I know we are celebrating the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, but…
I was old enough to, but don’t, remember his assassination. I know next to nothing about the Civil Rights Movement – I am too young to have comprehended it when it was happening and too old for it to have been taught in my school curriculums. And in my graduating class of 750 students in my first-ring suburban high school I had 5 black classmates. (I am not going to break out my yearbook and count because high school is something I do not want to revisit, but I am not exaggerating).
My father hates black people. But then again he hates everyone who is not a white male of northern European descent. And he doesn’t like most of them either, although he won’t admit it to any in a position of power or possible help. He has tried to teach me that African-Americans – and women – are in some vague magical way for some reason inferior. Later, I’d just purse my mouth and say “right, dad…” He blames Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on anger at his shift to inclusion – legal equality is one thing, but mixing the races or acting as if race is not intrinsically divisive is something else entirely, it’s just unnatural.
His own father was a very open man, for his time and circumstance (and very robust – my father somehow was, or became, very different, ineffectual). Visiting my grandfather at his nursing home bed, I offhandedly remarked that my father got his prejudice from his mother (who had been a farm girl in the first part of the last century, and quick to chuckle out a racist joke in her soft voice). My grandfather’s jaw clenched – he looked a bit like Kirk Douglas – and he jabbed his finger at me: “No, Jimmy chose to be prejudiced!”
Where does that leave me? Or rather, where do I choose to be?
Prejudice is easy. The thought of my inherent superiority by birthright because I am a light skinned white male – or for whatever reason – is seductive. I would be lying to you if I claimed that affirming thought didn’t rear its simple little head into my consciousness from time to time. (For one thing, just looking at my life, my lack of accomplishments, would destroy any affectation about that…) And my male ancestors from generations, centuries, possibly forever, thought, assumed, were taught – knew – they were superior to women, more important than strangers who wandered into their town, purer and more central to the universe than people who looked different from them and those they knew. Even when that isn’t institutionalized by law and culture and the subtle deferences learned since childhood, there is certainly comfort in it. But it is the comfort that is also in a couple belts of whiskey.
I wish I could just shrug it off. My father took the easy way, and tried to teach it to me. I have had a black roommate, have had a black religious mentor, have had a black neighbor get my car running again more than once and ask for nothing in return; now I have a black mayor, governor, and president. But I still have knee-jerk thoughts that I would think most people who know me would be surprised of, and I am ashamed of them. I am such a hapless straight white guy. But I try to be, hope to be, won over by my better angels.