Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Nostalgia of Bigotry

When we were coming home from church one Sunday, many years ago while I was still a young boy, we passed by a street corner filled with white-clad men in hoods. They were handing out literature, little locally-produced pamphlets announcing a fish fry or whatnot to support the KKK.

My father made some remark that was supportive of them and their aims. Specifics are lost to the fog of memory, but I remember my mom making a "tsking" sound and admonishing him, telling him to quit kidding.

But those men under the hoods weren't kidding. They were all smiles and handshakes, but what drove them to put on the robes was hatred, honestly held and unashamedly advocated. I doubt they even thought of themselves as bigots; in their own minds they were sober, right-thinking, upstanding men out to save a nation from the Black Scourge. They had their literature filled with "scientific" studies showing how inferior the Black Man was to the White, how they were planning on mingling with the superior races to corrupt America, and how the KKK and the fine individuals filling it were the only lookouts on the hill sounding the alarm.

For a long time I think my father felt some kinship with them, the white-robed bigots who thought they were doing the rest of the world a favor, who thought so highly of their own moral sense and the clear evidence of their eyes that they were willing to stand up in public and pass out their pamphlets.

One thing that is absolutely clear, however, is that he was ultimately able to overcome whatever feelings of racism he might have had. The great equalizer for him was his experience dealing with alcoholism. He conquered it with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and remained sober for an astonishing number of years, but he struggled with its call every day. It was the humbling weight of that burden, I suspect, that made him understand that people are just people underneath it all; a White man is no more able to fight alcoholism alone than a Black man. At the end of the day they're both just drunks trying desperately not to have one more drink, and that absolutely transcends skin color. He dedicated his life to helping anyone -- Black, White, or Purple -- defeat that demon.

His funeral was attended by a large number of people of all races, people he'd helped with their addictions as a counselor, lives he'd touched in the most profound way. That's what makes me think he was also able to overcome the bigotry he was weaned on growing up in Louisiana, which still lived on in the form of those white-clad men on the corner I saw while coming home from church decades later, when I was just a boy.

What do we do when confronted with bigotry up close and personal? What is our obligation to our fellow man, both those who are in the hated class and those who but stand by idly on the sidelines? Is it better to speak out and rage, or to work quietly and show them the error of their ways through the example of our lives?

Although I understand and applaud those who are outspoken, militant activists, my nature is to do the latter, because in my experience there is no argument so persuasive as a life well-lived in honor and goodness. I know that personally, I first learned that the racism I'd been taught growing up was wrong when I enrolled in (and graduated from) an inner-city, 85% Black high school and got to know them as human beings instead of stereotypes. Contrary to what I'd been led to believe, they were people just like me beneath their skin, as capable of both greatness and meanness as I was, as full of love and hate as I was, as intelligent and stupid as the best or worst of my white friends.

The same thing happened in college with regards to homosexuals, whom I'd been taught growing up were among the most twisted, evil, horrible people ever to exist. I wasn't even allowed to watch "Three's Company" because Jack Tripper pretended to be gay. "But Dad," I'd say, "he's not actually gay!" That didn't matter, though; apparently even the appearance of anything homosexual was enough to cause irreparable harm in the viewer. Archie Bunker's hate-filled bigotry was Must See TV, but Jack Tripper's pretend gayness was verboten.

And yet, just like in high school, when I got to actually know some gay people, they too were just regular people. Good, bad, smart, stupid, kind, hateful, they ran the same gamut of humanity as any straight people I'd ever met. They just happened to be attracted to their own gender, but that didn't make them evil.

And so another inherited bigotry fell to the wayside. Again and again, every time I came to actually know someone from a group I'd been taught was evil, I learned that they were not.

Every time.

And so I came to understand that people are simply people, no matter the color of their skin, the orientation of their sexuality, the tenor of their faith, or the country of their origin. I distrust those who try to tell me that anyone different from me is evil, or inherently twisted, or irredeemably wicked just by virtue of that difference, because that kind of bigotry has been proven wrong time and time again right in front of my eyes. There is no more powerful a refutation of hatred and bigotry than personal experience. Showing someone through the living example of your own life how wrong they are to hate is far more convincing than any book, any movie, any argument could ever be.

I sometimes despair that it will do any good, because once it takes root, bigotry and hatred are extremely hard to dislodge. But my father did it, and that gives me hope. He got to know Black people as simply people, and in the end he came to love them. I hope that eventually more and more people will come to do the same with their own demons of bigotry and hatred as well, whether it's in regards to homosexuals, Muslims, atheists, or minorities.

At least, that's what I tell myself when I read yet another hate-filled screed disguised as compassion, yet one more "scientific study" proving why They are different and evil, one more well-reasoned and morally bankrupt justification for why it's all right, really, to hate each other. I get depressed for a bit, and then I get thoughtful, and then I get pissed, and then I get peaceful. At the end of the day, all I have to really throw in the way of the bigotry is my life, simply led and honestly open.

I hope, one day, it's enough.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that this issue will ever be resolved, sadly enough. Last semester, a classmate of mine got a flyer on his mailbox from the KKK advertising about an upcoming meeting. Ironically, we were taking a multicultural class, so he brought the flyer for a class discussion. I remember being appalled at the flyer. Surely that stuff doesn't exist anymore right? It was really eye opening to realize no matter how far we think have come in our quest to stop hate, we're not even close to over it. It's sad, but like you said, all we can do is live our life right and good and hope that one day others will have that personal experience that will enable them to shed the hatred.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. It illustrates perfectly just one of the reasons I love you so very much.

I have to say that I do struggle with a form of bigotry myself. When I hear people cloak themselves in the guise of being a religious man (or woman but I honestly see it more coming from men) yet they spout hatred for a gay person, etc., well their reasoning that they hate gays seems to be that "the church told them gays are bad" or "the Bible tells them to hate gays."

I am getting sick and tired of hearing that sorry excuse. I want so shout: GROW UP! Decide for yourself if another human being is truly evil. Don't let another man's interpretation of what they THINK Jesus was all about. Or Mohamed or whomever. If you want to follow Jesus, how about you follow exactly what he did and do everything in your life out of love for others.
Yes. Even the gay people.

So back to my bigotry. When "Christians" start preaching their "Bible-mandated" hatred of gays, other Christians, non-Christians, non-patriotic people, baby eating liberals, atheists, etc, I feel very, very hateful towards this type of Christian. This sort of behavior guarantees that I will be unwilling to respect Christianity or any religion that preaches hate.

Does this make me a bigot? If so, I will accept that label. Annie

Rob Rogers said...

Nice post, Jeff. Thanks.