Thursday, August 9, 2007

Blog Against Racism

Short version: Racism sucks. Don't do it.

Longer version: As some of you know, I am a pasty pale person. No, seriously, cave fish white is my natural skin tone. I was raised in the most whitebread home you ever saw.

I am mixed race. My father is half native Hawaiian, with black hair and skin the color of mahogany. My mother is, and this may be hard to believe, even paler than me.

I am fifty one years old. Some of the most signifigant years of my childhood (1955-1960) were spent in the Deep South, much of the rest in rather non-cosmopolitan parts of the Mid-West.

My father passed. From the day he arrived on the mainland he ignored or denied his native heritage.

I remember segregated drinking fountains and swimming pools. I know that often the people in town were scandalized at the idea that there were colored families living right next door to white families on base.

One of my earliest memories was of the evening we showed up at my father's next duty station in rural Mississippi to discover we were the very first military people to arrive. Evidently, the date on Dad's permanent change of station paperwork was slightly incorrect.

Right. Picture this. Spring of 1958. Rural Mississippi. Coming on dusk. Young couple, a dark skinned young man and a pale red haired woman hauling two very small children in an overloaded car. The woman, by the way, is heavily pregnant.

There's no one at the base gate to let us in. There's no one at the base at all, it's too late for Dad to call anyone tonight and the town is small enough to have exactly two pay phones. He pulls into the only gas station to ask for directions to the nearest motel or boarding house.

The man looks at him. Looks at us in the car. Looks back at my father, in his uniform. Shakes his head.

"I can't help you."

He then turns and walks back inside, with a muttered order to the mechanic who is sweeping up.

The mechanic approaches, Dad asks where the nearest motel is located. The mechanic shakes his head.

"There's no rooms in town for you folks."

I think my mother understood him first. I remember her starting to cry.

It was past supper time, getting dark and we had nowhere to go.

In the end, the black mechanic finished locking up and had us follow him down the road to the little not-quite-a-town where the black families lived. Where the black families had lived for generations even though they went into town to work. There wasn't a motel but there was a woman who had rooms to rent. We stayed there for several days until an officer and a couple of non-comms arrived and opened the base.

We lived on base the entire time my father was stationed there. My father refused to consider moving into town. If the base hospital hadn't opened in time my sister would have been delivered at the civilian hospital. By law the words "Mixed race" would have been stamped across her birth certificate.

My father was even more adamant about passing for white after that, both for himself and for all four of us children.

I was very young. I didn't understand, sitting in the car on that humid spring evening, why that man wouldn't help us. All I knew was he had a very strange look on his face when he said "I can't help you." And my father flinched and my mother cried.

The kicker? By the lights of the time and place, that wasn't a bad man. He didn't use any of the more usual words. He even sent his mechanic out to help us. He didn't have to do that. There were plenty of people who wouldn't have faulted him if he'd refused to lift a finger.

So, when I catch myself being a clueless white person, that's the moment I remember. One moment, almost fifty years ago, and I can still see the way my father's jaw went tight, still hear my mother swallowing her sobs out of stubborn Chicago Irish pride. They were stranded and helpless in front of their children.

"There's no rooms in town for you folks."

I don't know what it's like to face racism every day. I do know just one moment of being the target burned into my brain.

Don't do that.

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