The M Word
I sat in the dining room, at the table I recalled being so large when I was a small child. She all but ordered my other aunt to go and buy a six-pack of Budweiser from the corner store, the one my mother would race by years later in the snow when tracking down a purse snatcher some 30 years her junior. We sat, some 24 years ago, in the family home in the south side of Chicago, west of the Dan Ryan, in a neighborhood that nowadays we joke the only zodiac signs you can be born under are "Lotto" and "Checks Cashed,"
And in that living room, my oldest aunt told me about her co-workers at the drugstore where she spent most of her working years.
"We had a few spics, a couple of wops, and a dago in the back office. I've worked with some slopes, some gooks, some limeys, a Canuck, some kikes, Japs, Chinks, redskins, and wetbacks . . . "
Over the course of a conversation, she ran down more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities, referring to each and every one of them not by their nation of origin, but by the slur that Americans have given them. The fact that she was black, the background most likely to be demeaned in this country, mattered little if at all to her--the irony was nonexistent.
I say this not to excuse my aunt's behavior--it is no more excusable now than it was then--but to point out a fact. We learn racist behavior as children from our elders. How we choose to deal with that information determines what kind of adults we become.
Recently, in a campaign stop deep in the heart of southwest Virginia, near the Kentucky state line, the incumbent Republican senator from Virginia, George Allen, referred to a "tracker," a member of his opponent's campaign team, as a "macaca." "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," Allen said. S.R. Sidarth, the young gentleman who was the object of Allen's frat-boy slur, is more Virginian than the man who made him the object of ridicule in the nearly all-white audience that day. Sidarth, American-born of Indian parentage, was born, raised, and educated in Virginia; the senator he was videotaping was born in Whittier, Calif., and grew up the child of privilege of a famous father who coached the Washington Redskins.
So there was the big florid-faced white man surrounded by his kind in a rural Southern setting, getting a laugh as he pointed directly into the camera and mocked the dark-skinned outsider in the crowd. When called on it, he denied making any kind of a slur and made a backhanded apology. This comes as a surprise to hardly anyone.
Racists don't wear their rank insignia on their sleeves. They never did, really--back in the bad old days, maybe they wore sheets or threw rocks or wielded hoses on national television. Those uppity Negroes would peaceably sit at lunch counters, pissing off Jesse Helms enough to run for office and win for enough years to hold up civil rights for half a generation, and we could clearly see the kind of people we then called racist. Nowadays, it's not that easy. All you really need is a passable excuse. Nobody's ever really a racist in this day and age. They're just . . . misunderstood.
But George Allen's mother hails from Tunisia, a colonial French protectorate in North Africa. She reportedly spoke five languages around the house, and her son himself speaks French. It is no less likely that George Allen came to learn the term "macaca," a North African slur for dark-skinned peoples, from his mother than I came to learn the various offensive terms for a host of nationalities from my aunt. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
This is one of the main reasons Republicans will have a hard time ever attracting black people to their side of the aisle--if you scratch the surface on far too many of their standard-bearers (Allen is a putative 2008 presidential candidate), you find an unreconstructed racist. People like Allen know that the Dixiecrats bolted en masse to the GOP after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and they've pandered to that crowd ever since. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia might have been a Klansman in the 1930s, but Allen is the walking embodiment of the phrase "What have you done for me lately?"
My aunt will never hold elective office. She will likely hold her ill-considered opinions until she dies. And she will never make decisions affecting the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans. The same cannot be said of George Allen. His face is what people all over the world will see in their minds when they think of the broken promise that is this country's so-called melting pot. "Welcome to America," indeed, Mr. Allen. The real world welcomes you.
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