What My Parents Told Me About Race

Categories: Racism, Religion
Comments: 10 Comments
Published on: 2013.09.29

The question was posed by an NPR article: What Did Your Parents Tell You About Race?, and answered by many readers via Twitter or comments underneath the article (spurring yet another article). I chose to consider the question a little more fully and answer on my own blog rather than lose it amongst hundreds of other comments.

Also, I understood the word “told” very loosely, as in “taught, transmitted, shared, passed on, etc.”, including what they taught me by example and not just what they said verbally. And because there were other influences concurrent with my parents, I’ll mention some of them too.

What my parents told me about race is that it should be irrelevant, but that humans have big problems with it. They taught me that the first humans were created in God’s image, with their only flaws being freedom of choice and the ability to choose wrongly. They told me that God loves all humans equally, and that we should too.

➤ Let’s Use A Different Word

First, I hate the word “race” when it’s used in this way (human classification). Apparently, it wasn’t used this way until the 17th Century to “[promote] hierarchies favorable to differing ethnic groups”. In other words, the very use of the word in this context smacks of racism to me, and always has. According to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, “Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.” I don’t remember coming to this conclusion; I remember always feeling this way.

Both evolutionists and creationists agree that all of current humanity is descended from a common ancestor (though they disagree tremendously on how long ago that was, and how that person came into being). Either notion precludes the possibility that there are varying races among humanity. We’re all related, all part of the same family tree.

But it’s obvious to anyone who looks around that there are several very general sub-categories of humanity, groups of people who share common physical traits that are mostly different from the traits of people in the other groups. The best modern equivalent of “race” is probably “ethnic group”. Either term is applied differently, depending on who you ask.

➤ What I Didn’t See, But Heard About Later

Both of my parents were born in the U.S. in the 1940s and came to adulthood in the early 1960s. As far as we know, they’re both of of Germanic and/or Gallic origin. Both families lived in poor rural areas of Oklahoma (and Texas, for my Dad, and other western states for my Mom), where the communities were mostly white. My Dad’s high school had already integrated by the time he got there; his graduating class of less than 20 people included whites, blacks, and Native Americans. My Mom’s graduating class of 13 was all white (see image).

My Dad served in the U.S. military in the late ’60s alongside African-American men; my Mom went to church and college with black people; both knew several American Indians, because it’s hard to live in Oklahoma without knowing at least one.

➤ What I Was Born Into

Not long before I was born, they moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, and the first thing I saw was an Asian man (who is still listed in Honolulu’s phone directory at 86 years of age). Everywhere I looked for the next three years, I saw Pacific Islanders and Asians, and a few white people dressed in the wide collars and short skirts of the day.

Before I was six years old, I’d spent three years living in Tokyo. My “girlfriend” in kindergarten was Asian.

By the time I was born, the U.S. had already gone through the upheavals of race riots, enacting civil rights legislation, and integrating schools. While I can’t speak for every conservative white person of the day, I did get the impression that my parents considered it fair and just that non-whites should have the same rights and opportunities as the rest of us.

➤ During My Childhood

I don’t remember my parents telling me anything about race or ethnicity during my early childhood. (I’ve been told that this is because we were white. “If you didn’t talk about race as a child, then you were white”.) My elementary school was almost entirely white. I remember specifically one black boy, with whom my friends and I discussed the sports of the day — usually football; and one black girl — I knew her name, but nothing else; girls had cooties in those days.

The fact that I remember the names of every black child in my school yet only remember the names of about 3% of the white people speaks volumes. And all of my teachers were white. Most of the off-color jokes I heard in school were about “Polacks” for some reason, not black people or other groups.

But my family attended a church in Oklahoma City that was multi-racial. One of the families who attended didn’t have a car and always needed a ride. Often, it was my parents who gave them a ride to church. They were black. I remember our station wagon being packed to the gills as we picked them up for church, or dropped them off in their all-black and (even to my childhood eyes) very poor neighborhood. This was in the early 1980s. I don’t remember my parents acting any differently around these people than they acted around any other fellow church member.

I do remember pointing out one day, after the black family had exited the car, that there was a circular greasy splotch on the car window. Apparently, the woman’s hair had briefly touched the glass. My mother explained without inflection that black people used different hair products than we did. I accepted it with a shrug.

If I’m not mistaken (and my memory often is) we had them to our house at least once for a meal.

