Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I'm Not Color-Blind

Unless you live under a rock and don't have a TV or internet, you've heard about Ferguson and Staten Island. I won't belabor those events here. Since I was not at either hearing, nor have I poured over the Ferguson grand jury notes, I do not feel knowledgeable enough to comment.

However, I do have extensive experience about what it's like to grow up in the South as a white kid, and I don't think we're "over" racism.

When certain scandals arise, like Paula Deen's "nigger" statement, folks around the country are shocked that someone could ever say such a thing. There's a sincere element of bewilderment. After all, aren't we a "post-racial society"? Didn't we elect a black president? Don't we have integrated schools? Haven't we ended job and housing discrimination against blacks? Aren't blacks given the same benefit of the doubt that whites are given in a court of law?

(Short answer: not really. These rights are enshrined by law but either not enforced or not enforceable. Society has many methods of self-segregation).

The way that we see these instances of racism - indeed, if we call them racist at all - has deep roots in the very core of our being. No meme, or even nuanced article, that you post on Facebook will change anyone's mind, though I've tried. That ship sailed a long time ago, and some of us are honestly waiting for the truly die-hard racists to grow old and die out. Sounds harsh, but I'm talking about people I love and care about, like my granddad, who I'm longing to see again before he dies. In some respects, maybe time does heal all wounds.

However, time moves slowly at best, and meanwhile the next generation is growing up. My generation is raising them, and we learned Racism 101 both explicitly and implicitly from the time we were toddlers. At the same time, those from outside the South who were taught to be "color blind," but never actually interacted with those outside of their race, absorb all kinds of racist signals unawares. And that's the most dangerous problem of all, because it's subconscious and therefore cannot be fought.

A friend of mine from diapers informed me that he was "deleting me" from Facebook because of my posts, that I had completely disrespected my parents and rejected everything they taught me. Though his statement was obviously hyperbolic, it got me thinking. Did my parents raise me to be racist? To be colorblind? Or something else entirely?

I found this quote five minutes ago. I never learned it in school. We never took a field trip to the town's civil rights museum, and I didn't know it existed until I was in college. I had not read the Letter from Birmingham Jail until college. We never learned about the Albany Movement, or that there even was a movement. I heard that Dr. King tried to come to Albany and was derailed, and that was that. I didn't know that the Shiloh Baptist Church was the headquarters for a civil rights singing group that toured throughout the South in the 60s at the risk of their lives. I didn't know about the sit-ins and boycotts. I'd never seen pictures of police carrying black girls out of the whites only library. I'd never seen the images of black children and teenagers crowded into a jail cell in the country outside of town. My eleventh grade English teacher tried to rectify the situation by teaching the Harlem Renaissance, and apparently she had to fight the administration to do so.

Here's what I heard about Dr. King coming to Georgia: 

"Well son," my granddad said to my dad one day, "my brother and I were sitting on the porch watching them [MLK and others march in Atlanta]. My brother said 'look at that, a whole bunch of niggers, only some of them are white'." My dad and granddad laughed. 

My private Baptist school didn't have to teach us about Civil Rights if they didn't want to. Our Bob Jones University Press history books were courtesy of a college that lost its accreditation because they believed that "Biblical" marriages were segregated, that God didn't want "the races to mix." We got MLK Day off, but for the first few years I was in school it was called a "teacher work day." Another private school in the area did not get this day off, but they get a holiday for Stonewall Jackson's birthday. Like most elementary and middle schools, we never managed to get to the 20th century in history classes, which might explain the gap in our civil rights knowledge. I pity the teachers that had to cover the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Southerners don't call it that. The more scholarly ones say "The War between the States," the sarcastic ones say "The War of Northern Aggression," and older generations simply say "The War.") My parents said that public schools had "changed" their history textbooks to make sure they were politically correct, and that the truth was being suppressed. In reality, slavery had very little to do with the Civil War - it was all about States' Rights. We never discussed which rights the states wanted beyond the right to own slaves. Lincoln was not our favorite president, though at school he was moderately praised in vague terms. 

Albany State University under water in 1994

In 1994 we had an historic flood that wiped out whole neighborhoods, and because the poorer areas were closer to the Flint River, it was mostly black neighborhoods that were effected. Jesse Jackson came to town to say that the white leaders in town somehow arranged this catastrophe. He was an example of an "outside agitator," a common designator that also applied to the kids that came down with Freedom Summer in Mississippi. 

