Fear and Loathing in America the Beautiful

My father, a Texan born in 1909, used to say he was a bigot and proud of it. He used the N-word freely, and he had a pejorative for every race, ethnicity, and nationality on the planet.

He had a bizarre cosmology of race, a hierarchy in which Asians ranked highest as most evolved among the human family, followed by whites (in his time, Latinos were regarded as white, more or less: highly sexualized whites who liked bright colors, so my mother said), American Indians, Blacks, and, at the bottom of the ladder, hybrids of all sorts. The Arabs among whom we lived were scarcely better than monkeys, he believed, because they were the product of intermarriage between African slaves and light-skinned Semitic slave-owners, and so inherited the worst of both breeds.

Even as a child, I used to marvel at the strangeness of this construct, its basic metaphysical weirdness. It wasn’t until we came back to the United States and I was halfway through junior high school that the vicious wrongness of his thinking revealed itself to me.

In San Francisco, I attended an urban school that was about a third white and Asian, a third black, and a third Latino. At the start of the seventh or eighth grade, I don’t recall which, the school assigned an African American girl to share a P.E. locker with me. I was put out not because of who she was but because I had zero desire to share anything with anyone. But when my parents found out that the sharee was black, they charged down to the school and demanded that I be assigned a white lockermate. The principal, to his lasting credit, said “thank you very much” and ignored them.

Before long, the young girl stopped coming to school, so in effect I had our locker to myself. Two or three months later, she resurfaced, with a horrifying story. Her clothing had caught fire in a kitchen accident. In her terror, she ran through a glass sliding door before anyone could catch her. She had been in the hospital for weeks.

So it was brought home to me, forcefully, that this was not some sort of subhuman creature but another early-teen girl, just like me. A living, breathing, feeling, fragile human being.

Not until I was in my twenties did it cross my mind that my father’s fierce bigotry toward everyone not like him—a broad, inclusive bigotry that took in women and homosexuals as well as people of different races and nationalities—was rooted in fear. He feared the Other, and that fear, being unmanly in a time when men were men or else, manifested itself as hatred. He feared the Other more than he hated the Other. What I couldn’t figure out, didn’t understand for many, many years, was why? What was he so afraid of? What about a 13-year-old black girl is frightening?

A great deal of time passed.

Toward the end of his life, he admitted to something profoundly ironic: his grandmother was a Plains Indian. His mother, whom I never met, was half-Indian. His brother had made noises to this effect over the years, but my father vehemently denied it, said Ed was full of beans. This interesting revelation took on more poignancy when one day a young man rang his doorbell and said he’d noticed my father’s name on the front door. The visitor was working on the roof at the retirement home where my father and his current wife were living and, since the name was a little unusual, he worked up the nerve to introduce himself, because his last name was the same. He came from a whole tribe by that name. And he was a full-blooded Choctaw.

Well, helle’s belles. My father was outed. I have no idea what his father was or what he looked like (though my father was distinctly Indian in appearance, with high cheekbones and black hair that stayed dark until after he was 80). My grandfather ran off when my father was born and before long was found dead by the side of a road, an apparent suicide. But whatever the details, ultimately the truth was that he—my father—himself was the Other. What I do know is that the family was passing as white and that my father clung to that identity. He clung to it with some desperation.

But still I didn’t know why was he so afraid? Why was he possessed of such fear that it invaded his soul, curdled into hatred, and took up permanent residence in his heart and mind?

One’s children are slow on the uptake, no? It takes a long time to grasp a parent’s humanity. Sometimes it takes the odd intervention.

Yesterday I was editing a forthcoming book by novelist Donis Casey, Crying Blood, due out in February 2011 from Poisoned Pen Press, and very much enjoying it. The characters live in Texas during the 1910s, the time when my father was a boy. They arrived there from the same part of the Deep South that my father’s family came from, and they behave and sound much like my father’s family—though a bit more enlightened, given their author’s immersion in the culture of the twenty-first century. Casey has a real gift for character and voice: her people sound exactly like my father and uncle did.

Along about the end of the book, we learn that the protagonist, rancher Shaw Tucker, has a great deal of Indian in him, having come from a family “woven through with Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry from as early as anyone could remember.” His mother was the daughter of a full-blooded Cherokee woman.

