Give It to Marian

Marian was a black woman who “did” for my grandmother. Marian cleaned and ironed and occasionally helped out in the kitchen when my grandmother entertained. A tiny woman, she moved through the house like a wispy shadow, rarely speaking unless she was spoken to first. I was told Marian was one of the few people who could quiet me as a baby. In her later years, a stroke garbled her speech and limited her to doing only the lightest housekeeping chores. But Marian still showed up at the back door twice a week because she was devoted to my grandparents.

My grandmother was a product of her era, a lovely and gracious woman whom I adored. But she was educated in the south a hundred years ago and carried the spores of racial discrimination deep in her soul. Nanan wasn’t a cruel person but viewed colored, as they were called then, as inferior to whites. Looking back, I think it was less of a choice on her part than something she just accepted as fact. It was the norm. If there was food about to spoil in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable, my grandmother’s standard response was “give it to Marian.” When one of my “colored” classmates sat at her dining room table for my twelfth birthday party, it was the first time a black person ate there instead of serving the food.

I grew up in a blue-collar small town. Families of color tended to live in two separate neighborhoods, but we all went to the same schools, played on the same sports teams and for the most part, got along. The town tended to be very insular, more resentful of outsiders than of those who were not white. But it’s probably also true that everyone got along because the black families played by the white rules of the time.

The N-word was never spoken in our home, but there was still an underlying “us and them” mentality. My dad sold insurance to many of the local black families and would remark that their houses were so clean you could eat off the floor. As if that were a surprise. I will never forget the day he and I were looking at a Norfolk Southern timetable from the 1930’s he had just added to his railroad collection. On the back there was a picture of an alligator swallowing a cartoon black man with the caption “Gone ‘coon.” I didn’t understand it until my father reluctantly explained that in the south, blacks were sometimes referred to as “coons,” and at the time, this was not only considered acceptable but humorous. I was horrified.

I have always thought of myself as very open-minded but am well aware that shedding prejudicial values is a constantly evolving process. Prejudice is an insidious bastard and can worm its way into the fabric of the best intentions. There are people, not all of them grown-ups, who have helped me by telling their stories and by being wonderful human beings I’ve come to love and respect. But living in my privileged white bubble, I cannot begin to comprehend what it’s like to see someone who looks like me in that alligator’s mouth. Or to be a highly educated African American man who is still viewed with suspicion when he walks down the street. Or to have to say thank you when I’m handed a white family’s moldy bread and torn clothing.



Examining Our Prejudice

I sat in a meeting recently where a consultant told us to “examine our own prejudices,” before interviewing candidates for a job opening. That how each of us personally feels about an individual’s age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity could affect our perception of his or her ability to do the job. No matter how vehemently we deny it or how politically correct we see ourselves, we all harbor prejudice of some kind. It’s part of the human condition. The tough part is knowing when prejudice is whispering in our ear, trying to exert undue influence in our decision-making.

I grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar small town. There were certain black classmates I could invite to my birthday parties and others I could not, because they lived on Front Street and didn’t always dress well or smell good.  My grandmother was educated in the south in the early 1900’s. If there was almost-spoiled food in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable she would say, “Give it to Marian.” Marian was a kindly black woman who served for years as my grandparents’ housekeeper.  No one questioned giving something to her that we wouldn’t eat or wear ourselves. The unspoken implication was that Marian was poor and would be happy to accept our cast-offs.

My parents often referred to a highly successful local businessman as being “light in the loafers” because he was gay, a statement usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and knowing looks. My family members were not terrible people, and I don’t think they saw themselves as prejudiced. Their behavior reflected the social norms of the day in a conservative small town.  I look back on that era now with horror and amazement.  

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My life has been blessed and enriched by people I’ve met along the way who are different from me. I can point to the individuals and situations that have vastly changed my perspective over the years and I am so grateful for those God-given opportunities.  But I still have work to do. I freely admit prejudice against those who choose not to be educated, who close their minds, who refuse to give something new a chance. Who judge based on appearance or lifestyle. Who bully those they perceive as inferior to them. Who indirectly condone the murder of school children because they’re afraid someone will take away their hunting rifle. Who blame others for choices they themselves have made. Who blaspheme Christianity by using it as a defense for acts of political or ethnic hatred.

Sadly, we live in a time where those 1960’s attitudes are once again not only prevalent but encouraged by some. The sentiments that used to be whispered in the board room or the roadside bar are now not only plastered on our car bumpers but promoted all over social media, where the poison spreads even faster than it did in the last century. The unspoken message is “It’s ok to be cruel and trample others as long as you come out ahead.” Abhorrent rhetoric from the leader of our country has re-ignited racism and prejudice in unprecedented and truly frightening ways.

So, where does that leave the rest of us who are trying to do the right thing, to live as God intended? Does blatant and publicly acceptable racism force us to take a harder look at our own attitude? Yes, we’re shocked and appalled when police are called to remove black women from a local golf course for no apparent reason. But is there a tiny part of us that is angry and frustrated and under the right circumstances, may be forced to confront some racism and prejudice of our own? Is what we say on the surface reflective of what we’d do in a given situation or are we just giving lip service to maintain our appearance of political correctness?

 Examining our own prejudice is a tall and painful order. I’m working on it before those interviews start.

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