John Seven | Commentary: How to fight the racism in yourself
NORTH ADAMS — I got many nice comments about my Black Lives Matter column several weeks ago, which talked about my southern upbringing. One email asked how I evolved in my thinking, given the racial bias of my childhood, and I wanted to answer that here.
I was lucky to be raised a military brat, Air Force. I spent much time in Georgia, between all the times I lived there and regular vacations. Southern culture was a huge part of my upbringing even when I lived other places — my father was from Virginia, my mother Louisiana and Georgia — but I also got to live outside of that culture, making friends with no connection to the south.
Like any kid, I understood the rules of southern culture and accepted them as rules, though struggled with them. When I lived in California for a few years, around the age of 8, my best friend was an African American kid, Tom, and two incidents leap to mind that illustrate the confusion my in-between worlds status caused. On one hand, when told that he liked a girl and she liked him, and it turned out she was white, I was very confused.
"But you're black and she's white," I said. It wasn't that I thought skin color meant they shouldn't like each other, it was that it was against the rules. I was raised in a culture that took it for granted that blacks and whites should not mingle in that way.
However, I remember having a sleepover at Tom's. I happily told my grandmother on the phone, and she explained to me that it was OK to have black folks as friends, but I shouldn't sleep in their house. That was crossing a line. I slammed down the phone, so angry at my grandmother.
That was a turning point.
When I returned to live in Savannah during high school, racism was casual and universal. Many kids of my generation tried to move past the ideas of our parents and grandparents. Still, little things came out of my friends and probably me, too. I had one friend who regularly mimicked African American dialect and whose father, when it came time for the lawn to be mowed, would say that he was going to "get one of my [word for a racial slur] over." What made that doubly disappointing was that my friend's family was Jewish. As Jews, they were treated as "the others" by white Christian southerners in a way similar to blacks.
I remember a respected English teacher in my high school, an elderly woman, asking a black student — being a private school, there were only a few in attendance — why black people liked grapes so much. She noticed in the grocery store that black folks gravitated toward the grapes. The student smiled and answered, "I don't know," addressing her with respect. That, to me, is the epitome of the southern racist dynamic.
When I finally left the South to live in New York City, it wasn't so much better there — this was the '80s and there was a lot of racial tension — though the anger was palpable and out in the open. Over time, I've met more than my fair share of northerners who spew racism more vile than anything my grandmother ever said.
Up until I got up north, racism had mostly taken the form of smiling white people, often speaking in polite tones, with smiling black people responding courteously. It was a hidden dynamic, but a powerful one. But the North showed me real anger on both sides, and awoke me completely to what was hidden.
For better or worse, I don't think change happens in the abstract. Personal experience is what brings people to action, and everyone has their own story to complicate action. Change, in any arena, is hard.
Contact John Seven at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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