Thursday, May 30, 2013

"I'm not a racist, but....."

I was recently at our local village farmer's market at Vista Ridge, overlooking the Bay of Fundy.  It's set up weekly in a large barn, where local entrepreneurs can sell the food and goods that they've grown, cooked, or created. Bread bakers, goodie makers, cheesemongers, knitters, hobby farmers, a butcher, and other vendors all gather to offer their wares to tourists and residents.  It's a gathering place for socializing and shopping, where the Vista Ridge family operators always serve your breakfast and coffee with a story, an anecdote, or a simple friendly welcome.   

I'm getting better acquainted with Angela, one of the vendors who lives in the village, since we've sat together on a few committees over the years, attended each other’s potluck suppers, and shared a few bonfires at beach parties.  She's a young mother of two boys and reminds me a little of my far-away friend, Jen (yes, I have more than one friend-- see pregnant woman with lemon in The Cheese Stands Alone, and In Over My Head.)  Like Jen, Angela is quiet, unassuming, observant, and when she does speak or contribute to conversation it appears that she has carefully chosen her words.  When she's funny, and she often is, she's smart funny.

At last Sunday's farmer's market Angela was set up with the early season offerings from her small farm.  After our breakfast, I stopped for a few moments to chat and catch up from the previous week's market, when I'd purchased some of her home-grown sprouts.  This week she offered eggs from her variety of chickens and ducks.

There were several dozen remaining in damp cardboard egg cartons.  She lifted the lids to reveal an assortment of shades of brown eggs, fat eggs, large eggs, white, blue-tinted, green-hued, beige.  All clean and pretty.

And then she quietly said, "Maybe if everyone regularly saw their eggs come in a variety like these, people could all just get along.  It's just colour, the eggs are all the same."

We bought a dozen.

And it made me think over this past week about her comment, and racism, and naturally, my history with “the N word.”

I was about five or six, and we were on vacation in our Volkswagen van. We ate our familiar and favourite go-to camping lunch of fresh tomato with mayonnaise and salt on store-bought white bread.  My brother and sister were sitting on the bench seat and my folks were in the driver and passenger seats, and as usual, I sat on the Taffle™; our picnic tote in the middle. We still have this, 45 years later.

My folks and older siblings were talking and I'd missed most of the conversation, which probably went over my head, but at some point I heard my Dad remarking about the different ways to describe a black person.  As they all discussed this, my mother, sister, and brother all came up with different terms.  There I sat, and heard a variety of words -- Negro, African American, Coloured, Afro-American – and some others less acceptable. Eager to be considered a part of the adult conversation, I offered my contribution:


Everyone gasped.

My sister shrieked, "JANE!" My mother, said, "OH NO! You must never use that word! Where did you hear that?" Dad choked down the bite of sandwich he had just taken and shook his head.  My brother laughed in disbelief.

I was immediately and thoroughly crushed.  I don't know where I heard it -- it certainly wasn't ever spoken in our family, and after all, I was only about five years old.  I just wanted to be taken seriously in what I thought was an important conversation among the grown-ups. It did not go as I expected.

I was about the same age when a black family living in a white neighbourhood was burned out of their house. I remember my mother's troubled and anxious remarks about it.  I didn't think she actually knew the family, but she was very distressed about this racially motivated attack.  I remember her smoking, and jabbing out her cigarette as she talked angrily about it.  I think it was about that time (the mid-sixties, when we lived in a Chicago suburb) that she became involved in the equal rights movement in some capacity. 

For years, I somehow equated this local family's incident with the Medgar Evars assassination, which had actually taken place several years earlier in Mississippi.  It wasn't until very recently, when reminiscing with Dad, that I learned that my mother was so troubled because it was actually someone in our own neighbourhood that simply refused to have a black family live next door to them – no matter what.

A few years later when I was about nine, after we'd moved to Michigan, my Dad and I were snacking from a bowl of nuts, cracking each almond, hazelnut, walnut, or pecan one at a time and picking out the meat.  We had a small pile of broken shells and made each selection carefully, one at a time.  Dad picked up a brazil nut.  I never chose those since they were impossible for me to crack open.

He held it up, turned it over a few times and then held it out between his thumb and finger, looking at it intently. I anticipated a nut-cracking lesson, but instead, he said, "You know what my mother used to call these?"  I shook my head and said, "No, what?" and he quietly said, with a slight grimace and shake of his head,

"Nigger toes."

I was horrified!  GRAM?  Sweet, kind, generous, soft-spoken, gentle Gram had uttered what I then knew to be an awful word?

We were alone in our own living room, but still I quietly whispered, in case someone would overhear us, "Why? Did she hate black people?" thinking some deep dark secret was about to be revealed.

And he simply said, "No, she was just ignorant about things like that, sometimes old people are."

When I hear someone say, "I'm not a racist, but ..." I know what they already said says more about them than whatever they're going to say next.

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