24 November 2005

Conquering One's Inner Racist - Blog Against Racism, part I

There's a lot I want to say about racism, maybe too much. It gets really confusing, and it's such a broad topic. First thing, though, is this: racism - bad. Working on one's issues - good. Making a better world for people - good. Being honest about one's own internal attitudes, even when it's embarrassing or painful - that's good.

For starters, I'm white (unless you're an Aryan, in which case I'm a mudblood). And I was raised in the United States of America. By definition, this means that I am racist. I can't avoid it. It's so unconsciously taken in as part of the scenery, it's inescapable. The only recourse is to consciously try to become aware of it, try to listen well to people of other cultures and backgrounds, try to purge myself of it, and when someone cries race, assume as a default that they're right until whatever happened is fully understood and cleaned up. (This drives the right-wing crazy. Someone cries race, and they're all about denying it until it's so blatantly obvious that their own grandma is yelling at them to stop being such a bigot. And this is the grandma who sews the white triangular hats.)

I was raised in a privileged environment in a middle class Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on Long Island (where they teach you to say "Lawn Guy-land" in the third grade, in case you somehow were avoiding growing up with the accent). (I am consciously using Australian English spelling, by the way, as I live here now, and retraining myself is a complex and lengthy process. I'm not putting on airs.)

My best friend and next door neighbour, Cora, was a blond Catholic girl. In fact, a lot of my friends as I grew up were blond. Funny, I didn't really notice that until years later when it occured to me that my mum must have had some unconscious issues about her dark-complexioned Judaism and so the kids she picked to be my friends all had lighter skin than my own.



I first learned the "n-word" from Cora. I was seven. I asked my parents at the dinner table what it meant, and they treated it extremely gravely. I was made to understand that I should never ever use that word, since it was ... a bad word. It was extremely insulting to coloured people (the 1966 term for people of African or African-American heritage). Furthermore, I was told, Cora's dad was not ony racist, but he was anti-semitic and this meant that he didn't like us either. That was my first education in understanding the similarity of various oppressions.

Yet, that was only one lesson in many, and probably the only coherently anti-racism message I was taught. We locked the car doors driving through the neighbourhoods to our grandma's house (don't you hate that?!? Some sense of decency should have at least had our parents remember to put down the locks before we left the freeway, rather than when we saw the first black man walking! Damn you, mom.)

Some of the racism was so subtle to be almost unnoticeable. We had a series of floor polishers who'd come by to wax the floor every fortnight. I remember a couple of them: My favourite was a middle-aged Italian fellow who would joke that we loved each other and that he'd marry me when I grew up. I don't remember his name. I was four and I sat on his knee while he had his lunch break. (Those were innocent days.)

I do remember Joe's name, though. Joe was the hero who saved Wendy's house from burning down one Saturday. We loved Joe for that. He was tall and lean and he was brown. I'm certain I never sat on his knee. Unlike my Italian friend, I was discouraged from "bothering him" while he relaxed on his break.



Race is such an area for hostility in the U.S. I am so sorry that racism exists in its present form and I'm at a loss for how to make a bigger difference. I also know that I've avoided being closer to people for fear of making mistakes, for fear of "bothering them" as I clumsily stumble my way through the obstacle course that is friendship, closeness and intimacy.

25 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

--
Joe... I was discouraged from "bothering him" while he relaxed on his break.
--

I imagine this could be an honest caution against giving offence.

A lot of parents pull their kids when meeting new people so the kids don't cause offence. The 'script' for that new person is to gush "Oh, no. It's no bother at all. We were just saying hello." It's easy for me to imagine that race-careful standoffishness on Joe's part might have kept him from saying that bit.

Shane

11:33 pm  
Blogger elissa feit said...

And therein lies the rub. Certainly a 3 year old (I was a little younger during Joe's few months working for us) can't be expected to navigate the complex interactions that are set up by the adults, but clearly on some level, my natural instinct to friendliness and loving the world was curtailed in a race-related fashion.

I do know as an adult, I'm more cautious in approaching the world, and I'm way too cautious in approaching race as an issue. I had a black boyfriend for several months (I don't know if you knew that, Shane) and we never even went near the subject. It was just so squirly....

It's just painful the way that being raised in whatever that environment was, there is no "normalcy" on race. More is the reason to talk about it, I guess.

11:47 pm  
Blogger elissa feit said...

Memory is a funny thing. Joe's name was "Sam", and the Italian man was "Joe". Aside from those details, the story's much the same.

I didn't mention my sister Linda's role in all that. She'd just gotten new sneakers - Ked's flyers, if I recall. She went to call for Wendy, and Wendy yelled out of the bedroom window that her house was on fire.

Linda ran home really really fast, whch she could because she had brand new keds (!), and she fetched Sam (who then saved the day). But Linda and her keds were definitely heroes as well.

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