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Dealing with Family Racism
It Just Never Ends
OK maybe when you read this, you won't call what I went through racism. It is after all doubtful that I am a member of the race the tormentor claimed I was. But what do you call it then? To be attacked in your formative years, repeatedly, for the crime of being said race, then worse still, to have the rumor all around town. Well now.
I still don't understand to this day what really set my step grandfather off. Do I really resemble a race other than my own? Am I part of one? Depending on the day and the mood he was in, said blood either came from my father's side of the family, or my mother's.
But hopefully somebody out there knows what I am talking about.
Grief monument photo by Sarcastic Sarah
For some reason from my earliest memory my step grandfather was a hateful man. He especially hated me, though since I was a good substitute when he couldn't go out with his gambling buddies, he'd act half civil for a card game. At first. Then it would start to come out. Cotton picking this, brown-skinned that. A liberal use of the n-word, speculation on my doubtful parentage.
While it is true I liked African American music at the time, I don't think that was it, though it was a huge part of the problem. I do know that the man despised African Americans as a whole, blaming them for some nameless reason, for everything wrong in his life. Hating me as much as he did perhaps made him see me as one of them, though in his rantings he swore he knew I was African American and could prove it.
OK even from very small I loved the bands from the 40s and 50s. Growing up in the 80s I saw no difference between say, Chubby Checker or Buddy Holly. Music was music. Yes I was aware African American artists and disc jockeys that dared to play the music faced a lot of hate, but I didn't know the hate lived on.
So I think I may have mentioned having the McDonald's tape set, mentioned something that set my step grandfather off. I think it was Blueberry Hill. Soon as I said it the smile disappeared completely from his face. How dare I mention that man, or that type of music? I assure you I'm cleaning up his language and descriptions mightily.
Then he would start in with how it proved I was African American, and how one day he'd get a knife and prove it, because I'd bleed the way they did. Where he got the lunatic impression people of African decent bleed differently, I don't know. Sometimes he'd get the knife, threaten me with it.
You might be asking where my grandmother was at the time. Ha. He used to beat both her and my mom with a pit belt. A thick strap belt men who worked in mines wore. Though he didn't dare lay a hand on me, his mouth was more than enough abuse.
Since he was also a drunkard, he'd loudly tell his cronies in the bar about this discovery,of my innate blackness. Sure enough it got around school. Either kids laughed, threw rocks (welcome to Racism, USA), or avoided me. The one or two African American students just looked at me in horror.
I'm not entirely sure, but I think the impression was that I was somehow trying to be African American through listening to those records. Which, I kid you not, was something, even in the 80s white kids were not allowed to do in this area. Listening to the records, dear.
I was not only told I was African American I was assigned every negative attribute they have ever endured. I was called, sneaky, lazy, stupid. A sneak thief. Even my own grandmother would hit me and tell me it was the African in me coming out. Keep in mind she denied any African heritage, and again I stress, it is highly unlikely in our lily white family.
The result of course was that at first I'd listen to this music, the blues, ragtime, jazz in secret. But as more and more concerned adults told me it was downright evil to do so, I relented. I stopped listening to doo wop, blues, anything even remotely relaxing to me.
Good thing I loved classical masters, because apparently they were white enough for me to no longer be a "troublemaker". I think it gave me a definite chip on my shoulder, certainly made me dislike both the whites who attacked me, and the men and women whose music caused so much pain for me.
For a very long time I simply hated every human I saw, since they were bound to attack me for something. The music I once loved and adored, well, I would get up and leave if it came on. I didn't need a beating, verbal or otherwise for just being there, now did I?
- Explain to the child that that family member is an idiot and racism is NEVER acceptable.
- Teach children how racism hurts everyone.
- Soothe the child. Help him or her be proud of where they come from. Or the culture they choose to embrace.
- Educate. Teach children why it is important not to follow racist teachings, and how to stand up for themselves. Explain that liking other cultures and people is a good thing. Not something to be ashamed of.
- Remove the child from the hate. Honestly what is wrong with some folks? You need a free babysitter that bad? Racism hurts forever. Especially coming from a family member.
- Lead by example. Are you being racist or supporting racism by just shrugging off the hate? Even if the child isn't of the race being hated, he or she is learning hate is OK.
