I was born and grew up as a privileged white child. I struggle to learn whether I have grown. I wonder whether people who didn’t grow up in the South during the 1940s and 1950s understand our relationship with folks of other races. I understand that I was privileged, but I also saw my grandparents (who were born less than 25 years after the civil war) treat African Americans with love and respect (even though it was tinged with paternalism).
On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I sent my two grown sons this note:
“Today, as I look at the two of you, I see two guys who are loving, and able, and who also don’t seem to have any prejudices – gender-based, racial, sexual, or anything else. You might harbor feelings of superiority about other people, but I never see you acting those feelings out.
“I know that I, personally, think twice when I am in a group of the “other”, sometimes with fear of black people, sometimes with disgust, sometimes with revulsion. I admit that I sometimes have those feelings, but I try never to let them show.
“I don’t remember ever talking to either of you about open acceptance of ALL people, but apparently you picked it up by osmosis, or something.
“Can you tell me what I did right to make you into the accepting men you are today? I really want to know.”
They sent me the following notes:
“It is a bit of lead by example…
“It is a bit of nurture and nature…
“You and Dad, rarely used terms of derision, especially on a group level…if ever it was related to a single person and even then a single action or situation…you often did, by the choices you made in how you spoke about people as well as to people…you often did make it a point to be humble and to honor the person across from you or in your realm…I can’t remember a time that you stated specifically that _______ is good or bad…more in the manner in which y’all carried yourselves especially when others were specifically rude or condescending or mean or ugly to you…this was an extension of how mama and papa were…it is the very embodiment of unconditional love for all things, all humanity, each other and ourselves…being humble and engaging with our talents and always giving, even at our own expense…that God is watching, that our thoughts and actions will come back to us, be they good, bad or indifferent and that often the worst is the latter…
“In a time that favors rhetoric, y’all provided actionable examples and enough verbal direction to clearly articulate a course of action and pathway to living in this way.”
And from Ray:
“I’ve been mulling over this since I received your email.
- I would say you taught us true Christian values of respect and caring.
- I learned that no group is all good or bad. That meant it was never true to say or even think racist things. That carried over to all stuff.
- I learned that I was a minority, too. Sometimes a minority of one but a minority. If I didn’t like being treated or thought of badly, I shouldn’t do it to others. Sort of an extension to the Golden Rule.
- We came from a diverse sub group of society. I learned the only thing not tolerated was intolerance. The military was hardly perfect but it made tolerance of people a principle and not a lofty goal. I’m maybe over simplifying this one.
- We travelled, and were exposed to other cultures and values. We saw firsthand the values of diversity and inclusion.
- I was taught to avoid hateful people and ideas. To challenge and correct even if it made me an outsider, and to walk away, in protest, when I couldn’t change them. (It took getting out on my own to fully see this one.)
- You did teach us not to take ourselves too seriously. To be self-deprecating and by doing so to recognize the stupidity prejudices feed on. You taught us not to be stupid.
“These are not school taught lessons. They were character lessons observed and valued because you, our parents, valued them. You and dad talked about why the stereotypes were bad and how to see through them. But in the end, it was the fact you practiced what you preached, that was the lesson.”