In the days before PC
Our team was getting crushed and it was hot out and it was frustrating.
The other side scored yet another touchdown and as the victors headed down the field for the return kick, some modest insult — kid stuff, gamer talk — floated out into the air. I wasn’t the only one on my team who was frustrated.
Then somebody downfield shouted “losers talk, winners walk.”
Yeah, it was playground stuff. A pickup game on a school day in 1966. Meaningless. Classmates all.
Just the same, from somewhere dark and deep inside that I didn’t even know existed, I shouted back, “No, niggers walk.”
Two of the other team’s players were black. They were my friends. My classmates. They were brothers, one a year ahead of me, the other a freshman. Each was among the brightest academically and most talented sports guys in their respective classes. Their popularity was universal.
The moment I uttered those words a feeling of horror hit me like a punch to the soul. My self-hatred and confusion over my behavior were inconsolable. I apologized over and over and both of the Easter Brothers were quietly gracious in accepting my contrition. They acted like they could brush it off and move on.
Just the same, a door had slammed shut and I was the one who slammed it. I had allowed a monster into a place where none roamed before, where students of a number of racial backgrounds existed in brotherhood, equanimity and equality — bound by a goal that was bigger than all of us.
It was a Catholic seminary, for Christ’s sake.
Was I a racist?
I didn’t think so before that moment. I mean, I was studying to be a missionary priest, looking forward to being posted in what were then called Third World countries.
Before the seminary, mine was an All White World, mostly in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., and then in an isolated all-white town in rural Pennsylvania. Racism, through the absence of race, was never an issue, never a topic of discussion. Just the same, it lurked in the language and the minds of the citizenry.
Jokes were traded, filled with references to Pollocks, Kikes, Wops, Japs, Dagos, Niggers, Micks — and these words entered our young vocabularies. The idea that they were hurtful to someone never occurred to us. They were found in jokes that big name comedians told, and our fathers repeated. They were on the breath of soldiers, from recent wars and those of our fathers and grandfathers — slants and krauts and gooks and dinks and Charlie — and older brothers and uncles returning from Korea and Vietnam.
It is easy being a soft bigot in a town where you rarely have to show your colors. When I dropped out of the seminary and returned home, one girl’s father said she could no longer date me because I was a Catholic. They were Baptists, you see. The two didn’t mix. In her father’s eyes. Just the way it was and always had been. Nobody had a problem with that, except me.
Until he finally returned from a soul-healing journey to Japan 40 years after World War II, my Marine Corps father still referred to his former foe as Japs and Nips. He protested innocence when his teenage sons began calling him out but there was a lot of repressed anger in there.
I used to be called a Mickey Mackerel — Irish Catholic, fish on Fridays — and felt a touch of pride in that because it wasn’t spoken in hatred or anger. In an odd way, it was a sense of identity. Damned right I’m Catholic. What are you? I lived on Catholic Hill or Wop Hill, because the church was at the top and the roads to it were lined with Irish and Italian Catholics.
I got only a small taste of what the Easter Brothers, my seminary classmates, must have felt. Certainly being discriminated against for a religion I hardly cared for any more was not close to the same thing as having a presumed friend call you a racial epithet in anger.
I learned a hard lesson that day. There is racism in my roots. I don’t like it but I acknowledge it and have trained myself, as best I can, to recognize it and dispense with it before it reaches the world outside my skin. Buddha says there is strength in knowing your weaknesses. I believe this is true.
I don’t always succeed. Long ago I learned I have a talent for saying hurtful things to people I love. It is a mostly unfiltered mouth that can strike nasty blows in the heat of an argument. Even my FOX-News-loving Dad learned this late in his life when he started pushing political buttons for fun and I lashed out with a brutal comment about his age and irrelevance.
Once again, I heard a door slam.
Until his death, we were father and son, affectionate and respectful, but neither of us ever dared to banter in the political arena again.
Words can hurt. Words can kill. Words can humiliate and dehumanize good and innocent people. I think we all have those words inside us. Those who lead self-examined lives are best equipped to control those words.
But rigid self-examination isn’t much of a thing these days, unless you are a Buddhist.
I recently called a friend out on a Facebook post, a visual joke that was purely and simply racist. He is a good guy, the owner of an eco-resort who employs scores of Belizeans and has lived among locals for decades. I know his intention was not to demean or hurt anyone. And he politely disagreed with me. A number of responses were more disturbing. People denied the embedded racism by insisting that they don’t even see color in people. Yes, they are pure, color-blind souls who only see merit in others.
