Family Traditions

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Photographed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.

My family has started a difficult discussion on racism on Facebook, instigated by this Thomas Sowell quote from his November 1, 2016 article for the National Review concerning the 2016 election: “Have we reached the ultimate stage of absurdity where some people are held responsible for things that happened before they were born, while other people are not held responsible for what they themselves are doing today?”

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Sowell, so I looked him up. He’s an economist and scholar at Stanford University, turned ninety years old yesterday and was born in my home state of North Carolina. According to the National Review, the heart of Sowell’s message is that men are not born with equal abilities and not all cultures are equal contributors to world civilization. Not surprisingly, Sowell is not included on recent recommended reading lists on race and discrimination.

In googling Sowell’s other quotes I did like this one “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance,” until I read the original article in the Jewish World Review from August of 1998 where Sowell argues that teenaged students don’t know enough to have opinions on anything, much less write letters to the editor about those opinions. The only sentence I can agree with in Sowell’s article is the one about ignorance.

It’s taken me considerable time and knowledge to realize the extent of my own ignorance regarding my inherent racism. I’ve learned that I am in no position to lecture anyone. For example, I have let friends and family say racist things in my home and not challenged them. I’ve told and laughed at racist jokes. I’ve failed to recognize my inherent privileges as a white person—taking pride in pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, judging others for not doing the same, never realizing that some people had no bootstraps to begin with.

I’ve been completely confident most of my life that my family was not prejudiced. After all, we weren’t allowed to say the “N” word. As a child and young teenager in Charlotte, North Carolina, I found it funny that colored water wasn’t actually colored. I thought it was great fun to sit in the back of the bus. I was told that Black people were “dirty” and that I shouldn’t use a public restroom after “one of them.” Even as a child I knew this was wrong and I ignored this advice once I was allowed to use a restroom on my own but the litany of what I was told still plays in my head.

You might not like me after reading this. I don’t like myself either when I remember all those times I should have said something and didn’t because I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Discomfort never killed anyone and I should have realized that a long time ago.


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