Home > reflections on race > Famous Last Words: Exploring the Depths of Racist Conditioning

Famous Last Words: Exploring the Depths of Racist Conditioning

By Tim Wise

Published as a ZNet Commentary, April 24, 1999

Without doubt, convincing whites that we have internalized racist beliefs proves difficult. You can’t make the point with statistics, or poll numbers, or by pointing out the disparities in life chances that form the backdrop of American racism. Convinced they are free from the biases that characterize “real” racists, such folks inevitably are the most resistant to the analysis offered here thus far.

It is with this in mind that I return to my grandmother. For her death, and her life up until she died, offers more in the way of proof that racist socialization affects us all than anything I have experienced in my thirty years. You see, my grandmother was one of those good liberals. In fact, she was beyond liberal, particularly given the time and place in which she spent most of her life.

Born in the Detroit area, her family moved south in the 1920s. Her father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; a member that is, until the day when his only daughter informed him that she had fallen in love with a Jew, and that in addition to that, his prejudice toward blacks was unconscionable to her. She then asked if he was going to burn his robes, or if she and her mother were going to have to do it for him. She challenged him despite what must have been the palpable fear of standing up to a man who was none too gentle and most certainly capable of violence. As it turns out, he burned the robes, left the Klan, and by all accounts changed his attitudes, behaviors, indeed his life thereafter. 

Throughout her life she would stand up to racism on many occasions. Like the time she and my grandfather were looking for a house, and the agent made the mistake of mentioning, as if it were a positive thing, that there were no blacks in the area. My grandmother’s response was simple: he had best get in his car and drive away, or she would be forced to run him over in hers.

She would regularly challenge racist comments, from whatever the source. The fear that too often paralyzes whites and makes us unwilling to challenge racism, described by James Baldwin as the fear of being “turned away from the welcome table” of white society, was something that played no part in her life. For all of her many human flaws, she was a woman of principle, and though not an activist, she instilled in her family a sense of right and wrong which was unshakeable in at least this regard.

The story in this article is part of the book; it brought me to tears when I read it read it, and the second, and the third, and has been haunting me.

“Now think carefully about what I’m saying, and why it matters. Here was a woman who no longer could recognize her own children; a woman who had no idea who her husband had been; no clue where she was, what her name was, what year it was; and yet, knew what she had been taught at a very early age to call black people. Once she was no longer capable of resisting this demon, tucked away like a ticking time bomb in the far corners of her mind, it would reassert itself and explode with a vengeance. She could not remember how to feed herself. She could not go to the bathroom by herself. She could not recognize a glass of water for what it was. But she could recognize a nigger. America had seen to that, and no disease would strip her of that memory. Indeed, it would be one of the last words I would hear her say, before finally she stopped talking at all. “


Posted by CURLYGURL on July 21, 2006 – Friday – 12:22 AM
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It made me cry too…and made me a little more than frightened. 
Posted by Ei on July 24, 2006 – Monday – 7:04 AM
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Famous Last Words: Exploring the Depths of Racist Conditioning – CURLYGURL’s MySpace Blog | Cyndi–s Jewels.


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