I never met him, but I saw his picture and knew his name was Archie. He was a black man, although this didn’t strike me as important, not even then, in the late seventies. What was more interesting to me was that he was in prison. I didn’t know why, although I was curious. Mom and dad never told us.
I don’t know how mom and dad met him. Surely they sought him out somehow, probably through some sort of prison outreach ministry. We all drove there, to the prison, a few times. My brother and I, seven and nine at the time, waited in the car, in the parking lot. The prison seemed huge to me, made of plain concrete walls. There was a chain link fence that ran around the parking lot. In my memory, there were coils of barb wire along the top of the fence, but I may be confabulating that detail based on movies I’ve seen since.
Mom and dad would go in to see Archie during visitor’s hours, carrying books and a small box of sundry items Archie had requested, while my brother and I sat in the car in the parking lot, reading or doodling or climbing over the white bench seat of our gold flake Chevelle and pretending to drive.
Mom and dad would come out later, a few books and supplies lighter. Archie told them that some of the other prisoners really wanted to read the books they brought him. Mom and dad were heartened by this.
My parents had become Christians when I was three. They took to heart the admonition to care for the poor, to reach out to the downtrodden. I don’t remember whatever happened with Archie. I could ask, but I don’t know if I want to know the details. We visited him a few times over the course of a little more than a year. I think he got out of prison. Something happened, something involving some money, something my parents didn’t want to explain. We didn’t talk about Archie anymore.
There was a little framed picture on our mantel. It was black and white, in a round frame: a teenage girl’s face, smiling faintly. She had medium-long black hair framing serious, onyx eyes. Her skin was darker than ours. My parents said that her name was Yvonne and that she was our older sister. She lived in a far away land where people were much poorer than us– we were rich by comparison, in our little split-level house with the gold Chevelle and two Big Wheels in the garage — and so we were helping her by sending her money and letters and prayers. I was fascinated by Yvonne. A sister! I wondered if we’d ever meet her, but I suspected not. Even at that age, I knew when my parents were speaking euphemistically (even if I didn’t know the word “euphemistic”). But I wanted to meet Yvonne anyway. I wanted to know my far away “sister”.
We wrote to Yvonne. I drew pictures, which were carefully folded into the envelopes along with my parents’ letters. When Yvonne wrote back, her letters came in thick envelopes with red and blue dashed frames around the edges– air mail, I guessed. Her handwriting was neat but none of us could read it. She wrote in a different language. Along with each letter was a typed translation. We assumed that was how she received our letters as well.
After a few years, my parents told us that Yvonne had grown up. She was an adult now, and starting a new life. We were happy for her, I guess, but it was hard to understand. In the picture, she looked just the same.
A few years back, I was invited to a friend’s wedding. She’s black, while her husband (fiance at the time) is white. When I told my mom about it, she admitted she had misgivings about it. It took me a moment to understand what she meant. She said she knew it wasn’t anything she should admit, but that she’s become uncomfortable with inter-racial marriage.
She says sometimes she wonders if she is turning a little racist.
Her dad, my grandfather, used to ask why I would want to watch that show with the black people in it. I recall being there, at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house, as What’s Happening came on. You remember that show, right? With Roger, the guy with the glasses, and Duane, the guy with the Afro, and Rerun, the fat one. I didn’t primarily notice that they were black until Grandpa pointed it out. I just noticed that it looked like they were having fun, bouncing the basketball as they made their way down their sunny suburban Chicago street– they were best buddies. I wanted best buddies of my own, so I was fascinated. But to Grandpa, who I loved immensely (and still do, all these years after his death) they were just black. Although he didn’t call them black. He called them a word I can’t/won’t say.
My other grandpa, on my dad’s side, never used that word. He never spoke negatively about anyone in front of us. Privately, though (as I heard later) he did. He apparently referred to black people as “porch monkeys”. I assumed this was because he’d see them, in the warren of neighborhoods just a few blocks over from his tiny house by the Sandusky Bay, hanging around on their porches, laughing, whiling away their evenings in the mosquito-stitched dark.
I liked hanging out on the porch. To me, the people we saw congregated on their porches always looked like they were having fun. Moreso than the people in Grandma’s and Grandpa’s neighborhood, who all went in at night and parked in front of their TVs to watch the Osmonds or Hee Haw or some old Western movie with John Wayne. I wanted to be a porch monkey myself. It sounded like a lot of fun.
As I grew up, I slowly accepted that Grandpa’s words were racist. Even Grandma, the one that confided her late husband’s racist tendencies to me when I was a young teen, used to twitch back the curtains of her little house whenever a “colored guy” would walk by.
“What color was he?” my brother and I would quip loudly. “Purple?” It was funny to us. It’s still a little funny, I admit.
After Grandpa died, Grandma sold that little house down by the bay. Her neighbors, Jean and Willy– people who I had known all my life, who were like another set of grandparents to me– told her that if she sold her house to a black person, they’d never talk to her again. Although they didn’t use the phrase “black person”, either.
