It’s not just some white Americans who are phobic and/or racist. Much of the world feels the same way about “their own.” It’s easy to fall into complacency, of sorts, or put on blinders, when confronted with people not like ourselves. Many years ago, while in the Peace Corps, I stopped by a remote stream in Sierra Leone way out in the bush, a perfect stop to wash the dirt off my face, and when I got down there it turned out there was a group of kids playing in the water. When they looked up and saw me, they all threw their arms over their heads and ran SCREAMING into the bush. They had never seen a white person. Later I was told they thought I was “Mommy Water,” the albino witch who lives in streams and rivers, and would come to drown them.
Some of us get afraid.
It was not that long ago that people were sitting at Woolworth’s counters in this country to protest segregation. Oh, don’t so many of us liberals wish we could have been old enough back then to have taken part? I would have. But I think we have to recognize that it takes time for the dummies to come ‘round, for history to come ‘round. We could very well have been one of those people who didn’t want to sit next to someone of another color at that counter. They/we were raised by people like my parents, who didn’t let my black friends in New Jersey come over to play because “they will steal something.” These are the same parents who wouldn’t let me talk on the phone – the kind of phone that used to attach to the wall with a curly cord – to my gay friend in high school. I am not excusing my parents, but they grew up in a different time and place, and I can see that now from far away. I can’t BLAME them for being racist or sexist or elitist, but I don’t excuse them at the same time.
When I was 16, before most people had dishwashers, I had the chore of drying dishes beside my mother. She washed, I dried, and we both put the dishes away. We had just moved from New Jersey back to her hometown in Indiana, and my high school, being the only one in the county, had about 4,000 students. We were all white, either farmers or pharmacists or grocers or salesmen for John Deere, or waitresses at Big Boy or checkout clerks, or just kids going to school.
But one day in 1977 an exchange student came to our school, and he was black. We welcomed him. He was cute, and exotic. He made friends with everyone, and then he got a girlfriend, a blonde girl with whom he started holding hands walking down the hallway. I was thrilled.
One night washing dishes with my mom I told her about him.
“You know,” I said, “there’s a black kid at school and he has a white girlfriend and I figured out that if they have kids, and their kids have kids, and we all get together, then someday a while from now, everyone in the world will be the same color!”
My mom stopped washing altogether.
“THAT will never happen,” she said. She looked at me, scared, as if I were from another planet. I stared back, because I knew what I said was true. It was the moment I realized that my parents didn’t know everything.
My mother was born in 1929, in Indiana, and that was all she knew – white people, like the children by the stream in Africa who knew only black people. The year 1929 is just not that long ago. (She is now dead, and never had a black or Hispanic or anyone-not-Caucasian friend in her life). My dad’s parents were Irish immigrants who had a hard time finding work in upstate Pennsylvania. My dad used to make fun of the “Polacks,” many of whom lived on the same street in Susquehanna. And he was a smart guy. But there was a tiered system that he accepted and made into a shield. Fifty years later, after my parents had moved to Texas (where the “N” word was a common phrase in the house) he drove a school bus in Houston. There was a kid on his bus, a little black girl, who had markedly crooked teeth. One day he went to an orthodontist, paid in advance, and sent a note home to her parents suggesting they get her braces, all expenses paid. One day she showed up on the bus and beamed her sparkly new braces at him, and handed him a pie that her mother had made. (I could not believe this was my father speaking when he told me this story, pie on the table.) By way of explanation, he only said, “You can’t go through life with crooked teeth.”
So. Can people change?
When we go a hospital, or turn on the TV, we now see stripes of every color, unlike the three channels of yore. I have two doctors now: one is Vietnamese and one is Chinese, and I trust them both with my life. They are so much smarter than I am (and funnier . . . and that isn’t hard, on either count.) But yesterday I went into our little Northern California post office, and I live in an area where we don’t get mail delivery, so you have to go regularly, and we have a new black postmaster. I’ve gotten to know him a little. His name is, inexplicably, “Pierre.” He wanted to show me some photos on his phone of his 3-year-old son, and the boy was so cute, but I asked if his wife was white, because his kid had really light skin. The woman behind me gasped; I guess her liberalness prevented her from asking such bold questions. But he jumped into it, and said, “No! She’s Vietnamese! And boy did I have a hard time getting her to marry me. She thought I was in a gang! Her parents hated me because I was black and thought I was in a gang! I said no I wear this do-rag to keep my hair nice and straight, and they finally came around.” He looked at his phone again, shook his head, and I swear he almost cried, looking at his son. “We have to work so hard,” he said. “I miss him so much every day.”
The world is different from when our parents were small, but not all that much. I went back to Indiana during the campaign and Trump signs were planted on many a lawn (which is when I started to get worried.) But these are good people, supporting Trump. They are solid, hard-working people who love their kids and families. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, we need to guide them. We should be alert to the growing threat of insulation, sure. But we have to take it with a grain of salt, so to speak, because the years will tick by, and someday, we’ll all be the same color.