I was a white racist.
Yes, racism is a national sin here in the United States, whether white privilege and white power has influenced our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways overt and covert. But hiding behind my dominant culture and its chosen norms and narratives is not the answer.
The answer that, to me, makes far more sense as this Martin Luther King holiday 2019 nears is to face and account for the racist norms and narratives I personally lived out in the years between 2019 and 1946 when I was born into the nearly all-white world of rural northeastern Colorado. The American sub-culture I was born into might better be labeled “otherism,” but it most definitely included racism as a common sub-story. “Other races” then included for my curious eyes the watching, always at a distance, of those we labeled “Mexicans (meaning anyone of Hispanic origin), coloreds (then meaning Negro Americans), Japs (then meaning anyone of Asian origin) and Indians (all native Americans).
My young eyes as a boy would stare at such racial “others” as if looking into a cage at the zoo. By the way, the closest zoo to where I lived was also where the closest “coloreds” lived (125 miles away in Denver). Denver is where my family locked our car doors while driving through “the colored neighborhood” of east Denver on our way to the City Park zoo.
I learned to be afraid of dark skinned men in particular after Uncle Eddie was beaten up and robbed one time on a Denver street when I was in 3rd grade. He was the first white person I knew who used the words, “they all look alike,” when he repeatedly told of being robbed by “these colored men” he admittedly could not identify for the police.
My first close up of a “colored boy” was, believe it or not, when as Freshmen at the same Kansas college, Herschel Thomas let me see how white the inside of his hands were and feel how coarse his hair was on top during a Freshman orientation exercise. I shudder to reflect on that experience now, but it was real and I cannot deny my own ignorance through my first 17 years of life.
During my first decade of life in my area of rural Colorado, the worst racial fears had to do with Mexicans. My racism then would do Donald Trump proud today. They were “wetbacks” who came to work on other farms and then “drink up their paycheck,” my Mom explained, before “going to church on Sunday with those Catholics,” she and my Dad also had no use for. My sister's boss, Vern, told me at the State Fair down in Pueblo that "those people would rather stab you in the back than look at you." Only when visiting a playground in Greeley where sharing the equipment with Hispanic peers in approximate age did I hear my first words in a “foreign language,” Spanish. My cousin, Jerry, explained that those kids were “spiks.” What’s a spik? I wondered. Jerry, my wise cousin an entire year older, pointed out “they no spika the English.” We would both Lol.
Of course, I joined in the watching of TV westerns during the 1950’s, where the cowboys were always the good guys and the Indians………well, they were good at starting wars of ambush, scalping the heads of our people, and making some ill-mannered sound involving loudly audible hand to/from mouth gestures when they were on their warpath. They were “savages,” I learned. And so, if in game-playing as a child, I had the misfortune of being chosen to be an Indian in relation to the superior cowboys, I knew my place. I was to start an ambush with my rubber hatchet and knife only to be properly shot and killed by the local cowboys. I learned that playing dead on the ground was my fate as an Indian.
The Japs? Well, for me as a boy in the decade following WW II, these were just all-around bad guys. None of my friends knew too much about them. They bombed Pearl Harbor. They had slanted eyes. And in the years to come I would learn that they made junk. Always cheap junk. Stuff you’d never want to buy.
Putting it altogether, I learned in Church that our missionaries were sent to teach the bad people of other races and nations about Jesus. They were all to be considered “foreign” and somehow “pagan” in need of Jesus, where they could then, red and yellow black and white, be considered precious only in his sight. Not ours, of course. Jesus alone could love these unlovable people, these “other” children of the world who didn’t belong here with us.
That I was racist to the point of assuming I belonged here in America somehow more than “they” did, defines a narrative I grew up believing and living. I was wrong for both, the believing and the living. Because doing so mean fearing. And in recent years I’ve grown to finally comprehend that more fearing always means less loving.
We can’t truly love those we fear. We fear loving them will somehow come back to hurt us. So for many years my racism kept my faith mostly in fear and my doubt mostly in love. Love was, I thought, too good to be true. Love was, well, what you did after the war was over and the enemy had somehow surrendered to us white folks here at home, in the good old USA. Where I/we belonged at least a little more than “they” did.
Which is where Martin Luther King, Jr. comes in.
Here was a man who made love triumph over fear. Fear, you see, had to do with violence and self-defense, and fighting fire with fire. Faith in fear meant faith in fighting back. Yet, Dr. King was a man who had doubt that fear would work in any kind of long run. Rather, he placed his faith in love. Just like Jesus in his Jerusalem. King in his Washington……his Memphis. Shining all the light I needed in order to see.........
........that I was a racist.