How does one become a racist? Do you take classes? Do you go to “Racist School?” Are you assigned a worksheet in which you have to write the n-word used “correctly” in fifty different sentences? Do you have to stage a play wearing black face? Do racist teachers play episodes of “Amos and Andy“ or “Sanford and Son?” Do kids get coloring books that portray black children in subservient positions when compared to white children? Do older students have to learn to tell demeaning jokes using black dialect and mannerisms?
Imagine for a moment a school where the curriculum actively and demonstrably promotes racial bias. Think of a school that has as its mission to turn out students prepared to be racists in their speech, actions, and attitudes. Picture a student field trip through the south to view statues of confederate icons presented as heroes. Suppose schools were consistently named after people like “Robert E Lee,” or “Jefferson Davis,” or “Betsy DeVos.”
Racism for some is taught out in the open—in the light of day. But it can be taught in less obvious more insidious ways. The osmosis of subtle racism can permeate the soul of a child in ways that make it seem normal. In the movie “Babe,” the little pig is nurtured by the farmer’s female dog. When the innocent little pig asks why things are done a certain way, the mother dog explains, “The way things are is the way things are.” In other words, you had better just accept the status quo and get on with life.
Many of my relatives, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in the rural communities of Texas hill country. As a teenager, I used to spend my summer vacations down on the farm with relatives. I was old enough to recognize their racist attitudes. Once, when they treated me to dinner at a whites only diner, I was struck by the menu item listed as a “Mes-skin Plate.” Their racism was rather overt and it was guided by, if not encouraged by, the environment and the culture in which they lived.
In my case, coming from El Paso, I was familiar with Mexican traditions, food, and culture. With 80 percent of El Paso’s population being Hispanic, I had many friends who had “Mestizo” blood lines. Growing up, my birthday parties were much more likely to have a piñata than a pin the tail on the donkey. I knew my community was much more racially tolerant than that of my relatives. But when it comes to your parents, the way things are, really is the way things are. Children cannot escape their parents beliefs, especially when they are taught to honor thy mother and father—even when parents are ignorant fools.
El Paso was early to desegregate public schools. I was in the 2nd grade in 1956 when Vincent joined our class. The year before, he attended El Paso’s segregated school (the negro school) Douglass Elementary. As second-graders, we really didn’t see the “new kid” as that much different from the rest of us. I do remember Vincent as being quick, smart, and funny. I liked him.
By the 6th grade I was interested in sports, especially basketball. On the playground during recess I took note that Vincent was really good at basketball. He had “the moves.” I admired his athletic ability—while in my case I got called for double dribble all the time. I just didn’t have the moves.
I was an industrious 12-year-old and asked my dad if I could attach a basketball hoop to our carport roof. Up on the roof I started my project with the tools needed to fashion together a backboard and hoop that even had a net. When I got finished nailing the backboard to the carport rafters I couldn’t wait to start playing basketball. However, I learned quickly that just shooting baskets by myself wasn’t much fun. Over time I realized I had gotten better at making shots, but I still didn’t have the moves.
One day during our PE time, I told Vincent about my basketball project. I invited him over to my house so he could teach me the moves and we could shoot some hoops. He thought playing together was a great idea, but he would have to ask his mother for permission. After school we headed to Vincent’s house on Yandell street which was only about six blocks from where I lived. Once we got Vincent’s mom to agree to our plan we headed to my house.
My parent’s house was on the corner. It had a big front yard, a double carport, and a newly installed basketball backboard, hoop, and net. When Vincent saw my project his eyes lit up. We passed under the hoop, through the carport, and around to the back door. Our family rarely used the front door. The back door opened into our den which was perpendicular to the kitchen. My mother was in the kitchen ironing clothes. With Vincent trailing behind me, I cheerfully announced to my mom that I brought a friend over to play basketball. I remember my mother saying, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then Vincent came into my mother’s view.
There was a momentary awkward silence that was broken by my mother saying, “I’m sorry you can’t play today because we have to go to Sears.” I looked at Vincent and said, “Sorry!” Vincent turned, went out the back door and headed home. I then sat down on the den couch, looking into the kitchen while my mother continued to iron. I waited patiently and dutifully for my mom to finish ironing so we could head to Sears. Once she was done with the ironing she disappeared into the other side of the house while I waited to go to Sears.
That was some sixty years ago, and I’m still waiting to go to Sears. We never talked about it. Nothing was ever said, but her message sank into my psyche quietly. In high school Vincent and I would see each other in the halls, but we drifted apart as buddies. In our senior year Vincent was elected as most popular boy, most athletic boy (on the track and basketball teams), and he turned out to be the valedictorian of our class. I never learned the moves, and a vicious El Paso wind storm blew my basketball project to kingdom come a few years later. Racism is a sad predicament when parents pass on ignorance to their children. I sometimes wonder how much better my life would have been having a friend like Vincent.