For a long time, I described my parents as discriminatory and assigned the label racist to my grandparents. But I no longer feel that way. My parents have racist attitudes and tendencies. Coming to understand this has been very eye opening and I’ve worked hard to step outside of that box for myself. On the face of it, no one would expect my parents to be racist. They don’t fly a confederate flag or do any of the blatant racist things. But growing up I heard things that I now have had to unlearn.
My mom would always be surprised when there was an Olympic swimmer who was black (not just African-American, but any darker tone) and she would say something along the lines of, “That’s surprising because black people don’t like water.” Since then, I have become more educated on the history of African-Americans not being allowed into pools, public private, etc. And I have seen the gut-wrenching photo of a hotel owner pouring bleach into the pool while they were still swimming in the water. Not to mention the ‘opportunity inequity’ of someone not having a pool they could even learn to swim in. ‘Blacks don’t like water’ is not true. There were several generations where they were denied such access.
This is one example of a seemingly off-handed remark that I internalized as a kid. I struggle to remember more of them, but I know they are there, and it takes effort to identify them. It is an even larger step to try to remove that sort of dialogue from my life. To see people as they actually are and not what my upbringing pre-supposes them to be.
There is a movie I really liked when I was a kid. It’s called Good Will Hunting. In this movie, two of the characters are talking about a historical mathematical figure. And one guys says, “Dot not feather” in reference to the mathematician’s Indian heritage. I caught onto this line and heard it somewhere else in my homogenous vanilla childhood. Later, at the age of 19, I made the acquaintance of someone from India and when she introduced herself as Indian, I immediately asked, “Dot or feather?”
She was rightly offended; and I–I was clueless and had no idea. There are countless other instances: for example, regarding places. I had no idea I had naturally adapted a discriminatory view of the world. These things are hard to face head on–a challenge unlearn what I thought I knew.
My grandparents were very racist to Asians, particularly against the Japanese. Three of my grandparents served in the Pacific Theater. Most people in my life, when they encounter their own racism, they write it off because of the things they saw during WWII. There might be an element of truth in someone trying to deal with the hard things they saw in war–regardless of what ethnicity and background they come from. But I would argue, there is not a place for writing off their racism. It should be addressed face-on. Maybe not directly to the faces of my aged grandparents, but for the sake of the mine and the following generations.
I had the chance to travel to Japan, and my parents weren’t the most excited about that. But what I saw and experienced there was so far beyond what I thought. My perceptions had been trapped inside a little box and reality was so much more grand and beautiful. And full of life. As I sit here and write this, I realize my parents likely discouraged me from a trip to South Africa because of their own inbred racism. Hopefully, I will have another chance to visit South Africa, and many more places around the world.
People from different cultural backgrounds don’t eat gross food, they eat different food. My tastebuds are just as much not accustomed to some of the seafood I encountered in Japan as opposed to some of the resourceful recipes I’ve heard of from northeastern Europe. I likely have some lineage in eastern Europe, but that does not mean I think flavorless gelatin sounds like a delight. I might be more apt to try live octopus. How was it that I simply believed that the thing I was not used to was so weird and therefore made someone so innately different from myself?
I made a big life move and decided to buy a house. I decided to go back to school and so when I was house hunting my main goals were, ‘how close to school will I be’ and is it ‘reasonably safe’. Being new to the area I had to rely largely on my realtor, and luckily, she turned me in the right direction.
After I moved in, my parents came for a visit and they kept pointing out all the dangerous things they thought they saw in my new neighborhood. And I was struck by the realization that they never pointed out the white kid walking down the street alone with his hoodie up; only those with darker skin.
After their visit, I was a little more on edge on whether I had made a safe choice for myself, and the type of decisions I needed to make to feel more safe in my new home. And you know what I changed? Nothing. I got to know my neighbors and it has been great. I love where I live! Do I like the drug dealer a block away? No. But would you be surprised to hear that he is white?
Speaking of one block away…. one block away is the historical redline. In case you don’t know, redlining was a longstanding practice of making home loans largely based on the home’s location, and some areas were deemed too risky and those were the ‘red lined areas’. It eventually came to light that redlining was purely driven by racism and that most redlined neighborhoods were largely people of color. Those practices have since been abolished, but the economic hardships they left behind are still alive and real today. And that is how I was able to afford my house. That drug dealer lives in a house across the street, which was in the redlined area. It should come as no surprise that these houses did not appreciate as much as many other parts of the city. Despite this being a beautiful centrally located area, I am reaping the benefits of that racism. Directly, it is not even a reach.
I could go on and on about how groups of people have been subjugated and then viewed as less than for not having the advantages I have. Or I could sit here and think of all the ways I was unknowingly indoctrinated into judging people I had no chance of meeting. Food, culture, family, religion, values, work ethic, the list goes on and on as to why my parents are racist against someone and it’s incredible to see it rear its ugly head in me sometimes.
I did not grow up in the most open-minded house. I did not grow up in a diverse community that fed my heart and soul with wisdom of the variety of ways to live life. Instead, I was consistently told ideas along the lines of; this is the best and most right way to live and then you will have success; as you come from a good heritage. I am blessed beyond belief to have the foundation in life that I have–as a white woman in middle class America–but it is also a weight and responsibility. I have to make sure that the racism I grew up under isn’t passed on to any more generations. There are a few wrong ways to live. There are a lot of right ways to live. Dripping with discrimination isn’t one of them!
This post is authored by Rivkah Idan.