by Madeline Laughs
I was raised not to see the color of another person’s skin. I grew up in an atmosphere that was free of any racial or ethic judgment. Considering my age and the era this occurred, that kind of rearing was almost unheard of. But my grandparents raised me and they grew up being judged. Both of my grandparents were Scottish. When their families immigrated to the USA, they were seen as the lowly immigrants. They were treated like poor beggars and lived in neighborhoods with their own kind. Despite the oppression of United States citizens, they excelled and made good lives for themselves. Knowing their own good fortunes came from a past of ethnic mistrust and belittlement, they raised their children not to be this way. Everyone deserves a chance to be here.
I will refer to myself as white and not Caucasian throughout the rest of my article and I will refer to people as black and not African-American. If the word black is considered an insult, then I will be just as insulted to be called white. Just as I know people’s actual skin color is not black, I also know that mine is not white.
I have been in a few circumstances where I was judged for being white. I am most definitely white, Caucasian, milquetoast, etc. I have fair skin and blue eyes. You don’t get much whiter than that.
Oh I know what you’re thinking. Some white woman is going to whine because she got her feelings hurt a few times. And you might have a point, but if you think that there is any race in the entire world that hasn’t experienced some kind of prejudice, some kind of slighting, some abomination in their heritage, then you’re misinformed. The whole reason America was populated at an alarming rate in the 1600’s was white people running from other white people because of religious persecution. Once they landed here they passed some laws and proceeded to drown and burn their own white women at the stake because they thought they were witches.
When I was in Egypt I was spit on by armed guards that lounged throughout the city. One Egyptian man even thought it was okay to run past me in the street and grab my crotch. White women are viewed as sluts in Egypt. Even though I wore my wedding band with pride and covered myself when in the streets, I was no exception. I was called an Infidel and other more heinous names, but I endured.
The worst subjection I ever experienced with racial prejudice directed at me was right here on American soil.
The first time was on a school bus when I was in the second grade. The two girls sitting behind me were black. They were my age, but we weren’t in the same class, so I didn’t know their names. One of them was eating an apple. She would bite off a piece and then chew the fruity pulp away from the peeling, then throw the peeling on the floor of the bus. I had turned to watch her do this because I found it fascinating. I smiled at her and turned back around. I wanted to remember her technique because I also hated eating the apple peeling and thought this was a great way to eat apples from then on.
A few minutes after I turned around in my seat I heard them giggling. Then I felt her grinding a chewed apple peeling into my scalp. I’ll never forget that.
I reached back and swiped the peeling and brought it into my field of vision. I was so grossed out. I couldn’t believe she would do something like that. I stood up as she was reaching to grind another peeling into my hair and yelled at her to stop it. That’s when all hell broke loose on that bus. Another black child on the bus stood up too. He was in my class that year. His name was Thaddeus. He grabbed the front of my coat, yanked me into the aisle and pounded me in the face with his fists. I never even had a chance to speak, or scream, or call for help. I never even hit back because I was too busy shielding my face from his powerful blows. I wasn’t a very big second grader and I was even smaller compared to him.
The bus driver pulled over, pulled Thaddeus off of me and sat me in the front seat of the bus where he could keep an eye on me. All the way to school I sat, facing forward, shivering, crying and terrified. I had no idea what I had done wrong and no one enlightened me.
Thaddeus and the little girl were both suspended from school for what they did, but at my age this was not something I truly understood. No one ever explained to me why this happened and no one could promise me that it would never happen to me again. Neither Thaddeus nor the little girl asked me why I was smiling and neither of them ever apologized to me for what they had done. I was left in the dark to figure it all out on my own and what child should ever have to understand that kind of hatred?
All I knew from that day forward was that riding the bus terrified me. In my young mind it wasn’t about being black or white. How could it have been that? None of the white kids on that bus protected me. None of the white kids tried to stop Thaddeus from giving me two black eyes.
I wasn’t afraid of the little girl or Thaddeus because they were black. I was afraid of them because I got my ass beat for simply looking at them and smiling.What they thought was condescension was merely admiration. Now where did those children get the idea that a little girl’s smile was a threat if her skin was white?
Racial discrimination and violent behaviors were so rampant when I was growing up that this kind of thing happened every day. But it wasn’t the children that perpetuated the reactive postures.
It was the adults. On both sides of the racial fence.
I have never experienced racial prejudice of that magnitude since, but I have experienced something akin to it. Most recently I was subjected to it on the job. As a Social Researcher you never expect to be put into an uncomfortable position by your own colleagues. They are supposed to be as open minded and grounded as you are. Well, some of them, apparently, are not.
I was working on a project for the past two seasons involving sea turtles. I worked with two colleagues from the home office. One of them was Pakistani and was working in research hoping to take back valuable resources in learning to help her own country. The other lady was from Ethiopia. She worked here in the USA most of the time, but also traveled to Nigeria to work on studies there too because she spoke the language.