➤ During My Adolescence

When we moved to south Texas, there were suddenly zero black people in my life for several years, but — for the first time — Mexican-Americans. My high school’s graduating class was mostly white, but also filled with names like Camarillo, Delgado, Espinoza, Gonzalez, Hernandez, Lopez, Moreno, Perez, Rosado, Torres, Trevino, Vargas, Vasquez, and Zapata. Our church had much the same distribution.

Our neighbors were named Trevino.

Again, I don’t remember my parents saying anything about it. Their actions spoke loudly enough. Again, they treated everyone similarly.

The first time I remember the subject actually being breached is when I overheard a conversation about affirmative action and asked what it was. What it was is that someone at my Dad’s office had gotten promoted over a more qualified white person because of his ethnicity. That didn’t seem fair to me. My Dad agreed that it wasn’t, but explained that it had been the other way around for centuries.

Of course, in school I was shown the historic Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. I thought he was brilliant, and felt pangs of gratefulness that the country was a better place for everyone because of what he’d done. On the news, I heard part of a speech by Jesse Jackson (he was running for president at the time). I remember thinking he was a loon.

My date for the senior prom was Hispanic, though she had an Anglo surname. The valedictorian of my high school class had a Hispanic surname. She was my friend.

My best friend late in high school was a Mexican-American (and I hope I’ve honored him by giving his name to my only son as a middle name). For a year or two, I had a crush on his younger sister. Another Mexican-American was my best friend after that for a time. Both young men were at our house occasionally and shared meals and rides with our family.

➤ The Influence Of The Church

While the churches I attended from birth through young adulthood certainly had intense effects on my life and viewpoints, if there was any effect on my thoughts of race or ethnicity, it was a positive one. As previously insinuated, none of the churches I attended were entirely peopled by whites. While the majority of our pastors were white, at least one wasn’t — and many of the visiting preachers and evangelists were non-white, including the Palestinian-born Benny Hinn, and several others who’re much less Google-able.

There was no antisemitism — quite the opposite in fact. Jesus was a Jew, and it was crucial to our understanding of Christ and the Bible that we understand Judaism and Jewish culture; at least up until the time of Christianity’s establishment. Because of this upbringing, I’ve never understood how someone could be antisemitic and also Christian.

Missions was a strong focus of our denomination, including sending loads of money overseas and into America’s own inner cities, primarily to do nice things for people who weren’t white — things like building schools and churches, and providing food, medicine, and clothing. Many of our church members, including leadership, often made trips to the locations of these missions and developed lifelong friendships with peoples of many nations and ethnic groups.

A noticeable number of the male adults in our churches had been in the military during various overseas wars, and a sizable proportion of them had non-white wives and mixed-race children.

In fact, the only instance I can remember that relates to racism was in the late ’80s in San Antonio, when an older member of the congregation purported (while claiming to not be racist) that various ethnic groups shouldn’t intermarry, citing the Biblical text found in Deuteronomy 7:3, which has a comma at the end of it. I remember reading the rest of the sentence, in verse 4, which gives the reason for not intermarrying: “…for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods”, which has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. In fact, every instance in the Bible that discourages intermarriage is always about religion, and assumes that the other party is of a different religion. It’s never about race. (In many cases, the “other tribes” were actually of a similar race or ethnic group; they were all Semitic.)

In fact, God punished Aaron and Miriam with leprosy for speaking ill of Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman (Numbers 12:1-16). King David’s great-grandmother was a Gentile (Matthew 1:5). And the Bible speaks specifically against racism in the New Testament (example: Colossians 3:10-11).

For all the things I later grew to despise about the church and organized religion, this was not one of them. The church had taught me to love all peoples equally.

When I later learned that some churches and alleged Christians had used their faith as a support for racism, this was something else that was incomprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.

➤ My Dad’s Stories

I always loved my Dad’s stories about the past. Some of those stories taught me something about race, purely because of the time period in which they took place.

One story was from his Army days. At one point, some city’s race riot got so out-of-hand that the military was put on alert. He told of the uncertainty he and his fellow soldiers felt as they made preparations — loading helicopters in his case. “We didn’t know who we were supposed to go fight, or what we expected to do”, he said. “Were we supposed to shoot our own citizens? Which ones?” Of course, the orders never came. It was significant to me that he told the story without casting judgment on any particular group. I’m sure the conversations going on around him at the time weren’t so unbiased.

