This is a piece I wrote last spring, but I believe it may be more relevant now than it was when it was first published on The Good Men Project.
More so than any other time in my life, racism is at the forefront of the national conversation. I was born in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. By the time I became self-aware in the early seventies, things had calmed down some, and throughout my formative years, racism as a societal topic was less prominent.
I have been giving this topic a lot of thought recently and three specific snapshots from my life come to mind. I do not have answers. My goal is simply to keep the conversation out where we can seek solutions together.
I am a 48-year-old white male, who grew up in an upper-middle-class household. My ancestry is 50% Swedish (mother’s side) and 50% Armenian (father’s side.) Both sides of my family immigrated to the USA in the late 19th century.
I’m a white kid from the suburbs, and I make zero claims with respect to understanding what it is like to be on the receiving end of meaningful racism or discrimination. I will be the first to agree with, “you have no idea” from the mouth of anyone who has.
I now present three specific “snapshots” from my experience. Hopefully, they will inspire you to think about, and share your own experiences.
The Upside-Down Paperback
My Dad tells jokes. To this day whenever I see him, he is likely to pull me aside and say, “Hey did you hear about …” My sister’s husband has taken to responding deadpan with, “Is this a joke?”
When my father gets together with friends who have similar joke-telling proclivities, the back-and-forth can go on for hours. Although an accomplished humorist, my father is also one of the most accepting and least racist people I know.
I was in elementary school when someone gave him a book. It was called The Official Polish/Italian Joke Book. It was memorable because one side of the book was the “Polish” half, but when you flipped it over and turned it upside down you revealed the “Italian” side. The subtitle of the book read, Guaranteed to make you laugh, even if you’re Polish/Italian.
The book was “compiled & edited” by a guy named Larry Wilde, who by surname is neither Polish nor Italian, so seriously how could he possibly know?
The one joke I remember from the book was:
How can you tell the bride at a Polish wedding?
She’s the one with the braided armpit hair.
At my young age, I didn’t understand the joke. Of course, I do now, but at the time, it stuck me as both confusing and frankly just mean.
Around the time the book showed up, I had a friend at school who was different. His parents were Greek immigrants. His clothes were very different; he wore wool pants, homemade socks, leather shoes (not sneakers) and a funny hat. Not surprisingly, the other kids made fun of him.
He was a really nice kid and once you got to know him, you didn’t even notice he wasn’t wearing Converse All-Stars like everyone else.
Today we don’t think of Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, or Greek-Americans as marginalized members of society, but one need only go back a generation or two where they become “garlic eaters,” “Polacks,” and “olive pickers.” My grandmother was born in 1911. She did not vote for the first Governor Cuomo of NY, not because of his policies, but because he was Italian.
Was my grandma a racist? By some measures perhaps, but I’d like to think she was simply behaving in a manner consistent with the thinking of her generation.
In this department, I believe we have made progress. The next snapshot will show you what I mean.
Middle School Humor
In the tradition of my aforementioned father, joke telling is part of our family. One day, one of my middle-school aged boys piped up at dinner asking, “Hey everyone, what do you call a Chinese surgeon?”
I cringed, remembering the jokes my middle school classmates used to tell.
In the moment following my son’s query, one particular joke leapt to mind. When referring to someone who was overweight, a student from my middle school might be heard proclaiming, “That girl/guy has more chins than a Chinese phone book.”
Leave it to the adolescent mind to take an insult to someone’s physical condition and loop in an unrelated ethnic slur… you know, just for fun. My face must have given my son pause, because he didn’t reveal the punch line. I looked at him and his three siblings and said, “Jokes like that are not welcome in this house. C’mon, you know better than that.”
My son looked back at me and said, “Dad, it’s not like that.” Raising one eyebrow I challenged again, “Really?” Not breaking his stare he replied, “Really, Dad!”
Sensing a teachable moment, I relented and let him continue. Again he said, “Hey guys, what do you call a Chinese surgeon?” Skeptically I replied, “I don’t know, what do you call a Chinese surgeon?”
He rolled his eyes at me replying, “Dad, you call him Doctor – you’re a racist!”
If my generation made progress over my parents and my grandparents, I am glad to see that those who make up the next generation recognize the need to keep up the momentum.
The Right Side of the Road
Several years ago I was in Las Vegas for a trade show. At the time, I managed a multi-million dollar customer for my company. When you serve a customer that large, you have vendors with whom you spend a lot of money.
When you are in Las Vegas with those vendors, they want to buy you steak dinners.
My contact at one particular vendor arranged a dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I knew him well and he was a really nice guy, but I did not know his boss – (let’s call him Joe,)
My coworker and I met the two of them at the restaurant. We ate and drank to a successful year and toasted the possibility of more to come. Joe seemed okay, but there was something about him that didn’t feel right. When the evening wrapped up, we decided to all share a cab since our hotels were close to each other. We climbed into the yellow sedan with me in the front seat and the three of them in back.
We hadn’t even left the parking lot before it started.
Joe looked at the cabbie’s license and said, “Hey, there, buddy. Where’ya from?” In a thick, but understandable accent, the driver replied, “I am from the Sudan.”
I can’t remember exactly what Joe said next, but it was something like, “Yeah, well there mister camel jockey, make sure you stay on the right side of the road. We drive on the right side of the road here in America!” (In the Sudan they drive on the right side too, but that didn’t seem to matter to this asshole.)
The cabbie, probably accustomed to driving drunk, ugly Americans, said nothing. This heinous behavior continued for the entirety of our ten-minute cab ride. With each offensive slur and cackle that came out of Joe’s mouth, I wanted to sink deeper and deeper into my seat and disappear. I had no idea what to say, I had never faced such evil in an important business context … so I said nothing. We got to the hotel, my contact paid the cabbie and we all got out.
Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman is credited with saying:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
To this day, I regret not standing up to Joe and showing the cabbie the respect he deserved.
Blatant ignorant hatred like that described in snapshot three is easy to spot, and it is what most of us think about when the word racism is raised. I fear, however, the more subtle occurrences in snapshots one and two are more insidious.
The band They Might Be Giants has a song called Your Racist Friend. The most poignant line in the song is this:
He let the contents of the bottle do the thinking
Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding
Progress has been made, but we have a long way to go. I have observed something in my kids’ generation that concerns me. In this day of “text speak” they have this idea that they can undo anything, by simply appending it with a “JK” (Just Kidding.) I played They Might Be Giants for my kids and now whenever they say “JK” I put out my hand to shake theirs, you know, like the devil.
As I said … I don’t have the answers, but together we might just find them. Now it’s your turn. Your comments, thoughts, and stories will keep the conversation going.
Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.