Confronting racism, then and now: a confession and an apology

I’m about to share with you the most humiliating moment of my life.

This morning something deeply disturbing happened to my 13 year-old nephew, Christopher. He got a text message, which had been forwarded around from person to person, from one of his best friends, a girl we’ll call Ashley. It went something like this:

America has elected a nigger. Today in school show your support for the KKK by refusinshookg to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Christopher lives in Alabama, where this kind of ignorance isn’t terribly hard to find, and he’s a bit more advanced than some of his classmates where racial issues are concerned. He grew up in Charlotte (and NC urban areas are a lot more progressive than the outback), has always had black and biracial friends, and like so many kids of his generation he simply doesn’t see race as a big deal. He’s not blind to the fact that racism exists, of course, but it’s never been a factor in his personal life. A couple years ago, though, my sister and her family moved to Huntsville, and she reports that things are very different on the cultural front.

Christopher was beside himself. When he saw the message he told his mother that he thought he was going to be sick, and when I talked to him a few minutes later he was obviously shaken. He couldn’t believe that Ashley, someone that his whole family really likes (my sister says she’s almost become family), would pass something like that on. He was going to talk to her, when he got to school, to see if she even had any idea about what she had done.

You know kids, you know school, you know what it was to be that age. We all did appalling things, and maybe this is a case where a fundamentally good girl did something simply because she didn’t grasp what it meant. Christopher wants to make sure she understands some things about the Klan – he doesn’t think the kids in his school really know what it is – and he wants her to understand the group’s history, to understand things like church bombings and the struggle for civil rights.

Christopher understands how remarkable last night was: a black man elected president, when not very long ago – during his parents’ lives, in fact – a black man had to drink from a separate water fountain, sit in the back of a bus, and so on.

Those who know me and read me realize that I not only write about racism in America, I go after it with an almost feral passion. In fact, some haven’t fully understood my methods – not that they don’t get why I think it’s important, but they have perceived in my writing something they couldn’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the language I use, maybe it’s my tone, maybe it’s a vehemence that seems a little more than they can explain, I can’t really say. But I have been questioned about it, and before this moment I’ve never provided the real answer. There is a story, though, and it’s a painful one that I’ve been carrying around for 30 years.

I attended Ledford High School in Thomasville, NC. We were located in a very white corner of Davidson County, which yesterday voted 2-1 for McCain. Ledford had around 900 students. We were very white, very Protestant, and very prejudiced in just about every way possible. LHS had no Jews that I knew of and only a couple kids who’d admit to being Catholic. Maybe five of my fellow students were black.

It was the late ’70s and enlightenment had not yet established much of a foothold in northern Davidson County. Everybody was racist because that’s just how it was. I was a typically insecure kid who had no damned clue who I was or how I fit in. Even though I was smart and comparatively well actualized compared to a lot of my classmates, I was still a product of and captive of the place, the time, the culture.

(Before I go any further, let me make something clear. I’m explaining what I was and why, but I am not excusing myself.)

One afternoon a group of us were standing on the corner of the school by the parking lot, talking, carrying on, joking – in other words, being high school kids. The jokes were, predictably, racist. And here, let me take it a step further, because I think the term “racist joke” is too polite and euphemistic to convey the ugliness of what was really going on, so what we were doing was telling nigger jokes. A small group of redneck kids, telling nigger jokes.

And I was one of them. About halfway through my joke I see the face of the guy across from me clinch up in that “shhh, here he comes” kind of way. I glanced over my shoulder, to see Louis Banks – one of our five black students – walking up. He’d heard me, he’d heard what I had said. Louis was a year older than me, I think, and was a pretty good guy. I’d been on various sports teams with him, liked him, had never had any problems with him, and so on.

Louis looked at me. It was a look I will never forget, no matter how long I live. He turned his head to the side just a bit, so as to regard me out of the corner of his eye, and then shook his head slightly. “Ohhhh, Norris…” (That was the name I went by back then – my middle name, appropriately enough my father’s name.) He shook his head again as he walked off. It was very quiet for a few moments.

I was humiliated. And if you haven’t caught on yet, I’m still humiliated. I will be until the day I die. Louis didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that, especially from a guy like me.

There’s little doubt that Louis could have stomped me bloody on the spot, and there’s less doubt that I’d have deserved it. But the look on his face wasn’t anger – it was hurt. Hurt, maybe surprise, maybe betrayal, and certainly disappointment. I don’t know what Louis Banks expected out of me, but the look in his eyes told me that I’d failed.

