The current public eruption of white supremacy, racial, ethnic, religious and class conflict in the US political and social scenes in the USA, forces me to reflect on how the cultural narratives I grew up with may have deposited biased, racist frameworks in my mental and emotional makeup.
Recently, my best buddy, Walt Hopkins and I identified and continue to implement ways to lighten our lives, chucket, shucket, and f**ket, before kicking the proverbial bucket. One of my challenges in this quest was to clean out the "archive" room of my house in California before selling it. This meant having a last look at, and in many cases digitally storing the "stuff" that shaped my life at its various stages. In addition to my own piles and files, my mother had kept a trunk full of memorabilia, much of which had to do with my childhood, giving me quite a bit to work with.
Provoked by the current issues of race in the USA I decided recently to focus specifically on my own personal experience of "Black". There is more to look at, of course. Let me start by noting that the very first black classmate that I had did not show up until I was in high school, and I took Jim to be just one of the other guys, until I got a message about blackness and my insensitivity perhaps for not recognizing it. I was also aware that my father's first employer was a black man, Mr. Hill, who owned a barbershop down the street. There was an aura of something odd about this at the time, but I had no tools for interpreting it.
In childhood, my awareness of black was pretty much limited to reading Little Black Sambo, breakfast with Aunt Jemima, and occasional rice dishes from Uncle Ben, memorabilia of which I found in my mother's treasure trove. While currently some folks may point out the racism they see in these items, they still don't feel to me like important sources of my framework for Black.
Actually, beating up the troll found in the same series of children's books, in Billy Goats Gruff, felt more influential in conveying the importance of resistance to malfeasance. At the same time, it invoked another cultural problematic, the "fight" metanarrative of US identity.
As a child, my real-life contact with black people was practically nonexistent, limited to trips to the big city of Cleveland where I bumped into black people on the streetcar and passed them on sidewalks, along with coming face-to-face with the occasional department store clerk, moments perhaps in which my mother held my hand a bit tighter.
There was a black district on the southern end of the little town of Bedford, Ohio where I lived, and perhaps the separation had an impact on me as that being a place to avoid and also wonder about as the school bus passed along its edge. So, I believe that the combination of the unknown and the occasional biased remarks of people in my surroundings must be the basis of an implanted caution around black people. In everyday life, I can now easily reframe this when it pops up, but, try as I might, cannot totally eradicate it. Also, the telling of racial and ethnic jokes in the barbershop culture of the day certainly left residue. I don't know whether anything negative was conveyed by my father's love of New Orleans jazz groups and black vocals, once we acquired our first hi-fi apparatus and regularly immersed ourselves in the genre. On my first and only visit to Preservation Hall, I was privileged to hear Sweet Emma Barrett, partly paralyzed and in her 80's, still performing, perhaps a model against ageism as well as a musical heritage.
I feel fortunate that my college and seminary experiences fostered strong values of equality and the ongoing need to struggle for justice through personal involvement. Those were the days of race riots, military on the streets, the surge of the civil rights movement and highly visible black leadership. These perplexed the voices of television and print media. My classmates and I went on the streets, attempting to bring calm between ethnic neighborhood and black demonstrators – we had no real savvy about how to do this. We also collaborated in the home visit program of the NAACP, where we arranged for black and white families to exchange meetings in each other's homes and get acquainted, to become real people to each other by sharing coffee and stories.
There is probably much more to explore in order to understand myself in this regard. I feel that there is some truth in the South Pacific song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught", but it also seems to me that much of my bias is due to being "carelessly taught" by my surrounding conversations and by the invisible but powerful metanarrative of racism, deep in US culture. My education at the time, at every level, clearly lacked accurate and complete history studies dealing with these issues. Somehow, the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bias, still quite tangible in my generation, was not brought to bear to connect us to the challenge of racism. We were perhaps too concerned with validating ourselves than with finding solidarity with others. We worked to earn "privilege", which meant in fact "becoming white", in a world where you somehow managed to pass as a WASP if you didn't want to be stung by one – an option not open to our black neighbors.
What's your story of being carefully or carelessly taught about groups of people different from your own?