My Father the Racist – What Made Him So?

So many kinds of racism, so many ways it hides or shows its true colors. In the Southern United States, with its centuries of enslaving Africans and Native Americans, white settlers, then citizens developed intricate, deep, subtle but often overt justifications for denying their human kinship to those they “kept.” The Bible told them so, for instance. Biblical justification based on the “sons of Ham” who denied the Christian God; whose skins were black. Or the cultural/racial differences which led whites from Northern Europe to define those with darker skins as barbarian, who spoke unintelligible languages, danced naked (God Forbid! As if the swooping necklines of 19th-century European/American gowns didn’t reveal quite a bit of flesh), etc. etc. By the 19th-century the pseudo-science of phrenology developed elaborate measurements of skull, nose, lips, etc, to separate “civilized” northern races from the benighted tribes of the south. Benighted as in night+be=not of the sun, not of the intellect.

As a student of racism and slavery, U.S. and worldwide, I am only a beginner, but I’ve read and observed enough to see how these basic ideas wormed their way deep into the psyche and social behavior of whites and blacks who practiced or were caught in this demeaning mistreatment of human kin. It’s deeply troubling to hurt what is alive, and worse still to deny kinship with those ultimately like oneself. Amounts to self-hate, yet this must never be acknowledged, must be shrouded in justification, or pushed violently away. Because if this kinship is acknowledged, accepted, embraced, then the whole structure which houses those differences comes crashing down, leaving black and white facing each other with a legacy of hurt. This could frighten those who’ve done the repressing.

Why my father raged so virulently against the African-Americans who shared our communities, while most whites, born and bred in Charleston, went about their accustomed ways with barely a murmur has everything to do with his status as a dark-haired, dark-eyed, strange-named Northerner. Consider this: a very good friend whom I met in first grade at Ashley Hall, the girls school where my parents sent me because they didn’t trust the segregated city schools to provide a decent education (they may well have been right, given that South Carolina was near the bottom of state expenditure for public schools)–anyway, this lovely girl, who became a lovely young woman, remained my friend well into high school. Her family pedigree was of the best Southern white stock; she dated a young man from wealthier but less ancient stock. Both families were “devoted” to black cooks and their children, yardmen and their children who once had worked or still did work for them. She and her boyfriend drove baskets of food and clothes into the segregated neighborhoods, to the doors of these black people. My Charleston friends retained kind, even affectionate attachments to their servants and recognized an obligation to them. No overt fear or hatred was displayed by either side that I could see, though the two groups were separated by a social and racial gulf.

Yet, the pain and rage of African-Americans burned or smoldered throughout the 1950s and 60s. I saw it riding the segregated city buses when tired black women carrying heavy shopping bags had to walk past empty seats to their segregated back of the bus. And then there were the sit-ins and civil rights marches, the rise of passive resistance and the “infiltration” of Northern whites who marched alongside Southern blacks for equal rights. At this point of “infiltration” my father became most enraged.

He knew no black people first hand–we couldn’t afford to hire “help,” nor would my staunch, self-reliant North Dakota mother have stomached any other woman in her kitchen. As a boy, my father, I learned years later, had been pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes. In Pittsburgh every Sunday his father, the Protestant “missionary,” walked his family up the hill to preach to Italian Catholic immigrants. My father and his brothers were dressed in white. Try to imagine the horror of having his Sunday white–bleached with “the blood of the lamb”–smeared with the hatred and derision of kinsmen. He was only a boy. How could he understand his father’s determined effort to wrench countrymen from the fist of Rome?

To my father, Catholicism meant “Roman Catholicism.” His Southern Italian family protested mightily the grip of Rome on their local priests, often the only educated men in a village. To my grandfather and great-grandfather, Protestantism equaled education sufficient to read the Bible oneself, and thus to take a more active role in political, legal and financial affairs. To become less downtrodden, less “enslaved.”

The fact that my father could not make a common cause with Southern African-Americans as they fought for equal education, equal access to the voting booths, to drinking fountains and public restrooms, to movie theaters and libraries–all the amenities and supports of public life–the fact that he howled against their rising up to protest. The fact that he imagined them knocking at his door intending to date one of his daughters–me! There all my history and explanation break down into one simple idea: he was afraid. Afraid with a fear so profound and unalloyed, so unexamined with reason and empathy, so untreated as a wound must be treated that the pain flooded his entire being and took him over. That was his burden. Which of course became my burden second-hand as I listened to him, recognized the gulf between what he feared and what was actually the case, and could do nothing to reason with him. I could only withdraw because he was too far gone, as we say. Too far gone most of the time to listen or grasp that his behavior was more disturbing than any threat he prophesied.

Though the margins of society are sometimes rich with innovation, they often contain those most vulnerable. There were few immigrant groups in Charleston when we moved there–a well-established Jewish community who owned clothing stories along King Street. Did I know any others? No, I think not. Xenophobia–fear of outsiders, second cousin to racism. With a sensitivity honed by his childhood traumas (I’m guessing), my father didn’t have to think, he could smell how closely hatred breathed. He created an armor of language; dyed himself in the hues of racial hatred to repel any notion that he, a Northern, deserved that hatred himself. I sometimes think he would have led a far calmer life had he remained in Pittsburgh among the Italian-immigrant community. There he unquestionably belonged. Though he might foray elsewhere, he could always return to those who recognized him for what he was–the Protestant minister’s second son with a talent for the violin and a yen to become American. But this he could accomplish gradually, never entirely disowning his European identity. The religious conflict of his father’s generation would have quieted. Occasionally racism might have roused him to a thoughtless outburst but it might not have consumed years of his life. That’s sometimes what I wish for him. Where that would have left me, I can’t quite imagine.

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