My dad is an immigrant with a permanent resident Status that he acquired when President Reagan loosened the application restrictions in 1986, creating immigrant amnesty. (Reagan was today’s Democrat or something. I don’t know, because I was three.) My dad is Greek, just like my Big Fat Greek Wedding. He’s also kind of racist; you see guys, a lot of that shit also exists in Europe. It’s real, and it’s not something we stand to gain anything by denying. It’s maybe an ego bruise or a pride-sting, but it’s a real thing with a name and a feeling and a dictionary description.
The thing about my dad’s kind of racism is that he never wants to revoke the rights of other people; he doesn’t think they don’t deserve to live, he just makes really harsh and sweeping generalizations that are still damaging and not okay.
My dad hides his racism really well, and doesn’t identify as being bigoted. He doesn’t actually think he’s doing anything wrong. He usually just whispers something under his breath and out of earshot when he’s watching TV. As a kid I didn’t realize that he was in fact embodying the form of racism we heard about in school, when we had assemblies and councilor sessions about appropriate language. It’s the sort of thing that people have to hammer into your head before you really see it for what it is.
Like a lot of people, he’s not open with it, he’s not targeting anyone, but he does not get racial sensitivity. He doesn’t get gay people either, or how that’s “a thing”, but he doesn’t give a flying fuck if they get married, he just doesn’t fundamentally get it.
As I grew up, and learned how to stand up to my parents, I found it easy to tell my dad when he was being racist.
“Can you believe that girl, with all the black guys!” he would say to me when he would see someone he knew with another new boyfriend.
“Dad that’s racist.” I would flatly tell him, giving almost no tone of surprise, shock, or distaste. That is really the only way to talk to my father.
“Okay Chrissy.” He would say in his thick accent as he turned and walked away from me. Maybe he was being dismissive.
I knew I wasn’t changing him, he wasn’t turning a new leaf, he wasn’t ever going to declare himself an ally to anyone, but I also knew that I could tell him when he was doing it and that he would stop. I also knew I was saving him from saying that shit too loud. You can’t be publicly racist. At least you couldn’t be, seven days ago.
We don’t need Alanis Morisette to tell us how ironic it is that the immigrant who is racially stereotyping people looks shocked when I react to his slurs.
I recognize racism because I grew up with it. My mom was even a little racist. Just the traces of it. She dropped slurs casually that I didn’t know were slurs. Like “Chinky,” which sounds adorable to a kid and not so bad, but it is bad, don’t tell your kids to say it. I said it until I was a teenager having no idea what the hell I was talking about. I didn’t even know I was being racist; it was just one of those things that gets handed down like a quilt or tacky gold earrings that were very popular during that Reagan era.
And my mom was the white lady who was best friends with the only black woman on our street; mom was sort of racist like dad was, yet she empowered our African Immigrant neighbor to get her license by giving her driving lessons and teaching her how to drive in our old, white Honda Civic.
My mom sent us to play with the neighbor’s kids, who watched Saved By the Bell on their grainy, small, barely in color and very non HDTV too. They cooked strong, odorous food that I had never seen before, most of it turned out to be seasoned beans or rice, but I was used to Macaroni and ultra-palatable food that was all the same color. They had hair that took a lot of combing and conditioning. They had these dark, wooden tribal masks on the wall that scared the hell out of me, but they were cultural—I understood that much. They would speak in a version of French to one another, but easily slide back into English for me. Eventually I realized I was picking up keywords in their dialogues. They were quiet and obedient to their parents. They had a structure to their household relationships that seemed more formal than mine, but I didn’t see any enormous differences when you consider what it must be like to come to Vermont from Africa. We were friends with them for years. And for most of the time, they were the only black family we knew, but my brother and I didn’t notice it until we were much older.
None of that sounds like true, cold-blooded, hate-filled racism, right?
So I get that a lot of people supporting Trump are saying that they’re not racist. Because like my family, being half-way kind-of racist means you are kind to people of all races, but you are willing to overlook the use of slurs and stuff that seems innocent. It’s not innocent, though. And not hearing those slurs, or standing up to those slurs is allowing someone to be branded with the hot-poker of hate.
I was finally of drinking age, waitressing nights in my parents restaurant across from a popular bar that always hosted live bands. After work I scooted over a lot to see music and friends and get drinks. My old neighbor was still living in Brattleboro, but divorced and with a home of her own in a different end of town now. She still went out dressed beautifully in traditional, vibrantly colored kaftans. I could spot her from a mile away; she was cheerful, always emanating a joy from her soul as though nothing got to her. She was out dancing with her friends at that bar. I didn’t talk to her much—loud music, crowded house.
Sometime in the following days, a familiar woman came in to eat at our absurdly tiny seven-table pizza shop. A frequent customer, she had to have been in her 90s. She walked with a cane and a serious curvature to her stooped back. I always felt a soft spot for her being that her appearance was so frail. I whispered to my mom, “It’s kind of sweet; she’s still independent and comes in for pizza.”
My mom whispered to me in a less hushed tone that left me feeling embarrassed, “That lady ain’t got nothing sweet. She had the nerve to walk up to my friend who was minding her business out dancing the other night, grab her arm, and tell her to go back to Africa. She called her a Nigger.”
My mouth gaped in horror, I stumbled over words. “What happened next?”
“My friend is an amazing woman; she stood up, shook the woman off and said, ‘Leave me alone, I’m dancing!’ And then she did exactly that, smiled at her friends and didn’t let it stop her fun. That was the best way to shut that awful woman up.”
“Mom, are you going to say anything? Are you going to refuse to serve her? Should we kick her out?” I asked, genuinely concerned, and having never heard of such a thing happening before in my springy, peach-white skinned life.
“No,” my mom said, continuing her work cutting bread for sandwiches.
The conversation ended just that abruptly.
We continued to serve that racist old lady for many more months. I never said anything, quietly serving her food, knowing she was full of hatred straight out of the MLK docuseries I saw in high school. Justice to me would have been kicking her out for her hatred, the way so many black people were dehumanized and kicked out of diners before I was born.
Someone I knew to be good and virtuous was publicly branded with the hate and anger of a perfect stranger. It was not her responsibility to carry the dark shadow of someone else’s resentment. She had handled herself perfectly, and unfortunately I’m sure she had practice.
Everyone who stands out has. My dad is called a Muslim by intolerant people who can’t tell that his accent is Greek and that his flag is blue. He’s been called a “White-Nigger” and I’m still not sure what that means, but it seems like we affix the term “Nigger” to attribute hate to just about anyone.
It feels different somehow: using the language that was designed to oppress an entire culture of people from Slavery to Segregation feels like a far more dark and painful type of racism than jokes about Jews or calling Muslims terrorists. I understand. But somewhere we left a door open.
And we can dig in our heels, appease our guilt, or our fear of being represented as bad, and say we don’t carry those sins on our backs anymore; we leave the past where it is, because it’s not ours anymore. We have atoned, we are nicer now, too much time has passed, are they trying to punish us for things we didn’t even do? Should I feel guilty for being white?
Maybe. But only if we keep doing nothing. We packed away the dogs and firehoses and the Jim Crow, but racism didn’t die when that bitter old woman did. We handed it down, like a quilt or some tacky gold earrings.