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How I Learned to Hate Racism
by Robert J. Ruhf

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"How can you like the feeling of hatred in your blood?
What is it you're concealing underneath that hood?
Whether it's religion or the color of the skin,
No matter what the reason, can't you see that your hatred is a sin?
And I am not deceived by the prayers I hear you pray
And I can't help believe that you'll not escape the Judgement Day."
--from "Hand Me Down Hate" by Raspberry Jam, 1993 Metro-One Records. Used with permission.
Click (here) to download an mp3 of this song!

*****

The following story/essay briefly describes the most influential experiences I had as a child (from the age of 5 to the age of 18) that taught me to hate bigotry and racial intolerance. The names of people have been changed in order to respect their privacy.

(1) How my parents influenced my views (1970):

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.

We said the rhyme in front of my parents one night.

"You shouldn't be saying that word," my mom said when she heard us say "nigger."

"Why?" I asked. "Is it a 'naughty' word?"

"Yes," my mom and dad said.

"Oh, okay," I said. I then said to my older 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 walked up to my dad and asked, "Dad, why is 'nigger' a naughty word?"

"Over a hundred years ago, black people were slaves," my dad explained. "The word 'nigger' was what black people were called 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 like. It scared me, and I thought to myself, "I wouldn't want to be a slave!" I had a very hard time believing that there was actually slavery at one time. I found the idea terrifying and horrible. 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 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.

(2) How television influenced my views (some time in the 1970's):

I grew up watching the program "All in the Family." There was one particular episode that hit me harder 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 its liberal bias. Whenever other social and political issues were addressed, the show presented the liberal position in a positive way through "Meathead," but it presented the conservative position in an extremely negative way through Archie. This, of course, resulted in "All in the Family" promoting its own form of bigotry against conservatives in America. 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.)

(3) How experience influenced my views (1978):

I grew up in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I was in junior high school, I had a friend named Stan who lived in the south-east side of Grand Rapids. My mom frequently took me over there so that I could spend time with him. Stan and I were outside on one particular day spending time with some of Stan's friends. One of Stan's friends was named Jim, and Jim started talking about the "niggers" (as he called them) 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 like they were inferior to him. Other friends of Stan gathered around to listen and get into the conversation.

Jim said to me, "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. His words hit me like a ton of bricks as I suddenly realized that this was not a figure of speech! He meant that they would literally kill me! I became scared and horrified like I have rarely known it, although my fear didn't cause me to back down.

"They wouldn't do that where I live," I told him. "People aren't prejudice against black people there." (I didn't yet realize that my statement wasn't true. There were a lot of racist people in the suburbs even though I didn't see much of it.)

Jim then 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. 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 laughed harder with each and every racist remark. They enjoyed making me angry, and they enjoyed expressing their hate.

Stan and I talked about what happened when we got back to his house. I was greatly disturbed by the intense hatred of Stan's friends. I was even more disturbed by their nonchalant attitude about violence.

"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. (Note: The reader should remember that this was back in the 1970's. As far as I know, many respectable dictionaries don't include the word "nigger" anymore, or they have made clear that it is an offensive word. None of the dictionaries that I own today include the word.)

I tried to avoid Stan's friends whenever I went over to his house after that day.

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 was scared to go outside to see them, especially since they told me that I could be killed for what I believed.

(4) And still more experiences... (1983):

It was February of 1983. I was a 17-year old senior in high school, and I worked a janitorial job after school. I was waiting for a guy named Mark to pick me up at school shortly after I got out of work on a particular night in February. He told me that he would pick me up at the school some time after 6:00. He also told me that he had just bought a new red car. I hadn't seen it before, and so I didn't know what it looked like. I only knew that I had to look for a red car. Mark was a little late. At 6:40, a red car drove up to the school. I didn't know if it was Mark because I couldn't see who was in the car. It was already dark outside because the sun had set shortly after 6:00. However, the car was red, and so I walked to the car and looked into the front passenger window. All the doors of the car suddenly opened and four African-American teen-agers got out of the car.

"What are you looking at?" one of them said in a rather angry tone.

"I'm waiting for someone," I told them. "I didn't know if you were him because it's dark outside."

"Well, it's dark inside, too!" he shot back.

I couldn't figure out why they were so upset. I thought that they were just being cocky, and so I decided to be cocky in response. "That's not my problem!" I shot back.

All of them suddenly became extremely angry. They all came after me with the obvious intent of doing bodily harm to me. I backed into the street to get away from them. As I backed into the street, a red car drove up beside me and a door swung open. It was Mark, and I quickly jumped into the car and he drove off.

