Racism, like tolerance, has to be learned. I remember a time when my grandmother took advantage of a “teachable moment.” We had a discussion on race, and I’ve never forgotten the simple lesson she taught.
When I was 10, my family went to the silver anniversary of relatives. Members of my extended family were there, and I realized, for the first time, that one of my aunts was black. After the party, I was alone with my grandmother, and I said something smart, I don’t remember what.
My grandmother sat me down at the kitchen table, and gave me a cookie and a glass of milk. She was quiet; I knew I’d said something wrong. Finally, she looked me in the eye and proclaimed, “Black is beautiful. Never, ever forget that.” I haven’t. With a minimum of words and a maximum of authority, she said what needed to be said. I understood what comments and ideas were acceptable and what weren’t.
Times were different: my aunt’s ancestry wasn’t discussed. That would have been considered insensitive. As an adult, I have questions; for instance, did she experience racism growing up? She wed my uncle in the 1950’s, were there miscegenation laws that made the marriage difficult? I’ve never asked my cousins what it was like for them, or how they define themselves racially. I’m from a generation that didn’t talk about those things.
It’s been many years since I’ve returned to the rural Midwest where I spent my early years, and I rarely see my aunt or cousins. I have no right to ask them personal questions now. Like my aunt’s ethnicity, my own Jewish ancestry was rarely discussed. I’ve found freedom and happiness in discovering those roots, and feel comfortable talking about my heritage. Times have changed, and being Jewish or being black isn’t such a private thing. I worry that much of our discretion was shame-based. Over the decades my extended family has grown, and includes more African Americans, Native Americans and many different religions. I’m proud of them all.
At a recent cocktail party, the topic of race came up, and I said, “This is America, all of us have African American relatives.” My comment was met with silence. In 2002, Penn State geneticist Mark Shriver did random DNA testing on Americans, and concluded 30% of “whites” have some African American ancestry (see Steve Sailer, “Race Now: How White are Blacks, How Black are Whites” UPI, May 8, 2002). Race, like sexuality or religion, is a social construct with no intrinsic meaning. In the end, we have the right to define ourselves however we please.
Two of the best books on race I’ve recently read are Maggie Anderson’s “Buying Black,” and Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking “The New Jim Crow.” Anderson proposes a plan of conscious consumerism; by supporting African American owned businesses, you can help both the high unemployment rate among blacks, and help black youths have a good role model. In addition, black-owned businesses keep money in the community. When I posted the link on social media, I was called “racist” and “divisive.” Huh? I’m a leftist and an AIDS activist. Can’t people be shocked by that? Buying from black-owned business is anemic compared to other ideas I’ve supported. It’s a capitalist idea, after all.
I wish I had my grandmother’s patience and common sense. I’m surprised and sad to have friends from childhood tell me I’m a racist for mentioning the topic of race. From this perspective, whites are the real persecuted group; white people have no voice, no power, no positions of authority…
The shocking murder of Trayvon Martin seems like a modern lynching. Is this America’s teachable moment? Is it possible for America to change its ingrained racism? During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama told the story of a conversation he had with his own grandmother, and her admission that she was sometimes afraid when she saw a black man. Maybe discussions of race have to begin around the kitchen table. If they’re done online or in the media, they too often result in ad hominem attacks. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all sit around the table, have milk and cookies, and learn? If we can find a quiet place within our own hearts, maybe this senseless murder can be America’s teachable moment.