Famous Last Words: Exploring the Depths of Racist Conditioning

Published as a ZNet Commentary, April 24, 1999

Every now and then a lesson comes easy. Other times we learn things by accident, if at all; and inevitably it seems, the lessons that matter most, often come from the least likely sources at the most inopportune moments: so much so that if we aren’t paying close attention we just might miss them altogether. Such was the case last August, when my paternal grandmother died at the age of seventy-eight. Although the passing of a relative may not seem appropriate as the jumping off point for social commentary, it is precisely the oddity of it that makes it all the more poignant and valuable. But first, a preface to what I hope to explain.

In the past few years, I have had the good fortune to speak before thousands of people all across the country about racism. Some audiences respond favorably, others not so much. But the fundamental message I deliver is always the same: whites have a special obligation to fight racism, far beyond that which exists simply because we are human, and this is because it is our problem, created by others like us, for the purpose of commanding power over resources and opportunities at the expense of people of color. Furthermore, all whites irrespective of liberal attitudes and their “tolerance” for others must address the internalized beliefs about white superiority from which we all suffer. No one is innocent. No one is unaffected by the daily socialization to which we’re all subjected, specifically the way we’re taught to think about persons of color in this society: their behaviors, intelligence, beauty, and so on.

Without doubt, convincing whites that we have internalized racist beliefs proves difficult. You can’t make the point with statistics, or poll numbers, or by pointing out the disparities in life chances that form the backdrop of American racism. Convinced they are free from the biases that characterize “real” racists, such folks inevitably are the most resistant to the analysis offered here thus far.

It is with this in mind that I return to my grandmother. For her death, and her life up until she died, offers more in the way of proof that racist socialization affects us all than anything I have experienced in my thirty years. You see, my grandmother was one of those good liberals. In fact, she was beyond liberal, particularly given the time and place in which she spent most of her life.

Born in the Detroit area, her family moved south in the 1920s. Her father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; a member that is, until the day when his only daughter informed him that she had fallen in love with a Jew, and that in addition to that, his prejudice toward blacks was unconscionable to her. She then asked if he was going to burn his robes, or if she and her mother were going to have to do it for him. She challenged him despite what must have been the palpable fear of standing up to a man who was none too gentle and most certainly capable of violence. As it turns out, he burned the robes, left the Klan, and by all accounts changed his attitudes, behaviors, indeed his life thereafter.

Throughout her life she would stand up to racism on many occasions. Like the time she and my grandfather were looking for a house, and the agent made the mistake of mentioning, as if it were a positive thing, that there were no blacks in the area. My grandmother’s response was simple: he had best get in his car and drive away, or she would be forced to run him over in hers.

She would regularly challenge racist comments, from whatever the source. The fear that too often paralyzes whites and makes us unwilling to challenge racism, described by James Baldwin as the fear of being “turned away from the welcome table” of white society, was something that played no part in her life. For all of her many human flaws, she was a woman of principle, and though not an activist, she instilled in her family a sense of right and wrong which was unshakeable in at least this regard.

But enough for the praise, for it is not my intention to heap accolades, however deserved, upon the dead. Indeed, there is another side to this story, and it is far less heartwarming than that which has come before. Yet, I would venture to say it is far more important. It is the part about my grandmother’s death.

A few years ago it became obvious that Maw Maw, as we knew her, was developing Alzheimer’s. Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer with the condition knows how difficult it is to witness the deterioration that takes place: the forgotten memories, the forgotten names, the unfamiliar faces, the anger of feeling abandoned; and finally, a regression back to a virtual infant stage of development. It is a fascinating disease, in that it renders otherwise healthy persons helpless, eventually causing not only a complete mental meltdown, but a physiological one as well. It renders its victims incapable of reason or comprehensible thought. It saps the conscious mind of its energy, and therein lies the point of my story.

You see, resisting socialization requires the ability to choose. But near the end of my grandmother’s life, as her body and mind began to shut down, this consciousness — the soundness of mind which had led her to fight the pressures to accept racism — began to vanish. Her awareness of who she truly was disappeared. And as this process unfolded, culminating in the dementia ward of a local nursing home, an amazing and disturbing thing happened: She began to refer to her mostly black nurses by the all-too-common term that forms the linguistic cornerstone of white America’s racial thinking. The one Malcolm X said was the first word newcomers learned when they came to this country. Nigger.