Another story was about his father, who owned a swimming lake in rural Oklahoma; they’d charge by the carload for people to use the lake and picnic grounds. The story involved turning away a carload of black people: “We don’t want any trouble” was the excuse. In fairness, there was a high probability that letting them in would have caused “trouble” of some kind — including loss of income from white customers. The inherent sadness — and unfairness — of this story stuck with me, which I’m sure was my father’s intention.

➤ There Goes The Neighborhood

I remember when the first black family moved into our neighborhood. I think I was the first one to mention it; I’d seen them moving in while riding my bicycle. Nobody made a big deal of it. They were white-collar, middle class professionals like the rest of the adults in the housing addition. This was the late 1980s.

➤ Heroes of Entertainment

Like most American kids of the same age, my ideas about race/ethnicity were also heavily influenced by pop culture. While I know that some parents made disparaging comments, mine did not.

The first football game I remember watching was the January 1979 Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of the stars of both teams were black, though I didn’t think about it at the time: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Joe Greene, and so on.

Professional basketball at the time was dominated by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Isaiah Thomas, Julius Erving … The biggest hero from the past was Wilt Chamberlain. And before I graduated high school, every white kid at my school was in awe of Michael Jordan.

The best-selling album of all time was recorded by a black man, and released in 1982.

Then there were sitcoms. The only sitcom that my family ever watched together was the Cosby Show. We weren’t allowed to watch much TV (when we had one), but one of the few shows we were allowed to watch just after school was Different Strokes.

➤ What It All Adds Up To

Unlike the generations of white Americans before mine, it seemed normal and unremarkable to live near, conduct business with, go to school with, work alongside, and be friends with people who weren’t white.

While most of the neighborhoods we called home were mostly inhabited by whites, it became less so over time. Even in rural areas, I’ve never attended an all-white school. Even my college, which was a small private college run by an ultra-conservative religious organization, had a fair representation of African-Americans (though I don’t remember any Asians or Latinos).

The combined influence of the culture around me and my parents’ inherent kindness and fairness added up to the impression that ethnicity wasn’t a big deal. If I met a racist before adulthood, I didn’t know about it.

When I did finally (in my 20s, in Arkansas) meet people who had strong feelings about other ethnic groups, it always struck me as odd and ignorant — kind of like astrology, superstitions, and fad diets. At least one friend and one girlfriend lost the benefit of my presence when they made racist remarks and wouldn’t amend their ways after being called on it. In a sense, it almost made me racist against racists, if that even makes sense — a different kind of superiority complex that also isn’t right.

In the end, racism is something I can’t see the other side of — or any justification for — and never have.

10 Comments
  1. My dad’s family had some serious bigots in it. Used the word “colored” a lot.

    My most racially diverse situation was, believe it or not, when I lived in downtown Ada, Oklahoma, in a small apartment complex. We were mostly young and didn’t have much money. Asians, blacks, native Americans, even a mixed-race (can I say mixed-race?) couple from Romania. It seemed like we all just looked at each other like neighbors.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “…(can I say mixed-race?)…”

      I had typed that above at one point and then edited to remove it because I wasn’t sure. ;-)

      Though I’ve been married to a black woman for more than seven years, I’m still not certain of all the accepted/deprecated lingo.

      “Used the word ‘colored’ a lot.”

      The word’s been heard in my extended family as well. When I grew up, I didn’t recognize it as a racist word (because I’m white, I guess). Even now, I’m not certain that the people who used it were racists; just that they didn’t know any better…

      As in the following sentence:

      “When my groceries spilled in the parking lot, a nice colored boy helped me find everything and get it all in my car.”

      “…believe it or not, when I lived in downtown Ada…”

      I only believe it because you said it. :-) I suppose with a four-year college, Ada’s bound to draw a little more diversity than the average town of its size…

      (Wikipedia says Seminole County is 0.22% Asian, which means about 55 Asian people in the county. I think I saw maybe two of them during my nine years there.)

  2. >>when I lived in downtown Ada…<<

    I think the reason for our ethnic diversity was out economic similarity.

    Also, I know this might sound a bit pretentious, but I think of you as not married to a black woman, but married to Marline.

    A woman I dated in the 1980s liked to say that all souls are the same color, clear.

