Monday, August 31, 2020

Bigotry: My Early Lessons

 Annamaria on Monday

I have not the slightest illusion that what I have experienced in my life comes anywhere near what of victims of racism and antisemitism have suffered at the hands of bullies and bigots.  That they face still today, despite a great deal of hard work to the contrary.  But I did experience bigotry in my early life, and the taste I had of it helps me find empathy and common cause with those other victims, whose portion has been far worse then mine - subjugation and violence.  

I am fully aware that as a white person I have enjoyed unfair advantages over nonwhite people here in the "land of the free and the home of the brave." Crimes against what we now "call people of color" have been before my eyes all my life.  

My elegant grandfather, Genaro Pisacane, grandson of Carlo

In a small way, in my small sphere of experience as a young child, I got the bigotry treatment.  I was about the age you see in the photos above.  Four years old.  In those days, my extended family was my whole world. One of the most powerful people in it, my mother's oldest brother, held a deep-rooted prejudice against me.  Why?

Statue to my ancestor, Carlo Pisacane in Salerno

Well, you see, my mother's father, while living in an immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, descendant of a baron and patriot, who is to Italian history what Patrick Henry was to the American Revolution. My mother, however, had chosen to marry a poor first generation American, the orphan of a Sicilian immigrant coal miner.  Disgraceful!  The distinction may seem trivial these days, but it was my parentage that led to my first experience of bigotry.

Do you wonder why my mom wasn't interested in someone from a "better" family?

One day, my uncle - arriving for lunch with his mother - found me on the walkway next to the two-family house my parents shared with my grandparents.  "Siggi!," he greeted me with a pejorative for a Sicilian.  "You're a nigger," he said.  "I don't think I am," I answered.  He sneered.  "There's nothing between Sicily and Africa but water," he said.  He picked me up and rubbed his stubbly chin on my cheek.  It was like sandpaper.  I can still touch the spot that burned as he laughed and walked away.

It was not until years later that I realized that there is nothing between any part of the Italian coast and Africa but water.  In fact, there is nothing between any coast in world and Africa, but water.  I learned that by looking at the map in school.

School.  The scene of my next runin with bigotry was Our Lady of Lourdes School, where the student body included all the varieties of Catholic kids, but predominantly Irish ones, most of whom were nice kids from nice families.  But quite a few were bigoted bullies who called me and my ilk (regardless of where on the "boot" our families originated) "wops," dagos," and "eye-ties," usually preceded by "filthy," "dirty," or "greasy." Or all three.  They beat us.  They threw stuff at us.

I know this is not the same as being lynched.  Italians were lynched years before, but that was in Louisiana, not in the New Jersey of my childhood.

One nun who taught me added to the picture.  I asked her when I was nine, why every year a blonde girl was chosen to play the Blessed Mother in the Christmas tableau.  "All the Jewish mommies and girls in my neighborhood look more like us Italians - dark haired."  In response, that nun said these exact words to me.  "God prefers the fair-haired peoples of the north."  This was years after my father and my uncles on both sides of my family had fought, and in one case died defeating the "master race."

Add to this the fact that my family was poor.  I don't mean that we were not rich.  Poor, as in I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs.  Poor, as in there was not enough money for shoes.

Oh, I am not asking you to feel sorry for me.  Just to believe me when I say that the economic subjugation of people of color, in the US - and the rest of the world, for that matter, multiplies the effects of bigotry.  Poverty is humiliating.  Racism tells people they are less than human.  The combination the two is a kind of psychological violence.  It's putting society's knee on a person's soul and keeping it there until their spirit dies.  It's a crime.  And one for which you can't call the cops.

The Cops!  Well, I wrote a blog here four years and a few weeks ago, called Bad Policing and Me. It tells my first-hand knowledge of bullying and racism on the part of the police.

In no way do I believe that all policemen are as evil as ones in my stories in the 2016 blog.  Many of us mystery novelists write stories in which the main characters are policeman, doing their jobs well.  What I cannot fathom is how the good cops, who everyone says are the majority, can tolerate the "bad apples" in their midst.  Why are they not siding with the public and purging their ranks of the bigots, bullies, and incompetents who are giving them all a bad name and causing the citizenry that pays their salaries to rise up against them?  It is incomprehensible.


