Saturday, January 28, 2011
Racism, Our Familiar Companion
Last Sunday, I was sitting on the patio of a Dallas cafe having lunch with my nine-year-old granddaughter and one of her friends. The friend had gone to climb on some nearby play equipment, and my granddaughter leaned over and whispered to me, “Grandma, do you know the ‘n-word’?” “Yes, I know it,” I replied, wondering where this was going — this granddaughter is mixed race, partially of African-American descent.
“A boy at school came up behind me this week and said, ‘Hey, N – – – – -, get out of the way.'” I didn’t try to hide my astonishment. “What????? I am really shocked to hear that,” I told her. I asked for more details: whether she’d told the teacher and how things proceeded from there. “Yes, I told the teacher, and she made him come all the way across the room and apologize.” “How did you feel about all of this?” “Well, it really hurt my feelings.” “I can well imagine.”
We began to discuss the ‘n-word’ itself. She was obviously well aware of the ‘not-OK-ness’ of people calling someone of a different race the word, but I said, “You know, in the rap community, people sometimes use that word towards each other, and they feel that’s OK.” “Yes, I know.” It seemed clear that the distinctions between the differing usages were evident to her from our discussion that followed.
I didn’t want, at that point, to know the race of the name-calling child — let’s call him Howie, and I specifically refrained from asking, not wanting to add to the ‘divide’, nor to begin stereotyping the child in my own mind. I just wanted to process the transaction, which over the next many hours and days I inevitably have done.
When I picked up my granddaughter at school on Monday, she said, “I was partners with Howie in class today.” “Really,” I asked, “And how did that go?” “Fine, he has trouble reading and can only read little words, like ‘it’. He’s in a special group.” “Well,” I said, “that must be hard for him.” “Yes, but he’s the one who called me the N-word!” “Oh, yes, I remember. So how did your work together turn out?” “Well, at the end, we were supposed to shake hands, but he would only shake with his elbow.” I guessed at what that action represented in his mind, but to her I said, “Hmm, why do you think he did that?” “I have no idea,” she replied.
I have stewed about this day after day. The incident presents itself to me in the odd hours — quiet times, the middle of the night. I admit it took me very much by surprise. I raised a biracial daughter who is now thirty years old, and, to my knowledge, this racial epithet throwing didn’t happen to her. It is not that I’m naive enough to believe that people don’t think in these terms. Perhaps any of my daughter’s school fellows who had these thoughts were just too well-mannered to express them.
The anguish of knowing that someone you love as much as I love this grandchild has to put up with this kind of garbage gets me right in the solar plexus. I have processed it layer by layer as the days have passed, and I still am — and I’m sure will continue to do so. It’s so troubling that it took me days to discuss it with friends or family. But after a lot of reflection, I’ve at least been able to find some positives.
1) My granddaughter seems to be handling it well. I’m not sure about the teacher’s motive in having her and Howie work together, and I want to find out. But my granddaughter seems to understand that it’s about his belief system and not about her value as a human being.
2) The reality that thirty, forty, fifty years ago or more (and probably in some places today), a white person (and this boy is white, it turns out) could put violence behind their words towards a person of color with impunity, and that today the justice system and the public consciousness has begun to come to terms with these issues successfully — that they produce outrage and legal repercussions — shows that, although racism is alive and in many ways has only changed it’s form, a lot of progress has been made.
3) What kind of words is this child hearing about race at home? I can’t be sure, of course, but guessing at the possibilities, I feel frightened and extremely sad.
4) Such an experience could prepare one for the world as it is, if handled properly.
5) This is my predominant thought: what kind of courage did it take for those African American parents in the deep south during desegregation to send their precious children off to a white school? How must it have felt for them, not to mention their children, to meet not only the jeering and vitriolic hatred of white parents and fellow students, but to face angry, self-righteous politicians, armed local lawmen and attack dogs with the same kind of hatred in their hearts and on their faces — and wearing as well the absolute certainty that their bigotry put them in the right?
It seems that bigotry and racial hatred aren’t going anywhere. All one has to do is listen to national and international news become aware of that. But at least, if the light is made to shine on them, if they aren’t allowed to fester in hidden places and are called out and held to account, that is not just something — it is a very great deal.