A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Race and Religion Default: "We try to treat them as if they were as good as we are." Part I

Part I has to do with where my own religious bigotry and racism comes from, and then later I will address what taught me to deal with the defaults as they automatically become or try to become my reality. First, an explanation and some history.

This has been a very hard blog to write because I've uncovered several quite unsavory parts of myself as I examined how I have felt (and feel) about religion and race. It turns out that my self-image as "Mr. Liberal" and "Mr. Open-Minded Person" belie a Truth which I had to face once again when writing this blog. This Truth is that racism and bigotry are ingrained in my heritage,  in my very Being,  and are as much a part of my default system as the fact that I am a nearsighted white-headed male, or that I love food, or that listening to music often makes me cry.

In reflection, I see bigotry and racism are landmines I've stepped on all my life. (defaults, if you will,)   This is true in spite of the fact that I have really tried hard not to be a bigot or a  racist. I have fought against it. All along, I thought I was alone in this inward battle, so I was relieved to read  David Foster Wallace's observation about one of life's purposes:

[Life therefore]...is not a matter of virtue--it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of someone altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting[s]...

I have chosen to do that work all along, specifically in the case of my bigotry and racism, and have met with varying degrees of success and certainly with a spotty record of sustaining what progress I've made. I have honestly  labored to alter and gt free of my defaults, with greater and lesser success.

Finally, this topic is more than a little painful  because at the time I was actually living out my younger years,  I really thought I was doing the "right" thing, that I was being a "good" person; and now I  come to find out that for way too many years I was living a life driven by attitudes and assumptions (defaults) about race and religion of which I was totally unaware, which triggered automatically,  and which turn out, in the real world, to be "Balderdash."  Here's where it all began.

In my home and among my family's closest friends, the prevailing attitude, when examined closely,  championed racism and religious bigotry, but they were carefully disguised by attitudes that were promoted and interpreted as "generous,"  as liberal, and as truly Christian. This worldview, when reduced to its bare essentials,  assured OT's ("Our Type") and me from Day One that the white race and Protestant Anglo-Saxons were God's anointed population on earth and that we, as the elect had, along with our advantages,  an obligation to tolerate and accept and assist and be kind and generous to others who were, by definition, inferior and not responsible for their lowly circumstances, and generally in need of help (the poor and downtrodden spoken of in the Scriptures). In addition to our privileged position in the world, OT's  inherited other moral obligations or duties--such as imitating "Lady Bountiful" who occasionally wandered down from her hilltop castle  to distribute trinkets and leftovers (whether material goods,  assurances of pity,  crumbs from the table, or copper coins) to the less fortunate down in the valley. The spirit of these obligations also carried over to religion and race.

In matters of religion, specifically, OT were taught to be non-prejudiced, tolerant and accepting. Take, for example,  the Jews. Because they were part of the Judeo-Christian tradition (even though the Jews of old were accused of killing Jesus), we were admonished at home to be tolerant, to show no negative bias or be bigoted in any way. I went out of my way to befriend Jewish classmates with this dictum in mind.  This was fairly easy because our Louisville Jews were "clean," well-educated, good citizens, knew how to make money, were clever and intelligent, mostly worked in respected professions or owned businesses, lived in nice houses in our neighborhood, sent their kids to college, dressed well,  and generally lived in peace and harmony with all us OT's. You can see why I had such a hard time when our family first vacationed in Florida in the late 40's and I saw sign after sign in front of motels proclaiming "restricted clientele." I couldn't understand why motel owners wouldn't want to house people like my friends Herbie and Stanley Berman and Melvin Benovitz, and I only later came to realize what actually was going on.

Activities in the Synagogue and shul were conducted in another language, so totally alien and uninteresting to me. I envied the Jews in that they got extra holidays from school, certainly more than we Christians did. Rabbis dressed normally and lived with their  families. A few wore yamakas and some even celebrated Christmas. Rumor had it that Jews knew ways of relieving you of your money and bargaining a seller down and often, therefore,  were very successful in business. "Jewing someone down" was common parlance. In all this there was more than a hint around the bridge tables of my parents and their friends that Jews would take advantage of me if given the chance--they were fundamentally unscrupulous. So, I became wary of all Jews as a result.

Down the religious block, so to speak, were the numerous Catholics who also lived in Louisville, but  not directly in our neighborhood. It was harder for me to "befriend" them and show my tolerance because they lived sort of separate lives.   They were mostly tolerated by OT (not dated or married, of course), but could be socialized with, but only on our turf. I also remember being a bit scared of the "mysteries" surrounding the Catholic religion. Catholics, or "fish eaters" as they were referred to with derision, though Christian, were somehow a lesser grade of Christian than Our Type of Christian--they attended their  private schools where subversive religious indoctrination took place which, no doubt included anti-Protestant, counter-Reformation doctrines, attitudes, and anti-Protestant propaganda of all sorts.