    I don't believe a magical "soul". but I think we would all get along better as Mary and John and not as white woman and black man, etc.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “…but I think of you as not married to a black woman, but married to Marline.”

      Of course, that’s how I think of it too. I mention it only for the (possible) reader who might not be familiar with my family, and because she’s the one who occasionally reminds me of how the ‘other side’ might see it.

      For example, I didn’t know “monkey” was considered a slur until she told me. I was called that as a child because I climbed things, but have to be careful if I say that of my own (mixed-race) children if they climb something.

      (Apparently, it’s short for porch monkey, something else I’d never heard until my wife explained it to me.)

  3. mamaolive says:

    Wil,
    I think you did a good job relating our upbringing in this area. I don’t recall all the stories you mentioned, though.
    One thing that I have wondered about lately is whether or not it is a matter of “white privilege” to be unaware of race (I also dislike the use of that word). I feel that we were taught, and it is usually best, to take people as they come, without categorizing them by ethnicity (or even other factors like political leanings, if possible). While we are aware of being of German descent, Germany doesn’t define us. But some people are more defined by their ethnicity – whether German or Irish or African or Chech. Is it, in a way, rude to ignore that part of them that they identify with? How do we affirm their/our right to heritage or difference without building walls of partition?
    Just some thoughts.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Shari:

      My wife adds a little perspective; she’s from NYC as you know, and much more likely to know and meet immigrants, first-generation Americans, etc. Many of them have very strong ties to their non-American heritage because they still have living relatives who were born there (like my wife’s parents were born in Haiti).

      And the towns you and I know from Texas that are still very “German” or “Czech” is because they were settled by immigrants from those places and then basically isolated and self-sufficient for several generations — until the very modern conveniences of interstate highways, TV, telephone, and internet helped melt those towns into the rest of the U.S. For example, New Braunfels is now MUCH less “German” because it’s on I-35, while a town that didn’t get the interstate might still be.

      Whereas you and I are descended from a dozen generations of Americans, going back to the 1700s in a few cases. And each generation moved further inland until there was no trace of the original heritage. In many cases, some of the people didn’t even know where their ancestors were from.

  4. Zane says:

    Shari, I look at it like this –
    Everyone is different whether by ethnicity, personality, belief, or something else. It’s our choice as individual people to either look upon those differences with love and an open mind, or otherwise. So, to your first question I would say that it’s not a question of rudeness but that it is impossible to ignore the different aspects in other people, and to the second – by embracing the difference, and attempting to learn stuff. However, what I am really talking about here is culture.

    When it comes to the amount of pigmentation someone has in their skin and differences in other physical characteristics I feel like there is less meaning, and I think this is in large part because of mom and dad. Yes, I can see when someone is darker (or lighter, on a rare occasion) than me, but what does it mean? It means that they are darker, or lighter. I’ve never put much much importance on the differences. From what you and Wil wrote I think we all three pretty much have the same general attitude toward “race”. So, maybe what you thought might be “white privilege” is just the result of some good parenting. :)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Sorry, Zane; I replied to Shari before realizing you’d already answered.

      In one sense, perhaps the very definition of ‘white privilege’ is that we don’t have to worry about it. I can get pulled over a police officer without worrying whether his racist beliefs are going to influence our meeting, while a black man who’s otherwise in my same demographic (income, clothing, age, etc.) has to consider that he might be meeting a racist cop.

      And statistics show that — on average — I’ll get a better interest rate on my mortgage than that same black man, and I’m more likely to be approved.

      I think that’s what is meant by the phrase — not how we view other people of other ethnic descent, but how we can live because we’re white.

      I hope that makes sense.

  5. mamaolive says:

    Thanks guys. I do agree, Zane, that it – that intrinsic difference of personality or viewpoint – is more correctly defined as culture than race.

    Wil, talking about being pulled over reminded me of some comments I read regarding the Trayvon Martin case where black people talked about having to train their boys to be extra polite to “make up” for being a minority. And that reminds me of some insight I gained while living abroad. As an American – a minority, a foreigner – I always felt like I had to go the extra mile because I represented something and I wanted to do it well (and sometimes I just felt really frustrated and picked on and un-belonging). And that helped me to understand why all the black people I know that are in my same basic socioeconomic class are so much more cultured (mannered, educated, polite) than I am.

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