When Obama made his eloquent, moving speech about race earlier this spring, I found one segment of the speech to be especially haunting. It was the part about his grandmother, who reared him and deeply loved him. But she was also fearful of blacks and occasionally used racist terms.
That’s what I loved about this speech — its nuances and its openness to the complexity of other human beings. Here was a woman who was very much of her time and place, who could easily be dismissed as a racist. But she was more than that. Racism didn’t define who she was — or how could she have loved and cared for this grandson who was half-black?
This touches me because it speaks to the world I grew up in. I was brought up to believe blacks were inferior, that any kind of intermarriage was a sacrilege. (This was taught to me by a white mother and a father who was half American Indian — a fact that could usually be ignored, as long as my father stayed out of the sun, as my mother urged him to do.) I grew up in neighborhoods in small West Texas towns where teams were picked by eenie-meenie-miney-mo — and still get queasy when I hear those syllables, remembering what usually came after them.
But that was also many, many years ago — and it was a different time. Once, years ago, my husband and I tried to explain to our kids the tremendous changes we’d seen in our lifetime when it came to race. How we’d glimpsed bathrooms and water fountains that were designated “white” and “colored.” How riots erupted in Southern cities when schools were integrated. How grown men dressed up in sheets and burned crosses.
I know that we still have racial problems to this day. But you can’t tell me things aren’t better. They’re not good enough, yet, but they’re still better. And the fact that a black man is the Democratic nominee for president is something many of us never thought we’d live to see.
Can anybody watch or listen to Obama for even a few minutes and maintain any shreds of racism or white superiority?
Well, yes. It seems they can. Check the reactions of some of the voters in lesser-educated states during the primaries. They wouldn’t vote for a black man, some of them said. You have to give them some credit: At least they were brazenly honest about it. Others, feeling the same way, denied it and voted their skin color, if not their pocketbook.
My own small world is predominantly well-educated and liberal. Obama signs dot front yards in our neighborhood. Racists are “others,” people we shake our heads at for their small-mindedness and easily aroused sense of threat.
But, I’d bet, you don’t have to look too far in the lives of any of us, search too far into our family trees or old circles of friendship, to find one of these “others.” They are there, we know them, we may like or love them, we have no idea what to do with them. So many of them are — like Obama’s white grandmother — both racists and something more than that.
In my own life, I’m talking about a friend who’s in his 80s. Our politics are very different, but, for months, he’s included me in his mass emails of jokes and third-hand political rants. For the most part, I’ve deleted them without looking at them, since I hate mass emails to begin with. But sometimes, I’ve looked at them and been appalled by their content. I protested once, but have mostly ignored and deleted what followed.
Until today’s email, which was a “joke” about Obama and alluded to his being assassinated. I wrote the friend and asked him to take me off his list, saying the so-called joke was contemptible and beneath him.
But that’s the easy part, you know. Demanding to be taken off an offensive list — which I should have done long ago, but didn’t.
That’s easy, piece of cake, no thought or emotion needed. But it takes me back to Obama’s speech, his own life, our own imperfect lives with imperfect friends in an imperfect world. What do we do about the racists in our lives who are more than their racism, who are often benevolent and loving and caring in other ways? Who are they to us? It’s one thing to judge the racism; it’s entirely something else to judge and scorn the racists who are something more than their worst traits.
Don’t I need to be purer or better than I am to start heaving rocks in their direction? Or am I simply showing that, like everybody else, I’m a product of my own time and place, limited and flawed and wracked by ambivalence?
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)