Me and my little lightbulbs in the bluebonnets!

Me and my little lightbulbs in the bluebonnets!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Raised to Be a Racist: A Southern White Girl's Thoughts on the Race Debate

It's an image that has haunted me from my childhood. Growing up in Bossier City, Louisiana, there were quite distinct "good" and "bad" parts of town - the places you just didn't wander into late at night. Just across the river, separated by only 20 miles and a bridge, was Shreveport. White people lived there, but the bulk of the population was - and still is - black and, for the most part, impoverished.

My mother worked in Downtown Shreveport and one evening, after picking me up from school, we headed toward the bridge that divided these two vastly different areas of this corner of North Louisiana. That's when I saw the men in white hoods standing on each side of the street, in the "black" part of town, waving their crosses, holding their signs that spewed hatred and intolerance. Even as a little white girl, my bones shivered. Something wasn't right about this.

Forty five minutes the other direction lived my grandparents, products of the same generation, but vastly different in their views of race. You see, both sets of my grandparents lived in tiny specks of towns just five minutes apart. One set (my father's parents), were farmers - salt-of-the-earth types, who worked the land and raised cattle. It wasn't uncommon for the "N" word to be thrown around like baseballs during general conversation relating to "those people." They were often blamed for most of the woes of the world, especially economic depression and job loss. Exactly how the race of one group of people impacted those two concerns, I couldn't quite grasp, but, you didn't argue with your grandparents, so I let it lie.

My other set of grandparents, however, were gas station owners - hard workers in their own right. My grandfather's best friend was a black man he had known since childhood. Everyone was invited in to eat dinner, regardless of station or color. If you worked hard, respected other people and showed integrity in your life, that's what mattered. Incidentally, when my grandfather passed away, his friend cried like a baby and continued to come around to check on my grandmother for years after.

So, my life as a child was filled with mixed messages about race and acceptance of others. I never heard my mother spew hatred toward any race, yet my father (from whom my mother was divorced) regularly spouted racial epitaphs. Still, I grew to see everyone as equal. Despite the invasion of racial slurs in my life, I adopted my maternal grandfather's perspective: hard work, integrity, respect - that's what mattered, not color.

Later in life I began attending Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, just an hour and a half East of Bossier.  I worked at a department store, where I befriended a pretty cool girl. I thought we would be fast friends.

That was, at least, until the day she called me to the middle of the store with a loud whisper. "Look at that," she hissed, eyes slid toward the shoe department. I noticed a nice-looking couple shopping with their very young children. "He should be shot!," she hissed again, conspiratorially.

Confused, I looked again at the couple. It was only then that I noticed he was white, she was black and their children, mixed. I looked back at her, astonished. I wish I could say I rebutted with a clever remark, but, frankly, I was too stunned to speak. It never occurred to me that this kind of racially motivated hatred would lurk in one my own age. Needless to say, the friendship died there.

In my years working as a journalist in small Texas towns, I can honestly say that my exposure to racial hatred has been surprisingly slim. There was the time a fellow journalist, who just happened to be black, and I went to lunch together at a restaurant in town. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the room went silent when we entered. At that point, I reached over and grabbed his hand, just to mess with the bigots a little. He thought that was pretty cool; but warned me that we might be shot in the parking lot. I shrugged it off and we both lived to tell the tale.

So, what does all this have to do with the racial context of the day? Simply this: racism is a learned behavior. It's like the song from South Pacific says, "You have to be carefully taught." I could have gone either way, but, thanks to the guidance of my mother and others in my life, it became evident that hatred was a wasted emotion, especially with regards to race.

Every time a politician comes on TV spouting racial inequality or race ethics, I have to wonder just how much their words are helping our country. At some point, we have to stop seeing each other for the color of each other's skin. There has to come a time when a person is just that - a person. Yes, there will always be hot pockets of racial discrimination based on a myriad of factors. But as a whole, our nation needs to hold every person accountable - not for our race - but for our individual actions.

I'm raising my children without labels. Eventually, they will learn the words for certain races - African American, American Indian, Hispanic - but for now my 6-year-old refers to others as "brown skinned people" or "dark skinned person." Person. People.

I still don't know if the shooting in Ferguson was warranted. Having two young children, I see little of the news, so I'm pretty ignorant of the facts of the case. But the bottom line is this: if someone is in the midst of committing a crime, they should be expected to face consequences for those actions - white, black, purple or green. That does not, however, give law enforcement carte blanche to shoot at random. We have yet to determine if that was what was taking place here, but I hope that we can all reserve judgement until all the facts are in and then take appropriate - and fair - action.

The best we can do as a country is to stop referring to each other by color, and start relating to each other as people. Because we are, after all, brothers and sisters sharing a planet. My deepest prayer is that we can see beyond the moment and reach past the fury of today into tomorrow. Maybe by doing that we can rebuild bridges that span well beyond skin color - if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our children.

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