My mom’s older sister was a wonderful, kind woman who loved to laugh and always found joy in “the little things” as she liked to say, amidst the constant, debilitating pain she suffered at the hands of an insidiously severe form of rheumatoid arthritis for decades.
In 1993, when I was sixteen, I travelled from Oklahoma to my hometown in Michigan to stay with my Aunt and Uncle for a month on summer vacation. My plan was to bide my time between swimming in Lake Huron, which was within walking distance of their house, and developing a short but intensely passionate romance between myself and a girl I’d grown up with who was by that point a total hottie.
I did neither of those things; I spent most of my time indoors reading books and playing Nintendo.
One evening my aunt, my cousin, his wife, and myself were sitting at the dining room table eating ice cream.
My aunt launched into a tirade about the staff member who answered the phone at the motel my parents were staying at(they had taken a trip somewhere, don’t remember where), and said “Wouldn’t ya know, it was a (n-word)! They are so stupid.”
I was shocked. I had no idea that she felt that way. I’d grown up hearing from my mom that that kind of attitude was wrong. Why was she like that?
I argued with her, used the fuck word a few times. It was ugly and it was never spoken of again, but it changed things just a little bit and I know she was hurt and confused by my outburst. I left a scar.
At the time, I could not reconcile the idea of someone being a good person but also a racist.
Now, in retrospect, in light of how easily malleable and subject to suggestion peoples’ minds are, I understand that these ideas were hammered into her head from birth. My mom was able to blow it off, but her sister could not, I guess. The ideas stuck.
What good did it do me to lash out like that? What if I’d calmly countered her comment civility? What did I do except further reinforce her beliefs?
Racists are racist because of fear. When you attack or make fun of their beliefs, which they cling to out of fear, they’re going to double down and strengthen their defenses and become even more racist.
Suppose I’d said something like “Well I don’t think that’s cool.” We might’ve had a conversation instead of a one-sided shouting match culminating with me storming out of the room like a drama queen.
The best way to combat racism is not to confront, belittle and destroy a racist, negating their entire existence, but to be, as an individual, not racist.
Lead by example, and show people who feel threatened by other races that there isn’t anything to be afraid of.
You don’t want to write off racists as human garbage and reduce all of their personal merits and accomplishments to ash in the process just for good measure, to make certain “nothing survives.” You want to attempt to gently nudge them in the right direction in a non-condescending manner(Keep in mind that I’m talking about elderly relatives and not neo-Nazis, alright? Calm the fuck down.), and be patient with them.
I had many such altercations as a teenager. Most of them with people from church. I had a good(at the time)friend I’d grown up with, used to hang out with him all the time. His dad was Joe the dog kicker. Joe and his brothers basically ran the church, and they operated under the good ol’ boy system.
Whenever I was around any of my friend’s family, at some point someone would say something shockingly racist. I’d call them on it, and of course they eventually grew to hate me and went to great lengths to make my life miserable, but that’s a story for another post.
The point is, exactly what did I accomplish by repeatedly and angrily telling these guys that they were a bunch of “stupid racist redneck fuckers?” It didn’t change their minds. I made them even more racist, because I helped further the petrification of their hearts and minds, making them even more impossible to pry open.
I wasn’t “standing up for” anything or anybody. There was nothing to be gained. No minds were ever going to be influenced positively by my words. I’m not sorry about it, because those guys were all-around assholes and my friend has since grown up to become one as well. But my aunt? Ive always regretted that.
She lived an insulated existence. She didn’t live with or work around minorities. All she knew about them was what she’d been raised to believe.
My mom, on the other hand, moved to Chicago as a young woman and was a bit more worldly. She never developed that whole “racist old white person” thing.
My aunt was a hardworking. devout catholic who would bend over backwards to help friends and family. She raised several kids and did a wonderful job of it. She just had this “thing” that was placed in her head from a young age. A lot of people are able to rewrite that programming, and a lot of them aren’t. She wasn’t, I guess. That was the only time I ever heard her say anything like that, so it wasn’t some kind of malicious fixation.
Let’s not be so quick to throw old, set-in-their-ways racists to the lions, squealing in self-righteous glee as we watch the snarling masses devour them alive. Show them love, instead, and let them come around on their own. You can’t force a person to change. You can only make them see in you the person they could be if they effected that change in themselves.