By Joni Halpern
Many white people who consider themselves decent, concerned citizens, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, look upon racism as a too-sensitive subject. It seems so, because it is super-charged by our history and because racial prejudice never seems to go away.
As white people, we never seem to reach a point where we can safely say we are not racist. Someone else always seems to remind us that no matter how much personal progress we’ve made in shedding our prejudice, we can never embrace people of color as our brothers and sisters, except in situations where we momentarily have summoned the virtue to love across the lines.
My husband, a physician, says that right down to the very particles of our atoms, human beings are always are engaged in a relentless process of self/non-self discrimination. Through evolutionary dictates over which we have no control at all, our bodies are constantly policed by microscopic agents always on the lookout to destroy that which is not “us.”
Can it be any surprise that our psyches might be constructed in similar ways? White or black, rich or poor, holy men or villains, we humans seem to be engaged in a constant mental and emotional battle, sometimes of minuscule dimensions, sometimes monumental, to ensure our individual right to exist in this shared place we call “life.”
When we feel threatened, hurt, or at risk, we look for explanations and comfort. Commonly, we are helped in this enterprise by turning to the simplest reason of all: “Those people” are not like us.
They are wanting in some significant way. They’re not as smart as we are. They’re not as experienced, as virtuous, as deserving, as capable, as hardworking, as creative, as independent, as collaborative, as generous, as honorable – you name it, our virtue, our gifts, our wisdom are not theirs.
I personally never knew I was racist until my sister made me see it. She was a rare person who threw herself into love the way some people throw themselves into other creative passions like art or music or theater. She immersed herself in the brights and darks, the deep reds, the shocking yellows and soothing greens of life in all its hues.
She had a natural courage I did not possess. It helped her fly like an elegant bird over the walls and crevasses and chasms that separate us humans from one another. Her wings were made of an intense love she had for the inside of people, a love that forced her to cross the lines of human intimacy with people who were scorned. She had a way of focusing on the goodness of others, keeping it in her gaze as she walked closer and closer to the person until they were forced to see in her eyes their own best selves.
She could be frightened, but never of love.
My sister never set out to fall in love with a black man, but when she did, she couldn’t understand why she shouldn’t. She thought it was a triumph over all the things she hated most in life – cruelty, humiliation, prejudice, violence, and greed. Who could say it couldn’t be done – that one white woman of good will could not love one black man of good will? She was right. It could be done. The problem was the rest of us.
We all couched our fear in the niceties of 1970s white rhetoric. It wasn’t so much that she was marrying a black man, we told each other; that was between the two adults. But didn’t she know what she would be doing to her children? And why did she have to do it anyway? Weren’t there enough people of her own race to choose from? What was she thinking putting all of us through this?
At the heart of our concern was none other than ourselves. It was our own fear that confronted us, our lack of courage to even countenance loving across the lines, our personal decision not to ever let ourselves get mixed up in something so scorned by society, something so much a part of our own self-protection.
To be sure, there was just as much fear on the other side of the relationship. There were questions with which my sister was openly confronted. Why are you taking a black man whom black women would cherish? Can’t you find one of your own kind? What makes you think you’ll ever be accepted by black people in our family? What will you be doing to your kids?
But my sister could not give weight to any of these questions from either side, because they were not hers. Her question was whether she loved this man, and if so, why should racial prejudice interfere with her determination to act toward him as she would have acted toward any white man she might have loved.
She had survived the holocaust of her youth, and she was pretty sure she had done it by soaring over the landscape of other people’s anger and hatred. She was not about to give up her belief in the power of her own love. More than anything else she possessed, she prized the belief that this capacity, invested in the right person, could transform not just her world, but the larger one as well.
My sister’s decision to marry a black man cracked the ice of my racist background. It wasn’t a rabidly racist background, not like that of some white supremacists. My father had a great respect for black people with whom he worked.
He was a maintenance man at a school. He never made much money, so he had to do whatever he could to feed six kids. When he picked fallen fruit from local orchards on weekends, he would save a box of good fruit for his co-worker, crossing the railroad tracks to deliver the box to the black man’s home, but never allowing us to get out of the car and play with the kids who were just our age.
