lot like me.
And most of them, at some point in my employment, let me know, they would never have hired anyone but a white male for the job. Even a nice college educated black man, or woman, or any woman, for that matter would not have been given the job. I benefited and probably will continue to benefit for the rest of my life from the almost universal “affirmative action” afforded white people, and especially white males. (This makes the case for the current effort to investigate colleges for reverse racism seem all the more unacceptable to me.)
The things I was taught, not just by my parents, but by my preachers, my school teachers, my friends, the parents of my friends, stayed with me on many levels. Some of the things I believed about black people led me to rationalize and make excuses for black people, instead of examining the whole thought process to see where the faulty logic was.
I believed Black people were mostly lazy, were not as smart as white people, were not as honest, and probably not as moral as white people. It was easy, to believe this, because I lived, and still mostly live in a segregated world. When someone would tell a story about trying to find out why a black employee didn’t show up for work, or who stole or damaged a piece of equipment and no other black person volunteered to rat out the responsible party, the white person would say, “well, you know, they all lie…”
And I would think, well, maybe, but it is because they know how badly you, as a white person, will treat them. When the same situation occurred with white workers, no one said, “well, you know, they all lie…” Instead, usually, the feeling was those not giving someone up were honorable. This is but one example of the hundreds of things taught to me, not in a classroom, but in the play yard, the fields, the workshop, in every corner of my life. Variations on this were also used against Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, Asians, of all stripes.
Recently, I think I am coming to understand what my old ex friend was trying to get through my indoctrinated skull: It isn’t that we should treat all people equally. It isn’t that all the different races ARE equal. It isn’t that some people aren’t alabaster and others almost truly black and a huge spectrum in between. It is the idea that skin color, origin, or anything is a really stupid way to segregate, categorize or think of people.
Do I think of my friends by eye color? By hair color and type? By skin texture? By height? By weight? No of course not, we would never, as bad as weight discrimination is, consider fat and skinny people two different “races.” Everyone agrees that is “NUTS!”
And that is what has taken me a lifetime to realize. I fear most of my generation, and those older than me, at least those who identify as white, have not yet grasped. Racism is real, the legacy of it is with us in many very real ways, as are the glorious cultures of the many peoples from the many places that have come, over the centuries, to make America their home. But there cannot be black Americans, white Americans, brown, or red, or yellow Americans.
In fact, there cannot be Arabs and Asians and Africans, except as a note to say, this person comes from a different geographical, and cultural place, but this person is a human, not equal, not to be treated equally, but the SAME. Being a person of a different shade of complexion, or from a different part of the world doesn’t change who we are any more than whether we are tall or short. Until we can treat each other as equal and as the same, not out of some strange generosity of respect, but out of an awareness that we ARE the same people, we are not going to get to where we need to be.
Where we need to be is where every man, woman and child, regardless of anything, can achieve to their fullest desire and capacity, because no door is locked to them, because “fill-in-the-blank.”
To those of you, who have always known this, probably especially people of color, but to everyone who gets it, I am sure you are saying about now: “Duh!” But I do believe I represent a very large percentage of “White” people, especially in America, and probably wherever there are large groups of pale skinned people who have been very used to the lightness of complexion dominating all aspects of society. I believe most of “my kind” are either about where I am, or even many steps behind me, on this path of enlightenment.
I am not sure how we help others to see this, but until we do, many paths will remain blocked. Not only for minorities, but for society, as a whole.