I felt sad for them. Not for the self-delusion, though I think they were saying they don’t judge people by the color of their skin. But to not see color in this world is to walk blindly through an amazing bounty.
In Belize, more than 85 percent of the population can be considered people of color. Make that colors. They are of every hue imaginable within the Latin-Mayan-Caribbean-African-Middle Eastern-Asian spectrum. In this country, the diversity is cause for celebration. People are proud of their roots and distinguishing features — even as the diverse tribes blend and intermarry and procreate and create incredibly beautiful children of a whole new nation.
I find myself — despite my childhood — extremely comfortable as a minority in this environment.
That is hardly worth bragging about. One of my neighbors is Bill Wilkinson, a notoriously virulent racist who rose to be Grand Wizard of the KKK in the mid-1980’s before bringing down arch-rival David Dukes and then “disappearing.”
He disappeared to Belize and has been living quite openly all these years and every so often he is “discovered” by the media and they marvel at how a white supremacist, an ugly Southern racist, can live so peacefully in a sea of color. (The stories seem to erupt each time Wilkinson puts his modest and faded little beachfront resort up for sale, as if the exposure would force a distress sale. But he is in no hurry.)
This is how the human mind can work: Wilkinson does not see himself as a racist. He is a “segregationist.” Nobody has yet been able to get him to explain the difference. He was Donald Trump before there was a Donald Trump.
I can testify that he does get along with everyone here. Most expats do. Or they move on.
Still, I am constantly appalled by the visitors who say they’d rather move to Belize than “live under Obama.” The coded subtext is pretty clear. The ignorance is staggering. You’d rather live here? As an island of whiteness in a country of color? And corruption. Apparently all the stereotypes about government corruption are rooted in truth. What can these people be thinking?
My wife is a native of the Bay Area, born in Oakland, raised in San Mateo and longtime resident of San Francisco. She is a first generation American. Her mother came from Mexico and her father from the Philippines. If I may say, she is beautifully exotic. And she has felt the sting of discrimination more strongly in Belize than ever in her native USA.
It is a double-edged discrimination. Locals see her as Belizean, a country filled with exotics, so she might get a special “local” discount on groceries or a warmer consideration from shopkeepers than me. (Not that I have ever felt anything worse than clerical indifference.)
On the other hand, some Americans will ignore her in a group of expats, clearly assuming that she is Belizean and — for whatever reason — dismissable. And believe me, it hurts. At least one local restaurant owned by an expat couple will never see our business again because of this kind of hurtful snub.
So, even in a gloriously polycultural country like Belize there is racism. Among Belizeans, too. Shades of black and brown can affect your social standing and career path. Dark-skinned and strong-featured Garifunians (African-Caribbean) have a separate and proud history and culture within the culture. Even Latin-Caribbeans are generally identified by origins — in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua or Honduras — and seem to fall into an elusively defined, looping, pecking order. Middle Easterners are all “Arabs” to Belizeans, and Asians are all “Chinese.” Mennonites live in extremely closed communities and still speak a form of German among themselves.
Everyone goes to the “Chinese markets” for food and the “Arab hardware stores” for a hammer and nails. Although curiously I have heard locals refer to the “Muslim golf cart” concessions.
There are native Belizeans. I’m told the island’s seven dominant families, the ones who control the politics and real estate and tourism concessions, trace their roots back generations, although not as far back as the Mayans — the original indigenous peoples of the Yucatan-Belize-Guatemala universe.
I guess I’ve strayed far from any conclusions here about “political correctness.”
I wish political correctness had more of a presence when I had so egregiously painted the Easter Brothers with my racist spew. I said it and I can never absolve myself for it. I’m sure they were far too mature and intelligent to let this rancid moment affect their lives. Conceivably they encountered more and worse as they grew into adults in America.
But I mourn the fact that I destroyed the opportunity to grow in friendship with two young men whom I admired and, honestly, wanted to be like in many ways as I grew up.
Ironically I became a better person in some ways. Definitely more introspective, more discerning about my own feelings and definitely attuned to and intolerant of racist language and behavior in even its most subtle forms.
I am no crusader for living a “correct” life. What would that ever mean? I’m just a humble traveler on a road of my own making, filled with stones and potholes.
When I think of “political correctness” I simply think “do no harm.” And hope that is enough.