Today I am going to talk about that big, ugly thing that we learn at our parents' knee, that serves to divide us from the moment we lay eyes on one another, and that is used to divide us by politicians, law enforcement, fanatics, and just generally underhanded individuals who find us easier to manipulate if we can be kept at each others' throats... Race. Why would I want to have this discussion, you may ask? Because the attitudes we hold in this arena are a key component of who you are, and my purpose here is to tell the kids and grandkids who the old man is... This cannot be avoided, so here we go:
BACKGROUND: First of all, race, in the sense that it is used in modern society, is a misnomer. We are all members of the Human race, with far more things that unite us than divide us. When someone says his race is Native American, what he means is that his ethnicity is Native American. Using the term "race" to separate humans into Africans, Orientals, and so forth is a relatively recent construct dating back to the Colonial Era when, through a series of coincidental accidents of geography and disease (see Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond), Europeans got a leg up on the competition and set out to explore the world. Needing a system to describe the inferiority of all the varied and differing cultures they came up against, and a justification for destroying and enslaving many of them, they invented the modern concept of Race, and the seeds of many of our current problems were planted.
WHO AM I? Ethnically, I am a northern European, with genes harkening back to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Many generations ago, my ancestors came to the New World and settled in the American south, which almost certainly means there was an African-American or two in the family tree somewhere. My skin is slightly darker than the pure European, and I tan more quickly and evenly during periods of high sunshine. There is possibly a bit of Native American as well, but I do not hail from a family who spoke of such abomination.
HOW WAS I RAISED? Ethnically, as someone blessed and fortunate to be a member of the "best" race. Four generations back, my family consisted of slave-owners, and I was taught all about how inferior blacks, African-Americans, were, not because it was their fault, they just were. Any other less-than-white race was considered a failed attempt to be white. Grandma was virulent about it, tossing terms like "spooks, spades," and of course, the n-word about as casually as you might talk about rats and roaches. Great-grandma, who was the closest to the slavers as I got to meet, just viewed being not-white as a handicap, and "not their fault." An incident from my childhood will be instructive: Variety shows were common during my youth, and a frequent guest on these shows was Sammy Davis Jr., an African-American of superlative talent in the fields of singing, dancing, and acting. He had very black skin, and when he smiled, his teeth naturally made a brilliant contrast. As a small child, I once remarked on this, and Great-Grandma just casually said, "That's the only white thing they have, so naturally they take care of them." Astounding.
HOW WAS I AFFECTED BY THIS? I was incredibly fortunate to have grown up in an all-white enclave. I say fortunate because, not being exposed to very dark-skinned people at a young age, this was all more or less academic to me. Had I had African-American classmates at that age when a child just says what's on his mind, I shudder to think of all the trouble I might have gotten myself into, and the attitudes I might carry to this day because of it. Being in southern California, there were Mexicans, but as the Grandmas had nothing to say on that subject, I had no attitudes to be cured of, in fact, my first neighborhood friend was a Mexican-European whose Mexican mother was the very picture of nurturing, caring grace. I didn't learn first-hand about African-Americans until I served in the navy, and what I learned was that they were complex individuals most remarkably like myself. Of course, I didn't get along with some of them, but I didn't get along with people of many races, white included, and the reasons had nothing to do with their ethnicity. The legacy the Grandmas left me with is that I know all the words, and one will pop out once in a while, fortunately so far, very much in private, and usually in regard to some non-functioning inanimate object as opposed to another human being. I never acquired the idea that I'm better than anyone else, and that may be attributable to the Grandmas as well, who never missed a chance to say something charming such as, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," "You can tell a Tyler, but you can't tell him much," and "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy (especially weird, as I've never lived a single day outside a major city)."
SO, WHAT CAUSES PREJUDICE? In my case, the Grandmas worked diligently to instill it. I thank God every time the subject comes up that it didn't take, but I think the main factor is in-home training. We are all inclined to be Chauvinistic; I live in a better city than you do, the sports team I support is better than yours, I dress nicer than you. I think it is human nature to compare one's self to others, and put any perceived difference down to the other's inferiority. Add parental training to that, and outside factors such as media coverage (look at the rhetoric in the way the current immigration stalemate is being covered for an example) and the attitudes of others that you meet who have had their own training, and the wonder is that we've gotten as far as we have.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO FIX IT? The great minds of the human race, from Martin Luther King to the Kennedys, have worked on this for over half a century. Does anyone think some random blogger has the answer? Personally, I think it's hopeless in our present situation. What first has to happen is for parents to stop passing their racial bigotry down to the next generation, and that is very difficult. See, parents don't sit their children down for a talk, and tell them all about the problems being caused by all these other, inferior races. They show them, by attitude and example, a hundred times a day. How is anyone going to fix that? People aren't even aware that they're doing it. The media could tone down the rhetoric, but what gets higher ratings, a reasoned, balanced report of the facts, or film coverage of two angry mobs facing off with chants and signs? Yeah, doesn't look like that's going away any time soon... So it's an individual issue. To fix this, every single one of us would have to adopt the attitude that we aren't going to act like bigots. Just for today, I'm not going to use any racial slurs, I'm not going to assume that someone is stupid or evil because their skin is a different shade from mine, I'm not going to act like an @$$hole, just for today. And then I'm going to do it again tomorrow. As someone raised and taught to be a racist, that strategy has gotten me through 65 years of living. Sure, I make mistakes, I have slip-ups, but I also have good friends in every ethnic group on the planet, and the benefits far outweigh the shortages. Of course, it's easy to make assumptions based on skin color, eye shape, and the implications of someone's accent, and I don't see most people giving up those shortcuts, even if they would broaden their horizons exponentially. Sure would be nice, though...
HOW HAVE ATTITUDES TOWARD MY RACE CHANGED IN MY LIFETIME? I have seen a world-wide backlash against whites as all the peoples everywhere who have been exploited by us stand up and assert themselves. I can't say this is unjustified. People tend to want to get even. I can say that I have so far been spared from any personal application of this, and I think that may be because I have never gone out of my way to be nasty or abusive to anyone else because of who they are. I'm knocking on my wooden desk here, but hopefully this will be the norm for whatever is left of my life.
WHAT MESSAGE ABOUT RACE WOULD I LIKE TO LEAVE YOU WITH? Race is a farce, a sham, a tool of those who would divide us to their own advantage. The color of your skin, the kind of foods you eat, the clothes you choose to wear, have nothing to do with kind of person you are. They make you neither superior nor inferior to me or anyone else. Reverend King really had the call on this when dreamed of the day when a man (and women too!) would be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. Of course, we aren't supposed to judge each other at all, but we all do it, and aren't likely to stop anytime soon, so just make sure that you base that judgment on things that matter; skin color is not one of them.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??