Monday, July 11, 2016

Racism and Me

I have to tell you all this, personal as it is.


When I was seven years old, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song for South Pacific called, “You Have to be Taught.”  If you want to listen to it right now, you can find it here, introduced and played by the geniuses who wrote it.  The lyrics make an important case: that race prejudice is not natural to us.  It is learned behavior.


Over the course of my life, I have seen many, many instances of young children naturally playing and laughing together, despite any outward differences between them.  Kids want other kids to play with.  They don’t care what color the other kids are as long as they know how to have fun.


 Rogers and Hammerstein were absolutely right.  BUT.  Sometimes it is the child’s environment, not his or her family that teaches the kid to hate.  Pre-civil-rights-movement case in point:  It’s the early 50’s, not only pre-civil rights, but also still the age of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  Soap went into the mouths of children who talked back.  My father, however, was as gentle of soul as he was strong of body.  To mete out punishment was not something he did readily, so the event I am about to describe was doubly dramatic because of his heated response.


One evening at the family dinner table, my older brother—maybe he was nine—used a word he learned from the kids in the neighborhood: “nigger.”  My father rose out of his chair and said, “Stand up, young man.  I am going to show you what happens to anyone who uses that word in this house.”  He took my brother into the bathroom and washed out his mouth with soap.  In my house the kids were not only NOT taught to hate.  They were quite actively taught NOT to hate.   “Whatever other people might do, WE do not do that,” was my father’s message.


Much later, I learned how my dad learned his attitudes:  He had been a child in Matewan, WV when his coal-miner father, along with other Italian immigrants, was brought in to break a strike.  The other group of “imported” workers were blacks.  In the end the Italians and the Blacks banded together and joined the strike.  If you want to learn about this historic event by watching a great movie, see “Matewan.”  There is a fabulous scene where all the strikers (West Virginian, black, and Italian) are living together in a West Virginia “holler,” making music together.  My father wept when he saw that.  “It was your grandfather paying the mandolin,” he told me. 

After the Italians went back to their coal mining jobs in Western Pennsylvania, the Ku Klux Klan went after them.   You know, don’t you, that the KKK’s hate extends to immigrants and Catholics and Jews.

If you think what comes next sounds self-congratulatory, please understand that I was carefully taught NOT to hate and fear.  My parents and my father’s parents deserve the credit for my decent behavior—not me.      

When I was in high school, there was one “colored” student in whole school.  He was one year younger than me and my classmates.  It was small Catholic school—only 37 in my whole class.   At school dances, that boy usually sat on the sidelines.  But one day, he asked me to dance.   I gladly accepted.  After the song ended, a couple of boys from my class warned me that what I had just done was very wrong.  One of them called me a name I cannot bring myself to type.  The second word in the phrase is “lover.”  My classmate had learned to hate.  He warned me that if I danced with that colored boy again, no one else would ever dance with me.  “Well, yeah,” I answered, “if you were a better dancer, I just might want to dance with you.”  (When my mother washed my mouth with soap, it was because I was a smart aleck!)




In my college, the students were all required to take twelve credits in philosophy.  It was in my first course that I learned Aristotle and Thomas Acquinas’s definitions of “essence” and “accidents.”  “Essence” is what makes the thing what it is.  “Accidents” are qualities that describe how it is.  A chair has the essence of being a chair.  That it is a rocking chair, wooden, and painted blacks are its “accidents.”  A person’s “essence” is that he is a human being.  Skin color, height, etc. are “accidents.”  “So,” the nun who taught the course said, “if you are going to decide to hate a person because of his skin color, you might as well decide to hate him for his eye color or his shoe size.”

I embrace that idea with all my heart.  I was brought up to believe it.

Within the past couple of weeks, Stan posted a guest piece from Ali Karim asking people to stand up against hate.   A few days ago, in discussing the miserable recent behavior of some Americans, Stan told me that he now sees more progress against racism in South Africa than he does in the US.  That observation froze my soul.

I take Ali’s pleas very much to heart.  Given what’s been going on in the world lately, and what has happened in the last ten days in the USA, we ALL have a lot of standing up to do.

“What the world need now is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”  Jejune lyrics of a simplistic song?  I don’t think so.


Me, I am still a lover.  So lucky to have been brought up to be one.  And I ask you stand up and be one too.

21 comments:

  1. Wonderful, timely post, Annamaria. And give yourself some credit. Anyone can be taught, but not everyone learns.

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    1. Thank you, Michael. I truly believe that Mandella's description of the human heart is correct. So the credit goes to my being human. At least his words describe what I feel. Love, laughter, dancing, caring come naturally to us. We do them in worst of of circumstances. Oh, I know. It is possible to focus on the negatives. Same people do. But in the pursuit of happiness, those negatives are obstacles. Having fun together is what makes us happy, no? I'd rather be happy. I can think of a lot of reasons for me to be miserable. But I can't stay there long. Maybe it's all body chemistry, but happiness feels like my default position.