Moreover, Catholic clergy were were abnormal, unnatural. Strangely dressed nuns were cloistered in convents with no sex (with men) and always traveled in pairs.  We were told by our friends that teacher-nuns beat their charges in school. What were those habits hiding? Separately, the white- collared priests were often described by my friends and by local lore as drunkards and, even in those days, as homosexual child-molesters. To cloud the issue even more,  what were we to make of the plastic statues on car dashboards, the silver medals hanging around necks, meatless Fridays, the Virgin Mary, crucifixes the absolute Rule of the Pope, Holy Water, no contraception, and the curious habit of athletes making the "sign of the cross" before shooting a free throw or receiving a kickoff? While I accepted all this at one level, I surely laughed at my share of priest and nun and Pope jokes and made derogatory comments about  Catholicism whenever possible.

The problem OT had dealing with the religious activities of Catholics was exacerbated because of the wide divergence of their national/ethnic origins: there were people who drank red wine and ate pasta, others who made and ate kielbasi, or loved sour kraut and dark beer with their hard bread and wurst. In short, the Catholics represented a recognizable and almost acceptable variation of OT, but were none the less to be viewed with suspicion. Catholics didn't belong to our OT's country clubs or social organizations, and occupied blue collar professions, for the most part, and worked at hourly jobs, owned taverns,  owned butcher and grocery stores and construction companies, attended wakes,  drank beer,  and played Bingo.

Catholics and Jews were doubly damned because their "incorrect religion" was combined with their ethnic diversity--non-WASP lineage. These facts were rarely said directly, but I knew they were true by listening to comments  and "asides" that were dropped by relatives at family gatherings, by the friends of my parents in casual conversation over bridge, in the youth group at church, and among my peers at school.

From the OT's point-of-view, which was my default view, the rest of society was viewed as slanting downhill from us--from me--who occupied the top.  And, at the very bottom of that hill, of course, were our "Nigrahs."

As I suggested earlier, in our family, and among our friends,  racism was carefully disguised as a benevolent and generous-sounding "we will treat them as if they were as good as we are." As a boy and later as a young man, I did not understand the implications of the "as if," part of that statement, and I went through my life up through my college years protected by a sparkling, righteous, unassailable coat of self-righteous arrogance.

Trying to come to grips with this, as I look back on it, I see that in one sense I was a genuine victim of my times and my Southern place of birth. As I was growing up in the 40's and 50's, the only Black people I was ever in contact with were yard workers at home and at church, janitors, maids, nannies, cooks (those who were riding home on the back of the bus as I went downtown to my dentist), radio preachers, and the poverty-ridden occupants of government housing or slums in downtown Louisville, or poor farmers or county laborers (working in fields which we passed on our way to a vacation destination), or the unemployed who lived on welfare and lazed around the street corners sucking on toothpicks or on a bottle of something secreted in a paper bag.

I knew no professional Black people, never went to school with a Black boy or girl, never attended a Black social function or ate in Black restaurants or visited inside a black home. Nothing in my life ever touched Black life and culture, except from a considerable distance.  (Oh yeah, I listened and danced to to Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Little Richard, the Temptations and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but that was different; I thought of them as being talented and successful in spite of their race, or, to use my mother's explanation for Cassius Clay's winning a medal in the Olympics: "he obviously has white blood.") It never occurred to me to ask why there were so few Black professionals, why the schools were segregated, why there wasn't better housing, why there weren't better schools, etc.  It was simply the way of the world, and that's what was  programmed into my default system

From my earliest memories as a boy, right up through school and most of college, if you's asked me if I had any prejudice about "colored people,"   I would have denied it vehemently; I would have even been insulted, angry, and maybe sad that you didn't see the purity of my own heart. In myself,  I was satisfied that I had gone out of my way to be nice and friendly to Alice, our long-time Black housekeeper, cook, laundress, and nanny, and had even given up vacation time to drive with my parents to hand-deliver an bonus Christmas check to her tenement downtown. I felt morally superior because I had gone out of my way to take Alice up the street to the bus stop at the end of a stormy day. I felt morally righteous when I was open and friendly with Burnice, the Black man who did heavy indoor cleaning and outdoor work for us for many years. I knew I was being a Christian. I felt smug and morally superior when he and I sat down at the same table to eat lunch and talk intimately about fishing and cars and national politics.

I certainly harbored no antipathy, animosity or ill feeling for either Alice or Burnice or for any other Black person, because they represented no threat to my status. I knew for certain that I was born with a white skin and, that Life, therefore, had dealt me a permanent upper hand (all high hearts and diamonds) while Black people had been dealt nothing but low spades and clubs. No fault of theirs. Just the way it was. Simple as that.

At the same time, I saw and didn't know what to make of the washroom and water cooler signs indicating "white only" or "colored only," or the unwritten rules about where "Nigrahs" were supposed to sit on public conveyances or in the theaters. I saw that the adults around me, black and white alike, seemed to accept these rules and abide by them. I had an intuitive feeling that I didn't think the rules were "fair," for some reason, but was never inquisitive  or morally sensitive enough to pursue the issue by asking questions of adults. The system seemed to work, especially for me and OT who were very much at the top of the hill with a hand filled from birth with  hearts and diamonds.

More of this later.

My story, thus far, represents only the barest outlines of the forces which formed my increasingly hard-wired default system.  I think by now you have a pretty good idea of the issues which I have grappled with my whole life, more each year as people and events increased my awareness and sensitivity to the world and to my own battery of assumptions, presuppositions, default positions--all automatic and mostly unconscious.  Part II of this blog will describe some of those  people and events that opened my eyes to myself and to the world around me.

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