“I wish you’d just married a black girl.” These were the first words my mother said to me when I brought my Asian wife home to meet my family in the Mississippi Delta. Thing is, I wasn’t that offended, for I realized that Mom was honestly trying to be polite by not using the n-word instead, and by pulling me off to one side on the front porch where my wife couldn’t hear her words. I replied by giving her a hug, and we all went inside the house.
That was in 1991. I’d grown up in the Delta fiercely proud of my Southern heritage. Just down the road was a Southern Baptist church where all my direct line lay buried all the way back to 1870. In my room I kept my own Confederate battle flag, the old Stars and Bars, and to me, it hearkened back to a time when Southern gentlemen knew what nobility and courtesy and gallantry really meant. We lived way out in the boonies of Sunflower County, eight miles from the nearest (very small) town, and my high school was in the next county over. We had cotton fields in front and in back of our house, a soybean field to one side, and a little farm store on the other side. Sometimes hours would go by before a car would pass by on the road in front of our house. Looking back, I must admit I miss the calm and quiet, being able to recognize everyone, and actually considering those around us to be our neighbors (even if they did live several miles away).
But such wistful memories should not be mistaken for some kind of deep-seated desire to go back to the Delta of my youth or even the Delta of today, for along with the seemingly perpetual stability of social and family life came willful ignorance of the wide world around us, and automatic suspicion of those who looked or worshiped differently from ourselves. As a child growing up in the Delta, I really didn’t hear much about racism from my family or even at school. I knew that the Delta was the very deepest of the Deep South, that nowhere else was as “Southern” as we were (and we were all inordinately proud of that fact), but what I didn’t know was that the Mississippi Delta was ground zero for racism in America. Slavery started elsewhere, and Jim Crow started elsewhere, and racial violence was rare, always seeming to happen in Chicago or St. Louis or some other big city, but not so much in the Delta. See, we all knew our places here, and as long as everyone stayed in their proper place in society, we’d all get along and everything would be fine. We knew there was racism, but that was a problem with other places, but not in our Delta, and certainly not with our family.
After all, how could we be called “racist” when every single year that rolled around we’d give clothes and money and even armloads of food from our garden to blacks who lived in the area? We didn’t feel any malice towards blacks for being black, so how could we be racist at all? Heck, if any of our black neighbors were in danger, we’d risk our lives to save them without a second thought, so we can’t have been racist, right? Right?
But we were racist indeed.
We’d hand them the clothes or money or food in the deepest of Southern Hospitality tradition and with the sincerest of Southern Baptist smiles, but as soon as we were out of earshot and where we were among family or trusted fellow whites, out would come all our assumptions and allegations and accusations about blacks (and of course we’d only use the word “black” when we were trying to politically correct), and we told each other every n-word joke in the proverbial book. But even then, we honestly believed we weren’t racist because we felt no malice towards them. In fact, we would have been greatly and sincerely offended if anyone accused us of being racists. The real racists, we told each other, were those few remaining idiots who still played dress-up with those silly-assed robes and hoods.
What we did not realize, and what most racists don’t understand even today, is that racism does not require malice. All racism requires is an untoward assumption about another race based on nothing more than the race itself. That, and racism in private settings among like-minded fellows (such as is described above) is still racism. So not only did we not realize that we were racist, we never grasped how severely our private racism affected our public, social, and political attitudes to the point that our racism was pervasive, an integral part of nearly every public, social, and political interaction. To those of us growing up in such a societal anomaly, this all seemed normal. Of course there were no black kids who attended the local academy over in Indianola even though the town was nearly 80% black (and even now admits only a handful of black students). Of course no white man would publicly go out with a black girl there, and any black man who dared go out with a white girl would be taking his life into his own hands (and any whites so involved would be forever ostracized from the local society). Of course (even as late as 1984) the only doctor’s office in Shaw still had “white” and “colored” entrances (that the people still obeyed), even if the inch-deep chiseled words had a solid coat of green paint over them. This was all normal, expected, and not in any way controversial to us whites who grew up there…because that’s the way it had always been.
I left my family in 1981 to join the Navy and see the world. “The Navy — it’s not just a job, but an adventure” was the recruiting slogan at the time, and truer advertising was never published. I had so many adventures over the years (even though I almost never realized it at the time), every one of which taught me a different lesson. The most important lesson of all, however, is epitomized in a quote by one of the South’s favorite sons, Mark Twain:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
I returned on leave year after year, and every time I visited, it seemed more and more as if we now spoke two different languages. Of course I had seen and done things they’d never imagined, but what really began to drive us apart was that my travels had not only shown me that America didn’t have the best of everything and that America wasn’t automatically the best place to raise a family, but also that while cultures and religions may be wildly different, people really are the same all over the world. Yes, these sound too obvious to most readers, but these concepts were nothing short of heresy to those whites who were steeped in and strove to emulate the traditions of the Mississippi Delta.
This is why they were deeply hurt by my decision to marry someone from the Philippines. To my mother, this meant that her only grandchildren would be half-brown, and might have funny-looking eyes, but at least she tried not to directly offend my wife. My grandmother (whom I strongly suspect was bipolar) was not just less circumspect, but even rude to my wife, and we left the very next morning and had to stay in a local motel until our scheduled train back to the Seattle area. The years went by and I made peace with my family in the Delta (though they were utterly scandalized (and shamed to local society) to find out I was an enthusiastic Obama supporter), and they’ve all since passed away and are buried in that same cemetery I mentioned above.
That was my journey out of racism. To those for whom the fight against racism is important, it is crucial that we first understand the real mindset of most racists. I hope my story shows that most racists don’t even realize that they are racist at all. As with my own family in the Delta, most racists are not hateful, but instead are good-hearted, well-meaning, honest people who hold no actual malice towards those of other races (or ethnicities or religions), but who nonetheless have untoward assumptions about those who belong to other races, ethnicities, and religions. It is because of this unrecognized racism that they allow themselves to be manipulated by those who are even more racist than themselves, and they assure each other that they really are good and patriotic Americans trying to do what’s right for America. It reminds me of nothing so much as a quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good”.