#317 In which our hero thinks about racism and a big-fat cartoon–show cook and how he might be more like her than he’d really like to admit.
There’s been quite the kerfuffle on the Internet about the revelation that Paula Deen used the word “nigger” when she was younger and might just still be a bit racist. Now, I’ve seen this woman on her TV show, and find her to be a cartoon character with her over-enthusiastic “ya’lls” and overabundance of butter. And I guess I’m not surprised to hear that she thought a slavery-themed wedding might be a fun idea.
The general defense for her actions seems to be “that was a long time ago.” This got me thinking about my own past.
I grew up in a tiny town in eastern Ohio, near Youngstown. It’s located right in the “tri-state area” of Ohio, western Pennsylvania and the panhandle of West Virginia. It’s not the deep South by any stretch, but when I reflect on my youth, it’s clear there was a subtle, but prevalent, undercurrent of racism happening.
It was probably most evident in the language we used. When describing a temporary repair that is just thrown together, someone might say they “jury rigged” it. When I was a kid, we would say “nigger-rigged.” In fact, this is still the phrase that comes to mind even today when I’m describing something cobbled together. I don’t SAY it, of course, but I am embarrassed that this is the term that my brain automatically generates.
I know I did say this and, for what it’s worth, I know I didn’t say it with malice. This seems odd to admit, but it was just the term I was taught, I don’t think I ever considered the greater meaning. I might say “My seat fell off my bike, so I nigger-rigged it until I could get home.” I’m sure some of my friends did say it with malice, like “He used a coat hanger to nigger-rig his muffler back on, just like a stupid Black.” This isn’t meant as a defense of my slight racism, just an explanation.
As kids, we also played the game where you run up to someone’s house, ring the bell, then run away. My wife did this too, and she called it “ding-dong-ditch.” We called it “nigger knocking.” I realize now, as an adult, that that is just horrible. But again, it was the phase I was taught.
To be clear, I was never taught any overt racism. That is to say, my parents didn’t instruct me in the ways the negro race was inferior or anything like that. In fact, I think my parents were pretty progressive, given the time and their upbringing. But there’s no denying the subtle racism that was just present in my community.
There were exactly two black kids in my school, brothers. They were one and two years older than me. In high school terms, that means I really had no interaction with them. I can’t remember anyone being outright racist to them, although I’m certain that had to deal with it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways all their life.
As I ponder this, I realize that there was another act of racism that comes to mind that had nothing to do with these brothers, but in many ways was much more overt.
Three blocks from my house there was a guy who married an Asian woman. I realize that I really know nothing about them. They very much kept to themselves. I have the impression of the guy being a little twitchy and odd. I have absolutely no reason to believe this is true, but I always thought he was a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD (even though I wouldn’t have thought of it as “PTSD” then) and she was his war bride. This may be complete fantasy on my part. They had a daughter, who was considerably younger than me. Which means she was probably five or six years younger, a span of time that seems insignificant now, but in middle school/high school terms it means we were never in the same building at the same time, so she might of well have been in a different state.
There was a definite feeling of “otherness” to this family. Their front door had the knob in the middle of the door, not offset to one side, like you’d expect. Today, I’d think it looked like a Hobbit door, but I had not yet really gotten into Tolkien then, and I always thought of it as an “Asian” door, whatever that meant. I suspect now that it was just some architect trying to bring a little interest to an otherwise completely typical ranch style home… but then, it was (to me) a clear declaration that this family was different.
The mom used to walk her daughter to the bus stop, and wait with her until she got on. This was in and of itself a little unusual, being that this was small town America in the late 70s/early 80s, when parents basically let their kids run wild all over town and didn’t have to worry about them being kidnapped or killed. But, this woman stop heavily accented broken English, so clearly this wasn’t the world she grew up in.
Now, in 2013, as a parent myself, I can empathize. How scary must it have been to not know the culture, not really speak the language, and send your only child away for eight hours every day?
Our school district was pretty strict about where you got on the bus. It seems ridiculous to me now, but the bus made three stops alone the major road that bordered my neighborhood. Each stop was a block apart. Why they didn’t just have us all walk to the one location I do not know. I mention this, because I need to make it clear that I never personally witnessed what I’m going to describe next, only heard about it second hand, as it happened one bus stop farther down the road from mine.
This Asian mom was apparently a stickler for the rules. And the rules said that everyone waiting for the bus should stand in a single line, by age. Again, no other parents came out to wait with their kids except this one woman, so she was alone in her futile effort to keep everyone in line. Apparently, she was constantly telling the other kids (most of whom where my age) to please get back in line. In fact, she did it so often, that my friends made up a song about it.
It wasn’t clever, or even especially funny, even though we all laughed like idiots when anyone sang it. Thirty years later, I can still remember it clearly. It was sung in a stereotypical “Asian” sing-song voice:
Don’t get out of line,
I like to believe that my friends weren’t so terrible that they sang this in front of this woman or, worse, TO this woman. But they probably did.
If this woman had been Black, and a bunch of kids sang some sort of Amos & Andy song to her, it would never be tolerated. But because the Asian population was so small in my hometown (it might have been exactly one at that point) and, more to the point, since no-one was on the lookout for racism toward Asian people, things like this went on. And on.
I don’t know whatever became of this family. They stayed and dealt with it, or they moved on, I’ll probably never know.
If someone called me out for the racism I exhibited as a kid, I’m not sure what my answer would be. I suspect it wouldn’t be much different than Paula Deen’s. “It was a long time ago.” “Everyone said it then.” “I don’t say that stuff any more.”
Does that make me just as bad as her? I’d like to think not. But, I might just be fooling myself.