Prejudice on Prejudice: Self-delusion


I live in the South. I should not have been as shocked as I was.

I say that, but I have often tried to defend the South, protect it from its own reputation. Back in grad school, Sarah Lawrence, famed for its liberalism in gender issues, gender equality, rich-kid black sheep, politics, agri-awareness, gluten free before most knew what gluten was, I had a roommate from Minnesota, still a dear friend. She came home with me one summer for a few weeks as college roomies tend to. Her very first crossing of the Mason-Dixon line. I quickly discovered she stepped off the plane feeling guarded, ready to step into activist mode just in case she witnessed inevitable acts of racism.

I laughed at her, really. What decade did she think she had deplaned into? What I watched instead was a young woman who had never really experienced integration. Here, she sat on buses, ate in restaurants, walked through galleries where workers and customers alike were black and white, socializing, equal. She liked to view herself as open-minded and completely racial-bias free, though reared in a 99.9% white city, attending the most expensive college in North America, where the only students in the one African American Literary studies class were all of the 27 African-American SLC students and one little white gal from the South, me (not her). It was tough for her to whisper to me in the Peachtree Diner that she just didn’t expect so many black people. She wasn’t a racist; just inexperienced. Easy to judge race relations isn’t it, when you never actually HAVE any yourself, right?

I returned to this theme when my husband took me for my second visit to San Francisco, his home town, famed for always being forward in human rights issues.
Again I found myself defending my South. We had spent the day sight seeing with one of Tony’s closest friends and his wife. Before they collected us at our hotel, we had encountered a completely naked man riding his bicycle around the Embarcadero fountain. Our youngest son who was nine at the time was so utterly shocked. Wasn’t that against the law (as his more modest older brother had threatened each time our youngest  streaked  the house after his baths)? He wanted to report this naked man to the local Mountie, who simply shrugged. Nine year olds are the fonts of Right vs. Wrong, and tattling. We quickly realized that hundreds of naked men, fleshy and taut alike, were straddling bikes for an annual protest of some sort. Hilarious little story we were sharing later with our friends-slash-tour guides.

Somehow this discussion transcended into parenting issues: whether living in SF where men can dangle their testicles out in public is as kid friendly as the South, where they believed racists bloomed on every veranda. Who would ever choose to raise children in the dirty South. . .? I defended this prejudice from folks who had never been to the South except maybe to gas up the family jet on their way to Europe.

I didn’t ingratiate myself when I asked just why they didn’t live or shop in Oakland? Why I didn’t see any African Americans sitting in this, their favorite restaurant, where we were enjoying each other’s company. I shared my observations of my former roommate’s visit. I don’t think they understood my point that they were as segregated as could be, but saw themselves as so evolved. Again, easy to judge when you don’t have any real race relations of your own to reflect upon.

I think what they heard me say was that racism is okay when you actually do have to rub shoulders. No, no. Not at all. My point was that the South in many ways has advanced much beyond where much of the rest of the country has, and one cannot know or praise his or her own metal unless it has been tested.

Last summer another close friend from California came to stay with us. Mike has three sons, two of whom are of mixed race, African-American and Thai. His youngest son and ours are great fast-friends, lego lovers, video game enthusiasts, mud grubbers in general. They see each other as cousins the way sons of good friends do. Again. . .sigh. . .Again, I was faced with that chip-on-shoulder mentality, the second Mike deplaned. He felt defensive in his son’s honor. I am not sure what he expected. Insults? Spit? After taking the boys to Walmart for a squirt gun run, he came home feeling exposed. He believed people were staring at this white Dad and his dark-skinned child.

“Both blacks and whites were looking at me funny.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes! Man, it was weird.”

“Are you sure?” I laughed at him. “Noooooo. Really?” I was not buying it.

“Well. . .I think so. . .” he waffled.

I launched into the story of my former college roommate, her assumptions. Mike acknowledged that he had never seen so many various races in one suburb before, just like my roomie had noted years ago. My hubby snorted at him, too, and said, “I think you’re just too sensitive.”

I teach at a local school, which is integrated, but majority black. If I was forced to guess, I would say that a good 25% of my kids are of mixed race, with one parent being white or Latino and the other African American. No one is giving each other the stink eye at Open House PTA nights. I can probably look up the stats since census loves to pigeon hole us. But my point to our friend Mike was this: “I’d bet that seeing you and your son is more ‘normal’ to the people you run into here than to the circles you encounter out West.”

Yes, I was right. His son attends a school that is primarily white. Mike knows very few other integrated families. But because being so liberal is knee-jerk there, Mike assumes that his segregated community isn’t nearly as judgmental as my South is. He was projecting his fears onto these Walmart shoppers.

What should we call this prejudice, the South-is-all-Racist-ism? Southernerphobia?

So here I am. . .a history of defending the new South, feeling that we have crossed bridges that other people haven’t even witnessed yet. So when I say I was shocked, but I don’t know why since I am in the deep South, I’m ironic.

This past Sunday, my mother-in-law who retired here from San Carlos, California, five years ago loves to throw St. Paddy’s day parties. She had us, my sister and brother-in-law, and several of her neighbors over for Corned Beef and Cabbage. I finally got to meet the famously sweet, Gloria, a retired baker who had been praying and baking for me for months now. I had eaten some of her most delicious strawberry cakes, lemon pound cakes, and tea cookies, for she knew I had been hospitalized and recuperating from major surgery, and gave to me because she loves her neighbor; it’s what Godly Southern women do. With her elegant upswept hair, her feminine sweater-set and pearls, she bear-hugged me and drawled about how many prayers she had been sending to God just for me to get better.

Somehow, even though we have been taught repeatedly to never discuss religion or politics in social settings, the discussion shifted to politics as it does in a social setting. Started on the topic of beer, shifted to “best beer”, to Yuengling, then to Obama’s favorite beer being Yuengling.

Sweet little old cake baker opens her mouth, “Oh Lord, not Obama. . .”starts to hesitate, but says, “Oh, I’m sure everyone here agrees with my vote. . .” Scary, words, those.

My dear sister-in-law laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t know. A bunch of us are from California. . .heh heh.”  As in Hint. Hint.  Don’t go there, Lady.

This doesn’t stop old lady from saying with such sharpened vitriol, “I just don’t know why somebody hasn’t SHOT that black boy yet!”

My mouth fell open.   She was so Certain we agreed. Probably proud that she had politely said ” boy” instead of the forbidden N word. I HUFFED at her, but she kept talking on and on, and all I could do was say as gently as possible, “Really! Okay, enough of that. We do NOT all agree with you. That is enough of that talk. Stop it now.” And I stormed into the kitchen, well, as fast as my recuperating body can move.

I am not coddled here;  I have experienced and witnessed acts of racism from my peers and students;  (“White people smell like wet dog” to “Oh, I can’t learn here if it’s going to be all black . .. “) BUT I had not heard anything that racist since I was a child stationed with my Dad outside of Boston. I had definitely  never heard anything that unpatriotic, that TREASONOUS in person. Ever.

How could I break bread with this woman in a few minutes and sit down later to a plate full of her cake? I did not want to ruin my sweet Mother-in-law’s dinner simply because a particular breed of bird was singing her breed’s tune. Luckily, my reaction was enough to cow the lady, who was morosely quiet during dinner, and who then skittered away soon after her last bite.

But I felt all my defense of how far we’d come in The South was just a waste of my breath. Was it? Or is she just some old lady squawking what seemed normal to her generation? SHE is why my friends come here with their defenses up; no matter how ivory tower some of my friends might be, there is always some Genteel Christian Racist to help them feel liberal.