- If you child is being attacked for liking another culture, deal with it now. It is never OK to attack anyone based on cultural, sexual, racial, or any other preferences. Teach them that while everyone may not accept them, they should be proud to be who they are.
- If you hate the culture your child embraces, you hate the child along with it. Trust me, kids know hate when they feel it. He or she isn't trying to be anything but a human being who loves another culture. Stop the hate before it's too late.
- Introduce you child to people from the culture they admire, even if just through film and books. Remind them it is a good thing to love and embrace all cultures and people. They may grow up to be peace makers some day.
- Introduce other cultures too. Heck encourage your kid to be a peace loving, tree-hugging, culturally diverse, global-community-loving human being. Teach them we are one people on one planet.
Of course there were folks on the other side, African Americans, starting to show up on TV and in the news at roughly the same time. They didn't want white people listening to any African American music. It belonged to them, and that was final. Where they found these people I'll never know, but now I was getting racism in stereo.
So two groups of people said I couldn't hear the music I liked, talk to the people I liked, or do, feel, or think anything they didn't approve of. So I adopted death metal. Nobody is going to bother you for listening to it, especially if you have enough inner hatred and turmoil to go with it.
Honestly to this day, I couldn't tell you. There's no evidence anything but blatant racism made the adults around me overreact to my musical choices. There are, so far as I know, no mysterious relatives, though that nasty man would hint more than once that my real grandfather was, you guessed it, African American! Not that that would be a dishonor, of course not. But well, let's just say the descriptions about the event were lurid and disgusting. Can we say child abuse? I knew you could!
So why would that bother adults of the day? We are talking 1980s in the North, for the love of Mike. A time and a place racism was supposed to be long dead. The only thing I can say is that there was something about me, some attraction I felt to the music and culture other than my own that threatened everything they stood for. The ironic thing being, that in the end it reinforced my embrace of said culture since the musicians I listened to on tapes weren't around to brow beat me too. Not that I expected any better treatment from said musicians, since part of the terror campaign involved tales of them capturing me and cooking me in a gigantic pot. No, I'm not kidding. I was told they'd hate me on sight for the color of my skin. Wait, isn't that what everyone was doing now?
Don't worry, even a little kid figured out that was total BS racists were feeding me. If anything I creep poor African American friends out the first time the meet me. Because I'm so happy to see one of my own kind. See? Racism always backfires. Years of abuse only made me love those people I was accused of being a part of. I may not be African American by blood but in my spirit I know how they suffered.
Ebony and Ivory
Can you imagine getting in trouble for liking this song? I sure did. What did I want, a world of racial harmony? To this day the reaction of the so-called adults around me to racail unity and harmony saddens and puzzles me.
I don't want readers to think I'm feeling sorry for myself, or that I'm saying all people treat me a certain way. But even as recently as a year ago a woman from the local McMansions stopped me. Well I assume she was from there, because she was as coiffed and dressed up as most people do to go the the opera. All to go to a used store. I smiled at her because her overly dressed nature amused me, and I like most people on sight. I slowed down, wanting to tell her that was no way to be dressed if she wanted to fish for good deals. The paticular store not pricing many things until they took a look at you, much like a shrewd flea market dealer would do.
Now I will admit I wear comfy clothes most often when I go out. Maybe I was wearing jeans and a tee. Could have been either one of my beloved fedoras or ball caps on my head. Thinking back, it was summer and I had tanned up nicely. A sort of coppery color with cafe au lait undertones. Still, the minute the woman saw me, she ran towards me excitedly.
She was polite, but the kind of polite that said she was long used to having people who worked for her do things. She told me I was going to do the work of moving heavy things into her car. Just told me, like that. But she was nice about it. Well I do like to be helpful, even when people show terrible manners, so I asked her why she stopped me, a woman.
"Well your kind of people are used to this kind of work." I choked down the instant rage. True there has long been a class system here, and true I was on the lower end. My ancestors worked on farms, in mines, as maids. I also felt ashamed. Not because of what my family did, but because just by looking at me, the woman saw manual labor, not a human being.
"What do you mean, your kind of people?" I asked, in a growl. She stammered that my kind, well we were workers. She then cheerfully told me I wasn't like her, I couldn't feel the work like she would. So now I was subhuman too? She even invited to tell me how to do it, since I apparently wasn't smart enough to know. She had a lot of slow workers and liked us a lot. We were her charity cases.
