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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mom and Racism

I grew up in a highly political, conservative, and yes, racist household. It had a profound affect on me, mainly to drive me in opposite directions. My mom was the gestalt of our home - tenacious in her beliefs, hard-headed in her actions, uncompromising in her world-view. This was a tough standard to emulate, but I am all that and more. But I never believed any of her beliefs, positions, or sentiments about the world. I learned over time, that her views were imbued in her by an equally tough father. My grandpa was the quintessential racist of Chicago. The N* word tripped off his tongue with ease and frequency. When my mom was around him, she followed his lead. He proudly carried a ball-peen hammer in his cars in case any N* tried to jump him. Of course that never happened, but in Chicago, old feisty white guys never took the chance, just in case. My mother often recounted that adage, because, well, you never know when a N* might jump you. In this family milieu I formed my basis for race relations.

My mom was a tenacious politico, stumping for Goldwater, Wallace, and was a loyal member of the John Birch Society. She believed that Martin Luther King was a communist and a threat to our country. I attended Birch meetings in our home and at other cell locations watching movies about how the negro people would burn our country to the ground. I was speechless, horrified, and dumbfounded that I found myself in this bizarre hot-bed of radical loony-toons. But what I gained from the experience was a fervent belief in integration, support for the minority position, and recognition that working for a cause was a good thing, because it gave you hope that your point of view would prevail. I learned that to believe and work with others towards a cause was as normal as sitting at the dinner table. I just chose different causes and positions.

My mom was equally active in local politics, stumping for candidates, handing out literature, talking up elections, working at the polls. I have no doubt this is where my love of politics began and my life-long fascination with local politics took root. Thanks, mom for this lesson as it afforded me a great career. But, as was her way, she delved into the radical fringe of the local. She started to hang out with Phyllis Schlafley - yes the one and only darling of conservative women. Of course this was long before she became famous. At that time, she and my mother engaged in a campaign against sex education in the schools and donned the acronym SOS - Save Our Schools. Of course this occurred at just the moment in my life when sex was a great curiosity to me. To have my mother hold protests against sex information was deeply confusing to me. Unfortunately, she also brought race into the issue - there should be no interracial anything, least of all in the realm of personal relationships, sex, marriage, etc. On that issue I took great exception, because I didn't understand what possible explanation could be rational to lead to this edict. My mom spoke in front of school boards, to reporters, handed out pamphlets, and stood firm in her position about SOS. I was mortified by the subject (mainly because she had not done much in terms of sharing the secrets of sex with me...), but mostly mortified that my mom would be out there saying students should be shielded. This was a time in the country when free love was the rage. But there she was campaigning and being steadfast. That was a lesson I gladly learned.

As my mom got older, she actually withdrew from politics. She loved Ronald Reagan (and Joe McCarthy) and felt that Reagan caved. She couldn't stand it and stopped reading the paper and watching the news. I'm sure the Communist Broadcast Corporation (CBS) and Walter Cronkite (whom we watched every evening) were glad to have her withdraw, lol. But I had learned a lesson early that reading and watching the news was an essential part of citizenship. I have never stopped doing that and though my mom quit on it, I have never felt that response. So thanks, Mom, for making me a good citizen.

In the last years of my mom's life she softened. She gathered her estranged family and embraced them. She met my BFF who is black, and embraced him. She said to me, color doesn't matter as long as the person makes you feel special and is good to you. I nearly fell off my chair. But it told me that all along, though she never showed it or allowed it to come out, there was compromise and learning inside her. I must have seen that in my subconscious, because I have always been that person, and I could not have learned it anywhere else unless there was a kernel of it in my mom. Her sharing that with me was a culmination of a journey for both of us.

So yes, I learned racism at my mother's knee. I learned how ugly it was and how damaging it was in terms of the energy and effort it took to maintain it. I never bought into it, but it took me many years to learn how much it affected me. It wasn't until I learned what white privilege meant that I fully understood how ingrained racism is, even in a liberal do-gooder who eschewed her racist family teachings.  Those teachings were still there and though I professed to refute them, they distinctly colored my view of how to overcome it. If I had never had such a blatant upbringing, I might never have come to realize the insidiousness of it. If I had a mother who was polite and whitewashed racism, I might never have known its power and that it even existed. For that, mom, I have to say thanks. Your tenacity, hard-headedness, and uncompromising views gave me a strong platform from which to live MY life with MY views and taught me lessons I didn't know I needed to learn until I learned them.

Examine your own family upbringing. What did your mother teach you about race and politics? What do you need to learn that you don't even know you need to learn? I urge you to explore it and grow, because our world depends on you to learn from your mother and build a just, safe, and healthy society.

Happy Mothers Day!