A few minutes ago I told this story to my wife, and before that I’d never spoken of it to anyone. I doubt the guys who were with me that day would remember, and who knows if Louis does or not. I’m guessing that what I did to him that day wasn’t a lot different than what he put up with most days, so who knows.

But tonight I needed to confess. Last night America hit a milestone. We haven’t extinguished racism for good, but something happened that Martin Luther King may have dreamed of. And this morning my nephew, who has grown up far less prejudiced than his uncle, got smacked in the face with the kind of ignorance that his uncle was once capable of. Christopher, though, reacted with deep humanity, an ingrained sense of the wrongness and injustice of it.

I’ve never traded in a lot of your stereotypical white guilt. In the grand scheme of things I was just one more ignorant redneck behaving the way that ignorant rednecks behave, but this has nonetheless been one of the most powerful moments of my life. When I see racism, when I encounter ignorance masquerading as faux-fairness, when I’m confronted with the injustice of people being denied a fair shake because of their skin color, my mind always takes me back to the day when I was the cracker, when I was the guy putting a minority in his place, when I was the guy with the fire hose.

I’ve tried to be a better man, tried to learn and grow and use my abilities and my passion to right some of the wrongs facing those born on the wrong side of the class barrier in America. But I haven’t seen Louis Banks in 30 years and I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly whole unless I can stand before him and apologize.

Tonight I’m happy that America has taken a small step down the road toward a place where race really doesn’t matter anymore. I’m incredibly proud of my nephew for undertsanding something I didn’t quite get when I was his age. And while I don’t say this often, I’m proud of my little sister, because kids don’t grasp those lessons on their own.

But mostly, I want to say I’m sorry to Louis Banks, although I don’t know where he is, what he’s doing, or if he’s even alive. Louis, I hope that last night you watched Barack Obama speak and that you were proud.

If I ever get the chance to say this to your face, to ask forgiveness in the same way I incurred the debt, I promise that I’ll do all in my power to make it happen.

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26 thoughts on “Confronting racism, then and now: a confession and an apology”

  1. Sam, I commend you for your courage in sharing this powerful story. Stories are what speak to us, and C.S. Lewis said “we read to know we’re not alone.” I am quite certain there are many other men today who were your age then, southern or not, who committed those same wrongs. Maybe the fact that Louis Banks heard you was your salvation.

    The other day I was (I admit) sneaking a peek at the text messages on my 14-year-old son’s cell phone. I’m conflicted about whether it’s appropriate as a parent ever to do this or not, but I think it’s important to keep tabs. I found something that disturbed me, but it wasn’t evidence of drinking or smoking pot or any of the usual worries. It was, rather, a “mistake” like the one you made, Sam. A friend had asked how a get-together was which my son had attended, and he replied, “It was gay.” That’s the diss word du jour among teenage boys these days, and we’ve discussed why it’s hurtful, and wrong, to use it. But here it was, coming from my otherwise intelligent, caring, well-adjusted son. It may take a gay person hearing him use that term to bring home the impact, far more than my lecturing. You have recognized, repented (if you will) and grown in these 30 years, Sam. And that is the best that any of us can do in our failings.

  2. Sam,

    I can’t say I’ve gone through anything like what you described. Growing up as part of a white minority in a small pineapple plantation town in Hawaii, I have a different perspective, I guess. If anything, I’ve seen the reverse happen, although “haoli” jokes probably don’t compare. The racism is/was definitely there…but even then I knew it was somewhat justified when you look at the history of the state.

    Closest thing I can come to that is while I was standing at a bus stop with a black guy. It was in Boulder, while I was in grad school. I never met the guy before. I have no idea why we started talking. You know me. I’m usually pretty anxious and anti-social when it comes to new people. Somehow we ended up talking about music. A bit about hip-hop, jazz, whatever. (I remember because I pretty much demonstrated my ignorance by saying “I like all the classics. Miles. Trane. And Grover Washington, Jr.” It’s true. I DID like them all. But while Grover’s good, but he ain’t Miles. The guy just looked at me and laughed.)

    Then I mentioned that my mom sings opera with the Hawaiian Opera Theater and that they were doing Aida that year.

