Yesterday, when I was walking around the office in a dither after learning my niece was staying home from school to protest Obama’s education speech, I wandered by Thelma’s office. Thelma is a sweet, older black woman whom I am only now getting to know as she was out on medical leave for the past eight months battling cancer. As I walked by her office she saw me and greeted me warmly in her slight Southern accent.
“And how are you today, Miss LB?” It sounded like she really cared about the answer.
“Do you really want to know?” I said with a sigh.
“Oh no, what’s wrong” she asked with some concern and waved me into her office.
I proceeded to regale her with my anger and frustration at my niece for falling for the right wing propaganda that she no doubt hears from my brother and his wife. She kindly let me rant for quite a while. The pictures of Obama on her walls assured me I was in sympathetic company. The conversation came around to how what a child learns at home has such a huge impact on their later beliefs. “So,” she asked me “were your parents racists too?”
The question took me aback. While I believe my brother to be pretty far on the right, and certainly no fan of Obama, I don’t know if I am quite prepared, or even know him well enough these days to say he’s a racist. Yet, don’t I throw the same accusations of racism at other conservatives who openly disdain Obama? But, still, to hear someone assume my brother is a racist was more than a bit jarring. I offered myself a chair and got comfortable as I started to mull her question about my parents.
“No . . . no, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t remember anything like that.” I said slowly, hesitantly.
My memory of my childhood is pretty foggy, but I’m sure I would have remembered if my parents were racist. The truth of the matter, is that growing up in Burbank in the 60’s and 70’s, I rarely, if ever encountered any black people. It was not part of our day-to -day reality. When there was a black kid in our school, he wasn’t African-American, but someone from Africa here as an exchange student. At home, the only blacks we saw were on TV, and even then I don’t recall hearing any disparaging comments.
With the exception of Hispanics, Burbank was not chock-o-block with a lot of minorities. Growing up, besides the lack of African-Americans, there was also maybe only a handful of Asians in our school – one of whom was one of my closest friends for all 12 years of my time in the Burbank schools. And again, even though my father had fought in the Pacific in WWII, never did I hear a bad word about my Japanese best friend nor her family.
We did have a lot of contact with Hispanics, as my dad was the maintenance manager at a large recreation center, so he hired and supervised a crew of primarily workers from Mexico. He was close friends with his assistant, Jose, who helped him with the hiring and translating. I remember Jose’s family was one of the rare visitors to our house, and most of my hand-me-down clothes went to Jose’s daughters. My father even eventually sold our house to Jose for way under market value.
So, after going through my mental files, I concluded that when came to matters of race, while my brother and I were not explicitly taught acceptance, we certainly weren’t taught to fear or hate people of other races.
Thelma watched me quietly as I reminisced, trying to find clues as to how why my brother and I have turned out so differently.
“Ya know, Thelma, I think we just reacted completely differently to that lack of contact when we were younger. For my brother, he developed fear of the unknown. He has opted to live his life among people who look and believe as he does. But, for me that lack of contact when I was younger made me really curious and eager to know and understand people with different backgrounds.”
Thelma laughed, “well, you certainly are in a good place for that, girl” acknowledging the wild mix of sexual orientation and identity, race and ethnicity that surrounded us in the area where we worked.
I could have sat and chatted with Thelma for a lot longer. Earlier she had started to touch upon her childhood in the deep South and how she was taught to view white people. I wanted to know more about that. But, unfortunately, she had a client waiting, so that conversation will have to wait until some other time.