Racism Is a Phenomenon With Local Roots

By Daniel Thatcher

Last summer, I had an experience that every white American suburbanite ought to have. The shameful thing is that I had to travel to Germany to get it. The experience went as follows:

I first met Eva Moore on a study abroad program to Stuttgart, Germany last summer. After finding out that we had similar interests we quickly became friends. We talked about everything from politics, art and movies all the way to religion–in fact, she even wanted to attend a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ sacrament meeting with me. One huge common point that we shared was that we both left significant others behind to come to Europe.

But there was something different about Eva from any other friend I had ever had: She was black. In fact, it was the first time in my life that I had the chance to become friends with a black person. Growing up in Holladay, Utah, the only other black person I ever met was Thurl Bailey, whom I saw at a basketball camp. I was 10 years old and I had a T-shirt laying on my shoulder. He passed by me in a hall and stole the T-shirt off my shoulder and pretended to put it on. I laughed smugly, secretly happy that he chose me to pick on.

Oh yeah, I saw Darrell Griffith at a gas station once and got his autograph. I was 8 years old.

When I was 11, I went out to visit my uncle in Chapel Hill, N.C. I remember going to the grocery store with my aunt and noticing that we were the only white people in the store. After that, the next black person I came close to was Eva.

Hailing from Washington, D.C., and now a student at Cornell University, Eva was proud of her black heritage. She told me about her ancestors who were slaves in the fields of the muggy South 150 years ago.

She told me about how the slave masters forbade her ancestors to groom their hair in traditional African fashion, robbing them of any sense of their former culture or community. Previously, I had no idea that Africans’ hair required care and grooming totally different from white people’s hair.

She taught me about black culture and how it was a defining characteristic in her life.

From time to time, she tried to teach me about the subtleties of racism, pointing out things that other Americans in our group, including myself, had said and how those statements could be construed as racist. But she also told me about how her grandma could be racist against white people. She despised interracial marriage because she thought that blacks had worked for so long to improve their social standing that it was a crime to throw it all away by marrying someone white.

Some time after hanging out with Eva, I realized that we came from two totally different Americas. Hers was full of eclectic eccentricities in the D.C. urban streets, mine full of rudimentary routine in the carefully planned streets of suburban Holladay.

But when these two Americas collided in Germany, there was much in common between them. The sad thing is that pop culture was typically a common connection. But on the positive side, so were religion, books and a sense of humanity and equality.

But how was any sense of commonality developed within us? I tend to think that the generation before ours made strides in the 1950s and 1960s in destroying the misconceptions of race and that the E-generation is much less susceptible to racial categorizations. However, vestiges of racism still cling to the streets of many American cities and towns.

Last fall, I wrote a column about a local politician whom I had heard using racial epithets. When I discussed it with two good friends of mine, one of them asked what was so wrong with an occasional epithet here and there. My other friend grew defensive. She said, “No matter what, it’s always wrong!” Playing the devil’s advocate, the other said, “Yes, but you have to understand. Where I come from [a small town in Northern Utah], it’s OK.”

In that conversation, I think that my friend revealed an important point: Our conceptions of race are learned and socially constructed.

Consider myself. I grew up in white suburbia where I once told a Chinese joke to my father only to invite his wrath. “Never tell jokes about people different from you! Besides, the Chinese invented paper and the printing press long before Europeans ever did.” From that time forward, I feared racism.

Now consider my friend from rural Utah. He is one of the kindest, most gentle and accepting people I know–he intends no malice or ill will toward any race. Nonetheless, growing up in a small, all-white town, he was surrounded by a culture that perpetuated myths about race. It was an environment that never hesitated to use racial epithets. It was his culture that was, and still is, dangerous, not him as an individual.

How could two seemingly similar people have two totally different perceptions about race and racism?

For him and me, there is a demographic difference that helps to explain the discrepancy. He grew up in a time when Jim Crow laws were still in force. I grew up in an era that celebrated the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. We even have an entire holiday to commemorate his legacy.

I hope that someday everyone can meet his or her Eva Moore, whether it is in some American town or Stuttgart, Germany.

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