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  2. I agree with you, Annamaria. Thanks for this heartfelt, moving column.

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    1. Sujata, I recognized, as soon as I met you, the warmth of your heart. HOORAY for warmth!

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  3. Jerry@thecloakanddagger.comJuly 11, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    Right on.Remember as a kid going to see Williamsburg VA circa 1950's.In local bus stop had to visit the bathroom so I went thru door marked Men-Coloreds. Much angst arose from local white folks. I didn't see what the issue was. Must have been brought up with the same family values as yours

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    1. Jerry, Thank you for this story. You committed an act of protest. You shook up the locals by doing so. Whether you fully understood it or not. Kids are often very quick to see the difference between fair and not fair. It seems to be instinctive. Adults tell them, "Life is not fair." Well, yes, and I guess we must accept that when happenings are a matter of chance. But where society has a choice--as it had in the segregated south, we have to cry "NO FAIR." If you ask me that was what you did.

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  4. I think the appropriate question for every white person to ask themselves in the privacy of their own thoughts is: "Could I have achieved what I have in my life if I were not white?" Perhaps then and only then will one realize the insidious effects of racism.

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    1. It's a great questions, Bro. I was not born to have the life I have had: working class, poor, female. If I have been black? I wonder if I would have seen even the little glimmer of hope that led me to where I am.

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  5. Lovely column, Ama, lovely thoughts. Truth will out...

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    1. EvKa, I remain the cockeyed optimist. You have heard me say this all before, but I insist it bears repeating. The president is black. Gay marriage is the law in many countries. The young are largely on the side of these changes. The march of time is on our side. Non illigitamus carborundum nos! Don't let the bastards grind us down. We will overcome!

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  6. i wonder if we are past the point where our country could benefit from a Truth and Reconcilliation Commisision, like the convened in post-apartheid South Africa.

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    1. LJS, I think such a commission is just what we need. Given Stan Trollip's observation that South Africa is now ahead of us in fighting racism, we would be idiotic not to follow their example. Evidently, we have some catching up as well as a lot of studying up to do.

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  7. Listen to what another South African has to say on the matter. It's good.
    http://www.vox.com/2016/7/8/12128586/trevor-noah-police-shooting

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    1. Thank you, Stan. The fabulous Trevor: horrifying truths and laughs in the same speech. I love it!

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  8. Love is the only thing stronger than hate. Teach the people to love and the hate will subside.

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    1. Jono, this is the only answer. I see a continuum to get us to love: teach tolerance, insist on an integrated workforce. These two efforts will lead to people living and working together peacefully, which will lead to friendships, which will lead to love.
      When Obama as elected, I heard a pundit explaining why the young who supported him had eschewed the racist ideology of the past. That professor said that for the then under twenty-five generation, they were so used to seeing black people in positions of trust: the letter carrier, the school principal, the radiologist in the hospital, the manager of the supermarket, that they didn't look at a person with brown skin and automatically think ill of him.
      This is why I think the future will be better. But we must confront this hate mongers in order to get there.

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  9. Well, the young in Britain voted not to Brexit; they want to live in multicultural, multinationl communities.
    And it's the young leading the protests here against racism. But, wow, what's going on here is horrific.
    I watched a brilliant attorney/TV personality , who is Black, weep today as she worried about her teenage son's safety and his future and the danger of police brutality.
    This whole society has to change. Nelson Mandela's words are beautiful -- if only they were believed by everyone, this would be a much better country and world.
    But when you tell the story of the nun, I'll mention that years ago friends told me, the grandaughter of Jewish immigrants, of the terrible anti-Semitism espoused by nuns in their parochial grammar schools. I cannot repeat what was said as it sickens me.
    The protests against racism here have been very multinational, which is great. The Black community wants and needs solidarity, and we should all do what we can to show that.
    And, finally, your father was harsh. In my family, no one ever used bigoted words against anyone and we children learned by example not to ever do that. I can't even stand to read bigoted words in fiction, which prevents me from reading certain authors, which is fine.

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    1. Kathy, yes, not all the nuns I ran into in my long career in school were as benevolent as the one who taught Philosiophy 101. And certainly parenting methods have changed. I am glad that children are treated more gently these days. I have no use for physical punishment. But I do think that children are now sometimes not disciplined at all.

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  10. I love this post, for so many reasons. Like you, my parents taught me not just the absence of hate, but the active obligation to love other people in a way that includes standing up and actively fighting injustice when I see it. It saddens and sickens me to see so much hatred in the world, and it encourages me to know there are people like you (and our MIE family) who are shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight to advance love and understanding rather than hate.

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    1. Susan, Thank you for your lovely words. I have a sequel to this for next week with an optimistic take on what is happening these days.

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  11. I do love that the Italian and Black miners decided to unite and work together. Sometimes in the toughest circumstances, people overcome their differences because it's in their interests -- and they realize they have more in common than differences.
    Unity and solidarity is always good.

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