Thursday, September 20, 2012

Racist Fear

I'm probably reacting late and behind the curve on this, but I still wanted to give it a go.  In the September The Atlantic, in an article entitled "Fear of a Black President," Ta-Nehisi Coates exposes how prejudice against African Americans still exists despite how much has been accomplished since the 1960's.  I remember when I was a child that my parents weren't terribly excited when I announced that I had a new friend who had the most beautiful black skin.  I could not understand their response at all.  Now, I have not understood how some people have responded to President Obama.  Well, Coates lays it out in his article, writing about both the African American and White attitudes and beliefs.

What's going on in our country regarding racial politics?  Coates shows that, as far as we've come, a person's skin color still matters.  No one has really addressed the fear of "the other" -- that's what fear of African Americans is -- or what "the other" might do.  I suspect that those with white skin wouldn't fear "the other" so much if there wasn't a certain level of guilt about what Whites had done to African-Americans in the past, and an expectation of punishment for it.  According to Coates, African-Americans fear not being able to succeed in white American society unless they suppress their "blackness," so they don't antagonize the Whites around them in any way.  A lot of fear in our fine country, eh?

A wise man said once, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."  Fear fuels hatred and racism.  There's no question that racism continues to exist in America, even if it might be losing some of its power here and there.  But the emotions around it remain -- fear, anger, frustration, hatred.  These are passed on from parent to child on both sides of the race question.  Racism won't cease until that passing on is stopped.  And while we have a Black President today, that doesn't mean that racism has ceased to exist.  Please let me clarify -- racism exists on both sides, not only with Whites against Blacks, but also Blacks against Whites.  Any African American who denies this is still entrenched in the "victim" attitude that exists among a certain percentage of African Americans in this country.

How do we stop the passing on of the fear and other emotions connected to racism as well as racist beliefs?  Parents need to NOT teach their children what their parents taught them.  In other words, parents need to be open, inclusive, fearless, and accepting of others who do not look like them, giving their children the models they need to know how to treat others.  My father, who was one of the most prejudiced people I've met, used to tell me to treat everyone the same, no matter who they are.  With respect.  Fairness.  Kindness.  On the other hand, he's also the person who insisted that we not have friends who didn't look like us.

I remember especially an incident when I was in high school, earning money with my own babysitting business.  A friend had called and asked if I'd be interested in babysitting for a young couple with two young children.  They had just moved to our small city and knew no one.  The father had a good job as a professor at the State University in town.  Apparently, they had gone to the YMCA looking for help, and the Director had suggested me -- he knew my parents, and my father served on the YMCA's Board of Directors.  The Director offered to have a mutual friend call me and that's how I got these lovely new clients.  Their kids were a delight, well-behaved, intelligent, imaginative and clean.  The parents paid me on time.  So, how could my father be upset about all that?

They were African Americans.  A friend of my father had seen me on this young family's front porch watching the kids playing in the yard.  He'd called my father and wanted to know how I could be working for Blacks.  Whites don't work for Blacks.  When I returned home and my parents confronted me about it, I told them that I was running a business as a babysitter, and as far as I was concerned, these African Americans were some of the best clients I'd ever had.  And, their money was just as green as ours.  I continued to babysit for them until I went away to college.  I really enjoyed talking with them, learning from them, and helping them out.  But it was with unsurprised sadness that I heard a couple years later that they'd moved away, taken new jobs, because of the "cold unfriendliness" of my hometown.

Credit: The Atlantic
I respect and admire the thorough job Coates did in examining racism in America now from the political angle.  We won't lose that racism until we stop passing on racist attitudes and beliefs to the next generation about anyone who doesn't look like us -- I include African Americans and Asian Americans in that "us."

Thank you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for writing that article and baring the American political soul.  It really helped me to understand how some people can hate President Obama so much despite the excellent job he's done in the face of Republican intransigence and the bad economy.

To hear the writer talk about this article, click here.

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