Mark told some people what happened. Most of the white people who heard the story interpreted it as a "blacks attacking the whites" sort of thing. I very quickly stopped wanting to answer people's questions about what happened because I was upset about this attitude that I heard coming from white people. They saw it as an incident where a bunch of black guys were attacking a defenseless white guy for no other reason than to attack a white guy. I began to deliberately avoid talking about the incident because I didn't want to be a part of this attitude.

I knew that there had to be a reason for what happened, and I was determined to figure it out. I began to think through the sequence of events in my mind, and it gradually began to make sense. Their statement of "It's dark inside, too!" was a statement about their race! They thought that I was looking into their window because four "dark" guys were coming into my "white" neighborhood! This was something that I didn't realize until well after the incident was over. Suddenly I felt very bad as I realized that this was a racial misunderstanding! I then realized that I had increased the misunderstanding by responding with an arrogant and cocky statement like "That's not my problem!" which was interpreted as "It's not my problem that your skin is dark!" I suddenly felt very ashamed and embarrassed because I was angry at myself for responding in the way that I did. I was embarrassed because they thought that I was a racist. Everything in me wanted to find these four teen-agers and apologize for my part of the misunderstanding. I wanted there to be understanding and unity between us. This incident would bother me for years.

Sadly, the four teen-agers made the mistake of thinking that I was looking into their car because they were black, and their solution to resolve the situation was attempted violence. However, I didn't know who was in the car. Sad also was the fact that the white people I knew believed that this was an incident of "a bunch of black guys attacking a defenseless white guy." They were unwilling to erase racist ideas and negative stereotypes from their minds. I was also very much at fault in this incident, as I was arrogant in my response to them. I should have worked to rectify the situation instead of responding the way that I did. Everyone heard what they wanted to hear. Everyone was wrong. We all heared and believed what we wanted to even when the truth was plainly before us screaming that we were wrong.

Creating understanding can indeed be a difficult task. This was a hard lesson for me to learn.

(5) Confronting my own racist attitudes (1983):

One of the hardest lessons that I learned was that I needed to face the fact that I had racist attitudes of my own. This became clear to me one Wednesday when I attended a high school youth group meeting at a Baptist church. There were two African-American teen-agers at the meeting that night, neither of which had ever been to that church before. Both of them were very out-going in their personalities, and they started talking loudly to each other while the meeting was going on. This created a distraction at times. When the offering plate was passed, one of the black teen-agers asked if he could be the one to pass the offering place from aisle to aisle. The youth group leader agreed to let him do it. As the teen-ager passed the offering plate, I actually prayed in my mind, "God, I pray that he won't steal any of the money." A few seconds later, I was suddenly hit with the realization that I had just prayed a prayer that manifested a racist attitude! I realized that if that person had been white, I never would have prayed that prayer! I was stereotyping these teen-agers as potential thieves simply because they were black and loud! I was suddenly overwhelmed with embarrassment and shame! I dropped my head, and silently prayed, "Oh, God, forgive me for thinking like that! I'm so sorry! How could I think something like that!" I was glad that no one else knew what I had thought. I was extremely ashamed that I could even have such a thought. I suddenly realized that even though I angrily and strongly condemned the racism that I saw going around me, I had somehow picked up racist attitudes of my own that were a lot more subtle than the blatant racism that I had seen in Grand Rapids when I was younger. I learned that it was not enough to strongly confront the racism that was going on around me in society! I needed to confront my own racist attitudes! I would remember this incident for years, as it would constantly remind me that I needed to closely examine every stereotypical thought that entered my mind.

(6) And the story goes on...

This story, of course, didn't end after I turned 18. There were still more experiences waiting to wake me up to the harshness of a world filled with bigotry. For example, there was the time in the mid-1980's when I went out with a woman who was from an inter-racial family. Her father was white and her mother was black. The hatred and hostility that she and I encountered from both whites and blacks was unbelievably (and painfully) strong. Many people, both blacks and whites, rejected her for being (what they called) "mixed." In spite of this, she said numerous times, "I am not ashamed of who I am." She was proud of her parents and of who she was. The bigotry was often directed at me as well. Some people told me that I "shouldn't be dating someone who wasn't white," and at times I encountered shockingly intense anger and intolerance from people that I cared about.

My life goes on and I am constantly learning from my experiences...even though these experiences aren't always easy. I am thankful to my parents who taught me that hatred is not the answer. I am thankful to Norman Lear for "All in the Family." I am thankful to God for giving me the experiences in life that have taught me that bigotry gets us nowhere.

(Feel free to email me with any comments that you may have.)



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