RACISM IS NOT (JUST) BLACK AND WHTIE
(A note on terminology: I do not use the term "African-American" because it does not describe most of the people of color I know. African-American in use indicates descendants of Africans who came to the US more than 150 years ago as slaves. A substantial and probably growing percentage of those who have or are experiencing color discrimination in the US do not fit that definition.)
My upbringing was rather unusual. My parents were sort of yuppies before their time, not trying to teach. They left it up to me to discover the world.
On the subject of racism, I was truly a blank page. My parents never made racist comments, even in body language, nor did my father's parents. My maternal grandfather made occasional anti-Jewish and anti-black noises, but I took them to be comments on his boss and one guy he was working with. Blacks and Hispanics generally were not part of our environment, and religion was not something discussed with others. My elementary school had no blacks, Hispanics, or Native Americans, but neither did it have people who talked about them. Hotels on Miami Beach no longer banned Jews, and I never saw a bar that refused service to the Irish.
I first became aware of racism through little things. By the time I started roaming on my own the signs in the Miami buses "for our colored patrons" had been taken out of service, but seat backs still had the holes for the signs and people still sat white front, black back. I regarded that as odd, and sat anywhere there was a seat.
In high school, a couple of unsettling things happened. I was taking dancing lessons, and one evening asked out a girl that I frequently danced with. She lived in my neighborhood. She said she could not date my because I was not Jewish. Then approaching graduation there was the business about having to have two religious services, since the Roman Catholics could not come to a protestant church and the protestants would not go to a Roman church. (The service itself was rather nondenominational.)
My family traveled a lot before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and "up South" I saw the "for our Negro patrons" signs on bus stations, gas station rest rooms, movie theaters. I did not think much about that either, until I started university in New Orleans. I have always liked to wander, explore, stop in local bars to chat with the local people. One day soon after I got to New Orleans I was denied service in a bar - because I was white.
Still I remained really insensitive to the whole business until one day when I was walking down Canal Street. I saw a friend sitting at the lunch counter in Woolworth's. I went in, said hello, and asked for a cherry coke. I was refused service. That day I became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality - CORE.
I cannot claim any great role in the Civil Rights movement. I was scarcely a grain of sand in the tide. But I did have some very interesting experiences. One was completely removed from any Civil Rights activity, I thought. My brother was going to school in Jackson, Mississippi. I went to visit. The South in general was very tense in 1963. I was a political science student, and decided to visit the state capital to watch the legislature in action. I was not disappointed - the debate was a law to outlaw mobile homes, because they were used to house trouble makers from the north.
After the debate I stopped at the switchboard to ask if there were any committee sessions in the afternoon that might be interesting. I was curtly told that they were all closed sessions, and a policeman was called to escort me out of the building. Maybe it was because of my haircut.
Up the street I saw a sign for a meeting that evening of the Patriotic American Youth. I went along, and listened to a man who had been a private in the Army in China explain how Communists in the US government had sold out China to the REDS! The leader of the club then asked if there were any questions. I asked one about the qualities of Chaing Kai Shek (?sp) and was informed that the meeting was closed. I went to the front of the bookstore and browsed some titles (How the US Sold Out to Russia) for a couple of minutes. Then the president came out of the back room, saw me, turned off the lights and ordered me to leave.
I wandered back down to the capitol building and then turned right at the main street. At the next corner, the president of the PAY tried to run me down with his car. Or at least that is the way it seemed to me. Across the street was a drug store, where I sat for awhile until I thought it was safe to leave.
Life in New Orleans gave me the opportunity to meet all sorts of people. Gay people, black people, Asians, Catholics, all sorts of sailors, a real mixture - and practically all good individuals. And I discovered I liked eating all sorts of different foods. One of the great times was driving the train in City Park. Wonderful way to meet lonely mothers.
In New Orleans and the South generally the racial topic of the day was black and white. Then I went to ROTC summer camp in Lawton, OK. That town had four quarters: white, black, Indian and Hispanic. No Asians allowed after dark.
Then to Germany, and a whole different perspective on racism. The dry cleaner had a number on his arm, the guy who ran my favorite model train store was missing a leg. Look at the statistics and speeches - Hitler and company did not particularly like blacks (people of African descent), but the holocaust focused on Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs.
We have since lived a variety of places, and found racism in all. But it is never the same racism. It may be Indonesian - Chinese, Tamil - Sinhalese, French - Dutch, French - Islamic, Shia - Sunni, white - aborigine, Jew - non-Jew, Roman Catholic - Orthodox, Turk - Kurd, Japanese - not Japanese. The options are infinite. And RARELY is it black - white.
It is a curious phenomenon. It seems that there is some trigger level. A few “different” people in any population normally do not suffer any discrimination. But at some level – 10%, 25%? – a negative reaction is triggered in the dominant group. And it does not seem to matter what the difference is, as long as there is SOMETHING different.
About the only consistent, nearly universal form of discrimination is by sex.
last update 3 March 2003