Usually when someone says “I’m not a racist, but…” they are about to say the most racist thing you’ve ever heard. There is one exception to this rule.
I’m not a racist, but I was raised by one. There was a lot of pain and relief around the death of my father. I hadn’t spoken to him in years when I heard of his passing – but I did write a letter to him, this is part of it:
I’ve told only a few people in my life about the racism that permeated my childhood. You were a bigot and had no problem telling racist jokes or using racial slurs to refer to people in regular conversation. I have scars from your parenting. It’s true that you didn’t bring me to KKK rallies or dress me up like a mini-Nazi. You were just an every day hater.
I don’t blame you for my very white upbringing. We lived where we lived and you can’t force diversity. I do blame you for creating a culture of disrespect and intolerance in our home though.Do you remember when I was in elementary school and a black family moved onto our rural street (where there were only 3 families with kids our age). They had a daughter who was a grade behind me, her name was Cheoma. We played dress up, put on make-up and liked to swing on the swing-set together; but, she wasn’t allowed to play in our house when you were home. You called her the “little n-girl” when she wasn’t around. When she was, you ignored her. That was really mean. She was just a kid, but even if she wasn’t – she didn’t deserve that.
Then there was that night when we were all sitting around the table eating dinner. Mom was serving the meat and there was a knock on the glass. Nobody ever came to the back door. The dog went nuts, and so did you. You didn’t say anything in that moment, but the look on your face said it all. Cheoma’s mother was standing on our porch. Mom opened the door and Cheoma’s mom asked if her daughter was at our house. She had gone out to play earlier and didn’t come home at sunset. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but you had a lot to say after she left and it was ugly. I don’t know where Cheoma was that night, but I do know her family moved out a few weeks later. I’m pretty sure that being trapped in the woods surrounded by a bunch of rednecks wasn’t their idea of a healthy environment. What would you have done if one of our white neighbors were missing?
You did have redeeming qualities, and there are experiences in my childhood that make me think that you would have been less racist if you had a proper upbringing and exposure to diversity. For example, the time you bought me a black Barbie. I stood in an endless aisle of pink boxes, I debated about getting the doll that I really wanted, with her beautiful white and purple shimmery ball gown, golden tiara, tiny plastic heels and brown brown skin, or the doll that I knew you would like. In the end I went for what I wanted, as most kids do. You asked me “What do you want that doll for?” I just said something about how I liked her and she was pretty. You bought her. I ran into the house and held the doll above my head cheering, “Look what I got”. Mom was shocked.
That’s where your tolerance stopped though, I was left to fend for myself if I ever wanted to put a different dress on her, or if her hair got tangled or her head popped off. Your compassion and doll head repair skills were reserved for white Barbies only.
Mom and I talked about your beliefs and I knew that your attitude was wrong, I mean, after all, I knew about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Also, I watched the Cosby Show – so *I* wasn’t racist…
I wasn’t racist, so why was I laughing at racist jokes in the car with my friends on a road trip? Why was I getting sideways looks from my roommate when I asked her why black people couldn’t swim? Hadn’t I already told her when we first met that it didn’t bother me that she was black because I “didn’t see color”?
Oh boy. Yeah. That actually happened.
I wasn’t racist, but I was clueless. I was clueless to the race struggle in America, but even worse I was clueless to how my actions (as a product of a racist upbringing) were hurting the people that I cared about. My friends of color were so kind and tolerant of my ignorance, but it was clear that I needed to do something to educate myself. I just didn’t know what to do or where to begin. Racism was such an ingrained part of my life that I didn’t even know how deep it went.
I remember when I took classes on Black American Literature, and I called to tell you that I got an A on my paper. There was silence on the other line. Then you said, “That’s great honey”. I was testing you. I was egging you on. I wanted to see if the pain you were feeling from the divorce made you more sympathetic to the pain of other people. I wanted you to say something to redeem yourself. I wanted you to atone for all the hateful things I heard as a kid. That phone call was pretty unsatisfying. Why did I think that would help?
There were parts of my life that I didn’t tell you about. I hung out with the Asian Student Union and stayed up late nights with one of my Mexican friends learning dirty Spanish words that are only dirty in Mexican Spanish. I listened to my friends. I listened to their experiences of bigotry and racism. I started to notice the way they were watched when we went shopping, and the way professors expected them to represent in the classroom. I noticed the way they laughed a little quieter when someone told a racist joke.
Just as I was starting to understand how my upbringing affected me and how my own behaviors were perpetuating racism. I also started to realize that my behaviors might help a little with day to day interactions, but make a dent in racism as a whole they will not.
No matter how hard I fight against my racist upbringing and no matter how hard I try to expand diversity in my own life, racism is forever. There’s always going to be someone like you building up their little world of hate and intolerance. That doesn’t mean I have to be part of it though.
I reject that part of your parenting. I reject that part of you. I look forward to raising my daughter in a diverse and accepting environment. I look forward to continuing my worldly education. I may have been raised by a racist, but I don’t have to be one.
In addition to writing for JN, Tzipi also works as a birth and post partum doula. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter. This is the third sentence in this paragraph.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.