    For those of you who don’t know, Aida is set in Egypt. And many of the main characters are slaves. This is where it gets confusing. There’s a word in the opera, “popolo.” The way it was explained to me is, the word means “common, low class people”, and in the case of Aida, mostly slaves. It’s pronounced PO-polo. The next thing you need to know is, the word for blacks in Hawaii is also “popolo,” but it’s pronounced po-PO-lo. It’s not derogatory. At least not any more than haoli is. Google the words, they both pop up.

    Try to imagine a room full of uber-cultured opera house people standing around learning the lyrics and walking through stage blocking for the show. There are a few whites, a few blacks, but mostly different flavors of Asian and Polynesian. And they’re all cracking up about how “We’re singing about slaves, not blacks. It’s PO-polo, not po-PO-lo!” Funny as hell, right? It’s just a bad pun. Maybe you had to be there, but even when I heard the story from my mom, I giggled a little.

    Now, try to imagine a blond haired, blue eyed white boy trying to explain this to a random black guy he met on the street. Not good. He just continued to look at me like I was an idiot. It didn’t even occur to me that this could be construed as racist. And once it dawned on me that this might not be the most appropriate conversation, I tried to explain myself.

    “It’s Hawaii,” I said. “Jokes like that are just part of the culture.”

    “I dunno,” he said. “I’ve heard my share of racial jokes and I don’t think they’re all that funny.”

    Racist? I thought. Racist? I knew I should shut up, but I kept going. “But it’s Hawaii,” I repeated. “The most popular comedians out there make a living of jokes like that. I grew up with it. Frank DiLima. Andy Bumatai. Rap Replinger. They’re all funny as hell. They tell ‘Portagee’ jokes like people over here tell Polish jokes. Chinese jokes are Jewish jokes. Frank DiLima once said the only reason he doesn’t make Haoli jokes is because they’re too damned boring. They’re basically Hawaii’s versions of Richard Pryor, creating characters out of their pasts…”

    Thankfully, I was saved by the bus at that point.

    I hope he didn’t think was all that big a deal. And, honestly, I don’t think I did anything wrong, either. Nor did the opera singers. But for some reason, the embarrassment of trying to explain that to someone on the outside, someone who likely experienced racism on a much greater scale than I ever did, has stuck with me.

    So what’s the point of all this? I guess it’s this. We all occasionally did stupid shit when it comes to race when we were young. Sometimes it’s hurtful. Sometimes it’s even intentional. But the fact that most of us eventually recognize that there’s something wrong with it, and do things in our lives to correct that wrong, is a good thing. It’s how we evolve as individuals. And, hopefully, how we evolve as a culture. You certainly have. So, give yourself a break.

  3. All of us Southern white boys did that, Sam. You know as well as I that it was more than a bit dangerous to be so far “outside” the Southern white boy community in your neighborhood that you would become a target. I used the word “nigger” until I was around 13 or so, when I discovered that I had been wrong, my father had been wrong, and my society had been wrong. After that, I did get too far outside the white boy community, and had “nigger lover” thrown my way more than a few times.

    I figure that was atonement enough.

    It was a time (and still is where I grew up) when we were what we were because it was the way we were raised. Some of us rejected what we’d learned as kids, the way Senator Robert Byrd of W.Va. rejected his roots in the KKK and earned a 100% in the NAACP’s 2003-2004 congressional report card for voting the NAACP’s way 33 times that year. Others (most I think) never changed, and raised their children to be just like them.

    Like you, I have no patience for racism. I believe it’s evil. Good for you for changing.

  4. I second ubertramp on giving yourself a break, Slammy. I also commend you for sharing something that has obviously caused you a great deal of pain. Lord knows that i’ve put my foot into my mouth more times than i’ll catalog here.

    But my thoughts yesterday tended towards something else. Having spend the first 25 year of my life or so amongst an almost equal number of black and whites, i thought of all the kids i knew who are dead or in jail (those i can confirm and those i cannot). Then i thought of the kids who are still kids, passing through the metal detectors to be forced into an education that they figure to be worthless. A ten year old black boy in Detroit probably doesn’t “know” that his life expectancy is, but he knows…kids aren’t stupid. Starting yesterday, a whole lot of things for those kids.

