An anger and hatred toward racism started very early in my life (although we didn't call it racism back then, but usually referred to it as "prejudice").
I was five years old when my older sister and I started saying, "Eeny meanie miny moe. Catch a nigger by his toe. If he hollers let him go. Eeny meanie miny moe." We didn't know what "nigger" meant. As far as we knew, the word was just a small part of a rhyme that we heard other kids saying. My sister and I started saying this rhyme one night while mom and dad were walking with us through the parking lot of Roger's Plaza.
"You shouldn't be saying that word," my mom said when she heard us say "nigger."
"Why? Is it a naughty word?" I asked.
"Yes," my mom and dad said.
"Oh, okay," I said. Then I said to my sister, "We should find something else to say. How about 'cookie." So she and I started saying, "Eeny meanie miny moe, catch a cookie by its toe. If it hollers let it go, Eeny meanie miny moe." We said it this way for years.
A week after mom and dad told us not to use the word, I became very curious about why the word was so bad. I went up to my dad and asked, "Dad, why is 'nigger' a naughty word?"
My dad said, "Over a hundred years ago, black people were slaves. The word 'nigger' was what people called the blacks when they were slaves."
My five year old mind was very moved by this. I thought very deeply about the idea of people being slaves, and I imagined what it must have been life. I thought to myself, "I wouldn't want to be a slave!" I couldn't believe that there was actually slavery in this country at one time. I instantly understood why the word was so "naughty," and I very quickly learned to hate it. I decided that I would never use that word again. This word would eventually become the most offensive word to me, probably because of the impact that my dad's explanation had on me at such a young age. As I look back, I am very impressed by the sensitive way that my dad explained it to me.
Television had a very dramatic effect on my views. I grew up watching the program "All in the Family," and I saw Archie Bunker for what he was: a satire on racism and prejudice in America. There was one particular episode that impacted me more than any other.
The episode began with Archie Bunker opening his front door
and finding a swastika painted on the outside of the door. A
group of violent racists had mistaken Archie's house for the home
of a Jewish man who lived up the street. The second half of the
episode focused primarily on a conversation between Archie and a
Jewish man. The conversation took place in Archie's living room.
Edith, "Meathead," and Gloria were also in the
conversation. Near the end of the episode, the word came that the
terrorists realized that they had the wrong house, and that the
terrorists were now planning to attack the Jewish man who lived
up the street. The Jewish man who was talking to Archie in
Archie's living room walked out of the house. Gloria,
"Meathead," Archie, and Edith then had a brief
conversation that turned out to be the calm before the storm.
Suddenly there was an extremely loud boom, as if an explosion had
occurred. Archie, Gloria, Edith, and "Meathead" ran to
the front door, and Archie swung the door open. The last part of
the episode showed all four of them staring out the door with
expressions of extreme shock and horror on their faces. Archie
said in a soft, horrified voice, "Holy, Geez! They blew him
up in his car!" A shudder went through my body as I
literally shook with shock and horror. There was no typical
audience applause that was common to the show. There was only a
few seconds of total silence as the four of them stared in pure
horror. The scene faded to black. I was quite shaken up by this
episode. I was in shock, and I stared motionless at the TV for
two minutes after the scene faded to black. I had heard of this
sort of thing happening, and I knew that it was a reality. I
started to move again after about two minutes, but I thought
about this episode for a long time. The episode helped me to see
how extreme and radical the hatred of people could actually be.
[Note: I finally saw this episode again on Nick at Night (the
Nickelodeon cable network) on Wednesday, October 27, 1999 at
12:30 A.M. It was the first time that I had seen the episode
since I was a child. The episode still left me chilled.]
I continued to watch "All in the Family," and it was one of the most dramatic influences on my views about racism. Admittedly, however, the show often oversimplified complex issues with a liberal bias whenever other social and political issues were addressed. It failed to recognize that truth could never be summarized by a political ideology, whether that ideology is liberal, conservative, or something else. In spite of this weakness, however, "All in the Family" rightly addressed the problem of racism and it made a difference in my life. (Note: Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker, died of a heart attack at the age of 76 on June 21, 2001.) Norman Lear was frequently accused of creating a show that promoted racism, but this was far from the truth. Lear created a show that mocked and satirized racism for what it was: a silly, stupid mentality that deserved to be laughed at because it was so foolish and ridiculous. I was only about twelve years old when I watched "All in the Family," and I got the point. I have always wondered how so many adults could have missed the point of the show.
