I don’t talk about it often because it’s deeply embarrassing to me, but I have often thought that the character of Archie Bunker was modeled after my father. He was mean and hateful when it came to people with even a tinge more melanin in their skin than he had. My father, and much of my family, were racists.
I was raised by racists.
There I said it out loud here on the internet. (That was hard to do.)
The biggest, most explosive arguments in our home when I got old enough to have my own opinions (and not smart enough to keep them to myself) were about race.
I distinctly remember when I was in high school my grandfather and grandmother lived with us for a short time when their house burned. I had to give up my room for them and sleep with my sister who still wet the bed at the time. My grandfather had been in the hospital when the house burned because he had a heart attack but when he got out they were both there. I was a teenager and I didn’t think much of this set of grandparents (abuse and alcoholism ruined any relationship I might have had with them.) It was a hard, hard time.
After my grandfather came home we were all in the house quite often. Ugh! Someone said something, I don’t even remember what, but it made my blood boil. I couldn’t even fathom the kind of hatred they carried. It blew my mind! There weren’t more than three or four black folks who lived in the same county as we did so my family didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with people of color. But boy, had they learned to hate them.
I argued. Yes, I was young and inexperienced in the ways of the world but I just KNEW they were wrong. There is no whole group of people on this planet who are ALL BAD. They told me I just didn’t know what I was talking about. But I did. I knew I did. I knew THEY were the rotten eggs. THEY were the ones who spread hate like jam on homemade bread. Nice and thick and to the edges of the crust. No room for questions.
I questioned, oh yes I did, and I argued.
My mom told me to knock it off before my grandfather had another heart attack but I just couldn’t stand there and listen to them and not argue. It was like I didn’t occupy my own body any more. My mouth and my mind were on fire! My father smacked me across the mouth – and that quieted me – but only for the time being. Only for this argument on this day.
The minute I could, I left them and their racism. I left and never went back. I lived in Germany and New Mexico, Illinois and a bit in North Carolina until I ended up back here in Ohio where I was born. I traveled and met lots of different types of people. Yeah, I ran into more people who were racist but not like my family – at least not in front of company. And I met LOTS of people of color.
And I’ll tell you, I’ve never had one single interaction with a person of color that made me feel bad. Plenty of white men have scared the crap out of me or hurt me but no one of color. Not once.
Who molested me as a child? A white man.
Who raped me as a teen? A white man.
Who threatened bodily harm? A white man.
Who actually physically harmed me? White men.
Not one single person of color.
When you’ve grown up in such a toxic environment racism seeps into your bones. It’s easy to deny that it’s had any lasting effect on you. But it does. It has to. It would be easy to ignore it I imagine – to just pretend like it’s had no effect on me or who I am. It would be easy to just roll with what I’ve learned.
How do I deal with the affects of growing up racist?
Sometimes my family’s ugly thoughts swirl around in my head. I’m not going to lie – they are there in the background and they come to the surface now and again. When racist thoughts come along it makes me feel very uncomfortable deep in my gut – almost physically ill. I stop for a minute and realize those thoughts are just old ghosts – a wisp of smoke – nothing more. They aren’t even MY thoughts but those of people in my past.
I take a deep breath, pause, and quickly exhale.
Physically. In real life.
In my mind I see those racist words breaking apart and dissipating.
I take another deep breath and fill my heart with light and love. I exhale slowly.
It’s a simple thing but I’m determined to be a decent human being. I know that the actions of one person don’t represent the whole group. Even when it comes to white men. Though I have to tell you, I have a harder time feeling comfortable with white men than anyone else.
Until my dying day I’ll probably have to fight those racist ghosts but fight them I will.
This does not make me better than anyone else.
It just means that I’m aware and I think that if more of us were simply aware it would change a whole lot.