I have been thinking about race and racism a lot lately.
Bobby Lee came to visit my home town in southwestern Wisconsin when I was a kid and an event while he was there changed my perception of the world. He was from a small town also, Itta Bena, but his town was in the Deep South in the middle of Mississippi. Bobby Lee was black and the citizens of Itta Bena were almost all black also. The people of my town were white–not almost all white–but all. I had never met a black person before him because there were quite simply none in my town or county. In fact, there was pretty much no diversity at all. One Jewish family moved into town when I was about ten or eleven, one family was said to have Native American blood and people talked about how they received government money because of it, and we had a Filipino doctor for a year or two. That was the extent of our understanding of cultural differences. There were no Mexicans, no African-Americans, no Asians. Instead, the distinctions were Catholic or Protestant, Irish or German or a handful of other European possibilities, and, of course, wealthy or poor. My family was Irish-Catholic and closer to the poor end of that scale.
My first experience with human color was several years before Bobby Lee’s arrival. I don’t know how old I was at the time, but I know I was still quite young. We were visiting relatives in Hanover, Illinois. My aunt and uncle and their family lived at Craig Manor, an entire section of town filled with countless identical apartment buildings that were built as temporary housing during World War II for families working at the Savanna Army Depot. The buildings were still being used well into the 1960s and 1970s and provided affordable housing for many families. My family had lived in one of the units in the late 1950s, until my father passed away at a young age and my mother moved us back to her home town to raise us. That day in Hanover I was on the front steps of my aunt and uncle’s place when a woman came out of one of the apartments across the street. She was a heavy-set woman of a dark chocolate color, which I had never seen before and didn’t understand. She raised her arms and started shaking a rug of its dust and I turned and ran back into the apartment to my mother because I was scared of this woman who looked so different than anyone I had ever seen.
While I know that prejudice and racism are rooted in fear and ignorance I’m not sure if I believe that fear and ignorance automatically make one prejudiced. Maybe they do. If so, I was prejudiced that day, although I didn’t run from this woman out of hatred or any preconceived beliefs about her or others who might be like her. I honestly didn’t know what I was seeing.
I don’t recall what my mother may have said after I ran to her, but knowing her ways later in life my guess is that she explained to me that people come in different sizes, shapes, and colors and that the woman was probably just a hard-working housewife like she was. She probably told me that we are all God’s children, despite any outward or other differences. She lived her religion.
As I grew older I discovered that people sometimes hate those who are different just because they are different. I discovered that there were words like “nigger” and “faggot” that were assigned to others and those words indicated a belief that those people were somehow lesser. As I grew up throughout the 1960s I heard and read news stories of the civil rights struggles in the South, none of which really talked about the racism that also existed in the North and in places like the one where I grew up. Because I was so insulated in so many ways I didn’t recognize that even without black families in our town there were people who didn’t like those “colored folks”. Looking back now I recall confederate flags, hurtful words that were tossed about with abandon, an antipathy toward “other”. I remember a man saying, “There used to be a colored man that lived here once. He’s up to the cemetery now,” almost implying a violent end to the man’s life, though I found out later that early in the 20th century there were several African-American families in the region, so it may have been a reference to a man from one of those long gone families. Or maybe not. I never knew.
I’m not saying that everyone in my town was racist, or even that most were. I believe that most of the people truly believed in the Christian teachings that my mother imparted–that we are all equal under the eyes of God, that love is better than hate, and that we should treat everyone as we would like to be treated ourselves. But there was definitely ignorance about the larger world and a pocket of prejudice there, and certain people who had no room in their lives for anyone who was different. I grew up seeing those people with confederate flags in their windows or decals on their cars and didn’t understand the symbolism behind it. I grew up hearing the “N” word and having no context to understand what it meant or the horrible history behind it. In retrospect I recall hearing racist jokes and I wonder now if I laughed along with them. I hope not, but I can’t say with certainty.
So in the midst of this typical Wisconsin town Bobby Lee McClung came to visit. At the time there was a program that brought black children from poor towns in the South to places like my home town where they stayed with host families. It was an attempt at bridging cultures and teaching us about each other. To my knowledge none of the young white kids from my town were sent to places like Itta Bena, Mississippi to make it a true cultural exchange. It was a one-way trip. Perhaps the townfolk were a little nervous about that possibility. Despite that, there were families that invited and welcomed the visitors from Mississippi. My neighbors, the Allens, hosted Bobbly Lee that summer and so, for the first time in my life, I met a black person. Unlike the time in Hanover I didn’t run in fear. I was genuinely excited to meet him and learn about life in his town.
I normally spent a lot of time with the neighbor kids, so I naturally got to be a part of the experience of Bobby Lee’s visit. He loved basketball and I did, too, so we played a lot of basketball while he was visiting. He had dreams of becoming a professional, though I don’t believe that ever happened. We went to the swimming pool, spent time downtown, and played a lot of other games. And I liked just talking to him. He was a nice kid.
One day a large group of us were getting set to play a game–I don’t remember what it was–and one of the kids started counting. I don’t remember which of my friends was the one counting, but it could have been any one of us. We were all in a circle and he started up, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nig–”
He stopped. My heart stopped. The world stopped for a moment. A couple of the kids laughed nervously before he caught himself and continued.
“–a tiger by the toe.” I was absolutely embarrassed and ashamed at what had happened and I have never forgotten it. It revealed to me at that moment the insidious nature of racism. It revealed my privilege, even as a relatively poor white person, long before I even knew about the concept of white privilege. It told me that our dominant white culture carries in it an inherent racism that we may not even realize is there unless and until we are confronted with it directly. It told me that I had participated in this insidiousness simply by being willfully oblivious and not questioning the way of the world in that town. I had witnessed it without witnessing it.
That childhood moment and Bobby Lee’s easygoing sweet personality altered my consciousness and moved me to want to better understand why people create “other”. Growing up gay in a straight world added to that as well. I could relate to Bobby Lee having to listen to the counting and the nervous laughter it created when I heard “fag” jokes and the reaction those jokes created. I could not, though, ever fully understand the deep, deep history of overt and covert racism that he and everyone else of color faces on a daily basis. As a gay man I could hide myself. For a person of color there is no hiding.
I am still working on this. I am still learning. My friend, Chris Long, a man who walks the arc of justice as a daily pilgrimage, has taught me much, both directly and indirectly, about privilege and about how easy it is to not see racism because of living as part of the dominant culture. I understand I have even more work to do yet. I have even more things to learn. But I do believe in my mother’s early lessons. I believe that we are all equal under the eyes of God. Whatever work it takes to move us past prejudice and racism in all its manifestations is worth it to move us toward a place where all are equal not only under the eyes of God, but also under the eyes of man.