My head shot up. I puffed up. Although she expected a pandering lackey, she wasn't about to get one. "Madam, I am a human being. I even have a University education and have done Shakespeare. I am not subhuman and I assure you I feel hard labor. Right now I feel appalled and ashamed that an American woman in this time and place would view me as a mule or the hired help. You madam, have to go back to cotillion classes and pay attention this time. Good day to you madam."
Her jaw flapped open most unbecomingly and I strode past her into the store. All I could spit out to my concerned friends who worked there was "She took one look at my skin, one look, and said I was only fit to work for her." When she entered a bit later and was checking out, one of the women who worked there looked at her. "Lady" she said "if you had talked to me that way, I would have hit you one. You're lucky it was a real polite lady you stopped." A few male customers, offended by my treatment chimed in. Needless to say the woman scurried out to her car and I've never seen her again.
I want the reader to notice I gave what I felt was the one right reaction. I was non-violent, I said me piece and walked away. I don't believe violence is the answer to anything. I was happy to be showered with love and affection by my friends afterwards, but wished to woman no harm. Her ignorance, I think you'll agree is like a prison she will likely never break out of. I don't have to join her.
Even though many of the adults around me were twisted by hate, I cam through more or less intact. True I am sensitive to this day about the color of my skin. Even having others of Italian decent tell me I'm rather dark for our kind raises my hackles. It both pleases me and disturbs me. After all there just does not seem to be one place this mutt is welcome.
I don't even identify as a race myself. I have so many contributing bloodlines Hines 57 is the best you'll get out of me. Am I white? Some say yes, some say no, depending on where you classify my various ancestral lines. Which are, so far as anyone knows is fifty percent German, followed by Polish and Italian. Though some folks claim Lithuanian blood too. All fairly light skinned people who can darkken dramatically with a little sunlight.
Honestly, I don't care what I am, other than a human being. I expect in this day and age to be able to not be bombarded with racist jibes, though honestly I still get them from folks who are only "teasing". So I've developed a devastating comeback. I very loudly and happily greet my brother or sister whatever since I can tell my own kind on sight. You have never seen a racist run that fast.
One of the things I did to try to understand why my family was the way it was, was to minor in sociology. I don't know if it was the minor, or just getting older but I concluded this:
When my grandparents and even parents were raised every "minority" was treated the same. People of so-called lesser races were all lumped together. Sometimes because we all had different skin or hair. Maybe because we didn't speak English. There was also always the difference of have or have not.
So my grandparents on my mother's side were taught our blood and our history was something to be ashamed of. The ONLY way to ever fit in was to act well, no offense meant, white. You couldn't speak Polish or tan too long, or respect anything that came from the old country. Sadly since African Americans were lumped in with everyone else, my grandparents felt threatened when I responded in a positive manner to the music I so dearly loved, and still do.
They felt they only way to deal with this threat to be included with other white folks was to attack me. When threats didn't work, they tried shame. When I at last tucked tail and seemed to give in the damage was already done. The "if you are going to act ____, then I'm going to treat you _____" left me bewildered and saddened.
I still to this day don't see anything wrong with loving the music I did and still do. I certainly wasn't trying to be anything other than a human being that loved good music. The irony of the whole thing is, we will never pass for "white". We have dark skin if we tan, different hair and eye color. If you know what an Italian, Pole or German is said to look like we are easy to spot.
I don't mind. I am at peace with the fact we mutts have only ourselves in a sense. We aren't white enough for some folks, not dark enough for others. Who's up for a rousing chorus of Stuck In The Middle With You?
I want to stress I harbor no grudge towards anybody. I know bigots of any race don't speak for everyone, no more than my twisted grandparents spoke for me. I'm just sharing my experience to show any young ones out there that life does go on. Things do get better. And you should only care about what you think of you. As the song goes: You see, you can't please
everyone, so you've got to please yourself.
Went to a Garden Party...
OK one explanation of the song is this. Ricky Nelson started out as a real square cat. Clean cut, the kind of boy who seemed safe to the adults. You know he had a crew cut and wore a suit at all times. A nice boy. This was fine as it was the style other singers had at the time. Well times changed and he made the choice of going on stage with long hair and modern clothes in front of the old crowd. People turned against him, all over that long hair. Though some swear it was the new music they hated. Either way, they judged him on sight, not on his character or merit as a human being.