Typical White People
by linfar, Mon Mar 31, 2008 at 07:39:24 AM EDT
Cross posted from www.SavagePolitics.com
I ordered my 'typical white person' t-shirt today. Something I never saw myself doing when I first set out on that road I walked for decades in behalf of civil rights. And my Dad, if he were still living, would find it ironical. The hours I spent confronting him over his use of the `n' word made for some lively discussions around our kitchen table. This Formica oblong on chrome legs sat in a street-facing window in our apartment on Norton Avenue in Lynwood, California, the white person's Compton. It was there I learned that Vincent Lawrence, an Irish river rat on Manhattan's lower east side, had been taught to say nigger along with his oatmeal. But the truly amazing thing about my Dad's use of this word, was the way he unlearned it the day the hearse carrying the body of John F. Kennedy rolled across the nation's tv screens. Not long after this my father stood up for civil rights at great personal sacrifice. And although I had already left home, my Dad became my personal hero.
I think in order to appreciate the sacrifice involved in my Father's stand for racial equality, you need to understand that my Father never finished grade school-- although he was bright and understood more from reading the daily newspaper than all my professors at Berkeley. But my Dad had worked most of my childhood as a guard at General Motors on the night shift. It was there, after I left home, that he studied by correspondence course to take the California State Real Estate License Exam. After he passed, he worked part time in the office of an acquaintance; and then he did well enough after a couple of years to open his own office. My Mom left the factory she worked in and joined him as an agent. Success greeted their endeavors. They moved to a `ritzy' part of town, bought a house with a shake roof and hung out with a doctor and his wife, and a business tycoon and his wife. As far as the Farley's were concerned, everything was clover.
Then California passed a Fair Housing Law--apparently when no one was looking because the new law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race. The State Real Estate Board revved up into high gear to get the law repealed, and its strategy demanded every realtor fill a quota of signatures on the petition to repeal the law. When the person handing out these petition sheets came to my Dad at the weekly breakfast meeting of the all-white Downey Real Estate Board my Dad said, "Keep on walking." Until then my father had been extremely well liked and had served as President of the Downey Board; but from that moment on both my parents suffered severe penalties, not to mention insults, from the other white realtors. Within six months he was forced out of business in Downey.
"Do you regret it Dad?" I asked one day not long after they closed their office.
His face tightened. "Your mother does." I nodded. I was guessing he probably did too. They had paid an astronomic price. "But I don't," he said. My Dad's blue eyes looked electric."You have to take a stand sometimes. And it can be hard." His jaw jutted, the way it did sometimes when he was set on something. "Discrimination in housing is wrong. And it only works if there are `safe' areas. I promised Jack Kennedy to stand up for civil rights." Then he smiled. It was a sweet moment between us, and I wondered if he could see the awe and the astonishment I felt for him. Here stood this once prejudiced white guy who had grown up with nothing and who had put his entire livelihood on the line for racial equality.
I think of my Dad him whenever I hear Obama's "typical white person" statement.
While My Dad was standing up in Downey, I was standing up elsewhere. In the decade of the 1960's I marched more times than I can recall in behalf of African Americans. My best friend at Berkeley answered the call to `Get On The Bus' and became a freedom rider in Alabama where she put her body on the line for racial equality. In the `bad years' I even stopped speaking to my Dad over his use of the 'n' word. This was about the same time I wore my hair in an Afro to show not only that 'black is beautiful,' but could be emulated by a blondie like me. In Washington DC I listened to Martin Luther King tell us "I Have A Dream" standing alongside a mixed race audience full of certitude in the righteousness of our struggle. Along the way I slept with a black guy. And he and I wept together when Mayor Bradley went down to defeat in LA. In 1968 I was one of the few whiteys who traveled freely in Watts during the riots. Later I worked for the Educational Clearinghouse in Compton that helped young black kids who were accepted into white colleges find the support and determination they needed to stay the course rather than drop out. My best friends at USC where I had a journalism scholarship were Louis and Sondra, a mixed race couple. And Louis, the black male in the duo, talked my white boyfriend out of the house one night after he erupted in a jealous rage and beat me.