I told my mom that she wasn’t turning racist. What both grandpas did and said, that was racist. What grandma’s neighbors did, that was super racist. “You don’t dislike a skin color,” I told her. “You dislike certain behaviors. People of all skin colors are guilty of those behaviors sometimes.”
My mom is a conservative and a Christian. Conservatives and Christians are all racists. Family Guy says so. John Stewart says so. Everybody knows it’s true. It’s such a common refrain that even some conservatives and Christians are starting to believe it themselves. People like my mom.
I wonder what Yvonne would think of that? I’m not assuming an answer. I really don’t know. I wonder what Archie would think? Maybe he felt condescended to by my parents. Maybe he felt like “a project” when they came to see him. Maybe they seemed like smug white people soothing their guilty white consciences with cheap gifts and a half hour of their time once a month or so, whooptie-doo, let me kiss your feet.
But what I learned from all of that has stayed with me. I learned that a brown girl could be my sister. That a black man in prison is worthy of my time.
In fact, what I learned is neither of those things, really. What I learned is that anyone could be my sister and anyone in prison was worthy of my time.
Because skin color is just nothing more than a superficial detail, like a person’s shoe size or bowling average or preference for ice cream flavors. This wasn’t something I was taught. It was something I was shown. Despite the poor models my parents themselves had– despite the common perception of Christians and conservatives and people from the previous generation– my parents showed me that people are just people, not categories or demographics or interest groups. They showed me that each one of us stands on our own, defined exclusively by our own choices.
Nowadays everyone is talking about white privelege. I think white privelege is probably a real thing. Cultural and generational histories surely play a role in who we are, what doors are opened or closed for us, what we expect from ourselves and our communities. But what white privelege seems to mean most of the time is “if your opinion isn’t the same as mine, it doesn’t count, because you are white”.
What it seems to mean most of the time is “white people are all racist and even when they try not to be racists they fail, they’re an insulting joke, so they shouldn’t even try.”
The story of human development isn’t so much about fixing the mistakes of the past as much as it is making new mistakes in the opposite direction.
For what it’s worth, my current limited perception is that no single person can be held responsible for the sins of an entire past culture, even if they benefit from the sins of that past culture. It isn’t fair, I admit, but there’s just no way to fix that unfairness without causing a whole new kind of unfairness.
And I see that that is a price a lot of angry people would gladly demand.
It just won’t work. It won’t fix anything, and I think we all know it. It’ll just lead to more injustice and hate and prejudice.
And yet that seems to be the irreversible pendulum of human society. We can’t stop ourselves.
Individuals can, maybe, but cultures can’t. But that doesn’t mean the individual is off the hook for trying.
My son Zane was born a year after the World Trade Center attacks. The Doctor who helped bring him (and, later, my daughter Greer) into the world happens to be a devout Muslim woman from Iraq. We’d actually had some interesting, sobering conversations with her about the event, about what it means to be Muslim in modern America, about her home and her annual trips to Mecca.
When Jael was pregnant, my mom hesitantly admitted her discomfort about the doctor that would be delivering her grandchildren. She wondered why we hadn’t found a different doctor after September 11th, 2001.
What I said was “she’s a great doctor and a family friend. We trust her implicitly. If you knew her, you’d feel the same way.”
But that’s not the real answer. It didn’t occur to me until recently, as I watched the events unfolding in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, as racial tensions made international news and threw far too many of us into knee-jerk reactions based on superficial categories.
What I should have said to my mom was “We’re keeping our Muslim Iraqi doctor because you went to visit Archie. Because you made Yvonne our sister. Because you were offended at the words Grandpa said and enraged by Jean’s and Willy’s racist ultimatum. You showed me that superficial details don’t define people. Actions do.”
I am dismayed that my mom has had those things beaten slowly out of her by a culture that tells her she’s a racist, don’t even try to be better, just be quiet and hope your existence doesn’t offend someone.
I’m going to try to show my kids what my parents showed me. This is all I can do, really.
Cultures don’t change. Or, if they do, they don’t change quickly.
My parents became Christians when I was little, and they started reading Bible stories to my brother and I. One of those stories was about a demon-possessed young man. Normally, Jesus’ disciples could handle casting out demons, but this one they had no effect on. Later, Jesus told them “this kind can only come out by prayer and fasting”.
Human culture has a demon. Prejudice is as endemic to humanity as breathing. We all just keep trying to cast that demon out– to defeat it in one fell swoop. But even Jesus (who, no matter your opinion about God and the Bible, was generally considered at least a pretty enlightened guy) warned us that sometimes there’s nothing for it but patient, incremental, time-consuming hard work. Bit by bit. Person by person.
In human culture overall, one prejudice tends to just gets replaced by another. Individuals can change, however. Bit by bit, generation by generation, imperfectly and sometimes for all the wrong reasons. White privelege is an edifice that can’t be knocked down. It can only be dis-assembled brick by brick.
But let’s try to agree that that’s better than nothing. Sometimes, as ultimately unsatisfying as it is in this broken, stumbling, unfair world, better than nothing is the best we can hope for.