A Racist in Recovery

“He scares me.”
The ‘he’ in this bald and deeply emotional statement is Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and/or Marco Rubio.
I hear this on the radio call in shows, and from people all over the Granite State and into southern Maine; from Republicans, non-declared, and Democrats, and I have to shake my head and smile, albeit a bit sadly.
Why? Because eight years ago, the ‘He’ that was scaring a lot of people was Barack Obama. And why was he so scary? Did he campaign on a promise to carpet bomb the Middle East? Or deport 11 million illegals (by the way, if this comes about, I want the transportation contract)? or label abortion-seeking women as fetal tissue sellers?
No, the then Senator Obama, was the scariest of all things – an educated black man, playing by the rules and winning.
Now before I head further down this path, I have to stand up in front of the meeting and share with you that I am a racist.
“I am a racist.” However, I’m a racist who has been in recovery for the past 49 years, and although occasionally challenged, I think I’m doing pretty well.
I’m 57 years old and for the first eight years of my life I was in a white cocoon of, if not privilege, at least comfort and ignorance. Private Lutheran education, family car trips to national parks in the west, a clean and safe rural neighborhood – white, white and white. My only exposure to anyone different from me came when my family moved to Bangkok for a few years in the early 60s; when my father and grandfather would take the family fishing off the Michigan City pier; and during the ‘Volkswagen Incident’.
I have some memories of Bangkok, mostly traumatic, but I cannot be sure if they are just not memories of memories. And the trauma? Being taken by my very dark amah to the open air market every day to shop and having very dark and strange people pinching me to see if my freckles (something they’d never seen) would come off, and Soomchai laughing like a mad woman at my tears…or so I remember.
The second exposure to ‘other’, was my family’s weekly fishing treks to the Michigan City pier on the south shore of Lake Michigan. Somewhat egalitarian in that both ‘coloreds’ and whites shared the pier, I cannot recall any shared conversation. (This too, holds traumatic memories as being the youngest, I got the job of scaling buckets and buckets of perch – to this day, I can’t look at that little fish without the smell invading my nostrils and the feel of sticky scales covering me head to toe. Yuck!)
In those, my first years, the Civil Rights Movement was being played out across the country on our 15” black and white TV. Although I can’t cite any specific conversations or overt language, my feeling is the adults around the dinner table weren’t exactly rallying for Dr. King and his dream.
It was the Volkswagen Incident, I recall with crystalline clarity, when the subtext of my family narrative on ‘coloreds’ came into contact with tangible reality.
My father’s brother Jack had picked up my brother and me to go to an event in the city. I can’t recall what the event was, but it had to be special as we were in our Sunday best. I remember a sleeveless flowered cotton shift, white sandals and my long, bright red hair teased into a truly massive shellacked bee hive perched precariously atop my nine year old head. (My mom had recently started allowing me to take control of my appearance and there remain some very embarrassing photos to attest to the distinct, sartorial style that I was embracing in my new found freedom.)
During the drive, Uncle Jack had need to stop at a convenience store – for ice cream, I think – and since it was warm, he left the windows of his shiny white Volkswagen bug down while he went inside. As my brother and I waited in the car, I in the front seat, a little girl approached. She was about my age; coal black skin; her hair a wild mass of shining coils, each wrapped in a rainbow cloud of ribbons. She was fantastic in the truest meaning of the word. She came straight up to my open window, pointed at my gigantic red beehive and in a voice loaded with curiosity and serious judgement, asked, “What’s that on your head?”
And then, a second later, with a smile, “I like it.”
My recovery began at that moment.

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