I had a high school history teacher who was a Vietnam vet. He once informed us, “Just so you know, I did tours in ‘Nam. Tick me off and I might pull a gun and kill every one of you. And I’d get away with it, too. Just shrug and say, ‘Sorry. Flashback. I thought they were a bunch of gooks.’” His head bobbed up and down when he spoke as if pounding the words in like nails. A matter-of-fact expression on his face. Left eye pinched into a half-wink. Just like someone taking aim through rifle sights.
That same year I had a business law class at the other end of the building. The teacher was a sweet, elfin lady who stood outside her door between classes, greeting students by name, laughing and chatting with them as they hustled to their next class. I, like most of my classmates, loved her. How could you not?
One day she scrapped her lesson plans so we could talk about the upcoming presidential election. There was plenty to discuss. It was a crazy time when an Italian-American woman (Geraldine Ferraro) and a black man (Jesse Jackson) were being touted as possible running mates for presidential hopeful Walter Mondale.
“If you could pick one of those two, who would you choose?” she asked.
Our class overwhelmingly selected Jackson. When she asked why, the demure little lady was assaulted by one-liners and stereotypes about a woman’s place in American society (and government wasn’t among the places). I recall one classmate saying if women were ever in charge, at least there’d be no more war; just tense negotiations every 28 days.
At that, our matronly hobbit of a teacher narrowed her gaze and scanned the room as if taking aim.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I am shocked. And I have to tell you, this really frightens me.” In that moment, I didn’t think she was actually scared; she just seemed angered by the bold sexism of ignorant teenagers. However, my initial assumption was way off target.
“I am truly concerned that you’d elect a black man over a woman. Were you asleep in history class? Do you not realize what blacks have gone through in this country? And you’d be willing to hand them power? Don’t you think they’ll want some revenge?”
The classroom fell silent.
In my high school, we had a handful of black students. If you were a black kid at HEHS, you were one of two things: either an athlete or invisible. In my neck of the woods, it was a fine, unspoken system that kept order and served us well. Because of that, we didn’t have racial issues to discuss. Sure, we learned about slavery and Jim Crow, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but those were just history lessons. Those events had nothing to do with us. No one was rioting in our streets, so racism simply didn’t exist in our sanitized world.
However, my tender, affable teacher gave me a wonderful gift that day—a bold, undeniable expression of xenophobia. Growing up in a white world, I’d laughed at seemingly harmless jokes about other races. However, I’d never before heard the motive behind prejudice so perfectly articulated with such raw honesty. I saw the fuel to so much of America’s smoldering racial fire that most of us ignore, and it was alarming. This wasn’t about hating someone simply because of their skin color. In fact, it wasn’t hatred at all. It was the fear of having something taken away, twisted up with ignorance in barbwire knots, choking the heart of an educator who was spreading her sing-song bile to America’s youth.
After she spoke those words, I sat staring at her, trying to keep my jaw from hitting the tops of my clean, white, high top Reeboks that were sticking out from beneath my pegged jeans. At one end of the building, we had Base Camp Commando who had threatened to shoot us. At the other end was our unassuming Fairy Godmother, alerting us to the horrors of black revenge. Thankfully, one of my teachers was joking. Tragically, the other wasn’t.
I would almost feel better if the real threat had been from the Vietnam vet.
Recently discussing our nation’s racial divide, my oldest son said, “I just can’t understand how you can hate someone just because of their skin.” He’d been looking at pictures of suburban, tiki-torch carrying white nationalists, their faces caught mid-scream, twisted into grotesque masks of rage.
That’s when I recalled those words from my teacher—Don’t you think they’ll want some revenge?—and considered how much that attitude had grown like a stage-4 cancer throughout our society. I see it in the thinly-veiled attitudes of loved ones, and I don’t think they’re even remotely aware of it. They’re like my teacher: there’s not an ounce of hatred in their bones, but coursing through their veins is a poison that causes them to perceive other races as a faceless “other” that wants to take something away, a revenge-seeking mob of inhumanity.
“Son,” I said, “it’s not always hatred. A lot of this is simply irrational fear.”
I have many friends and family members who couldn’t wait to see President Obama leave office. Of those, several can point out specific policies they disagreed with; they can soundly discuss the justifiable reasons behind their dislike for that administration. However, just as many spent eight years in a senseless fog, blinded by the notion that everything the man did was another attempt to take something away from the hard-working American and give it to someone undeserving. In their minds, my teacher’s nightmare had become reality when our country elected Obama: we’d given a black man power and “they” would take revenge for centuries of white privilege.
Friends, hatred is not the beating heart of racism; it’s our false assumptions about other people’s motives. Some people cannot see “Black Lives Matter” as an expression of frustration over social inequalities. They only hear unchained black militants screaming “Revenge!” Many of us see NFL players taking a knee during the anthem and we make sweeping assumptions about why they’re doing it. It’s easier to think of them as spoiled, millionaire athletes who are simply disrespecting our great nation than admit the racial divide in our society that we are too uncomfortable to address … because that might demand something of us and upset our fragile peace.
Noam Chomsky says “fears that victims [of racism] might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present.” Again, it’s not hatred (although it can certainly look like it); it’s shrouded fear. No different from a child’s illogical terror over the ill-defined monster under the bed.
Crazy, ignorant fear of revenge. They want to take something away from me to pay for something I didn’t do! That’s the root of racism in America.
