Early Lessons about Race/Ethnicity

Words of bigotry were not allowed in the house. I was taught that the word “nigger” was not to be used, but never had that explained. A strange memory was of my being in conversation with playmates, explaining to them that it was wrong when one of them picked his nose, revealed a tiny black something on the end of his finger, and called it “nigger”. Today it seems ever more odd that I remember that! Certainly there was a genesis of at least confusion about the matter of “race”. At the very least I knew there was something wrong about using the word “nigger”, but any reason for that was certainly “at the very least” of family concerns.

There were occasional anti-Jewish outbursts from father. I remember once questioning him about how those feelings related to what seemed were cordial relations with Jewish men who ran the store from which he bought meat. There was little response; I think he saw no reason to reply. During the period when FDR was President, I do remember curses from father which were politically anti-New Deal. “Race”was not mentioned in my home. Politics were not discussed at home; they were announced by father, in strong Republican accents!

One incident from my very early years which became a “learning” many years later, occurred in a family visit to my Mother’s home in Pittsfield. My widowed Grandmother was living there alone, and we took the day-long ride to visit her regularly.
Each year my Uncle Ernest also came to visit her, and we made a point to be there with him. I never had a sense that Mother was especially close to him, but I liked him. Part of my liking him was in the fact that he had a large car, and a Negro chauffeur, who drove me around the tiny town on errands. Uncle Ernest was Secretary of the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Commerce; while that meant little to me, it impressed me that he was quite “important”. The long, black car was itself enough to gain attention in Pittsfield; a chauffeur would have been unusual. The long, black car being driven around the tiny town was certainly a subject for note. To those images I add myself, the little white kid obviously being served by a black driver! I wonder still of the effect which it had on my viewing of “race”.

The Chauffeur’s name was “Joseph”, the only name by which I ever knew him!
He was pleasant, cordial, and competent in everything he did. He was the only adult person I ever knew whom I was allowed to call by a “first name”! Of course, I learned later that the origin of that “naming” was in the slavery period which stripped its victims of names, and allowed white little “masters” like me to disobey the rules of common decency I had been taught.

“Joseph” was treated with respect by my Uncle, but the “respectful” distance included that he was not allowed to eat with the family. We four ate in the dining room, while “Joseph” ate at a table in a remote corner of the kitchen. One time when my Uncle was not present for a meal, I remember my Father and Mother discussing their concern that Joseph ought to “eat with us”. I went with Father into the kitchen, and there he invited “Joseph” to join us in the dining room. Of course, “Joseph” declined, and we returned to our meal, sorry and probably confused. In much later years, reflection on this incident illuminated for me what was then a beginning understanding of “liberalism”, now a term which I hope never to deserve. I began a process of empathizing with all “Josephs” who could not possibly have received my Father’s “invitation” as anything other than misplaced paternalism at best, and worse as a demand that placed “Joseph” in conflict with the orders of my Uncle, his “master”. Little did I know that those encounters with “Joseph”, would later lead me to understand the larger context of the time which shaped the ways Father and Mother viewed the world of “race”. Still, in 2008, I encounter too often that same kind of blind ignorance.

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