There’s a poison that contaminates my childhood memories and present day interactions. It has trickled down through generations, robbing me of the ability to feel proud of my heritage. It’s even difficult to discuss this poison publicly, because it infects people I love dearly, and while they may not feel its shame, I do. I’m talking about racism.
I grew up lower middle class in rural North Carolina. The elementary school I attended was kindergarten through 8th grade, and at its highest enrollment had about 300 students. I estimate 99 percent of the students were white, as were 100 percent of the teachers. Our foreign language education (French) was eliminated in 5th grade. (I remember that clearly because I was disappointed.)
I was raised Southern Baptist. My church was also all white. I will avoid telling specific instances of racism in my family and community because I feel an impulse to protect the people I love, even when I abhor their racist ideologies. All you need to know is that I was not allowed to interact with black people or their culture. At that time, I’m not even sure my hometown had even the most white-washed of ethnic restaurants. Chinese and Mexican food moved in when I was a teenager. (Or at least that’s how I remember it.)
The high school I attended was much more diverse, though whites were still a huge majority. The social groups seemed naturally segregated, with only a few kids crossing the lines between groups. I remember at least one big fight over racial tensions.
Somehow, from an early age, I sensed the inherent wrongness of racism. Of course some prejudices seeped in and had to be dealt with as an adult. But overall I remember knowing very clearly that the racism in my family and community was not simply wrong, but a pernicious and ugly evil. Looking back, I’m not sure where I diverged from my upbringing. My mom never actively espoused racism but passively accepted it in others. I attribute much of my understanding to her.
I was also in church once or twice a week, memorizing Bible verses and singing songs. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” goes the children’s Sunday school classic. It boggles my mind to think how that song was passed down through the years by people who most certainly did not treat people of color as souls that God himself holds precious. But I guess I took the song at its word. Besides, I could never find anything in the Bible that supported racial prejudice. I knew that certain verses had been twisted by racists and segregationists to support slavery and Jim Crow, but their manipulations seemed to me quite obvious and in direct opposition to everything Jesus taught. When I questioned elders about this lack of Biblical support for prejudice and racism, I was told it was simply common sense that the races should remain separate.
Education and travel only reinforced and strengthened my childhood aversion to racism. I began to question everything I was taught, and on many issues (Okay, most issues) I found myself breaking away from conservative teaching. My generation seems torn between the two. I know lots of people my age who have abandoned that part of their upbringing. Others in my generation have adopted a sort of Racism Lite™ which is not as readily noticeable as that of their elders but is definitely still toxic. I squeamishly consider this progress. But why have some of us been able to break away and others not? Why are some people completely content to accept what they’re taught without questioning it? Because as we all know, racism is not a genetic malady: it has to be taught.
My great-great-grandmother, Hattie.
Recently I became fascinated with Ancestry.com. (Before people start jumping in to warn me of potential inaccuracies, let me say I take it with a grain of salt.) For the unfamiliar, Ancestry.com gives you access to tons of historical records: census data, military records, birth and death certificates, etc. The site also links you to family trees that overlap with yours, and you can import their data into your tree. Using this method I’ve been able to trace my lineage extraordinarily far back in time. Naturally, the further back in time, the more room for error. But it’s a fun experience nevertheless.
I didn’t find much that surprised me. Each branch of my family descended from people who came to the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. All of them were European (German, Swiss, English, Scottish) and all of them were Protestant. Once they arrived in North Carolina, specifically the Piedmont area, they stayed. And stayed, and stayed. And most of us are still here! So far I have only found one Native American in my family tree; a Cherokee woman from Virginia.
As you’d expect, I found several Confederate soldiers in my lineage. I’m not proud of that but I recognize they were poor farmers and had no choice in the matter, whether or not they supported slavery. So far I’ve only found one relative who owned slaves, and even he was no plantation owner. What I did find was a noticeable lack of education. Some of the old census records document education and literacy. Many of my ancestors were illiterate. Others had not attended school but listed they were able to read and write, which begs the question, exactly how literate could they have been?
Even as recent as my grandparents’ generation, some of them didn’t finish high school and none of them went to college. While I understand that statistically there are probably lots of professors, engineers, and doctors who were and are racist, I can’t help but think my generation has benefitted from our free, public education, laws that kept us in school to at least the age of 16, and technology that brought other cultures into our homes.
Education is Key
The recent passing of net neutrality is a step in the right direction for our country, as well as the legalization of municipal broadband. I see easy and cheap access to information as a way to hasten the downfall of racism, and all kinds of prejudice. I’m very worried, however, about the recent Conservative attacks on education in our country. I’ve read about Republicans in Texas removing critical thinkings skills from public school curricula, Republicans in Oklahoma banning the AP U.S. history course because it didn’t reflect the positive aspects of United States history, and Republicans in my home state of North Carolina are busy slashing funding to certain public university programs. I don’t have any answers for how to stop this onslaught, except to vote in better representatives. But as education rates drop and poverty climbs, the backwards thinking that has caused so much suffering in our country will be much slower to change. I try to remain optimistic, reminding myself that change happening slowly is still change, but for people whose lives are literally lost in the meantime, that’s little comfort.