What My Mom Taught Me About Racism

racism


My heart broke today as I came across an article that was detailing a 30% rise in reported hate crimes & racial harassment since the election was called in favor of President Elect Trump.  Then, I came across reports that the KKK is planning a rally in North Carolina on December 3rd to celebrate the results of the recent presidential election.

Right here in Wisconsin, a friend of mind, who is an African-American woman, was sitting in her car outside of a store when a Caucasian woman walked up to her driver’s side window and said that she had a present for my friend.  Turned out, the “present” was a stack of newspapers with a victorious Donald Trump on the front.

Yesterday, it was reported that the messscreen-shotage “Whites Only” was written in large letters on one of the bathroom stall doors at Warren High School’s Junior-Senior campus in Gurnee IL, which is not to far away from where I grew up.

In addition to these things, just a couple of hours ago, I learned that another friend of mine was contacted by her teenage daughter (who was at school) and was told that there were kids at the school going around and calling the African-American kids niggers & whatever else they could come up with.

Sitting here writing this, I am so confused as to why this kind of behavior even exists?  What is it that makes some people feel like this is okay?  Are we really that different from each other?  This rhetorical question is one that I understand will never be answered in a way that will make any kind of sense to me.  To be totally honest, this post is not being written to even indulge in a conversation along those lines.

Instead, I want to offer the advice I received concerning how to deal with those who would belittle someone simply because of their color of their skin.  This advice was given to me 30 years ago when I was about 6 or 7 years old while at my very first bowling tournament at Rynish Lanes over in North Chicago, IL.

I clearly remember being so excited about bowling at a new place, along with the possibility of winning a trophy with my team that consisted of four other kids that I bowled with on Saturdays in a kid’s league over at Brunswick Bowl at Lakehurst. (Yes, Lakehurst, not Fountain Square!)

As we were putting on our bowling shoes we began trying some of the awkwardly hilarious introductions you would expect from a group of ten 6 year olds, whose parents had tried to teach them how to act in public at events like this.  So, everyone is shouting out “Hi, my name is _______” and doing their best imitation of a hand shake with each person from the opposite team.

My handshake game was pretty strong, and everything was going really well for me, that is until I got to the last kid on the team.  I walked up to him and busted out my introduction that had worked so well on the other members of his team.  I said, “Hi, my name is Jay,” and I stuck out my hand.   The kid looked at me, paused for a second, and then said, “We don’t like niggers here.”

Now, at 6 years old, I didn’t have a clue of what a nigger even was.  All I knew was that the kid didn’t tell me his name, he wouldn’t shake my hand, & on top of that, he was calling me some name I didn’t recognize.  So, I did what any 6 year old would do when coming across someone who didn’t want to be their “friend”…I went and told my Mom on him.

I remember walking back behind the half-wall that separated us on the lanes from everyone else who was there to watch the event.  My mother said that she could tell by the look on my face that something was up, so she asked me what was wrong.  I instantly began telling her what had just happened, repeating what the kid had said to me.  Then, I ended my story by asking her “Mom, what is a nigger?”

I can’t even fully explain the look that came over my mother’s face.  But, anyone who knew her well knows that she had “The Look”.  This was a super power she could pull out that would instantly make you stop doing whatever it was you were doing, and cause you to wish you had never started doing whatever it was in the first place.  “The Look” was one I had literally seen make dogs stop barking, babies stop crying, grown men stop talking, & ice stop melting in the middle of a hot Summer day…ok, maybe not the ice thing, but definitely the others.  And she had the intensity knob slammed all the way over on full power as she stared daggers in the direction of the kid I had told her about.

I can only imagine the things that were going through her mind right then, and there were probably a lot of things that she wanted to do in that moment.  However, what she did and what she said at that critical time has stuck with me since that day.

After a few moments of glaring a hole through the boy, she leaned over, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Jay, a nigger is what stupid people call other people when they don’t have someone like me in their life to teach them any better.”  As she spoke, her voice began to fill with an emotional tenor that had me riveted and hanging onto her every word.

