I’m Not Racist, But…

“I’m not racist, but…”

Well, sir, thanks for that clarification. Wouldn’t have known how to take your remarks otherwise.

It was a half-hour conversation from hell. There were four of us there: me, an interesting couple from California, and him — an old Korean war vet from Virginia.

I’m not even sure when it started going downhill. The woman from California talked about being a veterinarian and treating animals for Lyme’s, but that people didn’t get Lyme’s the way they did out here in Virginia. They’d traveled extensively — did you know there are penguins in Africa? But they weren’t sure how to recognize poison ivy, so I brought up a picture on my phone to show them.

Then, somewhere along the line, he started talking.

He mentioned that his ancestors came from Scotland, and mentioned that they “married in with the free blacks and Indians.” Then he said he was invited to a family reunion, but didn’t want to go because he “didn’t want to know who would be there.”

The remark fell among us with a thud. I think the others, like me, were trying to assume he didn’t mean what it sure sounded like he meant.

That’s when he clarified for us that he wasn’t racist. He then tossed off slighting remarks about Koreans, Hispanics, and Muslims. For good measure, he made a point to mention that a house near him was owned by “a gay guy” and sold to “two gay guys.”

Aside from a couple of remarks to try to wrench the conversation back to neutral ground, the other three of us didn’t have much to say. I think they were as uncomfortable as I was, although it was hard to tell through my deafening embarrassment. I didn’t want to call him out, not because I was afraid to speak, but because I honestly didn’t want to hear more of his opinions. Finally, I found a way to excuse myself, and left.

The rest of the day, I tried to laugh it off. He was such a parody of a old smug white man, so very mockable. At last I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t laugh. It wasn’t funny. It hurt too much.

I grew up in the 80s in South Mississippi. At the time, I didn’t know much about the sordid history of just a generation ago. My little town tried hard to get past it, even though old ways of thinking don’t just fade away.

Still, the older generation, especially the teachers in our public schools, did their best to raise us for our new integrated world. It was an uphill battle. Even as a teen and young adult, I had to face and reject my assumptions of white superiority and separation of the races. Now there’s a fragile peace, one we’ve worked hard to achieve.

So to sit and listen to a smug, rich white man tear down a generation of hard work with his smiling sneers… Hey, everybody, welcome to the South, where we’re still ashamed of “free blacks and Indians” in our family tree and object when a grandchild is “the only white boy” in his whole class of “Hispanic kids.”

I was embarrassed, angry, and disgusted. My humor failed me.

“I’m not racist, but…”

But, sir, it’s a good thing you didn’t go to that family reunion after all. Just think how mortifying it would be for any “blacks or Indians or Hispanics” to know they share a bloodline with you.

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