Systemic Racism of a Down

“At that moment, I knew he was white inside.” – Huckleberry Finn talking about Jim, by Mark Twain.*

When I first read that line, I knew what Huck was trying to say. I got the context, understood what it meant in the language of the time, and I moved on. I didn’t give it much thought until my English teacher, an underhandedly clever and extremely competent woman I know only as, “Mrs. Simmons”, asked, “So did Huck compliment Jim? Did that mean he saw him as an equal?”

A couple of pointed questions at a time when most of us didn’t give two thoughts about racism, at least not as a modern concept. I lived in Billings, MT during the 90’s. We had a few black students at our school, I’m sure. You would run into a black shoppers from time to time, but to say that they were a minority in our town doesn’t really give it a just description. But man, that question! For a minute you look beyond the words to what was actually being said. In a novel depicting a white boy and a black man, the unlikeliest of friends, going through Hell together and at the end of the novel, Huck knew he was “white inside.” Backhanded doesn’t begin to describe the statement, really, or what it says about how one person can subconsciously view another.

I’d like to say that the question induced some sort of lasting revelation in me, but to be honest, other than giving me a different perspective to take in and some renewed considerations on racism, I didn’t add much to my awareness at that time. To be fair, I was dealing with a lot of other things at the time. Deep thought and introspection revolved mostly around myself, naturally. And honestly, racism was confusing to me, as was the inequality of the sexes. I intellectually acknowledged that it was a thing, that people do it, the proof was certainly there. I just didn’t understand the why. Deep down, I still don’t. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t trained up in racism, I just didn’t see it. Not then, anyway.

Back then, we weren’t focused on racism as it exists in modern days. Kids my age were far more aware of the damage being done to the homosexual community. There was no LGBQT back then, or any understanding of the connotations. There was gay and homosexual, with the typical slurs thrown in if those terms didn’t work well enough. Racism just wasn’t a serious present time thing, or so I thought.

I have a confession. I was in my mid twenties before I understood the expression, “I tried to jew him down.” I knew what it meant, sure, but I had no idea about the why of the expression. The history. Also, the “j” in “Jew” should have been capitalized. That was the beginning of the real revelation for me. The casual, malicious racism that was present in our every day language, our “colloquialisms”, that most of us never gave thought to. Hell, I learned that expression from my father, a man of American Indian descent, who’s skin was so dark he was referred to as a nigger by my grandfather. My dad experienced racism almost from day one, and yet, I learned that expression from him. The social conditioning is so very subtle.

Once I became aware of expressions like that one, it didn’t take me long to find other variations. We Montanans have a few. It was a small step from that to seeing more blatant forms. Around here, it was less about racism against any black people as it was against Mexicans and Native Americans, especially Natives. The South side of town was the “bad side”, the place where people with names like Nava, Contreraz, Bear Don’t Walk, and others lived. It was literally the South side of the tracks. When I was younger, I didn’t realize the emphasis, but I do now. Again, we’re raised with this being a part of every day life. You just /know/ where the bad part of town is, and the kind of people that live there. Oddly, most of them weren’t white.

Other than one notable experience while visiting my mom in Missouri, I would continue on for quite awhile without being confronted by the obvious racism against black people. Of course, there were distractions. Our country was really big on hating brown people right about then, especially if they seemed even vaguely of Middle Eastern origin. And, of course, Muslims were given all sorts of love, preferably from about 200 yards out. Oh yes, all sorts of new expressions, terms, slurs, etc entered the public consciousness then. But I digress.

In 2008, a black man was elected President of the United States. Historic. And my eyes were suddenly wide open to the racism that had very blindly and naively assumed was well on its way to dying out.

I’ll spare you the things said around me, to me, or online by friends and family members. I will very much not refer you to any of the so called “news” stations and various media from that time. You have Google, go find that shit for yourself. Suffice to say, it turns out a great many Americans remembered just fine how they preferred to refer to people of color.

At the time, I managed a cellphone store in a small Montana town. People would come into my store, talking about how this Muslim was running things into the ground. That he was only elected because he was black. That he wasn’t born here. And many things implied that were far worse. These were people I knew, some I’d gone to church with. It was a side I’d never even knew existed.

And the frustrating thing? I’d point those comments out, I’d share my experiences with others. You know what I was told? “Oh, you’re just imagining things. That’s not what they meant. It wasn’t said like that,” and a whole host other statements basically shooing everything under the rug. It didn’t exist, racism was dead. Everybody knew that.

Which got me thinking. If people I knew weren’t taking me seriously, were minimizing or denying the racism that I was quite literally experiencing right before me, how much more would they minimize such things that they only read or heard about, or that occurred in some other town or state? What about all the stories, of cops pulling over people of color, of the abuse, the sentencing difference, etc. I was white and getting the soft shutdown, what about all these voices that weren’t? How much had I ignored because I thought it was just a blip on the screen, so much noise instead of signal. How many times didn’t I take things seriously because I grew up believing that didn’t happen anymore?

The answer is, “A lot,” and the evidence has been there all this time. I’m thinking on this now as we are once again in a Presidential election year and it becomes ever more blatant. The women, the people of color, they’re already eliminated from the contest. The marginalized screaming in the background. The cries of racism, sexism, and other -isms, they’re being shoved to the side. “It’s just an attack! They yell that the moment /insert favorite political/media figure/pundit says anything that they don’t like!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a variation on that one… And sometimes it’s true. But what bothers me is how often it isn’t.

It quiet, it’s sinister, we’ve been conditioned from birth to accept the stereotypes without thinking. It’s in our language, or culture, our every day lives. And most of us will never notice, never even consider otherwise, unless we’re asked, “So was that a compliment? Did he now see them as an equal?” I don’t think so.


*As remembered by somebody who last read it 20+ years ago in Junior English

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About Dan Granot

I chose the Shorter Whitman because of his work, "Song of Myself" and because of my self-deprecating sense of humor. I am under no illusion that I can write successful essays or poetry, but I have been known to write them anyway.

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