The Folklore Project
I Am a Racist
By Rob Rushin
My family background is typically conservative in the way white Southern families have pretty much always been.
Our ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War, but mostly for the Confederacy. One ancestor was a prosperous slave holder in South Georgia who, quite rightly, lost everything in the Southern Rebellion to Preserve Slavery. On the other side of the family, my great-grandfather was, among other things, a bootlegger in Mississippi who employed black men to help work his still, and who earned frequent uninvited visits from local Klansmen who disapproved of this economic arrangement. That these same hood-wearing jackals would shoot up the still on one day and buy my great-grandfather’s corn squeezings on the next is just another one of those weird-ass duality things. Like most Southern families, the past is a muddle of strange happenings and inherent contradiction.
Either way, the elders of my experience were polite, white Southerners who would never dream of being overtly rude to a “colored” (never a colored person, although occasionally perhaps a “Nigra,” that genteel substitute for the horrible word that I was taught from an early age was only used by “white trash”). There was also a belief that Those People were something other, absolutely less-than in some indefinable way, but who might also, through dint of hard work and diligence, elevate themselves above the aforementioned white trash. These were the “good ones” who proved (even then) that racism was over and done with, even though those “good ones” would never be quite good enough to live next door or date your daughter.
The granular slicing of social strata was elaborate. The point was to always have some group that was lower than your own.
And it came to pass somehow that at a tender young age, when we lived in the Tennessee tri-city area, I was given a small Stars and Bars of my own. I cannot remember who gave it to me, other than that it was a visiting relative, not my parents. It was not very large, and cheaply made, with staples holding it to a dowel that served as an ersatz flagpole. Nobody explained anything about it, other than that it was "the Southern flag." I hung it in my room and really didn't think much about it.
And then we moved to southern Connecticut, where I unpacked my stuff and hung it in my room. I still had no concept of what it meant. And it came to pass that I made friends in the neighborhood who were more overtly racist than anybody I'd known in the South. Not necessarily more racist, but they lacked the gentility to say “Nigra,” preferring that other word that gets readers of Huck Finn so riled up these days. And so, like anybody wanting to fit in, I started using it, too.
In the North, I attended an elementary school that was all white, with the lone exception of the son of the caretaker of our church. Willie and I became pretty good friends. You'd think this cognitive dissonance of having a chosen friend who was black and a bunch of racist neighborhood friends would provide a sharp spur of conscience in a young boy. No such luck.
One day, Willie visited my house. I'm not sure if he saw the flag or not. It really didn't occur to me that it might make a difference. But we somehow got into an argument, and I ended up getting mad and dropping the N-bomb on him. He punched me in the gut so hard I dropped to the ground. And he left to walk home, not even asking for a ride or the phone to call his mom.
And we never spoke again.
Make no mistake. I knew I was crossing a line when I said it, and I knew that it was fucked up to do so. But I felt I had it in my power to knock this really nice friend down to size, just because he made me mad about something. But he was having none of that.
I was around 10 years old at the time. The shame of what I did that day still burns. It's the most overtly racist act of my life, and that word has not passed my lips since. But I can't claim innocence of more subtle racist behaviors, like getting nervous when a group of black males gets on an empty subway car with me, or even just not considering that a great scientific advance might have been realized by a black man or woman, or of being surprised when I met a black man who loves ’80s hair-metal bands. Because that's not what they do, right?
I was not raised by bad or malevolent people. I was not taught to be racist, at least not in any obvious sense. But in a very real way, I was.
I lived in a world where hanging the battle rag was fine, where assuming racial superiority was the order of things, where laughing and joining the guys in crude racial jokes was no problem. I thought I was not a bad or malevolent person. I was wrong.
I'm not sure when I decided to change, not clear on exactly when I quietly took that toy battle rag and threw it in the trash. I'm not sure when I actually realized that I could work to be rid of the burden of lies that led me to assume my superiority based on my pale skin. I've struggled with that for over 40 years, I guess, but even though I like to congratulate myself on how far I've come, the stain remains. Just like that stain remains, indelibly, on our nation. If I treat every person I meet from now until I die with full dignity and respect — doubtful, but it's a goal — the stain will remain.
Getting rid of the battle rag or the marble monuments to treason won’t change much in the overall calculus of how racial "difference" plays out day to day. But like the day I threw my flag in the trash, it can represent a decision to make conscious choices about the messages we endorse and about how we wish to live, even though we are doomed to never fully succeed. For most whites in my generation, the stain is pronounced. For later generations, for people who do not grow up with the message that a symbol that represents slavery and segregation and racial animus is approved by their governments and institutions, maybe that stain begins to fade. Maybe.
And even though the shame of how I behaved remains, I am not ashamed of being from the South. Many of the better examples of American culture come from the South. The music I love, the food, the literature, the seemingly genetic predisposition to gothic humor … this is the bounty of Southern heritage. The Civil Rights Movement started in the South and rippled out across the country to force people in other regions to grapple with the institutional racism manifested in those places. There's plenty to be proud of. This is the heritage — shared across race and class lines — that we can celebrate. And we can do it just fine without that miserable battle rag or statues of oh-so-polite gentlemen who fought for the right own another human being.
I am a racist. Chances are, you are, too. The good news is that it is probably not your fault. The hard news: It's still your damned responsibility. Own it. And make amends.