The weekends we worked only required two people, so they would take turns traveling out to the beach to work with me. At the home office they were good friends and socialized together outside of work. I had never worked with both of them at the same time until the last segment of the study.
I am a curious person. I found their lives interesting so I would ask them questions about their own countries and lives there. They enjoyed telling me all about their lives. I did notice, after a while, that they had absolutely no interest in hearing about my life because neither of them ever asked me about it. I took this as being a cultural difference. In their culture it may not be respectful, or even be seen as prying to ask questions, so I never took it personally and always exercised respect when asking them questions.
The last segment of the study had me working with both of them together. It turned out to be one of the most eye opening months of my Social Science career.
One on one both women were demure, shy and soft spoken when we were together. They were also tiny in stature and struggled against the physical demands of the job. It was hot, humid and we traversed some rough terrain.
When we were in the field they also struggled against a passive prejudice as the majority of our study subjects were Caucasian. My colleague from Pakistan had creamy tan skin and thick black hair. She was stunning. My colleague from Ethiopia was very dark skinned, short and also very stunning. I felt the Colonial accents they picked up from the school systems in their countries would give them an advantage, so I encouraged them to start speaking right away once they had a subject’s attention. Each of them lamented the number of rejections they received, but I still encouraged them to keep going. I told them to assume the people already wanted to talk to them. I did not want them to get stuck on being rejected because it would continue to increase their refusals. People can sense when you approach them with an attitude in place.No one wants to share with you if they feel you already have no faith in what you’re sharing.
It wasn’t until we were all in the car together on that second day, waiting two hours for a ferry crossing, that I realized what had been happening right under my nose.
El, my colleague from Ethiopia, was driving the Jeep for this leg of our journey. Parked in line waiting for the ferry, she points to a woman with blond hair that is walking past. “Look at her! Tell me this, why do all of you white women tan yourselves like this? Are you trying to look like me?” Then she laughed and Bri in the backseat joined her. I was perplexed. I held my arm up to hers and asked her to have a look because obviously I did not tan myself. Then I told her I didn’t really know how to answer her question.
That was the beginning of a very long weekend with the two of them. I was lectured on the Tea Party, a political movement I am not a part of and have no interest in. But both of them assumed because I am white that I was a part of it by default. I heard the term *you white people* so many times that I wanted to scream.
Separately they may have been demure and shy, but together they were hell on wheels and I was held hostage in the Jeep with them all weekend.
Bri was complaining once again about people not wanting to talk to her because she was foreign. I asked her to role play with me so I could figure out where the interview might be leading in this direction. Once she finished giving me her introduction to the study I asked her where she was from because I liked her accent and she said to me; “Well, I tell them that if I told them where I am from they would be very afraid.” My eyebrows shot into my hairline. “Why do you say that!?” She laughed, “Because they would be!”
This was what she had been saying the whole time to any study subject that asked where she was from. Well, no wonder folks haven’t wanted to do the study with her, I thought. I asked her to stop saying that to people. Then I pointed out that I knew she was from Pakistan and I wasn’t afraid of her. Why would she assume that everyone else would be afraid of her? She didn’t have an answer for my question.
I was bombarded with the travesties of America and I was told how horrible my race was all weekend. Suddenly I longed for the days when they had shown absolutely no interest in my life. And then it dawned on me that they still had no interest in my life. What they were questioning, what they were berating, was not me, but my race and my country.
I bit my tongue. I listened, I nodded my head and I kept my mouth shut. Whatever aggression they felt was taken out on me and if this is what they needed to do, I let them do it to me. The frustration they were feeling from the constant state of rejection while we were working was more than they were prepared to deal with, even though they refused to consider their own complacent and painful participation in these rejections.
What could I have said? Perhaps I could have been ignorant and offered; “If you hate it here so much, why do you stay here?” I knew why they stayed here and I knew what motivated them to come here. While our country is suffering, it is still the land of opportunity for anyone willing to take the leap of faith and leave a third world existence for a better life.
Maybe I could have made some comparisons for them to consider? “You can come and go here in the streets, any time of day, unhindered, but if I were in your country I could not do that. In fact, I could not freely go to Pakistan on my own and expect to live very long.”
I could have reminded them “In America, women are treated as equals, for the most part, and we have a voice, but in both of your countries female circumcision is not only widely practiced, it is condoned! No woman here would ever be exposed to this kind of threat openly. And in both of your countries if you ever spoke out against government policy or parties, as you are doing now with me, you could be stoned to death. Not only would that never happen here, but no one would ever take away your right to speak out.”
Bri vehemently chastised me from the back seat of the Jeep for America’s past of slavery. How could I live with myself knowing what my ancestors had done? The hangings and the beatings and the horror of it all. I listened to her rant and all I could wonder was if she was expecting me to apologize to her because I was white?