“A nigger,” she said, “is a word that means stupid, or ignorant.  There are some people you are going to come across who will use that word to talk about black people.  And you know what?  Some black people are stupid and ignorant.  You know what else?  Some white people are, too!”  She threw a glance in the direction of the little boy who was talking to his father not far from where we were standing.  “So, remember that a nigger can be someone of any shade or skin color.  But that is not a word that we are going to use to ever describe anyone, ok?”

“Jay, a nigger is what stupid people call other people when they don’t have someone like me in their life to teach them any better.”

I nodded my head as she continued, “Now, he may have called you that, but you are not stupid, are you?” I told her that I wasn’t.  “And you are not ignorant either, are you?”  Again, I answered and said, “No.”

“Then you are not a nigger.  And anybody who would say something like that to you has proven that they don’t have any idea of who you are at all.  So, when you come across people who don’t even know you and they say stuff like that, their opinion of you is one that does not matter.”

She gave me a hug, lifted my head up and said, “So, I need you to do two things for me:  Number one, don’t listen to anything else that kid has to say about you.  Number two, you go down there, knock every pin down in this entire bowling alley, and BEAT…HIS…BUTT! Then he’ll have a real reason to not like you.”

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There’s something about having your Mom give you the pep talk of the century that ends with a command like that.  So, needless to say, I had a great day of bowling and my mother was one of the loudest cheerleaders in the entire bowling alley.  But, more importantly, in the middle of a crowded bowling alley, she had taken the time to teach me two crucial lessons that have helped define my life for the past three decades.  Those lessons are what I am going to leave you with as I come to the end this post.

Lesson #1:  Never allow yourself to be incarcerated by another person’s definition of who they think you are.  That is a prison of the mind to which there is no key.  If you must be defined, and we all need to be, then be defined only by those who have proven their unconditional love for you.

Lesson #2:  The best revenge against those who would try to negatively define you is to achieve success in the very arena in which they have opposed you.   DO NOT BACK DOWN, instead use that same opposition as fuel to achieve what they didn’t believe was possible for you. As my mother so eloquently put it, you figuratively “beat their butt” by being successful and giving them “a real reason to not like you.”

There is not a day that goes by in which I don’t think about the impact my mother had on my life.  It deeply saddens me to know that my daughter will never have the opportunity to know this incredible woman in person for herself, to hear her incredibly loud laugh, or to even experience having “The Look” thrown in her direction.  However, I have stories galore to share of the things that I was taught while growing up with “Bobby Jean”, and the headlines of today have only helped remind me of how relevant those lessons still are.

RIH, Mom!

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5 Comments on “What My Mom Taught Me About Racism

  1. Jay, you were truly blessed with a wonderfully strong and wise mother. I Want you to know I consider myself blessed to have ever even met you, yet get to know you enough to call you friend!

    Your daughter is in good hands! This was a great read for me, and I now have something to tell my children if they encounter this kind of stupidity from others.

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    • Chris, I have had more than my fair share of racial stupidity. But it is friendships like yours, and some other great people over the course of my life, that have allowed me to not become jaded & recognize that racism is limited to a few ignorant people.

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  2. So, I’m sitting here in carline waiting to pick up my boys from school, and see your sweet post about Naomi’s birth, and read your blog post, and share your excitement ☺ And then I see this blog title at the bottom and had to read it. Your mom was a wonderfully strong woman. As a mom to black children, you sharing her strength through the retelling of this unfortunate experience when you were six, has strengthened my ability to be a better mom to them. To know how to respond effectively and graciously when they have similar experiences. Thank you for sharing and writing it all out so well, Jay. You’re going to be an amazing dad!

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    • Thank you so much! Glad to hear my Mom is still affecting lives. I’ve had some pretty sketchy things happen to me in my life due to my skin color, and I’m sure they will one day have their own stories to tell. However, it’s the love and wisdom that you instill in them now that will make all of the difference when those times come. I have all the faith in the world that you will have no trouble at all in doing that for them. They are truly fortunate to have you caring for them!

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