But he was raised to be White. In fact, even though he was an enrolled tribal member, he was White enough in blood and looks and way of life that the U.S. Government never bothered him. No one had ever come to take his children away and put them in boarding school. No one had ever proscribed his movements or told him where he had to live, or how. Shaw Tucker was White and he viewed the world in the way of a White man.

Well, now. There’s something to be afraid of! Your children kidnapped and hauled off to boarding school, there to be assimilated into an alien culture. Your way of life extinguished and your people forcibly removed from their homelands. That would have been the experience of my father’s parents and grandparents.

Why did I never see this? It seems so obvious. He wasn’t afraid of all the people he’d taught himself to hate. He was afraid of what he wanted to be.

He wanted to be white, whiter than the whites who were his forefathers’ mortal enemies and exploiters. More precisely, he needed to be white, so that he could have a shot at decent jobs and the same kind of freedom the majority of Americans took as their born right. The contradiction must have twisted around and around inside him and finally come out as hate. Bizarrely metamorphosed hate.

§

The present discourse on immigration rings of my father’s language. I can hear his voice in every pejorative: “illegals,” “Mexicants,” “beaners,” and in every random news story that commenters turn into a racist tirade. The new N-word is “illegals,” and the new “greaser” is “Mexican.” It’s as dreary as it is disturbing.

So what are we, as Americans, afraid of? What terror inside the American soul writhes around and comes out as hatred? My Muslim students tell me of experiences when they personally have been the targets of hate and threats. Latinos and Indians, citizens of the United States of America, say they dread being stopped by the police, hassled, and made to show papers.

Whatever it is, we need to get over it. The current fear and loathing of the Other, to the point where citizens express distaste for small brown-skinned children, is dragging our polity and our people back to the 1950s, when it was OK to utter the N-word in polite company and grown men and women thought it made sense to raise hell when a white kid and a black kid were assigned to share a locker for 40 minutes a day.

We have met the Other, and he is us.

Image: Choctaw woman. Public domain.


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SimplyForties September 14, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Sad, scary and oh so true. I have no idea how we’re going to turn it around either.

Nola September 14, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Eloquent. And sad, to come so late to this understanding of your Father.

frugalscholar September 14, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Very powerful stuff. There is an interesting film–”True Believer”–about a young Jewish man who joins a Nazi group. Definitely worth seeing.

cguk September 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

I read recently that liberals tend to look towards the future and try to make things better while conservatives tend to look back and try to make things the way they used to be.
Our country has come a long way and hope this recent spate of racism will come to pass.

funny September 15, 2010 at 2:32 pm

@ cguk: Sometimes it seems that way. But I’m made nervous by generalizations of that sort. Many of the things conservatives wish to see put in place have little or no precedent in U.S. history. One may think they do, but they don’t. Leading conservatives at the national level are not uneducated fools; some of them do know history.

Deedee September 15, 2010 at 3:00 pm

The two words I was going to use are already taken. :) Eloquent and powerful. Thank you for that. This is an issue I have been giving a lot of thought to. Things just seem to be getting uglier in America these days.

iamtheworkingpoor September 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Well done! There is speculation that Hitlers grandfather may have been Jewish.

The Saved Quarter September 15, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This is a very moving piece.

My family is white as far back as I can trace, and I’ve traced back many, many generations to the founding of this country and farther. Going through my own family’s history has put me face to face with disturbing elements of our country’s history. I’m the descendant of slave owners, men who thought so little of other human beings who didn’t look like them that they didn’t bother to call them by name in their wills, a father instead willing “2 negro men” to his son. I’m the descendant of men who fought for the South in the Civil War, and who sent their slaves to fight in the war effort. That was not a fact I’d learned in high school history, and is one that hurts my heart: men forced to fight for their own imprisonment.

It disturbs me deeply, and it has taken many generations for the “others” fear and hatred to shake its hold in my family. My great-grandfather was much like your father in his language, afraid of others and full of unflattering, untrue stereotypes about people whose skin had any melanin whatsoever; my father, more enlightened, still has his few hold outs of bigotry – namely those “illegals” and Arabs/Muslims/anyone brown from anyplace south or middle eastern. As much as I’d like to believe I’m not prejudiced, I know that there are thoughts that are in my head by unflattering stereotype.

