Friday, October 26, 2007

It takes a long time to change.

I grew up on an overseas Army base. That insular community protected me from a lot of ugliness in the larger world. (There was ugliness of a different sort, of course, but that's a story for another day.) Racism was heavily masked on the base. I simply wasn't aware of prejudice on a personal level. Maybe some of my ignorance was by virtue of being white, but I think a lot of it came from the color blind policies of the military. We watched "Free to be You and Me!" with our friends. My class had kids from all sorts of different backgrounds, and even a few multi-cultural children. I knew that racism existed out in the bigger world but it was foreign to me.

When we came back to the states, I learned a different sort of truth. We moved first to an integrated Army base. Then when my mother was unhappy with the quarters and the school, we moved to a nearby rural town. A nearby lily white rural town, that is. There were only a handful of non-white kids, all the progeny of military personnel, and even they were all Asian or Hispanic. I was shocked. I had no idea that such places still existed. Frankly, I'm still shocked that such places exist.

Now, I live by choice in arguably the most segregated city in the US. It's a hard choice. Most of the time, when I weigh the positives of living here, the balance comes out heavily in favor of St. Louis. There are many, many terrific things about this city. And while prejudice exists, it rarely shows itself in my life. I get lulled into believing that having an open attitude is enough to teach my children acceptance of all people. I can almost convince myself that running across all kinds of people in public is enough to make up for not having a diverse classroom, parish, or team.

The other day, reality slapped me twice. Two women, both around 60 years old, made separate comments to me that illustrated their personal struggle with racism. Both of these women are kind, caring people. Both of these women grew up in St. Louis before and during the civil rights movement. Now, all these years later, they are trying to reconcile the prejudice they were taught as children with their experiences as adults.

My coworker told me that she'd automatically assumed a young black woman at the next gas pump had stolen a shopping bag out of her car when she stepped inside to pay. She realized that probably wasn't the case - that the shopping bag had been misplaced somehow. She was bothered by her visceral reaction and was able to control her reaction to it.

A grandmother of my son's classmate related another story to me that evening. We were talking about Halloween, about how much we dislike purchased costumes. We traded stories about costumes that we manufactured for ourselves as kids. She told me that when she was a child, she and her friends would put on blackface to go trick or treating. Again, as with my coworker, she was bothered by that history but unable to escape it.

I wonder if it's possible for people to escape their childhoods. I know people who were raised as bigots and who rationally rejected those beliefs later in life. But they all deal with a little kernel of that prejudice deep inside. I wonder how many generations it will take for us to get rid of that little kernel for once and for all.


Mary Witzl said...

I wonder about this too, Christy. I think slavery is still with us and will be for generations to come. The sheer evil of racial inequality is complex, far-reaching and insidious.

The good thing about those women's reactions is that they are honest; the women aren't complacent about their racism. What drives me insane is when people are dishonest about their reactions, or when they feel as though their bigotry is something that cannot be helped and that it is perfectly fine to take out and show to me, without any sense of shame.

Christy said...

True, Mary! That dichotomy between feeling and thought is uncomfortable, so some people just adjust by rationalization.

I think it's interesting to consider that in many native cultures from around the world, the names that people use for their culture translates as "The People." We seem to organize ourselves into Us and Them, when we should be organizing ourselves into Us and Different Us.