Confronting racism, then and now: a confession and an apology
I’m about to share with you the most humiliating moment of my life.
This morning something deeply disturbing happened to my 13 year-old nephew, Christopher. He got a text message, which had been forwarded around from person to person, from one of his best friends, a girl we’ll call Ashley. It went something like this:
America has elected a nigger. Today in school show your support for the KKK by refusinshookg to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Christopher lives in Alabama, where this kind of ignorance isn’t terribly hard to find, and he’s a bit more advanced than some of his classmates where racial issues are concerned. He grew up in Charlotte (and NC urban areas are a lot more progressive than the outback), has always had black and biracial friends, and like so many kids of his generation he simply doesn’t see race as a big deal. He’s not blind to the fact that racism exists, of course, but it’s never been a factor in his personal life. A couple years ago, though, my sister and her family moved to Huntsville, and she reports that things are very different on the cultural front.
Christopher was beside himself. When he saw the message he told his mother that he thought he was going to be sick, and when I talked to him a few minutes later he was obviously shaken. He couldn’t believe that Ashley, someone that his whole family really likes (my sister says she’s almost become family), would pass something like that on. He was going to talk to her, when he got to school, to see if she even had any idea about what she had done.
You know kids, you know school, you know what it was to be that age. We all did appalling things, and maybe this is a case where a fundamentally good girl did something simply because she didn’t grasp what it meant. Christopher wants to make sure she understands some things about the Klan – he doesn’t think the kids in his school really know what it is – and he wants her to understand the group’s history, to understand things like church bombings and the struggle for civil rights.
Christopher understands how remarkable last night was: a black man elected president, when not very long ago – during his parents’ lives, in fact – a black man had to drink from a separate water fountain, sit in the back of a bus, and so on.
Those who know me and read me realize that I not only write about racism in America, I go after it with an almost feral passion. In fact, some haven’t fully understood my methods – not that they don’t get why I think it’s important, but they have perceived in my writing something they couldn’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the language I use, maybe it’s my tone, maybe it’s a vehemence that seems a little more than they can explain, I can’t really say. But I have been questioned about it, and before this moment I’ve never provided the real answer. There is a story, though, and it’s a painful one that I’ve been carrying around for 30 years.
I attended Ledford High School in Thomasville, NC. We were located in a very white corner of Davidson County, which yesterday voted 2-1 for McCain. Ledford had around 900 students. We were very white, very Protestant, and very prejudiced in just about every way possible. LHS had no Jews that I knew of and only a couple kids who’d admit to being Catholic. Maybe five of my fellow students were black.
It was the late ’70s and enlightenment had not yet established much of a foothold in northern Davidson County. Everybody was racist because that’s just how it was. I was a typically insecure kid who had no damned clue who I was or how I fit in. Even though I was smart and comparatively well actualized compared to a lot of my classmates, I was still a product of and captive of the place, the time, the culture.
(Before I go any further, let me make something clear. I’m explaining what I was and why, but I am not excusing myself.)
One afternoon a group of us were standing on the corner of the school by the parking lot, talking, carrying on, joking – in other words, being high school kids. The jokes were, predictably, racist. And here, let me take it a step further, because I think the term “racist joke” is too polite and euphemistic to convey the ugliness of what was really going on, so what we were doing was telling nigger jokes. A small group of redneck kids, telling nigger jokes.
And I was one of them. About halfway through my joke I see the face of the guy across from me clinch up in that “shhh, here he comes” kind of way. I glanced over my shoulder, to see Louis Banks – one of our five black students – walking up. He’d heard me, he’d heard what I had said. Louis was a year older than me, I think, and was a pretty good guy. I’d been on various sports teams with him, liked him, had never had any problems with him, and so on.
Louis looked at me. It was a look I will never forget, no matter how long I live. He turned his head to the side just a bit, so as to regard me out of the corner of his eye, and then shook his head slightly. “Ohhhh, Norris…” (That was the name I went by back then – my middle name, appropriately enough my father’s name.) He shook his head again as he walked off. It was very quiet for a few moments.
I was humiliated. And if you haven’t caught on yet, I’m still humiliated. I will be until the day I die. Louis didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that, especially from a guy like me.
There’s little doubt that Louis could have stomped me bloody on the spot, and there’s less doubt that I’d have deserved it. But the look on his face wasn’t anger – it was hurt. Hurt, maybe surprise, maybe betrayal, and certainly disappointment. I don’t know what Louis Banks expected out of me, but the look in his eyes told me that I’d failed.
A few minutes ago I told this story to my wife, and before that I’d never spoken of it to anyone. I doubt the guys who were with me that day would remember, and who knows if Louis does or not. I’m guessing that what I did to him that day wasn’t a lot different than what he put up with most days, so who knows.
But tonight I needed to confess. Last night America hit a milestone. We haven’t extinguished racism for good, but something happened that Martin Luther King may have dreamed of. And this morning my nephew, who has grown up far less prejudiced than his uncle, got smacked in the face with the kind of ignorance that his uncle was once capable of. Christopher, though, reacted with deep humanity, an ingrained sense of the wrongness and injustice of it.
I’ve never traded in a lot of your stereotypical white guilt. In the grand scheme of things I was just one more ignorant redneck behaving the way that ignorant rednecks behave, but this has nonetheless been one of the most powerful moments of my life. When I see racism, when I encounter ignorance masquerading as faux-fairness, when I’m confronted with the injustice of people being denied a fair shake because of their skin color, my mind always takes me back to the day when I was the cracker, when I was the guy putting a minority in his place, when I was the guy with the fire hose.
I’ve tried to be a better man, tried to learn and grow and use my abilities and my passion to right some of the wrongs facing those born on the wrong side of the class barrier in America. But I haven’t seen Louis Banks in 30 years and I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly whole unless I can stand before him and apologize.
Tonight I’m happy that America has taken a small step down the road toward a place where race really doesn’t matter anymore. I’m incredibly proud of my nephew for undertsanding something I didn’t quite get when I was his age. And while I don’t say this often, I’m proud of my little sister, because kids don’t grasp those lessons on their own.
But mostly, I want to say I’m sorry to Louis Banks, although I don’t know where he is, what he’s doing, or if he’s even alive. Louis, I hope that last night you watched Barack Obama speak and that you were proud.
If I ever get the chance to say this to your face, to ask forgiveness in the same way I incurred the debt, I promise that I’ll do all in my power to make it happen.