I chose to put my son in a summer camp that was largely black and Latino over the summer. He was one of two white kids. Knowing that his elementary school is lily white, I wanted him to have experience being around and becoming friends with kids who don’t look like him and don’t all have the same cultural background. I also want him to know what it’s like not to be in the majority so that he can develop empathy for the few non-white kids in his elementary school and be able to befriend kids who might otherwise be outcast because of the color of their skin.

When I told my dad about the camp, he said that my reason for sending my son there was racist. I didn’t pick it because it was the best camp around, he argued, but because of the racial makeup of the camp. Was it racist of me to intentionally choose this camp, or was it an attempt to break down in the next generation another layer of the idea that the color of a person’s skin is somehow a marker of whether they should be friends?

He had a fantastic summer and made good friends, the point of any camp, I suppose. He also learned by one on one friendships that my dad’s “jokes” about Mexicans aren’t true because he knows and is friends with Mexicans; he has personal knowledge to counteract the stereotype. (We also contradict my dad’s jokes when he makes them, knowing that he will not change his mind but not wanting those ideas to take hold in our kids’ minds unchallenged.)

He’s going back to that same camp next summer. In his lily white school, he’s befriended many kids, including the 4 brown skinned kids in his grade.

I wish there was some kind of summer camp experience that we could send the modern day bigots to, so they could make crafts and go swimming and have a talent show and eat popsicles together; understanding that people are people are people. Hold up the golden rule and experience one another as individuals and the rest just doesn’t matter that much. It’s hard to hate a whole group when you’re friends with people in that group.

Mark September 16, 2010 at 7:29 am

This type of fear-based behavior is not just racially driven. How many times have we seen the most intense anti-gay politicians or pastors turn out to be gay? Senators in airport bathrooms, pastors “ministering” to gay prostitutes in hotel rooms, …

Interesting psychology

cguk September 16, 2010 at 10:01 am

It seems if we deal with one another on a personal face-to-face basis it is much harder to keep hold of prejudices. You simply are required to deal with the other person as an individual rather than a blurry stereotype of a group.

funny September 16, 2010 at 10:25 am

@ Mark: He was also radically homophobic. I think of it as all of a piece.

Everyday Tips September 16, 2010 at 11:32 am

Wow, what a great post. Your poor dad living all those years with such fear, and misplaced hate.

I know that we have a long way to go, but I do think race relations have improved since I was a kid, and I am grateful for that. I can’t even type some of the names that I heard people of other races being referenced as. My kids have never made a racist comment in their whole lives, and I don’t even think they have heard many (if at all) at school. However, the world is nowhere near perfect, and some areas carry more prejudice than others.

How very ironic that your dad was Native American…

Evan September 16, 2010 at 6:05 pm

First thing, this is not an American problem. Go ahead and travel to Mexico, Greece and most Muslim countries. Also, I think a lot of people throw out the racist title WAY too easily. I have been called it, yet I really just believe everyone should be treated EQUALLY, irrelevant of race (i.e. the reverse discrimination known as Affirmative Action).

funny September 17, 2010 at 6:55 am

@ Evan: True, fear and loathing of the Other is a human problem. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because other people behave abominably doesn’t mean Americans have to do so, too.

Frankly, Evan, I can’t imagine you tossing the N-word around with effervescent alacrity…or at all. And IMHO there’s a difference between feeling that giving one group or another preference is discriminatory and believing that a member of another race or gender is subhuman.

Evan September 17, 2010 at 7:38 am

“Frankly, Evan, I can’t imagine you tossing the N-word around with effervescent alacrity…or at all” Thank you for the vote of confidence! I would never.

funny September 17, 2010 at 10:30 am

:-) Evan, we all know you’re a Conservative and a Gentleman.

Little House September 19, 2010 at 2:28 pm

That’s a very poignant story. Your father lived in shame and fear most of his life, and that’s unfortunate.

My mother’s family has traced their ancestry back to the 1600′s and unfortunately I often ignore much of their story because I’m ashamed to say her father’s side lived on a large plantation in the south for many generations. Thankfully, my grandparents never exhibited or spoke any negative racial remarks towards other cultures in my presence. As a college student, I studied anthropology in part because I was intrigued by other cultures and human evolution. Cultural anthropology and evolution should be requirements in education to help open up the minds of narrow-minded people.

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