  1. I hate that you had to experience bigotry - and that any other person has to experience it, especially in what SHOULD be (but sadly is not) a more enlightened age. I weep for the children who suffer this pain, and wish with all my heart that the world did not force anyone to learn such hateful lessons. But beneath it, I am also glad that you rose above and beyond it, and became such a shining light of a person. Love to you, my dear friend.

    1. Love to you, dearest. My suffering, as I said, was minor by comparison. We need to think of and admire all the people who suffered far worse, faced lynching meant to cow them, and bravely stood up for change. And the thousand who are still taking such risks. While so many--police and politicians--make noise about the fact the some of the slain were not perfectly behaved model citizens as excuse for brutality. As if the police should have the right to mete out the death penalty for an attempt to pass a counterfeit twenty.

      SORRY. I am ranting, but it just listened to five minutes of news. BAD for my soul!

  2. We are shaped by our experiences, Sis, and yours brought you to the right place. As for my experiences growing up as eldest boy of my faith in my urban neighborhood (the others being my two brothers) I shall save them for another time. These times need no more reminiscences of times past, they require action by all of us, lest those times come back in a fury.

    1. You are undoubtedly right, Bro. This would likely have been better left unsaid. But I have been reading that white people in our age group are sitting on the fence about who to vote for in November. I wrote this hoping it might encourage reflection in those undecideds. People who grew up the way we did and perhaps think the pain of bigotry is different today. Or maybe even one of two of those bullies who called us names, might be mature enough to feel a hint of guilt that would open a peephole into their hearts. So I gave it shot. Souls searching, I believe. is beyond the capabilities of the true Tumpites. But there are certainly many middle-of-the-road people who, if they think, will do the right thing and join our team. Anyhow, that was my action goal today.

    2. In my neighborhood, Sis, turning the other cheek was not an viable alternative for a boy wishing to survive. Frankly, I've no doubt the confrontational survival skills I developed back then still influence my instinctive reaction to bigots.

  3. When I was still practicing as a physician, for a few years I was a member of a committee called "Peer Review," which examined complaints from patients and their families, patient deaths, missed diagnoses, failure to treat, and so on, and a decision was made whether the actions of the physician in question met the standard of care, SOC. Perhaps police should have something like that: Standard of Conduct, SOC. I was going to say Standard of Behavior, but realized what the initials would spell out!

    In contrast to the "defend at all costs" approach of police unions and Internal Review, our Peer Review committee did not automatically side with the physician. I reviewed multiple cases that I pronounced as below the SOC. Once that was determined, the physician was notified of the findings and invited to respond either to defend themselves or provide further information. I wonder if there could be something like this for the police. I don't know if it would work as well with them, but most physicians reviewed felt personally affected, leading to modification of behavior.

    The difference, though, is that whereas patients and doctors were de-identified during the peer review process in order to avoid bias, in high-profile police shootings it would be impossible to "de-identify" those involved because it's all over the news and social media. Also, some of these offending police officers have indeed been cautioned multiple times about their actions, yet they continue to do so.

  4. This is exactly what I too think is the key, Kwei. The Blue Wall of Silence protects police officers that need to be weeded out, because their deep seated prejudices. Also, the movement that has that COUNTERPRODUCTIVE moniker “Defund the Police,” is really meant to redefine the mission of policing to stop their militaristic, over-weaponized approach. And so that they don’t get called in armed to the teeth for what are basically mental health problems—that they have no training to handle. Or family disputes that do not involve violence. Here in NYS, every municipality that has its own police force is being required to submit a community plan for how they want to reorganize their police department to help the community. ALL interested parties must have input to the plan. These are due to the state by next April or the municipalities will be denied state funding. It will be very interesting to see what comes of this. Fingers crossed that it will help.

  5. Clearly, "group think" is something that infects many people, and shows its head right now quite clearly with both police ("defend at all costs," as Kwei put it) and politicians (the GOPs NEVER BREAK RANKS, NEVER NEGOTIATE attitude that has been the "law of the land" in Congress for the past 25 years). The only way to change it is to change the leadership at the top, and give them the ability to "break the union" of these lock-step behaviors. I like Kwei's idea of applying medical review processes to the police. But it would have to have teeth, and it would have to involve non-police, also, to peer-review the peer-reviewers, alas.

    1. Like you, EvKa, I fear the the divisiveness, which is so entrenched! So daunting. My side are saying they will bring the country together. I sure hope they get elected, but I can’t see a road that leads to that destination.