When she looked at me was the color of my skin all she saw?
Did she think that just because I was white that being a racist was automatic?
Was she taught that all white skinned people are racists?
There was a racist in the Jeep that day, but it was not the one with the pale, freckled skin.
As for the rant on slavery, the only stories making the news involving any kind of slavery here these days happened in underground sweat shops and sex rings and those are managed and run by people from other countries enslaving and victimizing their own people on our soil. Our laws and justice system does not tolerate this kind of practice and they prove it by arresting the perpetrators. However, if Americans went over to their countries and started up a slave trade, their own citizens would happily supply them with all of their own neighbors.
To be completely transparent, in Ethiopia and in Pakistan slavery is still alive, well and thriving! It’s not Americans over there running those slave markets, it’s the Pakistanis and the African peoples. They enslave their own.
Ethiopia officially abolished slavery in 1942, however it still flourishes.
Slavery is still a way of life in Pakistan as referenced here in an article written for the Boston Phoenix on February 6, 2011.
“Servitude exists in many forms in Pakistan. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghan families — eager to flee 20 years of war and three years of drought — have sought safe haven in Pakistan, only to spend the rest of their lives working to pay off the debts they accumulated to get there. They do so by becoming indentured laborers, often at brick factories, and by sending their children to carpet factories that crave small fingers. Indentured servitude is not only legal but ubiquitous in Pakistan, and servant culture thrives: the wealthy can have a driver, three maids, a cook, and a night watchman for less than $75 a month.
And then there are the slaves. Many Afghan families cross into Pakistan through the lawless tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It’s a harsh climate, and they have no contacts, no food, and no money, which leaves them wide open to the predations of slavers. Pakistan’s tribal areas — there are seven in the NWFP and several autonomous cities — are the last vestiges of the British Raj’s failure to conquer Afghanistan. A series of agreements (“treaties” is perhaps too strong a word) includes the tribal areas as part of Pakistan, but confirm their complete autonomy from Pakistani law. The political culture, dominated by councils of fiercely independent tribal elders, hasn’t really changed in over 600 years — only now every house has several machine guns, and most have electricity.
Thus, though slavery is technically illegal in Pakistan, the laws are rarely enforced. And since Afghans have no legal status and no papers, there is little to connect them to the protections of the state, even when they serve as slaves in the cities and settled areas. In fact, there is so little work and so much unemployment that many are simply happy to have a job — no matter how dangerous or poorly paid. Though government figures put the unemployment rate at 37 percent, in reality poor census reporting and a lackluster bureaucracy probably conceal a much higher figure; in the NWFP some experts put joblessness at close to 45 percent. Deep unemployment, combined with poor or no public education, creates a culture of servitude where no one has means and even the relatively well-off will do almost anything for money.”
To say I was a bit disappointed to sit in the midst of two highly educated women and listen to them spout vitriol about my country when their own countries, collectively, could never offer them the freedoms and advantages they had here, was putting it mildly.
It made me sad.
When the weekend was over I couldn’t wait to get away from them. Some folks want to say I experienced reverse-racism, but that’s not what it was at all. It was just racism, plain and simple. When you look up the word racist in a dictionary it is not a term exclusive just to whites. It applies to everybody.
Racist: a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others.
Did I handle this badly? I felt that I had. Perhaps the Universe was handing me the opportunity to enlighten these two women and I had just blown it by staying silent. Would anything I said have changed their minds? Or would they have turned a deaf ear to me just because of the color of my skin? When someones mind is made up sometimes there is little you can say to make them think differently.
Only actions can change a person’s mind.
How do we combat racism?
When I think about what I can do I am reminded of all the famous activists that have come before me with this same goal. The Statue of Liberty was erected as a symbol of liberty and freedom in 1886 and yet the atrocities suffered by all immigrants and persons of color still continued for over 100 years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. W.E.B. Du Bois worked on behalf of all persons of color until the year he died in 1963. I was three years old then and while his work made a difference, the racist belligerence he fought against his entire life was still alive and vehement in my own lifetime.
Dr Martin Luther King said: “[People] hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.”
Racism is not born in the heart of a child. Racism is taught and then it becomes ingrained. We can combat racism at the beginning of life and we continue to combat racism everyday, with every opportunity we are given. If we want to combat racism then we need to stop judging everyone based on the color of their skin and start judging them based on their actions against other people.
I have decided to continue acting as I always have, but I will no longer be silent. I refuse to accept this behavior and I refuse to be complacent. I will never see the color of a person’s skin as a reason to dislike them. I will continue to be fascinated by another persons heritage. I will always be curious and keep an open mind. I will love every human being the same because all we have to give in life is love and understanding. I will continue to study the human condition with hope that in my own small way, I change the world a little bit at a time.
I can do all of this and I can do it well because I am not afraid.
What about you, are you a racist?