Yesterday I had one of those weird conversations white Southerners sometimes find themselves drawn into. I was talking to one of our older white neighbors, who is maybe in his 70's. He was doing me a favor by telling me about an affordable tree-trimming service, which we badly need to get rid of the tree that has taken our electricity and/or cable out 3 times in the past few years. He took the opportunity to ask me if I knew whether the people who bought the house across the street from us were white or not.(*Sigh*, I thought. Here we go again.) I said I had seen them and they do appear to be white. Well, without ever uttering the "n" word or saying anything overtly nasty, he went on to express his satisfaction because in his opinion our neighborhood is still 90% white, and he made it clear that that's the way he wants it to stay.

Well, I guess maybe the old guy doesn't get out that much, because from what I've seen, our neighborhood is much more diverse than that. But I guess it's possible that he's grouping the Arabic families, the Asian folks and the Latinos into the "white" category, and maybe that's how he comes up with this 90% number. He maybe even thinks he's being broad-minded, to consider those folks white. Still, you have to wonder why 90% is the magic ratio and where he gets that idea from.

I always feel really uncomfortable when I talk to older people who talk like this. It's possible that they don't even know that what they are saying is racist. I kind of know instinctively that if I were to tell them that I'm offended by their attitude, they will ostracize me. Instead, I told him, "We have a lot of good black neighbors!" He agreed with that, but reiterated that we still don't want TOO MANY. (I don't see how you can have too many good neighbors, no matter what their race is.)

He then went on to recommend a good affordable "Christian" mechanic shop. He really made it a point to emphasize that they are Christians, because he said it more than once. I don't know about you, but I don't care anything about what religion my mechanic practices, as long as he (or she) knows how to fix my car. Once again, it was one of those subtle cultural things that really irks me. Is "Christian" code for "upstanding," "moral," or "fair?" Is a Christian mechanic less likely to overcharge you for repairs? I guess one would hope so. But on the other hand, probably the majority of U.S. mechanics belong to some Christian denomination or the other, yet customers are still being overcharged and ripped off on a regular basis.

The whole conversation left me feeling like we were from two different worlds. I don't want to make my neighbor seem like a bad person, because I'm sure he's not. Nor do I think I'm morally superior in some way. But I think it does point out a generational difference. I wonder if he was as aware of it as I was...

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Comment by ClarkKent_DC on August 21, 2009 at 12:14pm
Eric L. Sofer wrote:

And the awful truth is that people who grew up using the word nigger* didn't know it was wrong, any more than people who grew up calling mentally handicapped people retards, or calling gay people queer (or whichever isn't offensive these days.)

All I can say here is, you really don't know what you are saying. You just don't. Bigots may be ignorant ("If someone doesn't know any better"? Really?), but they always know exactly what they mean, and it isn't innocuous.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on August 21, 2009 at 1:00pm
Ms. Carr,

Honey, if you'd ever seen the Silver Age Fogey, you'd know that beauty is unattainable. "Non-frightening" is about the best I strive for... :D

But I will try to adhere to your counsel and try to avoid misusing the power of words available to us.

Of course, you know about them there Navajos, don'cha? :)

CK:

You may be right. To my own experiences, the word was used equally; sometimes with malice and bigotry, sometimes just as a descriptor - and when I reconsider the experiences with the word now, I still remember it that way. But I guess I would also assume to prefer ignorance to malicious intent - so perhaps I am being somewhat naive. I can only speak of what I've seen and heard.

I remain,
Sincerely,
Eric L. Sofer
The Silver Age Fogey
x<]:o){
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on August 21, 2009 at 4:23pm
Rose-colored glasses don't give people 20/20 vision.
Comment by Joan Carr on August 21, 2009 at 5:53pm
I can honestly say I have never used the "n" word. In fact, I think I have only uttered it aloud once or twice in my life. That's because when I was very, very young, my mother taught me to never use that word because it is disrespectful and hurtful. I don't remember exactly what my mother said about the "n" word, but I have always had the opinion that it demeans the speaker as well as the person spoken to.

It didn't occur to me until I was an adult how prescient it was of my mother to teach me that lesson. Afterall, she grew up and lived most of her adult life as a white person in segregated Alabama and no doubt heard the word used casually all the time. But by the time I came along, I think she knew the world would be different for me. I was among the first generation to go to desegregated public schools from first grade on. The lesson she taught me has served me well all my life. I'm sure my mother could not have forseen in 1968 or 1969 that in 40 years her daughter would be living in a majority African American city, working and living among African Americans and having them as friends and colleagues.

Somehow my old-fashioned white mother not only was able to banish a then-common word from my vocabulary, but also taught me a lesson of mutual respect and acceptance. I have no doubt that her own belief in the equality of the races sprang from her Christian faith. Mine springs more from practical experience.
Comment by Rich Lane on August 21, 2009 at 11:50pm
My oldest daughter and my oldest son both favor my wife in that they look look more "ethnic" than white. My daughter is darker complected and has somewhat almond shaped eyes and my son is on the extreme end of dark complexion for a Hispanic. When they were both much younger, both suffered from racially based ridicule which was extremely hard for me as a pasty-faced, nigh-near albino white guy to deal with. My daughter was called "chink" and other slurs because kids assumed she was Asian, and my son was called the N-word for his skin even though anybody with any clue about the world outside our small town would know he was Hispanic. I can tell you as someone raised in about as whitebread a WASP family as could be in this part of the country that I have the rare experience of knowing exactly how hurtful those terms can be. There were times I was embarrassed and ashamed to be white because I didn't want to be associated with the pathetic dregs who would make my children cry even by a shade of color.

Those who say "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me" must never have heard someone they love called a name.
Comment by Joan Carr on August 22, 2009 at 4:33pm
Your children sound beautiful! I know a little of what they experienced. My "white" mother who taught me to never say the "n" word is part Native American. My older sister and I got her almond-shaped eyes (my sister more than me--when she was little she looked like an Eskimo!) On my first day of first grade, my sister was walking with me to my classroom when some other kids ran up to us and yelled, "You're Chinese!" I just looked at them puzzled and said, "No we're not. We're from Alabama." Later on, my rich, WASPy college boyfriend told me I have a "n*gger nose." I don't even know what he was talking about--but the racial slur was especially hurtful coming from him. Although I'm half Irish and I consider myself "white," clearly I have some kind of mixed ancestry. Why should I be ashamed of that? It sets me apart from the crowd. Anyhow, I don't know why white racists get all worked up about "racial purity." The races have been mixing in America since the first Caucasians set foot on this continent! We should celebrate our diversity. It makes us unique. Your kids should be proud...they are the beautiful result of the "melting pot" we call America.
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on August 22, 2009 at 4:41pm
I've long said that if I were a dog they'd call me a mutt. Since I'm not, they call me an American.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on August 24, 2009 at 7:48am
Sure, but who wants a thoroughbred? Anyhow, Cav, you're too valuable as a mix to cast aside parts!

And anyone who reliably accepts their ancestry for more than three generations back is prob'ly buying a pig in a poke. We're ALL mixes; I don't think I know anyone who's got a "clean gene" strain going back very far.

Ms. Carr is exactly right... it IS America... it IS the Great Melting Pot... so mocking someone else is probably mocking oneself twice over.

When people realize that, maybe THAT will contribute to accepting other people as part of the gang.... we can only hope.

I remain,
Sincerely,
Eric L. Sofer
The Silver Age Fogey
x<]:o){

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