(Author’s warning: “Racially insensitive” material)
The brouhaha that has arisen over the “name-calling” episode involving Rush Limbaugh, as well as the charge that a chant of “USA! USA!” at a high-school basketball game in San Antonio, Texas (where I went to school), is racist, brought to mind a very specific incident. I remember it clearly.
I came home, parked my bike carefully (You took care of stuff back then. It was hard to come by.) and ran into the kitchen. “Hi, Mama!” I made a sandwich, sat down (“Ben, say grace”), prayed over it and took a bite.
Between bites, I asked Mama a question: “Mama, what’s a “nigger”? This was the first time I had been called that. (Unlike today, especially among rap and hip-hop artists, we didn’t use that terminology among ourselves.) She looked over at me with no change of attitude and said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full. Why?”
I replied, “Somebody called me that on the way home.”
Now, Mama had options: 1) She could have dropped everything, broke down, began to weep and moan, “Oh, they called my baby a nigger.” Then, for the future I would have known how to respond; I should immediately begin to feel sorry for myself. Poor me! Black folks are objects of pity. 2) She could have slammed her dishes down, grabbed me by the hand, screaming, “What?! Who said that?! Come on, we’re going to see about THIS!” Then I would have known, “Call me that and you have a fight on your hands!” But Mama chose a third option. “Do you know what that means, Ben?” “No, Ma’am,” I dutifully replied. “Well,” she said, “go look it up in the dictionary.”
Now there were two things we never did in our house, and both of them were argue with Mama. Mama, who taught school, was a teacher in the truest sense of the word. (She also kept a dictionary in the house.) So, I took another bite of sandwich and went to look it up. “Nigger: person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, stingy, miserly, tight, grudging; a victim; a person who is economically, politically, or socially disenfranchised.” I read it a couple of times (I had to look up a couple of the adjectives) and then went back to finishing my sandwich.
“Did you find it?” asked Mama
“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied.
“Well?” she asked.
“I ain’t one of them,” I declared.
She stared at me, “Excuse me, what did you just say?” “I ain’t … I’m not any of those things.” And that was the end of that.
From that moment on, that word had no more meaning for me than Martian. What Mama was saying to me by her actions was: You are who you think you are, not who someone else says you are, and you are only responsible for your own ignorance, not others.’ Her response to that incident could have – from that moment on – had a major negative influence in establishing who I was.
Today, the “race card” has become an integral part of the American political lexicon. Racist and racism are often thrown about with (or without) the slightest justification or provocation. Anyone who may object to almost anything having to do with civil liberties is immediately linked to civil rights and, by extension, the racism of a bygone era. With all due respect, and at the risk of offending many, the overwhelming majority of people playing the race card have no idea what genuine, hard-core, bonafide racism is. Others, who may know, have ulterior motives (BlackYellowdogs.com).
Before we go any further, let me state for the record: America is not perfect, but neither is any other country on this planet. Perfection exists only in heaven. (If you are an atheist, you deny even that.) I had the good fortune to have been born in the U.S., and I have lived long enough to have witnessed (and experienced) firsthand the rigid segregation of the ’40s, ’50s and the civil rights movement of the ’60s. I also have had the privilege of visiting numerous countries on three continents, including the one referred to by some African-Americans as “the mother country”: Africa. As a result of these and other life experiences, in my opinion, the vast majority of people crying “racism!” and/or “discrimination!” have no earthly idea what they are talking about.
Are there racists around today? Yes, there are. However, the real, classical, bone-deep racism of yesteryear no longer exists in America as a whole, and the overwhelming majority of white Americans simply is not racist; in fact, in many cases, they bend over backward to prove that. It seems to me that if white America were as racist as the critics allege, then the “racist” label would be eagerly sought out and diligently applied by all candidates for public office. However, here is a dirty little secret: The reason the racist label is kept moistened and ready for application is because of the certainty that if it sticks, the wearer is dead in the water.
So, “whatup wid dis racist/racism stuff?” As a revolutionary (nicknamed Malcolm Z) in the ’60s, I learned some of the basic tactics of Racial Rhetoric 101 in use today: Fight facts with fertilizer, history with histrionics, and when all else fails, bring out the name calling – Whitey, Honky and Cracker. (Avoid Redneck – it’s been favorably co-opted). Racist can be used quite effectively as a modifier for conservatives, Republicans, bankers, homophobes, etc. (For effect, this is best done with a slight curl of the left side of the upper lip. Dreadlocks, or a shaved head with a fu manchu mustache, maximize impact.)
As I have said on numerous occasions, most of what is classified as racism today is something I call virtual racism. This virtual racism, which is causing such heartburn today, would have, back in the day, been hailed by rank-and-file blacks as having reached the Promised Land! In my opinion (I am still entitled to one of my own?), this virtual racism is like a video game – virtual football or virtual war games; you can get quite exercised about it, but all things being equal, it’s not likely to draw blood.
Here is just a brief refresher for those stressed out by virtual racism. Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School (who was stabbed and had acid, which could have blinded her, thrown in her face) had this to say: “My eight friends and I paid for the integration of Central High with our innocence. During those years when we desperately needed approval from our peers, we were victims of the most harsh rejection imaginable. The physical and psychological punishment we endured profoundly affected our lives. It transformed us into warriors who dared not cry, even when we suffered intolerable pain.”
And lest we forget, real (not virtual) lynchings occurred from the late 1800s into the 1950s. During that time, according to Tuskegee Institute, 4,730 lynchings took place: 3,437 blacks and 1,293 whites (mostly Republicans) (BlackYellowdogs.com).
Seems to me, the prospect of having been possibly red-lined for a loan, perhaps not being promoted, encountering an insensitive clerk in a department store or deliberately slow service in a restaurant could be an occasion for singing, “We have overcome!”
Offhand, I’d say times have changed.