My dad was the manager of several restaurants across the state of Michigan and Indiana. There was a man named Leo who also managed one of these restaurants, and my dad had a friendship with him. Leo had a son named Stan, and I became friends with Stan. They lived in Lowell, which was a few miles east of Grand Rapids. When I was in Junior High, the Leo moved from Lowell to a home in the south-east side of Grand Rapids. My mom frequently took me over there so that I could spend time with Stan.
Stan and I decided to go outside on one particular day to spend some time with his new Grand Rapids friends. After spending some time together, one of Stan's friends started talking about the "niggers" who lived in the house down the street. I was instantly filled with intense anger over his choice to call black people "niggers." I verbally expressed my anger to him, and this started an extensive conversation about the subject. I told him that black people were no different from whites, and that he shouldn't be hating them or treating them as inferiors. Other friends of Stan gathered around to listened and get into the conversation.
The one who I started the conversation with said, "You know, if you started saying those things in my school, they would kill you."
"What do you mean that they would kill me?" I asked. "Do you mean that they would beat me up because of it?"
"No!" he said. "I mean that they would KILL you! You would be dead!" Others nodded in agreement with him. Suddenly I was scared and horrified. I knew that this was not a figure of speech. He meant that they would literally kill me!
"They wouldn't do that where I live in Wyoming," I told him. "People aren't prejudice against black people there." (My statement wasn't really true. There were a lot of racist people in Wyoming even though I didn't see much of it. There just weren't a lot of black people in Wyoming, and so white people in Wyoming didn't have as many chances to manifest their racism. There were a lot more black people in the city of Grand Rapids, and so racism was a lot more open there.)
He tried to tell me that "nigger" wasn't a bad word. He said, "My dad says that there is nothing wrong with the word 'nigger.' If you look it up in the dictionary, it will only say that 'nigger' means a black man."
"I don't believe you," I said. "It will say that it's a bad word to call black people. It isn't just a word to call black people; it's a bad word!"
A five year old kid rode by on a tricycle a short time into the conversation. Stan's friends told him to say "nigger." The kid on the tricycle kept saying it over and over, and everyone laughed each time. I became angrier and angrier, and they knew it. They enjoyed making me angry, and they enjoyed exploiting and spreading their hatred.
When Stan and I went back to his house, we started talking about what had happened.
"Are all of your friends like that?" I asked Stan. "Do they all hate black people?"
"Yes," he told me with a tone of sadness in his voice. 'They are all like that."
We decided to look up "nigger" in the dictionary. I was determined to prove that the dictionary didn't say that "nigger" was just another word for a black man, but that it would say that it was a bad thing to call black people. After all, I told myself, the dictionary says that "ain't" isn't a proper word to use. Surely it would say that "nigger" was even worse! How naive I was! We opened up the dictionary to the word where I was shocked to find it saying that "nigger" was only another word for a black person. I couldn't believe it! I was very disappointed and upset over what I read.
Whenever I went over to Stan's after that day, I tried to avoid his friends. Stan suggested that we go outside with his friends one day.
"I don't want to," I told Stan. "Your friends are too prejudice."
Stan nodded, and we didn't go out. I will confess that I was also a little scared to go outside to see them, especially after they told me that I could be killed for what I believed. I didn't know if they were threatening me, and it was scary to me.
I quickly developed a negative attitude about Grand Rapids. I came to a conclusion that people in Grand Rapids were prejudice, but that most people in the suburbs were not. Whenever I was rode in the car with mom or dad., and we passed the Grand Rapids city limits signs, I would think, "Here's where all the prejudice people live." I even used to tell people, "I don't like going into Grand Rapids because that's where all the prejudice people live. They hate black people there." Of curse, I realize now that this judgment was oversimplistic.
I became increasingly intolerant and angry toward prejudice and racism. This became a "hot button" in my life. It was the one subject that caused me to verbally explode in anger at people. It was the one thing that I couldn't tolerate or respect. Of course, I realize today that if I show hatred and anger toward those with racist views, I don't solve anything. I only make myself equally as guilty. Nonetheless, this was how I reacted back then.
Sometime in 10th grade I argued with a friend on a city bus over racial issues. We got into a debate on "affirmative action," which was a controversial idea that tried to undue discrimination by deliberately hiring minorities, blacks, and women as an attempt to equalize opportunities between all sub-groups in society. I supported it, and he did not. We literally became angry with each other as we debated back and forth. I was very passionate and emotional about it. I couldn't believe that there were so many white people who didn't care about social injustice enough to make sacrifices. I also slowly began to learn that even my suburban city of Wyoming was filled with just as much prejudice as Grand Rapids was.
I was also about to learn the hard way that creating understanding and unity among the races was an extremely difficult task.