Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day the late Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery AL bus to a white man, thus jumpstarting the civil rights movement and moving the United States towards greater racial/cultural equality. Today, bloggers throughout the Internet are taking time out to commemorate this event by blogging about racism and what we can do to help combat it. What follows are my own expreiences and opinions, and I encourage you (if you have a blog) to participare in Blog Againts Racism Day.
I come from a long line of racists and bigots. My ancestors owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. I suspect that some members of my ancestral family may even have belonged to the Klan, although I have never gotten a straight answer on that question. More directly, my father and grandfather exhibited some pretty reprehensible attitudes towards members of other races, particularly African-Americans.
I can recall as a child (and even growing into adulthood) hearing my dad, grandfather and uncles sitting around telling racist jokes in as loud a voice as possible, making sure that everyone heard them pronouncing the word "nigger" over and over again. As I grew older and learned to speak, I assumed that was what one called African-Americans.
It all came to a head when I was about seven years old. My mom, siblings, and a cousin were all on a shopping trip, and Mom stopped off at a store to run in and pick up a couple of items. As we kids waited in the car, we watched the mostly-Black shoppers moving through the parking lot. My cousin started daring me to call out to the African-Americans as they walked past our car. Unfortunately, I took her up on her dare, and I started calling out the window "Hey, niggers!" Some looked at me, others just waked past, and after a couple of minutes, my mom came running out the store and scolded me, telling my "I don't want to hear you saying that again, you hear me?"
I stopped, fearing a punishment far worse than scolding. As the weeks and months passed, I began thinking about it. What was wrong with that word? Why could my parents and grandparents use it at will at home, while we couldn't use it in public? It took me years to truly understand. In the meantime, I went to school and interacted with children of other races, and I found that with a few cultural differences here and there, they were just like me. And the more that I learned with African-Americans, the less and less funny I found the racist jokes I heard at home.
Yet the racism I was exposed to at home continued unabated. My grandfather actually said once that the Dred Scott decision was a "good idea". My dad threatened to disown us, his children, if we ever came home with a Black girlfriend/boyfriend. An aunt we visited in Oklahoma went on almost nonstop about the "Mexicans" that were committing the sin of breathing her air.
Even with all this, however, I continued to evolve my outlook regarding those different from me. I read "Soul on Ice" and Frederick Douglass' autobiography. I became enamoured of hip-hop and rap music. I even hung out with African-Americans after we finished our shifts at the fast food restaurants we worked in together. To my detriment, I didn't grow those associations into friendships, largely because of my fear of my father. Looking back, I think I had much more in common with them than with him.
When I became an adult, I came to the conclusion that I had no time for racism. I began to leave the room whenever I felt a racist joke or rant coming on from a family member. I began to speak to my mom about my feelings at length, and though she found herself in agreement on most issues regarding civil rights, she couldn't quite get over some aspects. She stopped using the N-word in my presence, something I really appreciated.
As my siblings have grown up, I notice that the racism of past generations has faded significantly in ours, even if it hasn't completely abated. A few years ago, a racist barbecuer in South Carolina was whining that a grocery chain has pulled his products out of their stores over comments he had made regarding African-Americans. Offended Neo-Confederates decided to protest this by staging protests in from of the grocery chain's stores. During the protests, my youngest brother and I drove by one of the protests, and my brother promptly stuck his hand out the window to let the protesters know they were number one. Maybe I'm off by a finger on that one, but childish as it was, I have to admit I felt good seeing that middle digit flying from our Mazda RX-7, when I think of what I had done some 27 years earlier.
Sadly, not evryone my my generation of my family shares such a progressive view. I have a cousin who is a virulent racist. She happens to be the daighter of the "lovely" anti-Mexican aunt described above. I haven't spoken to her in years, but last I heard, she had developed an anti-Black streak that rivals my late grandfather. Somehow, I don't feel as if I'm missing much by not seeing/talking to her.
As for me, I'm married and a father now. My son goes to a day care center that has a nice mixture of children from all different backgrounds. Although he's barely out of babyhood, I'm already trying to impress on him the importance of looking at people as being people first, without regard to their skin color, religion, nationality, etc. If I can do that, and help end racism that way, even if it is in my own family, I think I will have accomplished something.
Love one another.