When One Word Is Not Enough
Without giving it much thought, the phrase “I am not a racist” used to seem reasonable to sum up my position when it comes to those of different color. But recent events have taught me an important lesson, it is not enough to claim you are not a racist.
Let us get the easy part of the equation out of the way. There is no mistaking a racist. If you exhibit a behavior that discriminates, intimidates, humiliates, demeans, or worse, commits an act or participates in an act against someone of a different color, based solely on that reason, you are a racist.
So there you have one side, you either “are a racist,” and the inclination is to want to say “or you are not a racist.” To simply state you are not a racist, is just not enough. There is a complicity about taking the position of “not being a racist.” There is no effort in that statement. “I said it. I can move on. There is no more racism in my life.”
The example I am going to give is going to prove just how wrong that thinking is, and actually makes the problem worse.
Remember the days back in school, and acts of bullying on the playground, how the big, bad kid, picked on the little squirt, just because he could? Do you remember how the crowd of other students would gather around, and chant “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”? Did you ever take a look around the crowd, even behind the crowd, some of the faces of horrified kids, knowing how bad the situation was, but either felt powerless or had no interest to get involved? Why? Because it was not them. They were not the bully. Nor were they the victim. But their complicity made them more a part of the incident than their denial otherwise. Any one of them could have chosen to do something. Instead, “I was not the bully.” “I was not the victim.”
Whether or not you related the example as being comparable, I do. It is not enough to state, “I am not a racist.” Sure, anyone who knows me, knows that I am not a racist, especially given my own ethnicity having a Native American background, and daughters who are Asian. It is not enough to believe that I am not a racist.
You are either for, or against. You are either a racist, or you are anti-racist. Being “anti” implies an effort is taking place. Without that word, there is no effort. You are just standing there, watching or cheering another fight. And that is not good enough.
I will be the first to admit, I do not grasp every detail of what it will take to not only address racism, how to deal with racism, and how to get rid of racism. But between my childhood, and now my adulthood, I am at least trying to do my part.
“A picture tells a thousand words.” You are not born a racist. You are taught to be a racist. Our children are the only proof we need. It is unnatural to “hate” someone just because they look different. Have you ever heard the concept “nature versus nurture?” This is where that applies. Racism has been around for hundreds of years, but only because some of our parents may have taught us, because more of their parents taught them, and the numbers increase the further generations that you go back, one thing is clear to at least start the process of dealing with racism. Stop teaching our children to hate.
Growing up, I literally lived in a small town that was not only predominantly white, it was all white. Without me mentioning that I was Native American, no one noticed as my skin color did not signal any awareness. Unfortunately, I did have one characteristic that falsely labeled me as “Asian,” my almond-shaped eyes, often resulting in me being hit with all kinds of Chinese slurs. But I was not Chinese. This was my first exposure to racism back in the 1970’s.
Around the time of third grade, a new boy had arrived in my class. He was Hindu. I do not recall his name (apologies but my age does have its limits). But I definitely do remember, I did not notice his skin color was not the same as mine. The only thing I did notice, was that he did not seem very popular, or at least have many friends around him. He was friendly, actually living within minutes of my house, though he was never invited to my house (an issue I will get into later, but it had nothing to do with his ethnicity, at least to a point), I did visit his home on occasion and meet his family. They were all nice.
We remained friends through elementary school until he and his family moved. I never did know why. I also would move, and switch school districts, this time to a “city” or urban school district. And guess what I found out, there were a lot of people of different color. But just like my Hindu friend, everyone was friendly with me regardless of the color of our skins.
I want to back track now. I mentioned that my Hindu friend had not been to my house. To be clear, I had two close friends across the street from my house, as well as a couple of kids that lived next door, and none of them were ever in my house. The house was owned by my grandmother, and occupied by she and her sister, my mother and my sister. It was kind of an unspoken rule, we only had family in our house. I would ask a couple of times for friends to be allowed, but not having the stamina to hear “no” more than a couple of times, I gave up asking.
Only recently, and I do mean recently, I have discovered why. I have had multiple discussions with my mother over the years, about my admiration for my grandmother, and the high regard I have held her, my moral compass in my life. But as the expression goes, “nobody’s perfect.” The conversation lasted less than fifteen seconds, because I wanted to hear nothing more once I heard “your grandmother had a bit of ‘racism’ in her.”
No way! Not my grandmother. She was perfect. She loved everyone, and anyone who knew her, loved her.
I decided to open this can of worms following the recent events of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. So I phoned up my mother to continue the discussion that we had years earlier. I had a hard time believing, since I was “not a racist,” my mother was not a “racist,” there was no way that my grandmother could be one. I needed an explanation. I lived with my grandmother for nearly fifteen years, and never heard her mention color let alone use any slurs.
