The Makings of a Racist, Sexist, Colonialist
White supremacy reigned and the other side of white supremacy is black inferiority. We were taught, as reasonably well bred white Southerners, to behave decently, but the whole racial etiquette that governed the way black and white interacted with each other, all of those customs and folk ways that were part of the Jim Crow South I absorbed. And the word I use in the book [The Making of a Racist] is osmosis. A lot of it, you didn’t have to be told. You just looked as a child growing up…. So you just absorb this stuff, and you’re told over and over again, this is best for both races.
— Charles Dew to Diane Rehm and Isabel Wilkerson (and to my white American mother-in-law, who grew up in Florida when he did)
Not long ago on a road trip with my mother-in-law we listened to historian Charles Dew.
We then began sharing in the car with one another our own experiences as children, growing up.
Hers and those of Charles Dew overlapped substantially, she also being born in the 1930s and of having her first memories and her first interactions as supposedly superior white people with supposedly inferior black people. Her account, she confessed, is also a recollection of the making of a racist.
Here is my own confession, a recollection of the making of a racist, a sexist, and a colonialist.
My very first memories are during the Jim Crow era in a little city where my white father was the pastor of the large Southern Baptist church. It was 1964. While my white mother was in the hospital giving birth to my younger sibling and then not long after for an operation, elsewhere, at home my elder sibling and I were being raised by “the help,” our own “Calpurnia,” our “maid,” whom we called by her first name, Nancy. When my maternal grandparents visited, my grandfather called her by the n-word. They also brought me and my elder sibling presents, “Indian headdresses.” When my father’s adopted parents visited, they also brought presents, “Indian headdresses,” and my memories of these are very specific because the feathers and size and colors of these gifts born to me were different.
There are three things I’d like to add about these my earliest memories. First I do not recall ever hearing Nancy’s family name until half a century later, when my father was dying of cancer. In the final stages his brain was riddled with tumors which for some strange reason helped him recollect memories he’d never spoken to us about before. Apparently there was something going on in his diseased brain that allowed him to remember more clearly than ever with great specificity far back in his life. And at the same time there was a hospice nurse in his home, whom he was referring to both by first and last name and calling her his “first African American friend.” So I thought it would be a good time to see if he recalled Nancy’s last name. My mother didn’t remember Nancy’s family or family name, and I confirmed that by asking her first. Without hesitation, my father knew exactly what Nancy’s full name is. For all of those fifty years of my life our family had never spoken this name, and until that day I had never heard the family name of my other mother, Nancy. Second I do have a really good memory and can recall difference, such as my grandfather’s use of the N-word and the various different colors and types of “Indian headdresses” (if I have no clue as to why “Indian” tokens made good gifts for grandchildren). Third these earliest memories of mine on this planet were in Corsicana, a place in Texas USA, named after the colony Corsica, the birthplace of the father of the privileged colonist who gave the town its name. The legacy of my first memories, then, is a heritage of a superior race, by superior fathers, white men from superior places.
One year after these earliest memories of mine, my Southern Baptist father took his wife and three children with him to South Vietnam. My earliest memories there are of living in a French colonial home on a hill where my new surrogate mother was nicknamed Chị Năm. I never met her family nor did I learn her family name or her given name until my father was dying of cancer, tumors there ostensibly helping him to recall her name. My Vietnamese mother would take me with her to the open air market in Đà Lạt (a former resort city for the French colonists). There in the market she was subject to ridicule for her privilege of working for the American missionary. And I was called her little Amer-Asian, her bastard, half-breed son, which implied an adulterous relationship or worse some sort of sexual subjugation of hers to my father. The term was Mỹ lai. It literally means Beautiful mongrel. The first part, Mỹ, happens to be the Vietnamese word for America. The two parts together also happen to be the Vietnamese name for the place where the American massacre of innocents in the war took place, Mỹ Lai, the village of the “Mỹ Lai Massacre.” Well, that atrocity was not to occur for another three years. When I heard this term for the first time, and when it referred to me, my white face was being pinched pink by the women in the market mocking Chị Năm. My skin was a different color from theirs. My body sex was a different sex from theirs. My father’s country was a different place from theirs, closer in class and in religion to the French fathers who had been there before us.
What I absorbed in my earliest memories were separations of race, of sex, of place all of which placed me and mine as superior to them and theirs. These experiences were the makings of a racist, sexist, colonialist.