This is a self-examination of racism, a look at a non-racist racist. It should be helpful to anyone who reads it, but certainly to “boomers” and their parents.
I grew up in the ’50’s and early ’60’s. I had an early diet of Dick and Jane books, commercials featuring Betty White and look-a-likes, and a neighborhood that featured black people from 9-5 coming to clean houses, except for those who were “live-ins.” Life was normal. In the pantry were Aunt Jamima and Uncle Ben along with cereal boxes that featured a Quaker and famous white athletes with the exception of Jesse Owens. Also normal.
My elementary school and high school, both big New York City schools were probably 1 % Black and Hispanic. Near as I can remember not only were there no non-white administrators, neither were there non-white teachers. It was the hey-day of Jewish domination of the education system. Many of my teachers were Jewish. Nothing abnormal there. It wasn’t until the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement that cracks of color began to open up in my otherwise white world, yet at the beginning it was mostly a West Coast issue.
Born and raised in a liberal, Jewish household, I was brought up to be polite and respectful to elders, no matter who they were or what color they were. That was what being normal was all about for me.
I have in my pantry today Aunt Jamima syrup and pancake mix and Uncle Ben’s Instant Rice. Forty-eight hours ago that seemed normal. Today I can safely bet the Auntie will be leaving the house. And you can also bet your bottom dollar Uncle Ben will soon join her. It isn’t that I hadn’t thought about those commercial icons before, but now I had to. And so do you.
For years on cold winter mornings I was given Cream of Wheat to warm my bones. I loved Cream of Wheat, milk/butter/sugar/yum. Truthfully I never paid much attention to the kindly looking Black chef on the box. When the other day, at the store, I looked at him on the shelf, he seemed to fit the feeling the cereal gave me as a child. Until two days ago that too was normal.
And how many times during the later stages of my children’s births did I squeal in jest doing my best Butterfly McQueen imitation: Lawsy Mercy Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies.” ‘always got a laugh because it was perfectly normal humor. Well, maybe not perfect.
The key word here is normal. Maybe if there had been overt racism in my normal world, as I grew up I would have been quicker to realize society’s ills and their impact on those people who didn’t live my “normal” in their life. I would have come sooner to the realization that my normal wasn’t really. Recall, my faithful readers, my story about waving to a black colleague from my car as he walked on a hot summer morning to our place of work. I thought I had done a welcoming, see-i’m-a-non-racist-good-colleague thing. His response at work was that it was nice to be waved to, but it didn’t get him to work any faster or make him any cooler.
Now the challenge to you is to actively think about what normal was for you and if that normal created something inside you as you began to see, hear, and sometimes even be touched by change. It is said, “The only thing that doesn’t change is change.” But for me, any maybe you, our normal lives began to be buffeted by change. This made us what–resentful, angry, fearful? Jackie Mason was on target when he mused, three black CPA’s had no angst walking through a Jewish neighborhood, but you’d never see three Jewish CPA’s walking through a black one. There’s a lot packed into that one-liner. Think about it.
I’m sure you’re aware that well before the policing issues, change has been all around us. Just watch the commercials. First came blacks who pitched things to the mass audience. Then came interracial casts of actors/actresses. Now one sees with regularity inter-racial couples and families. The period of LBGTQ actors and actors? Not quite, but keep watching.
In “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Atticus Finch used a variation on a famous adage as a teaching moment for his daughter. The line is, “You don’t really know a man, until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” The line pre-dates decades of politically correct changing, but its age, its appearance in so many different cultures, give it a validity that is hard to challenge. Harder yet is to do it.
Go comparison shopping in a grocery in a black neighborhood. Reality number one is the staring, number two is nobody will shoot you, and number three the lack of variety and the higher prices. If you have a black work mate or friend, alter what is called the five o’clock shadow. Invite them to dinner or go out to dinner with them. Don’t bring the water cooler with you to have the same conversations you have at work. Ask what he/she thinks about Aunt Jamima, the George Floyd protests, the blacks who seem to be dropping like flies at the hands of white policemen. Ask to be taught. And don’t make it a one time, “look at me I’m just a good white person” event. If you like the person, slowly but surely normalize the relationship.
Try on those moccasins. I have. You won’t like the fit, but you’ll get an amazing education–at least from my perspective.
Writing for the public for almost five decades, Bill Gralnick has published over 800 op ed pieces for newspapers across the country, been a newspaper columnist, and written three books. His latest work, found on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, ebook or paperback, has received wonderful endorsements ie Brian Williams, Lynn Sherr, Carl Erskine. His reviews have been wonderful and can be read on amazon.com or his website williamgralnickauthor.com
While you are staying smart and safe, he reminds you to read. “It’s good for both of us.