My dad was a fun-loving tease at times; he had grown up with the bad habit of poking people in the ribs to see them jump. One day he did this to a black co-worker, who jumped, and without thinking, turned to sock my dad in the face. His fist came to a stop just in front of my dad’s nose.
“I’m sorry,” said the black man, drawing back his fist, “but you just can’t do that to me anymore. I have this automatic reaction, and I might hit you. Please don’t do that again.”
My dad didn’t take the hint. The next time he poked him, the black man turned and socked him. The white guys who worked alongside both men were angry. Who did this Negro think he was, hitting a white man? They were openly angry when my dad intervened.
“He was right, and I was wrong,” my dad told them. “He warned me, and I didn’t listen. He tried to tell me not to do it. It’s not his fault.”
But my dad also voted against a state initiative of that era that aimed at stopping the exclusion of black buyers from white neighborhoods.
After my dad died, I lived for a time with an aunt and uncle. I took up with a young man from India who walked me home from school each day. One day, my uncle, who was a very sweet man, said, “Don’t come home with him anymore. My neighbors are going to think I love Negroes.”
Like many white people, I have countless memories of prejudice both larger and smaller than those. But when my sister married a black man, I could feel a melting under the sea ice of my soul for the first time in my life. The vast sheets of ice that had anchored me in the hierarchy of acceptable society – low as I was – were about to drift.
Now I had a sister, a brother-in-law, and three mixed-race children I couldn’t help but love. And I couldn’t help but be angry every time they were hurt by the slurs, the silent contempt, the purposeful choices of others over them, and the false assumptions that led them to be treated unfairly too many times.
Slowly, love whittled away at my prejudice until I forced myself to stand up for this family I cherished. I changed some rules around my house, putting some family and friends on notice that certain opinions, descriptions, and jokes would not be allowed.
“We’re not prejudiced,” folks said. “We’re just (joking, talking, kidding, stating an opinion…).”
I didn’t care. I didn’t want my niece, who often stayed at my house, to have to sort through the debris of our family articulations to find the love everyone had for her. I changed the art in our house so there were representations of beauty that included people of color. I hunted for birthday cards that celebrated dark skin. I told my sister’s children stories of great black men and women.
I finally felt first-hand what it was like to walk into a grocery store and see the angry looks of white people who thought my sister’s children were mine. Some would ask, and I would say, “That privilege unfortunately was not mine. It was my sister’s courage that made these children part of my family.”
I have not lost all the nuances of my prejudice, because I have not found them all. They hide behind fear and ignorance, which abides in me as it does in all human beings. I used to think it would end someday, and I would no longer be able to identify in myself anything that was racist.
But now I think it is a lifelong journey to open myself to others – to understand them, accept them, endure pain and discomfort in relationships with them without denigrating the category of humanity from which they originate, and embrace them as if we were blind to all but their goodness.
My sister was right. It is never wrong to love just because society has taught us the object of our love is undeserving. To love across those lines as friends, family, fellow Christians, comrades in the search for good, or whatever the description of our relational pursuits, is the only way to peel away the layers of racism.
My sister is gone now, having left me one of the greatest gifts I ever received in life. She taught me that love, while not a battering ram that shatters racism, is still strong enough in all its forms to be the first blow. Sometimes it is the act of kindness from a fellow worker, sometimes a sister’s love for a man, sometimes a person of one race acting in a moment of selflessness. Then a crack occurs in our inner sheet of ice, a touch of warmth sets in, exposing us to our own prejudice.
At that moment of recognition, we have a choice to make. Every time we choose the better path, we are closer to embracing the humanity in all of us.
Joni Halpern has been a lawyer for the poor in San Diego for more than 20 years. She has served low-income families and individuals throughout San Diego County as a staff lawyer for the ACLU, the Legal Aid Society, director of a grassroots nonprofit, and now as a sole practitioner. She has been a San Diego resident almost all her life.