How Long Has This Been Going On?

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On New Year’s Eve I learned that a couple I was close to for years, parents of a friend I had from college until my early 40s, had voted for the Hate Monger. I knew they’d had a souring experience that had nudged them to the right, but I wouldn’t have guessed how far adrift they’d gone. They are a white couple and have many children, two of whom are married to POC. Yet they voted for a man who would happily deport one of those in-laws and would see the other as representing a country he accuses of cheating and mistreating the US. They have daughters. Yet they voted for a man who actively harms women and can’t be trusted to respect or strengthen women’s rights. One of their sons is a small business owner whose insurance likely comes from the ACA. Yet they voted for a man who vowed to get rid of that legislation on his first day in office.

The souring experience? Their youngest son missed out on an opportunity years ago … and they decided that what should rightfully have been his had been denied him because of Affirmative Action.

Yes.

Their youngest son is smart and capable. I’m sure he’d have taken complete and successful advantage of that opportunity. Do I automatically assume he was more deserving of that opportunity than any of the people who actually received it? No, but he’s not my son. Still, it’s a significant leap of faith.

Anger over Affirmative Action doesn’t puzzle me. It’s coming from a very clear and basic place. What should suprise me about that anger is how blatantly racist it is. Think about it: One hundred people are accepted into a program, and maybe five of them are POC. How are you — the angry, left-out soul — certain it’s one of those five POC who “stole” your spot? Why aren’t you assuming it’s one of the 95 white folks?

What was that?

I couldn’t hear you.

You aren’t looking at the white folks because … why?

Oh. You assume they deserve the same gifts and accolades you think you deserve?

Yeah. Thought so.

It’s the thing that always gets caught in my teeth with Affirmative Action haters — that instant assumption that they’d be riding high if it weren’t for some POC bogarting their position. And you know, maybe those five POC did take a white person’s place. But who said it was your place? Can we just acknowledge that there could have been dozens — nay, hundreds — of more qualified white folks ahead of you in line? Don’t forget the glistening, high-court-confirmed mediocrity of Abigail Fisher.

And while that youngest son moved on — is still moving on — his parents set their hair on fire and have let it burn to this day. Hearing about the end result of their anger and resentment made me wonder. Their bitterness drove them to embrace the same presidential candidate as the Ku Klux Klan, as the Neo Nazis. Could this loss for their child really have turned them from staunch Democrats to hardline Republicans? They’ve been on this path a while, voted for both McCain and Romney. Could their son’s disappointment really have been the initial push?

Were they sliding to the right all those years when they smiled in my face and welcomed me into their home? Did they question whether I had earned any of my successes? Did they see those as gifts, handed to me because I was Black?

I was close to their daughter for more than 20 years. She and I went to college together, studied abroad together. We moved to New York at about the same time, went to grad school around the same time. She stayed in academia, and I became a teacher, but we were still in each other’s lives. I was in her wedding and attended her sister’s.

When I think now about my interactions with her parents, they all become suspect. If their daughter hadn’t gotten into the college where we met, I would be exactly the kind of person they would have blamed for her failure, the kind of person they would have accused of stealing her seat. If I had gone to Paris junior year and she hadn’t been accepted into the program, would their anger have bubbled up then? Would they have assumed I’d taken her place?

Fortunately for their ability to maintain a relationship with me all those years, they always found me lacking. I am a collection of things they wouldn’t want to see in their kids. I’m not their style of clever. I’m fat. I’m not ambitious. I didn’t get a Ph.D. I didn’t get married. I’m childless. Did they treat me well because I posed no kind of competitive threat to any of their children? How quickly would they have turned on me had any of the facts of our lives put me ahead of my friend on the path to their idea of success?

I guess what I want to know is: how long? For how long was this belief in the inferiority of POC finding a warm, safe home in their hearts? How long was racial prejudice alive and well in these people I thought of as second parents?

