How We Inherit our Racism and Prejudices: A Story of a Southern Racist
The voice came on the radio, slowed by the syrupy, languid humidity of the Deep South. My home. Born and raised in Central Florida, a place as deeply redneck and cracker as Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi. I cringed.
“Idiot,” I thought, the quicksilver judgment whipping into my consciousness before I had a chance to censor it.
I’d made that flat judgment based on the speaker’s accent. Not the thoughtful, intelligent discourse. Not the well-considered ideas and provocative discussion. Just the man’s accent.
Now let’s be very clear. One hour in my hometown, I can talk like that too. It’s as natural as breathing. I can also understand, and can even speak, the unique Southern Black patois that was inherited through the slave trade. That language is a mishmash of English, French, Cajun, Caribbean, African and a whole lot more mixed in. It has its own cadence and rhythm. Hearing it is like listening to a lullaby, if you grew up with it. That is the language of my youth, as much a part of me as blackberries in spring and the rich, black, earthworm-filled earth of my father’s farm. I grew up surrounded by a gaggle of Black kids with whom I played, planted corn, and rode a white-faced mule for hours on end. I miss the innocence of not knowing anything other than laughter and friendship.
I don’t have the same reaction to that accent at all.
This morning I was out on my lawn spreading grass seed on the doggedly bare patches under my crab apple when Peggy came by. Peg lives a few houses north and does a turn around the blocks on a walker. She’s 92. She was telling me stories about roof repairs, as we are all dealing with hail damage right now.
She began one of her sentences with, “Now, I’m not a racist, but…”
First of all, yes you are. Second, any time you need that qualifier, you’re advertising it with the next few sentences out of your mouth. Third, I find that highly offensive. I’ve spent years doing diversity work, and even won national prizes.
Yet I am just as prejudiced as Peggy, and anyone else with an axe to grind about any group of people built on baseless assumptions.
Here’s the piece. My mother, who was very well-educated, Delta Gamma, the whole damned lot, spoke six languages and grew up in Wisconsin to money. Her rock-ribbed Republican family hated Jews. She later evolved into a far left Democrat who sold war bonds during WWII. She and my father were always supportive of the “underdogs,” although that, for them, was a conveniently malleable concept.
However, my mother had an arch notion of what constituted intelligence, She found herself living in Central Florida, surrounded by colored and white bathrooms and fountains, and a great deal of racist hate.
She decided she hated Southerners, and anything that sounded Southern. An entire class of people, no matter who they were, no matter their politics or their educational level, were ignorant rednecks. She was vocal about it in our household. As I grew up, her feelings about those who lived around us in all directions colored my reference points. She believed in equal rights and voting rights for Blacks, although you would never have found her at a dinner table with one. If this smacks of Driving Miss Daisy, you wouldn’t be far wrong. The larger truth may have had a lot to do with the fact that she missed Washington DC and the classy social circles she was accustomed to. Perhaps this was her way of expressing her rage at her reduced condition.
Mom and Dad were big on civil rights. They hated racism in all its forms, but my mother (and certainly the kids at the time) couldn’t see the dichotomy. To hate an entire class of people, in this case Southerners simply for the crime of being Southern, sounding Southern, is by any measure, a form of racism.
She was intolerant of intolerance. Which made her intolerant. You couldn’t point this out to her. She would throw up a defensive wall, hunker down and be pissed for days.
Because she was intolerant. And a racist.
When I worked on the Jimmy Carter Presidential Inaugural, I got to meet Carter and his wife at a White House reception. My mother was terribly conflicted: a Democrat, but a Southerner, and a peanut farmer. But clearly smart. She had a terrible time with that one.
This is how insidious this is. No matter how well-educated, how high-minded, how tolerant we think we are, it is a lie. There is something in each of us that desperately wishes to feel superior, have proof of that superiority, over somebody or a group of somebodies. The poorest of the poor white trash will feel superior to a Black nuclear physicist earning half a million a year at a top research facility because, “At least I’m not Black.”
You can go to any country- and I have been to a great many- and this kind of racism plays out, usually against indigenous peoples whose skin is darker. Every country, every region, every race has to have its whipping boy, and for some, it’s the entire rest of the world that isn’t a white American.
Our embarrassment about, and resistance to, embracing whatever ugly tendencies or rivers of thought about others, no matter who they are, perpetuates the problem. As long as I am bullheadedly unwilling to nail myself for my prejudices, they remain ingrained. This way I can march them out and call them for what they are. They are a part of my deep family history. I own that. It’s up to me to clean that up.
That I have these thoughts, that any of us has such thoughts, does not make us inherently bad. If we act on them, spread them, defend them, well, that’s another matter entirely. I deeply dislike this inherent judgment that I carry that anyone with a Southern accent is just stupid. Intellectually of course I know better. I am saddened that the thoughts exist in the first place. However I’d rather be aware that they exist in my inner world like rattlesnakes in the palmettos rather than deny them as my mother did, and operate in that offensively smug, self-congratulatory way that far too many love to do. I’m not prejudiced.
Um, yes you are. We all are. Sometimes I think it’s the human condition. The basic human need to be right (and you need to be wrong), and to be superior (and you’re inferior). It begins in the backyard sandbox and is played out nationally all over the world every single day.
We may not like those thoughts and emotions that cause us to dislike, hate, disregard or disrespect those of a different region or race. They, like all other aspects of our deeply confounding humanity, are simply teachers. And as such they offer a way to better understand others who act or react out of mindless hate or ignorance. By knowing ourselves to harbor judgment and feelings that speak to our basest selves, we can offer that rare peace branch to others whose thoughts and judgments offend us. I too have such feelings. Perhaps not the same. But I understand. In such ways we can begin a dialogue which changes how we treat each other. That is the beginning of peace. It is the beginning of hope.
I’m prejudiced. I harbor racist thoughts. That makes me human. They were ingrained in me from birth. However, the buck stops with me. The gift is awareness. The potential legacy is healing.