I am from Alabama, the deep south, the land of cotton where old times shall not be forgotten. The southern legacy and heritage I embrace is of friendly people who look you in the eyes as you pass on the street, giving a nod or a wave.
I embrace the food of the south: grits lathered in butter, black-eyed peas and corn shucked on a hot summer day so we could freeze and have these favorites all winter.
But being from the deep south, rather, being from anywhere, inculcates you with ideas, customs and beliefs germane to the time and place in which you stand.
I have spent my entire adult life dissecting and considering the norms I was raised to embrace. Religion; corporate America; nationalism. I question everything and don’t accept things just because they’ve always been that way.
But racism — the kind that would not allow me to even consider a date with a black boy, the kind that kept my young nephew from a spend-the-night at his black friend’s house, the kind that was unspoken but heard like a dog whistle for those steeped in it, were tinged by it, harmed by it — this has been one of the final frontiers for me to explore.
I think all racists should explore where their ideas came from, too. And we’re all racist to some degree or another. What follows is a 12-step look to addressing these prejudices inherent in all of us. I have unofficially used this list for many years as an internal guide:
1. I admit I am powerless over my cultural inheritance.
2. I know racism is long-lingering through institutions and individuals alike.
3. I will reflect on my racist thoughts.
4. I have made an inventory of my racist thoughts and deeds.
5. I have admitted to society and myself the exact nature of my racist thinking and acts.
6. I am ready to remove these defects of my heart and mind.
7. I work to remove my defects through conscious effort.
8. I consider all persons and cultures whom I have shamed, and I will make things right with them.
9. I have decided to give people of color the benefit of the doubt before I judge them.
10. I will continue to monitor myself for signs of racist attitudes.
11. I will spend time in reflective meditation to understand the part I play in perpetuating racism.
12. I will talk about the effectiveness of conscious instead of reactive thinking towards my brothers and sisters.
As I review my own reflexive racism, I must remember the time and place of my youth: Birmingham, Alabama, 1960s.
My sisters and I rode our bikes to the edge of the woods to peer at the blacks living on the steep side of a hill, in shacks, removed from our working-class white neighborhood by woods, a creek and an unseen hand separating our young, chosen selves from the pick-a-ninnies, my father’s quaint phrase. The blacks were not chosen; they were the other.
My third-grade class didn’t receive a sensitivity lesson about the three black girls integrating into our homeroom, sitting, even, right behind me. They were angry, I remember. I didn’t know why then, but I do now.
My father’s friend told a racist joke when I was a teenager, but I winced and didn’t fake laugh as I’d done before. I called him on it. This was the beginning of my stand against “innocuous” words.
My mother’s best friend referred to the American Civil War as The War of Northern Aggression. She was proper as a hymnal, raised a daughter by the book and left her neighborhood when blacks started moving in.
We urged my parents to do the same, to run for the hills, to safety. But my parents kept their home. This allowed them to form friendships with “the others” and allowed their concerned daughters to see blacks didn’t equal danger. They were fine there, as later I would be fine as the only white household in a black populated 77th Place South.
As Bull Conner was making headlines with his dogs and water hoses trained on teens and non-violent protesters in my city, as four little girls were killed in a church bomb explosion, as lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and school-children marching in downtown Birmingham swirled in the eruption of the 1960s, all I can remember is the Saturday trips to downtown department stores, watching fashion shows while being careful not to dirty my white gloves as I lunched on Captain’s wafers and chicken salad.
I don’t recall the upheaval of these times being discussed in my house.
Except that Daddy didn’t believe blacks were ever promoted for the right reasons. And my mother, who taught mostly young black women, shared stories of their violence and rage, something we weren’t entirely unfamiliar with.
For years, I’ve been looking at the world through the prism of the black experience, and it isn’t pretty. I understand why they don’t trust whites, why they fear the police. Just look at the numbers.
I was lamenting the fate of Philando Castile to someone whom I admire and consider to be a good person. But she couldn’t see the officer was wrong to shoot a man in front of his 4-year old child.
I believe she thinks the officer had every right to assume he was a threat. Would she think that if Mr. Castile had been white?
I’ve come to believe there is nothing to cure racism but for whites to quit denying they practice it, to own it, then to let it go. As long as whites are blind to institutionalized racism, even if they don’t practice racism knowingly themselves, the races are doomed to remain unknowable to each other.
And for the record, black lives do matter.
Donna Steele of Greenfield is a member of a variety of community organizations aimed at bettering the city, including Greenfield Main Street and the Greenfield Coalition.