Note: Each year I prepare a New Years' message for my Naples Daily News column. This year, my own complicity in racism is on my mind. It is my own story.
After decades of struggle, many say that America remains a racist country. Disagreeing, other thoughtful people point to national efforts like the Great Society, the War on Poverty, Affirmative Action, and school bussing as evidence that racism has been left behind. They point out that a black family lives in the White House.
I know from personal experience that racism has little to do with these worthwhile efforts, important as they were. No, racism is about nothing but the condition of your own heart. How do I know? That is the story.
A Story About Imprinting
In a process psychologists call ‘imprinting’, young animals ‘latch onto’ the first face they see when eyes are first opened. Efforts to help the Whooping
chicks see only disguised faces that appear bird-like. Operation Migration used the semblance to teach yearling birds historic migration routes. The young animals followed an ultralight piloted by the disguised human. The program has been very successful because the chicks see the disguise as Mom.
Imprinting is an essential survival tool occurring in thousands of species, humans included. Kids learn to run the water while brushing their teeth, or not. They know the intrinsic value of education, or not. Home might be populated with books or with television. Children adopt parents’ religion, considering others as wrong-headed. Children watch parents express preferences and prejudices and they accept them as good, natural and right.
At the same time, parents transmit less desirable behaviors and attitudes. And while prejudice is one of these, imprinted behavior is stunningly difficult to defeat. Your Design Pundit has experienced the struggle.
Growing up, my own mother and her extended family favored the ’N’ word. The respectful term ’Black people’ was spat with derision. Even in polite company or at church she used ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’, words clearly disparaging and rejected by Black Americans.
I heard years of jungle-themed jokes, deprecating comments on hair-care products, laughing about rhythm, watermelon and basketball. And Mom knew all about those loud and brassy New York Jews, every one of them cheap to a fault. My childhood was insidiously embossed.
Is this brutal? Yes. And it is the truth.
A Hard Time A-comin’
As a young adult studying at LSU, I saw ‘whites only’ water fountains. I visited doctors with separate waiting rooms. At the same time, my girlfriend Joyce
wouldn’t stand for the talk I found natural. While I knew she was right, my heart remained polluted. Imprinted. I came to know that change was needed, but how? The awfulness of my own heart was becoming uncomfortable and serious baggage.
Joyce and I became very involved in the civil rights movement, raging after a rocky start earlier in the 1970s. We made black and white friends in the movement. My involvement, though, was secretly superficial until much later, intellectual at best. I told myself that Americans are equal, but my deep-seeded prejudice was becoming painfully clear. With that understanding came shame.
Meanwhile activism continued, march after march. We were often covered with eggs and urine, sometimes bloodied by rocks. We endured awful taunts by whites watching the marches. Mom’s voice never left, playing in the background. I knew by then that she was wrong, that singers in black face and Aunt Jemima jokes were ugly remnants. I knew but did not feel. Knowing was a step forward but a small one.
More than forty years have passed. I have conquered my repugnant demons. Mom passed years ago. Dark childhood memories serve now as a reminder: the struggle against racism is fought every minute of every day. And while those voices no longer inform my heart, I am grateful for the ethos that remain, constantly on guard.
I am not unique. Millions of Americans bear the scars of racist imprinting. And while America bears the same ghastly imprint writ large, persistent personal efforts can crush this unworthy legacy.
Some say that racism has been conquered. It is not. Yes, we've come a long way in America, yet the equal rights guaranteed by law are often thwarted by trickery or economic circumstance or reactionary politics. Where is the outcry when states take steps to reduce minority access to the ballot box? One day we will see racism as an historical aberration. Not today.
May the America of 2016 be happy and fulfilling. And may the citizens of our great country forgive me, and my mother.