Intentional or not, I am hoping that the fact that I had not heard anything from my grandmother’s lips, it was because she wanted me to be better than what she was taught. What was she taught?
First, I want to be clear, my grandmother was not a textbook definition of a racist, belief that her race or ethnicity was superior to anyone else. But there is an issue that she did grow up with, and it technically applies when it comes to dealing with racism. Because, had I learned this from her, this might actually be a different post than what I am writing.
I realize many around the country/world may not know the culture I am going to mention, but my grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch. Actually German immigrants, they came to Pennsylvania. Their make up is religious in nature and foundation, often associated with the Amish, Mennonites, Moravian, Reformed, and Lutherans. And though my knowledge of the PA Dutch culture is limited, the whole behavior revolves around isolation, keeping outsiders just that, outside. Sure it seemed like an odd thing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but other than bringing a significant other into the house, that is pretty much all I ever saw. Which brings me to my next point.
Pre “me”, my mother has told me of a certain section of this town that I grew up in. I had heard the “nickname” of it before, but like everything else that was mean-spirited, I had not paid attention to it at the time. Recent chatter on a FB page stirred up that nickname a memory, but clearly it affected many who grew up during that time.
Nicknamed “Hunktown,” and I want to be careful because I know very little of its history other than, it was a section of my town where many Hungarians and other Europeans lived that were not considered “PA Dutch” or other form of immigrant that was clearly “American.” Again, I want to remind you, my town was all caucasian. And clearly those living in this section would blend in at school and work. How could you tell? By their accents? Nope. They spoke perfect English. But just as the PA Dutch were able to speak German at will (I heard a lot of this growing up, but only remember the bad words), the other Europeans were also able to speak their native languages.
So, how did my mother, her two brothers know who not to bring home? Their last name. Their name would give their nationality away just as it “assumes” today. My last name, I am often told I am Jewish, just by my last name, which is incorrect for one, my name is not spelled correctly to be Jewish, and second, I was named after the living, a “Jr.” of my father. But if someone had any other name than a German name, they were basically “shunned”, yes, like you have probably heard done by the Amish. Remember, they come from the same mold.
Okay, so my grandmother never demonstrated a blatant “color” racism if for no opportunity because of where we lived. But I never saw or heard any hateful words from her lips either. But looking back, clearly, the only way to make sure, since I was not being taught to not like others different than me, was to keep our doors closed to those outside of our family. It was the only way to not appear “racist” in nature.
Yes, the way my grandmother raised me, not blatantly teaching me to be racist by accepting the PA Dutch way, she actually broke the cycle of racist beliefs and tendencies. And though I am shocked to have learned this history of my family, it is the foundation to learn that it is not enough to just be “not a racist.”
And that is why, my daughters are taught to be “anti” racist. That it takes a pro-active role against one of the most evil and hurtful ways that we treat our fellow friends and neighbors. It is the whole reason that there has been no progress made in race relations in hundreds of years. Even as we have all the technology to see racism at its worst with our own eyes, too many still stand back like the bystanders and cheerleaders of a playground bully incident, complicitly.
I was too young for the rioting of 1967 and 1968 associated with the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Watts riots of 1965. But I was alive and watched in horror, the riots in Los Angeles following the acquittal of 5 police officers , accused of severely and brutally beating Rodney King. The beating was caught on video camera (we did not have cell phones or social media), but the incident was seen on all three major network news. News of the acquittal sparked of rioting like I had never seen before to the injustice. Until now.
And now, my daughters old enough to see what is playing out for the whole world to see, that in the 21st century, we still do not have equality for all, regardless of it being written in our Declaration of Independence. Part of their adoption process, includes racism education and how to deal with the issues that may come up being from a bi-racial family like ours. And then again, the issue of racism against them being of Asian heritage itself.
Which is why I take such a strong stance, anti-racism, when I hear a president not use his words carefully, and even when warned that it could incite those who are racist, speaks those hurtful ideas and words regardless, intentionally. He does not get a pass for doing it accidentally, because he is warned about his words, and uses them anyway. I am tired of hearing “he talks like us and that is why we like him.” Well guess what, when the president uses those words so carelessly, and you approve them just because he talks like you, then that makes you racist. No, not the cross-burning lynching level, but racist by complicity.
I will admit to not knowing what all I can do to be anti-racist, and there are physical limitations that I have as well (especially as we deal with Covid19 and me being vulnerable, protesting in crowds is not an option for me). But I will at least do my part, to make sure my children know that I will always protect them and who they are, and respect each and every person that comes into their life regardless of color or ethnicity. And that example gets set, by respecting everyone that way.
It is up to us to teach the simple concept. You are either racist, or anti-racist. You either participate in the evilness, or you stand up to it. There is no complicity. That is not an option.