Are you racist? Most people nowadays cringe at the thought. But to my mind, therein lies the problem: denial.
I’ve looked at racism from both sides now, and I think I finally understand it.
I was born into a white, racist, fundamentalist Christian family in Louisiana in the 1950s. I grew up hearing jokes and lots of negative talk about ethnicities and virtually anyone who was different from us.
My family employed black housekeepers, nannies and yard workers, as both my parents worked full time during the week. My parents paid fair wages, provided transportation, used respectful language in their presence and set reasonable expectations at our home.
Even though our employees were treated well, segregation was in full swing. I was reprimanded by my parents for playing with a black child once. My grandmother told me that some people were cursed by God and that’s why they were black.
I believed what I was taught and did my best to stay away from “those” people, thinking they were bad or inferior in some way. I was a racist.
A catalyst for change
In the ’60s, I watched the drama of the civil rights movement unfold.
People say music was a catalyst for change. I fondly remember listening, watching, dancing and singing along to the black musicians of the day on TV, radio, records and at concerts (attended by an all-white audience).
I recall a busload of black students being brought to our school for integration purposes. How brave they were.
Our high school mascot was the Rebels, and Civil War sentiments were alive and well. I studied the Civil War in history class and didn’t realize I was being lied to about the reasons that started the war. Slavery was downplayed, Dixie flags were everywhere and Yankees were viewed with suspicion.
Some people at school and throughout Louisiana were questioning the status quo, but I was not one of them. My best friend’s dad was an elementary school principal. Although he collected Confederate money, he began acknowledging the black kitchen and janitorial staff for their contributions to the school, which was unheard of at the time.
I also briefly dated a guy who I later learned was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Colorado culture shock
After I graduated in 1969, I chose to attend college in Colorado—my favorite vacation state. I attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley so I could be near Estes Park. I recall having one black student in
my freshman dorm.
College was a culture shock. We discussed civil rights in class, and I read books and watched movies that empathized with the plight of people of color. My fellow students began to question my heritage and my beliefs.
One night on a double date, I was asked to quit talking. The other female in the car was irritated by my Southern accent and by me being a Southerner. She was so disgusted that she refused to be in the car with me, and asked to be taken home. I was offended, of course, but this little taste of discrimination that was directed at me for a change eventually led to an epiphany.
I realized I was wrong. My family was wrong. My state was wrong. Racism was not something I wanted to be part of any longer.
It was an emotional time for me. I loved my family and knew them to be good people, but they were wrong in teaching me to dislike diversity. I felt a lot of self-loathing and sadness.
I tried to understand what makes people hate those who are different from them. I finally came to that realization when I graduated with a teaching degree in 1973.
My first job and all subsequent jobs involved working in low-income public schools with families of all colors. I learned a lot from the preschoolers and kindergartners I taught over the years. Little children are innocent and love each other, given the chance. They don’t see color and diversity as a bad thing. Children have to be taught to hate others.
Racism is a form of self-preservation. There is an inherent human need to feel that we are better than someone else. In order to feel good about ourselves and maintain the status quo, some of us feel the need to put others down. I think of my grandmother, working and living right alongside poor blacks in the cotton fields of Mississippi. She always thought that no matter how bad things were, at least she wasn’t black.
Racism still exists
Some people argue that racism is a thing of the past. While progress has been made, racism is still around. Today, some people of color are denied jobs, schools, good neighborhoods, housing, loans, justice and human rights that others enjoy. Even poor, white people enjoy privileges that many people of color don’t.
Most whites don’t even realize they’re racist. Many are unaware of the privilege the color of their skin grants them, and deny feelings of dominance or supremacy. Acknowledging it increases feelings of guilt, which trigger defensive responses and worries that they will have to change.
But maintaining the status quo allows hatred and discrimination to continue.
In order to make the world a better place, we must acknowledge that racism and white privilege exist. We must teach our children to love people, even if they’re different. Take a moment to observe their happiness and love for one another. Because love is the answer, and it’s the right thing to do.
Latest posts by Susan Elenz (see all)
- Love is always the answer - January 30, 2018
- Mom’s Believe It or Not Recipe Book: a nontraditional account of southern Colorado history - January 30, 2018
- Heard of Hereford? - December 5, 2017