At 17, I consciously chose racism

My BFF wrote me a letter — his words mattered.

One day, an impulse popped into my head, “I’m going to be prejudiced” (the term I used at that time to mean racism.) And without much more thought about it in the moment, I decided to follow that impulse.

“Nothing better to do this summer…I think I’ll be a racist.”

Really. That’s just how it happened. I realize it’s kind of weird, but that’s the way I remember it. And I might be a racist to this day if it weren’t for my friend Jim.

It didn’t take much conscious effort on my part to acquire a personal vocabulary of racism. I don’t know where or how I internalized these patterns of racist thought and expression — my middle-class parents weren’t overtly racist and were quite “politically correct,” even though the term had not yet been coined. Perhaps the cultural baggage of prejudice was waiting at the station, ready to be picked up. I was just the next passenger to open it up and try something on — shrugging into the ready-made thought structure and language of a social raincoat and buttoning it up over my regular mental clothes.

At this point, I became more deliberate and conscious in shaping the expression of my “prejudice.” I focused my thinking on how African-Americans were less intelligent, competent, trustworthy, law-abiding, and helpful than white people. I looked around me for proof. I tapped the vernacular language of the US for verbally denigrating terms describing African-Americans, including the worst of racial epithets. I also adopted nonverbal displays meant to express my disdain and contempt.

“So how do I look saying the N-word?”

Thanks to Jim, I didn’t get very far. In fact, the ridiculous truth is that my new persona didn’t get beyond me practicing my honky-talk in front of my own bedroom mirror.

(The main reason I didn’t say anything to anyone else was because I didn’t have friends. I was lonely — I’d just moved to a new school in San Diego to complete my senior year and didn’t know anyone there.)

So I wrote of my intentions to be ‘prejudiced’ to Jim. He was a friend of my sophomore year boyfriend. Jim and I had met two years earlier when I was in the 10th grade at El Paso High School and he was a senior at Austin High. Through casual conversations, we discovered that we shared interests in broadcasting, computers, and comm technologies.

Jim and I gradually became pals. We both enjoyed our extended discussions about sine waves, frequencies, the philosophy of science, libertarianism and other stuff that just bored the hell out of my boyfriend, who would fall asleep soon after Jim and I started yacking away.

When I moved to California to finish high school there, the boyfriend was left behind with my old school — and his new girlfriend. But Jim and I stayed in touch, writing letters to each other fairly frequently (no email in those days!). By then, Jim was a sophisticated man on campus, enrolled in his second year of a dual major in engineering and physics at Texas Western College (now UTEP, the University of Texas, El Paso).

Texas Western College School of Engineering, 1961

Via mail, we continued our commtech conversations and shared Important Thoughts about our experiences in our new post-high school worlds.

In the letter I wrote to Jim that spring, I shared my decision to embrace racism with him. I didn’t save the letter I wrote; it wasn’t all that important to me. However, I remember writing it and using a few choice phrases to explain myself clearly.

A few days later, Jim replied. I wish I had saved this letter. Even though all this happened nearly 55 years ago, the words he wrote so engraved themselves indelibly on my mind and heart, I still remember most of them:

Dear Joan, I was so disappointed in you when I read your letter. I have always admired you for your quick intelligence and what I thought was a courageous willingness to think along unconventional and untried lines. And I wish I were as wonderful a writer and as verbally articulate as you are.
But I cannot tell you how much I felt let down by what you wrote. I believe you are someone who will make your mark on the world and who will influence others. To read that “you decided to be a racist” — well, it’s just not worthy of the person I thought I knew.
Surely you know that stereotyping is intellectually lazy. You must also recognize that the American social contract requires us to act as individuals. We are responsible for our actions. But that contract also means looking at people’s character and accomplishment — as individuals, not as members of some demographic category. It may be a lot of work taking people one at a time, but that’s our agreement from the nation’s founding.
As you know, my family is from Louisiana and I have heard this kind of ugly talk all my life. I reject racism and the horror it brings. The results of racism are there for all to see. For you to put yourself on the side of the twisted thinking that has resulted in nothing but hatred, harm, destruction, and even death — I really can’t accept that you would be a part of such a legacy.
I sincerely hope you will think about what you decided. I hope this letter will lead you to reconsider your decision and to turn away from this misguided path. Please write and let me know, Joan.

I am deeply indebted to Jim for his kindness and courage in writing that letter. As a result of Jim’s letter, I did reconsider that awful “decision,” and I did turn away from the path of racism. A short letter, a few chosen words and I was influenced to abandon a sad choice that would have harmed me and possibly many others.

I sometimes shrink from letting family members and friends know about my thoughts and feelings concerning something they believe or have decided to do. I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to fight about it. And, mostly, I don’t believe that what I say about it will matter.

But remembering Jim’s letter reminds me that sometimes, when it’s really important, maybe it’s worth it to share a thoughtful and honest response with someone I care about. Maybe what I say will help my friend or relative find their way. Or perhaps, in discussion, I’ll be proven wrong and find my way.

So although most of the time, words are just so much bla-bla-bla, my own experience shows me that, every once in a while, what we say to one another really does make a difference. And the words we use can matter more than we ever imagined.