Prejudice doesn’t just appear from nowhere. One of the scripts I’m working on for Adventures in Racism is about how children learn prejudice and how — or if — they can unlearn it. It’s been a challenging script for me because I keep waiting for the light-bulb moment, the bright flash of realization that will show me how to “unteach” those kids … but it doesn’t come because there’s no handy movie magic to solve this problem.

I was in kindergarten the first time I met people who disliked me because of my color. We were five, but my classmates had already learned their lessons well. I have since had the same experience with children even younger. Kids learn early. So, did my friend’s parents have seeds planted in childhood?

But prejudice isn’t only learned in childhood. It’s just as easy to internalize, over time, the steady drumbeat of inferiority that is the narrative surrounding Black people, particularly in this country.

Still. Something existed in both of these people before The Great Disappointment. Something strong. Something that made blaming people of color their first response to misfortune, something that instinctively spat up the assumption that an undeserving Black or brown person was being lifted up in their son’s stead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen or learned of someone I know fully blossoming into their racial hatred. But in those other instances, those people showed early signs — I can’t really be surprised to find a friend from high school posting racist memes about Mr. My President when, in 8th grade, she explained that she found Mick Jagger so sexy … except for his “nasty nigger lips.” Those early warning signs were helpful. I knew exactly who I was dealing with, how far to trust them, just how much not to let down my guard. This change in my friend’s parents — despite taking effect over many years — feels like an ambush.

I don’t know if I’ll see anyone from that family again. It’s been 12 or 13 years now since those friendships ended. I have a hard enough time thinking of what I’d say to my former friend, to her siblings — people with whom I still, presumably, have things in common. I can’t imagine having anything to say to her parents.

Maya Angelou’s quote keeps running through my head: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But these people never showed me who they really were. And that’s the thing that’s poking me. That “how long?” really has its foot on my neck.

In the end, it can’t matter. People I felt deep affection for harbored ugly, racist beliefs. Maybe the whole time I knew them, maybe only toward the end of that time. It can’t matter … still, I feel cheated. I feel as if they’ve stolen something from me, my memories of them, all the ways they made me smile — their jokes, their chaotic family meals, their insistence on having large pets in a house full of expensive artwork and delicate antiques — all of that is made grimy by the truth of who they are.

I see them now. And no repetition is required. I believe them this first time.


Two essays down in this 52-essay challenge!

And don’t forget to head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what other folks are posting for Slice of Life Tuesday!

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10 thoughts on “How Long Has This Been Going On?

  1. What a sad story. And so horrible to have your memories contaminated by their hate and fear. Perhaps they saw you as an “exception,” but that is no excuse, it’s just another form of prejudice, an inability to see you as a person rather than “an exception” from an otherwise mass of “other.” I like the way you dissect the anger over affirmative action, which I’ve never understood. I followed affirmation action policy when hiring copy editors at the Village Voice, and I never had any trouble finding POC equally or more qualified than white applicants.

    You don’t say why you’re no longer friends with these people’s parents. Is it at all related to this, or something else entirely?

    1. The friendship with the daughter ended … and the rest of the family stepped away from me at the same time. That had nothing to do with this situation. Is it too weird to not talk about that but make it clear that I’m not still friends with any of them?

  2. Really well-written post. You’ve articulated what so many of us are experiencing these days. It’s overwhelming at times to see others through this new lens and to question all that came before. You’ve words have captured a loss that many are dealing with post-election day. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  3. There are several with whom I’m “friendly”, but always with the expectation of one day saying “Uh huh!” when that nasty shoe finally drops. The loss of the friend is one thing, sometimes people drift apart for varying reasons and such is life. The sudden, yet not so sudden, tainting of erstwhile pleasant memories does sting. I know how this feels. I feel you. I feel for you.

  4. Maureen

    A powerful essay. I have never understood how anyone could argue against affirmative action, an argument that cant’ be anything but racist and sexist, and you have so articulately explained exactly how and why. Brava.

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