    The video linked below is mostly trite, but after the halfway point there is a young man trying to express his feelings about Obama’s victory. When i saw that Obama had won, it had a profound effect on me…but my tears came from thinking about a generation of black children who will now look up on the classroom wall and see a presidential portrait that doesn’t look like, “a sucker who doesn’t give a fuck about me.” (Ice Cube)

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2008/11/05/ec.brown.ron.clark.school.cnn

    I hope there are more children like the boy in the video than there are Ashleys, because that young man and Christopher can go a long, long way together.

  5. God bless you Sam for your BIG heart and desire to love all, even Steven. Sometimes we must get catch by the trap in order to understand it’s pain. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Sam, you haven’t just *tried* to be a better person, you *are* a better person.

    I am disappointed, but not at all surprised, to hear about what happened to your nephew. The good news is that he’s growing up knowing that this text message is wrong, and he’ll help others understand that, too. We make progress one small step at a time.

  7. Loving yourself is the hardest task of all.

    You don’t help anyone by whipping yourself as an adult for the ugliness of your environment when young…

    As for Obama I admire him for overcoming the racism that is found in both black and white communities. After J Jackson’s comments I wondered whether those tears streaming down his face were the genuine article. Was he hoping that, perhaps, his new President Elect may catch his wet face on the telly…

  8. Thanks for sharing that, Sam. It could not have been easy.

    I suffer from sort of a reverse racism. When I was a kid, I was really into sports and music. Blacks like Jim Brown, Tommy Smith, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane were gods to me.

    I was in awe of blacks. And the best part about it was — generalization alert! — when you got to know them, many turned out be down-to-earth and warm in ways with which I was unfamiliar growing up middle-class white.

    The way most kids today “don’t see color,” as Stephen Colbert puts it, is a source of wonder.

  9. A lot of the way that I live my life is in reaction to the way my father lives his. I hold down a government research job with a steady paycheck. He built second homes for stock brokers and his economic fate was tied closely to the whims of the stock market. I got two degrees in anthropology because I’m fascinated with the full spectrum of how humanity lives. My dad is fiercely xenophobic.

    I have done a lot of work for Obama’s campaign. It started about a year ago when I went to his campaign headquarters in Colorado soon after it opened to volunteer and brought my daughter with me. I went door-to-door in the dead of winter to gather up people in my precinct for the state’s caucus. I was the precinct captain and was nominated by my neighbors to run the caucus for my precinct and then as a state delegate. I traveled down to Colorado Springs for the state convention where they nominated those all-important national delegates. And that was just for the primaries.

    I remember the day my dad sat us kids down and told us he was racist. He said we were old enough to know and that he was protecting us by not saying so sooner.

    I remember the dark ride home in the pickup truck with my brother where my dad told us that an anonymous note was left at his office. It said that my sister was dating a nigger and he asked us if that was true and told us not to lie to him. I remember his anger and intensity. I remember his threats of hitting that kid with a shovel. We lied to him.

    I remember last summer when we were walking through the park and a couple of Hispanics were riding their bikes. “There are so many Mexicans riding bikes now that you don’t want to ride bikes anymore,” he said with that grin in his voice. “That is if you don’t want to be Mexican,” I replied. He then went on a defensive tirade about immigration control and how they would start taking over their country. It was then that I truly realized that anti-imigration stems from racism.

    My interest in Obama becoming a president didn’t start from his race. I started listening to his podcasts the summer before last and was taken by his intelligence, clear understanding of the issues and his ability to evenhandedly convey the arguments and options before giving his take and course of action. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I consciously or unconsciously worked a bit harder for him to make up for the sins of my father.

  10. I grew up and went to a school in PA that had 2 black kids, and I don’t think I ever heard the word “nigger” used in reference to them. When I did hear the word, it was more like hearing a swear word than anything, I hated the sound of it and felt sick when I heard it used.

    Now that I live in North Carolina, I find myself in a weird position.

    I occasionally have to drive through a black neighborhood and I have always had a habit of making eye contact with people who walk along the road and look my way. I can’t tell you how many times that I have made eye contact with a black person and raised my hand to acknowledge them only to be glared at or ignored.

    When this happens I find myself wondering if it is even worth trying to show a gesture of acknowledgment. It appears to me that there is an attitude in this area that only whites can be racist and if a black acts bigoted towards a white, it is justified in some manner.

    I hate what blacks endured in the past, as well as the Native Americans, the Jews, the Chinese and other races that suffered oppression, but how do we move forward when one is met with hostility or indifference when they try to be cordial? It is hard to know how react when you feel like you are held in contempt for being white.

