Sunday, April 08, 2012

A Long Life with Racism

A British writer with an Asian wife scandalizes the Web with a “talk” to his children about American race, providing them with outlandish statistical reasons to fear and avoid black people.

Such casual racism and paranoia rightly provoke outrage left and right and, in this old white heart, rouse...what? Disgust, sorrow and painful memories.

I was born and spent my first years in America’s largest black ghetto, Harlem, in a store where my immigrant Jewish parents lived in back and sold women’s clothes to people as poor as they were. Skin color did not matter in our lives.

Later, I went to college in that neighborhood, walking ten blocks and back, at times after dark, from subway to campus, without ever being molested, a period interrupted by three years in uniform, ending in Europe, where men of pure white Aryan descent were trying to kill me every day.

Back home, I got my degree, took a job at the college and fell in love with a new graduate working in the same office--intelligent and beautiful, with a face of cinnamon skin and dark eyes that often regarded me above a faintly mocking smile. It finally seeped in that she was somehow interested in me. I asked her out.

“You’ll be the only white person there.” She invited me to a party, watching my eyes. “Fine,” I said.

The party was unremarkable. In the early 1950s, before the Supreme Court desegregation decision, before black anger and white guilt, it was a time of racial tact. Our hosts seemed at ease with me, I was comfortable with them.

We were a close couple until she went on a summer scholarship for graduate study in France. While she was away, I had to face myself. In a dead-end job, did I lack the strength and will for any commitment--in work or love, let alone to live in the world as part of an interracial couple and bring children into it?

When she came back, it was not the same. The heat between us was still there, but the warmth was gone. She talked glowingly about a man she had met in France. I felt I had failed a test, letting myself be only dimly aware it was taking place.

I went to work in Manhattan and became the editor of large magazines, publishing articles on race relations—-integration in the north and south, the first national profile of Martin Luther King, the murder of Andrew Goodman, the son of friends, trying to register black voters in Mississippi.

As head of the American Society of Magazine Editors, I started a program to hire black college graduates, only to discover that the young woman in charge was discouraging them from “selling out.” I fired her without worrying about racial discrimination.

Now, decades later, we are living in an era with an African-American president and where the racial issue has shifted from the killing of blacks by white men in hoods and robes to the death of a black teenager wearing a hoodie at the hands of a white vigilante.

Despite my history, I have little patience with political hustlers like Al Sharpton and Herman Cain, but find it painful to see racism now openly discussed as an issue of whites fearing for their lives at the hands of blacks, when throughout my life, it has always been the other way around.

The children on the receiving end of “the talk” about avoiding black people are being conditioned by a Big Lie to live constricted and hateful lives in physical safety but no human or historical understanding.

1 comment:

BruceH said...

Once, when I was a child in the 1970's, in Houston, my father and I were walking back to his apartment. On the way, a black man happened by and I asked my father in all innocence, "Daddy, is that a nigger?"

I didn't know what it meant at the time, but my father certainly did, and so did the other man. My father said nothing; he just blushed deeply and hurried me along. The other man I had unwittingly maligned seemed nearly as nonplussed as father at hearing this slur from the mouth of a six-year-old. Even at that age, I was able to pick up on those clues and decided there was something deeply shameful about that word.

I never heard that word again from my father, and to this day, I see no evidence of residual racism in him. I like to think that episode caused him to rethink his prejudices. I, of course, was far too young to hold any deep-seated prejudices, and the following years disabused me of any such foul notions as my family traveled around the United States, and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I have met untold numbers of people of all skin tones, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds. I've learned that there are good people and bad people in every group.

So, yeah, "the talk" is bullshit. It offers no real help in dealing with actual people. It only creates fear, uncertainty, and distrust of others who who do not look or act the way you do, regardless of any intent on their part for good or ill. Thank you for sharing your story.