All the recent coverage of Paula Deen has me thinking about the first time I realized my mom was capable of gross racism, which was not an insignificant moment. It marked the first time I ever really looked at her in a negative light. It was also the first time I ever called her out on anything. She had always been somewhat saintly to me up to that point, and the realization that she could be a racist shit was mind blowing.
First, let me clarify what I mean by gross racism. All racism is gross, but what I'm talking about is something that strikes you as above and beyond. It's like what Dave Chappelle described as being so blatantly and unabashedly racist that it almost defies offense. The only reaction you can muster is, "Wow. That was racist."
It was the summer between eighth and ninth grades. I was about to enter high school and had started tinkering with my image. No longer would I be the geeky, quiet middle schooler with no friends who sat in her room all the time listening to music with cussing in it because it made me feel adult and above all the kids who teased me for being geeky and quiet. I had decided I liked vampires and Sisters of Mercy and black clothes, so naturally I was going to become a goth kid. And that brought along with it goth friends, some of whom dated boys who pretended to be vampires. There was one in particular, Deena, who was dating a boy who said his name was Lestat. (I would not make that up.)
In all my excitement at having a new identity and some friends for once, I told my mom all about them. I even told her about Lestat. And this is where the gross racism comes into play. When I mentioned that Deena was dating a boy named Lestat, my mother made this noise that sounded like both a giggle and a smirk, and asked the following:
"He be a white boy?"
He be a white boy. I'd heard enough stereotypes and racist jokes to know what she was implying, but hearing it come from her hit me so hard. It wasn't just the condescending tone she used. It was the idea that 1) If he had an odd name, he must be black; 2) If he was black, he must have poor grammar; and 3) Because I am her daughter and we are close, I must have felt the same way and I must have a reaction like, "Haha. Good one, mom."
The idea that she thought these things and that she thought they were so acceptable that I would think them, too, left me mentally and emotionally capable of only one response:
"Mother, that was so racist."
She looked at me like I had slapped her. I got the impression that she had not even considered the obvious racism in what she thought and said. It was just always what she thought and said. It's the same kind of casual racism in which Paula Deen engaged. It's so pervasive in their world view that it lost all meaning to them. It's just like going to the grocery store and paying your bills and other aspects of every day life. You have chicken for dinner, you watch TV, you think a couple of super racist thoughts. It becomes mundane.
After she got over her initial shock at my response, she mumbled a few apologies and we never spoke of it again. In fact, she avoided conversations involving race all together. Until one day, several years later, when we were discussing my oldest friend, Katie. She commented that she was glad I hadn't turned out like Katie, who had been an unwed teenage mother and a drug addict. She had also recently been married to a Mexican man, and her marriage was the whole reason we were talking about her.
It went like this:
Mom: I'm so glad you're not like Katie.
Me: You're glad I didn't get pregnant as a teenager and do a lot of drugs? That's not really surprising.
Mom: Well, yes, that. But mainly I'm just glad you're not married to a Mexican.
She was serious. I don't even recall if I actually said anything, but the look on my face was enough for her to start backtracking. It was another moment of being so overwhelmed by such casually tossed-about racism that it just transcends all levels of offensiveness. Your brain just shuts down from the overload.
As unbelievable as it is, these two instances aren't even what bothers me the most. What really gets me about this is that my mother is no stranger to being discriminated against. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the southeastern United States. I've heard numerous stories from her about how kids weren't allowed to play with her or people wouldn't do business with her father solely because they were Jewish.
One of the best stories she told me was how she met my non-Jewish father's family for the first time. My paternal grandfather was a pretty big racist and he wasn't shy about it. My dad had told his mom and his brothers about my mom being Jewish, but everyone was afraid to tell his father. So they didn't. And then during dinner my grandfather, thinking he was in like-minded company, cracked a Jew joke. He was the only one who laughed. That's how they broke the news.
How can an experience like that not make one just a little sensitive to prejudice?
I love my mother. Aside from the whole Judaism thing, she's a lot like Paula Deen. They're close in age, and both were raised as white women in Georgia. My mom is jovial and talkative. She likes to wear those G.R.I.T.S. t-shirts. (For those not in the know, it means Girls Raised In The South.) I don't know if or how often she's used the n-word or other slurs, but I'm sure she's thought it a lot.
It's hard to look at a beloved parent or family member of friend and see a side of them that is just ... awful. It's just awful. It's not ever what I expected to come from someone with her life experience. If my father had spoken like that, I would have been upset but not surprised. He was raised by an extremely prejudiced man. But I honestly can't recall ever hearing him be so demeaning for reasons of race, religion, sexuality, etc.
And that's the thing with Paula Deen. You don't want to believe that someone who is so like the people you know and love would think like that. It makes you wonder what is going on inside the heads of other supposedly decent people.
I don't really know how to end this post. It began as a meditation on how I became disillusioned with my mother and is ending with a huge question mark hanging over how racism towards you does not mean racism won't come from you.
I read a quote once that went something like, "The true mark of maturity is when you can feel compassion for your parents." So I am practicing that. I will try to understand my mother in her context. But that doesn't mean I have to like or agree with how her context shaped her, or that I won't call her out if I see fit. After reading an article where one of Paula Deen's sons says, "Mama is not racist!" I think they could stand to do the same thing. We probably all could.