    I hope that real healing can happen, but it is going to have to happen is both directions.

    Obama’s election was a step forward, but it is going to take all of us to keep the momentum going.

  11. Brian,

    I can’t say for sure what people are thinking, but it’s possible that the blacks who aren’t returning your greetings have been conditioned to know their place, even at this late date. Once upon a time a black dare not meet the gaze of a white, and if you’re black in NC … well, Jesse Motherfucking Helms hasn’t been dead for long.

    So keep doing your part. Keep being cordial and open. It’s not a battle that will be won with a single exchange, but you can keep doing your part and trusting that we’ll get there in time.

  12. There comes a point (or rather a set of points) in our lives when we become self-aware. Before then we’re not responsible for all the bullshit we do and believe because we’ve been spoon fed everything by our families, friends, and overall environment. After we become self-aware, we’re forced to either accept or reject everything about ourselves, either tacitly or explicitly, and from that point on we’re responsible. Not responsible just for ourselves (although primarily), but also responsible for those things that happen around us that we could have stopped or resisted.

    It strikes me that the corner with Louis Banks was one of the moments in your life when you became self-aware. And as a result, you took responsibility for your life regarding the racism you’d been fed up to that point – and you rejected it.

    Unlike a number of other commentors here, I’m not going to say you were, or are, being too hard on yourself. Because being so hard on yourself over this event in your life is part of what made you who you are now – you’ve transmuted humiliation into a source of amazing strength, a strength you’ve relied on probably since a few years after it happened.

    In my experience, everyone who has become truly self-aware has had moments in their life that were as humiliating to them as what you described was to you. Moments when they think to themselves “Oh my gods, what have I done…” and, upon reflection, “I’ll never do that again, or let anyone around me do that either.” Those moments become as integral to who we are as a first kiss, first car, first speeding ticket, loss of virginity, birth of a child, death of a first pet, and so on.

    On a more personal, less clinical note, racism and bigotry in general are like I’ve heard alcoholism is – you never fully recover, and only through constant vigilance can you ever be sure that you’re not falling back into old habits. In that vein:

    Hello, everyone. I’m Brian Angliss, and I’m a racist, sexist, homophobic, elitist, classist bigot (recovering).

  13. I know what it’s like to carry that unspoken shame. Yet its how you move the struggle against racism to the conscious plane. What comes next is even more painful, because being a white person and confronting racism is fraught with opportunities to make mistakes, say the wrong things, and alienate people you care about How much easier to be quiet and not take risks! But taking those risks is the least we can do.!

  14. Good for you for admitting your errors, but you’re right, there’s no excuse for it. Regardless of where you were raised or what kinds of friends you had, you wouldn’t have felt so guilty that day if you hadn’t already known in your heart, even then, that it was wrong…terribly wrong. I’m glad people are changing and I’m glad that not everyone stays racist. But don’t lets all stand around and pat ourselves on the back for admitting today that we did a terrible deed yesterday. This election is a sign that things are improving but as your nephew’s unwelcome text message points out, there’s a lot that needs to change still.

  15. I know exactly what you mean. I actually live in Huntsville, Alabama, and I grew up here as the son of transplanted New Englanders. I wish I could say that racial tensions here in Huntsville aren’t as bad as places like Cullman, because there are so many more people here who are educated and from other parts of the country and such, but in many ways the racism is still there, it just tends to linger below the surface using code words and such. It is still here and it is still strong for a lot of people, even here at my work.

  16. Sam,

    I empathize with you because I did exactly the same thing you did, except that the black kid was a good friend of mine and I was showing off in front of my other friends. I’ve felt bad about it for the last 40 years, and have often wondered about the friend I hurt. He never talked to me again, and that hurt worse than anything.

    Jeff

    Jeff

  17. Yup, I used “nigger” too a couple times when I was living in NOLA. I could make excuses, but mostly I just have a shame attack when I think about it. It kills me that there are people alive who’ve heard me use that word. Evolving leaves some serious scars. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans are screwed up about race, except maybe those lucky kids coming up today in a culture that has learned not to say evil things, even if it will sometimes communicate it in other ways (Hello, Fox News). Now, I’ve lived for years in New York City; I see interracial relationships all the time, and I’ve had a couple. if I travel to someplace that’s lily-white, I find it really unsettling. Progress, not perfection.

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