If anyone should have ended up being a racist, it should have been me.
In the 1960s and 1970s, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as my parents, used the N word whenever they could. One of my uncles wanted to make sure that his daughter did not have to experience “bussing.” Does anyone remember what that was? It was deliberately transporting schoolkids by bus to a more distant school in order to achieve racial integration. In order to keep his daughter in a white school, my uncle had to get her to take a course that they did not offer at the black school. The course? Russian. In the middle of the Cold War, Alvin Rice the anti-communist wanted his daughter to study Russian so that she could avoid being bussed across town to a black school. (In a recent conversation with that cousin, she does not remember this incident—she was too young to care one way or the other about bussing—but remembers her father’s strong emotions about it.)
I also remember my parents discussing the question of whether black people were even human, and they concluded that they were not.
I remember my parents and aunts and uncles watching a news report during the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey presidential race. Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey was campaigning among blacks and he kissed a black baby. My parents and aunts and uncles were horrified. There, that one act proved that Humphrey should not be president.
Yet somewhere around 1980, this kind of talk stopped. It was rare among my cousins, and even the old folks changed the way they talked. Did they have a change of heart, or did they just finally admit that racism was dying out? I do not know. I just know that I would be astonished if any of my conservative Okie cousins used the N word (at least in my presence) ever again. And I truly believe they do not use it in private.
If anyone should have been a racist kid, it would have been me. I was raised by racists. I had it drilled into me. But, how shall I say it, it just didn’t take. I remember what I thought and felt during the Hubert-Humphrey-baby-kissing incident. I remember thinking that what my parents said made no sense at all. It was perhaps the first time that I ever considered my parents to be wrong. I couldn’t explain why it was wrong; I just felt it.
These experiences continued. I befriended a Japanese-American guy and my parents were very uncomfortable with it, as they were with my trip to Japan as an exchange student in high school. I was enchanted by Japanese culture and studied it, and the language, intensely for a long time; I also loved the Japanese that I met as individuals. I started an airmail-letter romance with one of the girls from Japan. (Nope, never told my parents.)
Blacks, Japanese, and…Mexicans. My parents also raised me to not like Mexicans very much either. Had I tried to date any Mexican girls, my parents might have stopped me. As chance would have it, I was so timid that I only went on three dates in high school, all with white girls. (There was racial animosity going the other way, too.)
But I couldn’t help but like most Mexicans at least as much as I liked most whites. One particular experience remains in my mind. The whole band, plus the letter and banner girls, was on a bus going on a trip. My friend David and I, both white freshmen, talked with this stunningly beautiful Mexican girl, and we were smitten. I was; I think you were too, David. She was unattainable, of course: a senior. When we were all at our motel, this girl walked through a plate glass window and got minor injuries. I went to her room to wait with her while an ambulance came (I think David was there too) and I realized how much I cared what happened to her. Well, a lot of racism has disappeared from our group; at our 40th class reunion, there did not seem to be much of a white/Mexican racial divide.
Then there remains the fact that I am a member of the Cherokee tribe, although I am mostly white. My Cherokee mother told me about our family’s history, all the way back to Nancy Ward (who died in 1822). That is, we were a racially blended family. On what logical basis could we be prejudiced against blacks, Asians, and Mexicans? This didn’t really sink into me until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the early documentations of white American genocide against Native Americans. Much later, when I told my mother when I was in graduate school that I had a girlfriend (we got secretly engaged after knowing each other about a week and are still married after 31 years), Mom’s first question was, is she white? I said, almost. “What do you mean, almost?” “Well, Mom, somewhere along the line, one of those Cherokees got over the wall.” After a little hesitation, Mom could only laugh. My mom died on the day Barack Obama was elected in 2008, perhaps still struggling with the knowledge that the world was changing in a way she was uncomfortable with.
And today, I find myself more attracted to darker people than to lighter people, who seem somehow to be washed-out and dried up and sun-bleached. I believe this to be a psychological over-reaction against the racism in which I was raised. It is not logical; it is just a feeling.
There’s still a lot of racism around. Each week’s news brings another example of it. But maybe, just maybe, we humans have a streak of anti-racism in us that can make us, as it made me, feel repulsion toward racism. Let’s hope we do.