Were My Integrationist White Parents Racists? Does It Matter?

23173695_127488861487I grew up being absorbed by race and racism. They were not just problems or issues. They were the distressing realities of my life. In the last few years, I have found my mind turning again and again to this very difficult problem.

My parents were among those very few Deep South white opponents of segregation and its racist underpinnings. We lived in two of the most volatile places in the South during the Civil Rights Movement — Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. Not a day went by when I did not hear my parents’ outrage over the way colored people, as we said before people were Black or African American, were treated. I have recounted some of our experiences a number of times, for example in this article published by the Raven Foundation, in a review of the film, Selma. I won’t repeat those stories here; instead I will offer some new ones.

My father, a lawyer who moonlighted as an adjunct history professor, was outspoken in social and family situations and in his classrooms. Albany’s Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, Mayor Asa Kelley, Georgia’s Governor Lester Maddox, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace — all were routine objects of my father’s contempt which he expressed heatedly and daily. Far too many smoke-filled family gatherings ended in shouting, followed by silences. I began to dread them, much as we all loved one another.

My mother, a trained social worker, brought the Head Start program to Albany. An integrated Federal program, she was soundly criticized by other white women. But she persisted. One of the things she wanted to impart to her colored students was that they were beautiful. She constantly told them how beautiful black skin was, how pretty black girls were.

Once, I recall our housekeeper, Belle, came to the front door selling green beans she had grown. My mother, coming down the interior stairs with a visitor, met her in the front hall. The visitor, a white woman, cautioned my mother not to buy the green beans. “You know how niggers are,” she said in front of Belle, “they cut their hair over the beans. You’ll get nigger hair in them if you buy them.” My mother was struck dumb not knowing how to respond. Later, she called Belle on the phone, crying, and tried to apologize.

I tell this to try to convey that by any reasonable human standard, my parents could not be counted as racists.

Yet, to be completely honest about them, I have to fast-forward several decades.

Even though he had quit 20 years earlier, my father’s smoking finally caught up with him. In 2006, about five days before he died, he went home from the hospital with Hospice personnel. A black woman with Hospice came into room where we had installed his bed. He looked at her and said, “Have you come to cook for us?”

In the dimly lit room several nights later , the night he died, he began to sing “I Dream of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair.” Why, Daddy, I asked, do you sing that? “Oh,” he said with the wide eyes of the dying, “that is a song all about a girl and they came and took her from her native plantation. She never got over that.” I said, “Daddy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that interpretation.” He replied, “Oh, yes. There are all kinds of racism in the world.” I told my father good night. Those were the last words he ever spoke.

Well into her eighties, with dementia getting its hooks into her, my mother, too, continues to be absorbed by race. She does not understand that some battles have been won or that, if not won, ground has been gained in post-Black Is Beautiful America. She continues to tell every black woman she meets how beautiful her skin is, often touching them.

I cringe when she does this. I cringe because it feels inappropriate. I cringe because if I were in their shoes, I would not like it. I also cringe because the women who are the objects of her attention often pull away or visibly show that they are offended. Invariably, because my mother has been in various nursing homes where they are employees, they cannot challenge her directly, although I can see that some would, given the chance. On more than one occasion, I have tried in a subtle way to plead with them before I leave my mother in their care to understand that she means well, she just doesn’t understand what she is doing.

Were my parents racists? Is my mother? What is your take on this? And, does it matter?


4 thoughts on “Were My Integrationist White Parents Racists? Does It Matter?

  1. Were your parents racist? By 1960’s standards, definitely not. By 2010’s standards, maybe a little.

    What matters most is that they taught you love and respect for people of all races. Any racism they themselves had was a product of the environment in which they were raised, and is forgivable in my mind.

    Even the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was racist by modern standards. He stated in multiple debates that he did not believe black Americans should integrate with whites or be given voting rights. But he recognized that they were human beings, not 3/5 but fully, and for that he needs to be commended.

    I myself am the product of Northern racists. My great-grandfather, though be was not a member of the KKK (his Catholicism precluded that), burned a cross on the lawn of a black family that moved into his neighborhood. My grandparents abandoned a house because it had become a “colored” neighborhood. My parents told my sister never to date a black man, and when she had a black friend over to our house, insisted on the girl’s parents transporting her both ways so they didn’t have to drive into the black neighborhood.

    Despite all of this, my parents and grandparents taught me enough love, respect, and general Christian kindness that I was able to see the ridiculousness of their racism. My sister and I are adults now and each have a black or biracial child through adoption. There is no greater joy than seeing their grandparents and great-grandparents welcome them into their arms and know that you are breaking down their ignorance and barriers. In the end, love wins.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your parents were not racists, and your mother isn’t a racist today. (I suspect that your mother’s caretakers understand her present mental situation or that a private moment with them would help complete their empathy for it and her). Your parents were role models on race for you and so many others. In the ideal world race would carry no more meaning than the difference between suntanned and fair skin. But in a society in which race does carry meaning, it is impossible to be a role model without mentioning the topic, at least from time to time. I know you are proud of your parents, and right you are to be. They are and have been very proud of you, of that I am sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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