But what if we looked at the “other” and allowed ourselves enough grace to realize that “they” want something very simple: to have fair opportunities, be treated with dignity, and have a chance to make life better for their kids? Friends, when you get down to it, that’s all any of us want. There is no racial divide in those desires. Those are core American values. Having worked in mostly black inner city schools and suburban white schools (where 95% of the kids went on to higher education), I can tell you that kids in America do not have the same chances; not even close. The question is, however, are we willing to work toward a society in which all of our children might hope for a better life without bristling up in illogical fear, terrified of what they might want from us?
Until we acknowledge how we are haunted by the fear of revenge, racism will continue to tear us apart. And then we will have something stolen from us that is rightfully ours: Our humanity.
Please share this and keep the conversation going.
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14 thoughts on “Racism’s Revenge”
Bert, I don’t know if you get emails at this address but I an so thank fully for your perspective and boldness. I almost cried reading this post. I love God and Jesus but my hear breaks when I see my christian peers so angry and hateful around race issues. Thank you thank you thank you for presenting the root problem of why people protest through black lives matter and through peaceful actions of not standing for the the anthem. Those are peaceful protests about social issues. I have felt like an island loving Jesus while supporting a black president, and issues I think Jesus values. I am reading through all your articles now and I’m so happy to have your fresh, kind and bold perspectives. I lOVED your article on why Teachers suck…… it up. Just had to say thank you!!!! >
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Reblogged this on Mtnbeachmama's Blog and commented:
A must read!
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Thank you! I reblogged and shared on Facebook. Thank you for giving me something to ruminate about.
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Thank you, friend.
This is a great piece, Bert. It touches me because I, too, have heard so many folks express these exact thoughts. Usually, it’s folks older than us, but not always. The fear of retribution is strong in some people. I’ve always thought it was a generational thing (they don’t know better because they weren’t taught better back then) but I also wonder if those with such intense fear have something to hide (so to speak). As in – they have a deep shame about their behavior, which fuels the fear (they don’t ever want to be treated that way, themselves). Or, maybe it’s just plain ol fear of judgement. Fear of revenge as a reason to keep repressing people, wow, though. I just don’t understand that. Great food for thought, and a good start to a (hopefully civil) conversation about racism. Thanks!
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Thank you, Stacey. Oh, if we could have civil conversations about the hard stuff …
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Reblogged this on Kerri O'Donnell and commented:
“Crazy, ignorant fear of revenge. They want to take something away from me to pay for something I didn’t do! That’s the root of racism in America.”
Pingback: Racism’s Revenge – Kerri O'Donnell
This post is thought-provoking to be sure but it’s a hard sell to say that the driving force behind racism is the “false assumptions about other people’s motives”.
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Thanks for commenting, Benjamin.
For discussion sake, let’s say I read your comment, look at your profile photo and this is my internal reaction: I see a black man with a hat pulled low to shield part of his face. He must have something to hide. Bad intent. Up to no good. Just a black guy who’s just ticked off at white people and now he’s trying to start trouble and pick a fight.
If that’s my initial assumption about why you’re here (your motives), then my response might not be very gracious. I’m guessing what might follow would be a pretty negative interaction, one that would only reinforce my racist attitudes about you–a black man just showing up to argue.
I think what we assume about other people’s motives dictates a certain psychological response.
However, what if I, instead, make this assumption about why you’re here? “This guy not only took to the time to read this piece, but also cared enough to comment. He obviously has a good heart and wants exactly the same thing as me–a better world for our kids where they don’t have to wrestle with the same crap we grew up with.”
If I make that assumption about what you actually want, then you get this type of response from me, and you and I start kicking down the walls of racism that divide and cripple our nation. It also allows me the grace to admit that I don’t know everything, that you may have different experiences with better understanding, and with that attitude, I actually might learn something from you. I then want you to share your heart and mind with me instead of us falling into an argument based on false assumptions I might have made about your motives.
Racism in this country is monster with too many historical tentacles to count, but I believe what we assume about each other’s motives is critical to either keeping that monster alive or choking the life out of it.
(BTW, I read your piece on WalMart loss prevention the other day and had some funny (not funny) experiences to share; I was on my mobile at the time and couldn’t comment. Hope to do so this morning now that I’m back home.)
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I agree and I get where you’re coming from. I just had some difficulty wrapping my head around the whole making-false-assumptions-about-someone’s-motives argument as it pertains to racism. It was hard for me to believe that racists were making false assumptions about someone’s motives. Because it seems oversimplified and seems to trivialize the potency of the racism this country has known for centuries as being a mere misunderstanding.
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Fair to say, and I hope I’m not oversimplifying or trivializing it. If it came across that way, I certainly apologize. That wasn’t my intent. “Potency” is a good word, and the right one. However, I think how we perceive one another can easily become more sinister than just a misunderstanding. It’s a nasty thread woven throughout the human psyche. As a Christian, I see it as a spiritual attack: dark whispers about the “other”, reinforcing our fears and biases, and driving us into our separate corners–classic military tactic of divide and conquer. I’m pretty sure evil doesn’t want us united against the darkness.
Despite our ugly history, I have to believe that we all carry a spark of goodness in us (no matter how deep it might be buried). If only we could all tap into that light and shine for each other. Man, what a world our kids could inherit.