It was a word she would never have uttered from conscious thought, but one that remained locked away in her subconscious despite her best intentions and lifelong commitment to standing strong against racism. A word that would have made her ill even to think it. A word that would make her violent if she heard it said. A word that, for her to utter it herself, would make her another person altogether. But there it was, as ugly, bitter, and no doubt fluently expressed as it ever had been by her father.

Now think carefully about what I’m saying, and why it matters. Here was a woman who no longer could recognize her own children; a woman who had no idea who her husband had been; no clue where she was, what her name was, what year it was; and yet, knew what she had been taught at a very early age to call black people. Once she was no longer capable of resisting this demon, tucked away like a ticking time bomb in the far corners of her mind, it would reassert itself and explode with a vengeance. She could not remember how to feed herself. She could not go to the bathroom by herself. She could not recognize a glass of water for what it was. But she could recognize a nigger. America had seen to that, and no disease would strip her of that memory. Indeed, it would be one of the last words I would hear her say, before finally she stopped talking at all.

Please understand: Given this woman’s entire life and the circumstances surrounding her slow demise, her utterance of a word even as hateful as this one says little about her. But it speaks volumes about her country; about the seeds of evil planted in every one of us by our culture; seeds that, so long as we are of sound mind and commitment, we can choose not to water; but also seeds that left untended sprout of their own accord. It speaks volumes about the work whites must do, individually and collectively to overcome that which is always beneath the surface; to overcome the tendency to cash in the chips that represent the perquisites of whiteness; to traffic in privileges and feel superior to others, not because of what they are, but rather because of what you’re not: in this case, not a nigger.

In many ways that’s all whiteness ever meant, and all it needed to mean for those of European descent. To be white meant at least you were above them. If you had not a pot to piss in, at least you had that. To call another man or woman a nigger and to treat them the way one is instructed to treat such an untouchable is to assert nothing less than a property right. It is to add value to what DuBois called the “psychological wage” of whiteness. When my grandmother was strong she had no need to take advantage of these wages, and indeed, often tried hard to resist them. But in weakness and confusion it became all that her increasingly diseased mind had left. And she called in the chips.

Maybe this is why I tire of white folks trying to sell me bullshit like: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” or “I never notice color.” See Maw Maw would have said that too, and she would have meant well. And she would have been wrong.

Fact is, that word is still the first word on most white people’s mind when we see a black man being taken off to jail on the evening news; the first thing many of us think when we see Mike Tyson, Louis Farrakhan, or O.J. Simpson. Think I’m exaggerating? Then make sure to be sitting with me at an airport bar the next time an African American other than Oprah, Michael Jordan, or Colin Powell makes the news. Take a cab ride with me anywhere in this country, and if the driver is white (or really anything but black), and the trip more than fifteen minutes, see how long it takes for the word or its modern-day coded equivalents to spew forth, once they discover what I do. Ask me what whites yelled at black students who occupied the basketball court during a Rutgers/U Mass game a few years back to protest racist comments by Rutgers’ President: fans who mere seconds before had been wildly cheering black ballplayers, and yet turned on a dime as soon as they were reminded of the racial battle lines that trump NCAA-inspired brotherhood every time. Then after that, tell me the one again about being colorblind. Let’s go to Roxbury, or East LA, or to the Desire housing projects in New Orleans, or to any MLK Boulevard in any city in America, and then let’s see how hard it is to discern pigment.

Colorblind, my ass.

Then once we’re through feeling bad for having been sucker-punched by racist conditioning like everyone else, then please, let us learn to forgive ourselves. Our guilt is worthless, though far from meaningless. It has plenty of meaning: it means we aren’t likely to do a damned thing constructive to end the system that took us in, conned us, and stole part of our humanity.

And what those women at my grandmother’s nursing home need and deserve, much more than sincere but irrelevant apologies from embarrassed family members, is for me to say what I’m saying right now, and to encourage everyone to be brave enough to say the same thing. To put an end to this vicious system of racial caste. To spend every day resisting the temptations of advantage, which ultimately weaken the communities on which we all depend. Those nurses knew (and so do I) why my grandmother could no longer fight. For the rest of us, there is no similar excuse available.

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