Example of outside agitators: nuns registering black voters in Albany

The real education about race happens in day to day interactions, both within the family and in the broader community. My hometown is majority black, and I grew up in a majority black neighborhood in one of the poorer areas of town, though not the poorest. I remember the day that I first noticed race. I was playing with two children who lived in temporary government housing next door, a little girl about my age and her younger brother: I think I was about 5 or 6. The boy touched my face and asked if I was sick, and his sister punched him, apologized to me, said that "he's never seen white people before, so he doesn't know about freckles." Then I learned that I was white, and that I was a different specimen in the neighborhood. The black kids treated me with kid gloves. I was never pushed or shoved even in play.

I also learned what "black" means. The children I played with that day had rotting teeth; they had probably never seen a dentist or a pediatrician. Their house was unairconditioned (in the 90s, in south Georgia), and the word "house" is a generous description for the random collection of painted red duplexes with ratty screen doors that dotted a dirt landscape. The adults sat on porches and drank or used drugs. Fights broke out frequently, and the police were called regularly for noise and other complaints. (It's only fair to add that the worst neighbors we ever had were white, however). Their mother and her... boyfriend?.... didn't seem to work. Like most of our neighbors, they were here today, gone tomorrow, moving from one dilapidated dwelling to the next. Black kids in my town will tell you where they "stay," not where they live. Where they stay can change from week to week, and their fellow housing occupants are just as variable. 

"Modern" housing

In the whiter side of my world, there were black people, but they were shadows on the edges. My grandmama "had" a black man for well over two decades. He was not formally employed, but he started working in the pecan orchard and eventually lived in the white shack across the back yard. In the early morning I would get up to spend time with my grandmama, and she would make coffee for herself and Henry*. He had his own mug and juice jar that no one else used. Like a good Southern kid, I said sir and ma'am to adults, and Mr. or Miss/Mrs. I called him by his first name, unadorned, and never said sir. No one ever corrected me, and everyone referred to him by his first name. I meant no disrespect; it was just "the way it was." When he moved into a place with his girlfriend, an illiterate woman with a difficult past, burn marks on her face and about two teeth, my grandmama insisted they get married. When they had a son, she paid for his yearbook photos and doctor appointments, and always gave him books for his birthday and Christmas. I have pictures of me holding him as a baby on the back porch, when I was probably about 10 or 11, with his mother beside me. The pictures could easily be from the 50s except for the color. 

 The word "nigger" was not something my mother's family said. It was low-class and "common." My grandmama was never mean to anyone, she just believed that black people had "their place." In college I read about paternalism and almost had a heart attack, right there in the classroom. Paternalism is the concept of benevolent white Southerners taking care of "their" black people. I grew up on stories of white folks in that small Alabama town who bailed their black employees out of jail. When my uncle hired a Northern manager at a factory, he had to do the communicating for him because the fellow "didn't know how to talk to blacks." This was my life. And I grew up in the 1990s, not the 1890s. 

An abandoned shack in a pecan orchard, probably an old slave quarters

In middle and high school, my friends and I talked about race from time to time, usually at one-on-one sleepovers when the talk got deep. One friend from the country had a Confederate flag hung over her bed, and probably more black friends in one year than I've had in my life, and we wondered together what our daddies would do if we ever dated a black man, and confessed that we thought some were sexy. Another friend and I wondered what we would do if we lived in the Confederate South, if we would be traitors by siding with the US, if we could be pro-South without being pro-slavery. Another friend's father openly declared his affinity for slavery and wished aloud that he could have one. I had one "black friend" in high school, one of the few black kids at my private school. We bonded over Alicia Keys and basketball (street-style, no fouls for punches) and dancing, and she hung out in the same group with the kids I just described. She sang soprano in Show Choir with me, but on our own we harmonized, and she took the alto or descant, because I couldn't make my voice sling around the room like she could. 

Recording of Albany's Shiloh Baptist Church singing group

Did my parents raise me to be a racist? The question doesn't even make sense. It assumes that some people, "bad" people, in America are racists, while others are "good people" and don't see race at all. I see race. I have seen race since that day as a child, and on very few occasions, with certain people, the consciousness fades. My parents did not raise me to be colorblind: I didn't know any kids that were truly raised to be colorblind. As an adult, I had to make a decision: how to use that information. How would I look at race in America? What are my responsibilities? How should I educate myself?

I've heard that being colorblind is the goal. Maybe it is. But right now, in our society of America, do you think that African Americans see color? Do you think that they recognize a difference between their lives and the lives of whites, especially in the Deep South? Do you think it makes things better to say that you can't see color, or that you know that color makes no difference in America today?

*Name has been changed.


  1. This is a terrific post, Caroline. So powerful, so honest. I've been chewing on my own and yours gives me courage.

    1. Wow, thanks. I can't wait to read yours!