Stuck in '56
"How did racism become an issue of character -- and not culture -- in the first place?"
That part of the paper was delivered on Saturday, so I've had a lot of time to think about it.
My mother was a racist. As a child, I didn't know the word or really understand the concept. But I know that my mother used words that sounded ugly to refer to people whose skins were different colors than our white ones. When I mentioned this to my sister, she replied, "Back then everyone was." It was part of the culture, a culture that began a long, slow, as-yet incomplete process of change.
We've evolved in our tolerance, acceptance, protection, support of other races. Some of us have learned about "white privilege," something that despite my thirteen years in a Quaker school, I barely grasp. Oh, I understand the principle okay, but the nuances elude me. I'm working on this.
But getting back to the question -- How did racism become an issue of character and not culture? -- I don't have an answer, though I know the premise to be true. The question has helped me to get a handle on an on-going situation. There's a woman, a few years older than I am, who lives in a very rural area of a very southern state. "Edna" is a racist. (She's also xenophobic and homophobic, which comes as no surprise.) I can't do anything about any of this (other than forbid her to use certain words when she is in my home) and -- for very personal reasons -- I am unable to sever our connection. Her younger, enlightened brother says, "Oh, she graduated high school in 1956 and got stuck there." He's given up, too, but loves her because she's his sister.
Apart from her racism and related characteristics, she's a person like all of us who has her good traits and her bad ones. But because of that racism, I've had trouble thinking about those things. For me, it's been as if racism is all that she is.
Today, for the first time, I am beginning to understand there is a difference between racism that is an issue of culture and racism that is an issue of character. A difference between people like my mother and others of her generation where no one challenged the belief that white people were better than other people, and Edna who lives about an hour from the nearest traffic light amid neighbors who use the same derogatory racial terms that she uses vs. the people who disrespect our current President because of his skin color and write such vile comments about his daughters that even Fox News had to delete them, and judges who impose vastly varied sentences on individuals that seem, somehow, to be connected to their ethnicity. Racism of culture/racism of character.
The New York Times Magazine article written by Greg Howard is very, very rich. I'll keep it and read it again. It has given me new insight and understanding of my mother, long gone, and Edna, still a part of my life, victims -- if you will -- of their culture. Please read the article if you have the opportunity. If you don't, I'll leave you a quote to chew on:
"It's common for white Americans to position themselves as the neutral arbiters of what is and is not racist and what other Americans are allowed to be angered by. Lo and behold, the answer is always the same -- real institutional racism always ends up being something from the past, something dealt with, not an ongoing system of policies that afflicts minorities and profits white people to this day. Offer any objections, any other experience of the world, and the response you'll get is . . . 'Just [expletive] get over it.'"