Of course, the path wasn't easy. Warren, the boy I wept with over Bradley, would soon call me a "whitey bitch that would never understand black men" Louis hit on me before during and after the incident with my boyfriend. And if we were to run into each other tomorrow he would still ask, "Are you ready for a real man?" His wife and I were best friends, and Lou never saw that as a problem. Anita, a young black woman in my sociology class after the boyfriend incident when I turned up with a black eye and bruised face asked me what happened. When I told her she called me a "stupid honkey." I think she was halfway joking, but I didn't laugh. And we weren't friendly after that.
The fact of it is, my intimacies with race are of long standing, were sometimes difficult and could be painful. But I never took it out on AA's, even when I was pitted against them. This occurred in ways I never spoke about because I didn't know how to fit them into my belief at that time that racism is the biggest sin. And I understood very little about other kinds of prejudice. I knew about them in my gut. But I had no words. Although I did know that whites are not one class, and that working class whites, like my family, are often despised. But I little grasped that there was a war on between working class whites and blacks for the opportunity bonanza, not until I collided with it in a vicious experience during college. Shall we take the black one or the white one? That's what they asked me at the Washington Post when I was the first person from USC to make it into the finals for their internship program. And I was the white one.
I attended USC on a full journalism scholarship. It was like football. USC wanted a championship school newspaper. As long as I wrote for the Daily Trojan, I had a free ride. But they didn't think I stood a chance of getting one of the Washington Post internships. You just watch me, I replied. And it was exciting when I made the finals. Everyone had to eat crow.
Then came the last interview. Towards the end of it, the tall, fleshy white man in a good suit with great manners and a winning smile, asked if I believed in affirmative action. I gave an Absolute Endorsement. I quoted the figures on racial inequality, I talked about change and I ended with a heartfelt plea that justice be done. And then my nice white guy lowered the boom:
What if I told you that I had to chose between you and a black girl who was in here earlier. Her father went to Harvard, her mother is a teacher and she is attending Stanford. Unlike you, however, she pays her own way. You both write well, probably about the same. But she is the right color. Wouldn't you agree?
He peered at me the way a trapper might look at an animal caught in on one of his traps. And he waited patiently while I twisted and jerked. I was in pain at my own thoughts. I wanted that internship the way only a 19-year-old who came from nowhere could want it. But suddenly my beliefs and my principles were at war with my own welfare. I knew that economically I deserved it more than the black woman. But I could not abandon the issue of race. And I didn't have the fleshed out arguments in support of a white working class kid anyway. Growing up, I had been too busy worrying about the inequality of race, to understand the inequality of class. And I still believed all whites were better off than all blacks. In the end I compromised. "I think you should take the best qualified person," I mumbled.
He sneered at me. And then he showed me the door. When the black girl got the internship, I hurt for weeks. Had her chance come at the expense of mine? I felt bad asking myself that. But it wasn't the last time I did. There were many more such hurts to come. And after a decade of standing beside my black friends I sat down one day, and I knew that although I had stood up against racism over and over and over again, most of the time they would not stand beside me in my battles. Hadn't Warren, and Anita already shown me this?
After that I never walked away or was complicit with racial jokes. I stood for racial equality as staunchly as ever. But I had come to understand that the whole issue was a lot more complicated than I had ever imagined. And black people could be just as wrong, just as bigoted and just as unwilling to lend a hand as white folks.
I was also discovering the women's movement. And some of the women I met were working class. And they had all the arguments I had only glimpsed behind the `working class kid makes good' storyline.
This diary has not been easy to write. And the fact I am not sure I could vote for Barack Obama represents a huge shift in my life's values. But I do not forgive insults to me and mine anymore. I take the slurs about Archie Bunker voters in Ohio and about Redneck voters in Pennsylvania to heart. And I will not support a racist no matter what their color. You cannot tell me that all white people are racists and expect my vote. Hillary Clinton understands that.