I was about 20 years old, standing in the hallway of my parents’ home, and my grandmother (who was visiting) stepped out of my former bedroom and stopped me. “I have a question,” she said, and looked me in the eye. “Are you a bigot?”
A little background, if you like, before I answer that question. My grandmother, born in 1906, was a feisty 4’9″ woman with a huge sense of humor and a sharp tongue. She was already elderly by the time I met her, and she was prone to saying whatever came to the top of her head without filtering, often causing a bit of shock and a bit of amusement. (One time she let loose a huge, noisy, noxious fart right in front of me, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m old.” No further discussion.) I could never tell if she was wise or demented, she was so prone to saying things out of the blue, but I loved her and she loved me and I knew that for sure.
So back to the hallway, around 1990.
“Are you a bigot?” she repeated. Even for Granny, this question was a bit much, so I was caught off guard; I knew not to correct my elders but Granny’s views on race were clear and, well, awful. “Granny, to me that’s a bad word and an insult. No, I do not think I’m a bigot. Why are you asking me that?” Granny didn’t hesitate with her response. She said, “I think I’m a bigot. How do you know you’re not a bigot?” At this point I was so startled it was hard to formulate answers, but I mumbled something about all people being created equal, and that my boyfriend was Jewish and my roommate was Korean. Her green eyes widened behind her glasses. “They ARE?” she asked. “Yes, Granny, they are. And they’re nice.”
Granny and I stared at each other, me slightly overwhelmed with the surprise of this conversation, and her considering, staring at me. “I think I was raised to be a bigot, and I’m a bigot” she said. “My parents taught me this way, and it might not be right, and I have to think about it,” before she walked away.
Right now, in the national conversation, I think we have to ask ourselves some really painful questions, and we have to be prepared to hear the answers. I think, had my grandmother lived longer, she might have actually changed her views; her comments to me tell me that she was self aware enough to realize that the times they were, indeed, a’changin’. She had been a short dress wearing cigarette smoking young woman in the 20s, after all, so she knew a little about rebelling against the former generation. She knew a little about social change: she would have been 11 years old when women got the right to vote in her home province of Ontario, Canada, and she saw the civil rights movement unfold in the newspapers. She was right in her self-assessment about being a bigot: she referred to “that Chinaman” and “Black Sambo” and appeared to have no idea that she was being offensive, and she was a bigot. But there was something else in her, too. Her heart was not ugly, her core self was not cruel. She said some ugly words that were clearly bigoted, but those were not the only part of her, and when she paused to ask herself the hard questions, she revealed that better part of herself that was able to change.
Any person who is capable of saying “I think I’m a bigot and I have to think about that,” is capable of growth; the very statement is filled with self-revelation. It’s not a great starting point, of course, but it IS a starting point.
Over the years, my grandmother’s words have echoed in my mind time and time again. “Are you a bigot? How do you know you’re not a bigot?” and my answers sometimes make me shift uncomfortably. Do I know….for sure? Where does my desire to be a good person (e.g. not a bigot) meet with the reality of my actions? How does one PROVE that one is not a bigot? Now that I know the words “white privilege” and that they apply to me, I have to ask myself the question from different angles. It is not enough to say “I don’t hate anyone because of the color of their skin,” because the way I live, the causes I do (and do not) stand up for, speaks volumes. What is it that I do not see in myself? Where do I have room to grow?
Granny loved me, and I loved her, so she was able to be candid with me. I think that something in her changed in that moment when I told her that I had a Jewish boyfriend and a Korean roommate, because she wasn’t particularly fond of Jews and Orientals (her word, not mine), and she allowed herself to ponder whether it was her outdated views that needed to shift, and not my choice in friends. I saw it happen within her. I never heard her say a disparaging thing about Jews or Koreans after that, and not because I shamed her, but because she, in her mid-80s, and from a rather sheltered mindset, chose to change all on her own.
I see her questions as courageous and strong, and her ability to answer herself honestly as an act of bravery. I wish she had lived long enough that I could have seen her put that changed pattern into action, but she died less than a year after that conversation. Still, I think I witnessed the moment of change where anything became possible within her. It’s never too late.
It seems to me that if we’re going to get anywhere in our country right now, we’re going to have to point fingers at ourselves and ask some very difficult questions, such as “Does my life matter more than yours?” and “What does it mean to behave with decency?” and “What are my core values that transcend all else?” We’re going to have to set aside ideas of political party, and look at small children lying dead on beaches, or black children shot in the park, and decide if it matters to us. We are going to have to ask ourselves if our children matter more than someone else’s children. This is not about matters of taxation, this is about who we are as individuals, and our core values, and who we are as human beings.
I think that maybe, just maybe, Granny was onto something, and that her self awareness, strange though it was, might be the model to follow. What if, like Granny, we could ask ourselves the question, and be prepared to see the wrong answer? What if we could own that this is how we were raised, but that maybe there is another path? What if we were brave enough to be really honest with ourselves?
If we are able to get really real with ourselves, and bring that back into our actions in the world, maybe that will fuel the revolution that I feel rising around me, and maybe that revolution will be peaceful.
Our country was, quite literally, built on the backs of racism. First we stole land from the Native Americans and declared it our own, then we built that land on black slave labor and Chinese railroad laborers. As white people, we continue to benefit from that foundation: the cheap labor that our ancestors obtained allowed them to acquire wealth that was passed along directly to us, or indirectly through the privileges that we got through our skin color, zip codes, and access to education.
So, I ask myself, “Am I a bigot?” and “How do I know I’m not a bigot?” and “Can I do better?”
Are you a bigot?