Wissot: They took their racism for granted
I never thought of my parents as racist. I never heard the N-word used in conversation. Colored people, the common expression for blacks and African-Americans in the 1950s, were never referred to in derogatory terms.
My first exposure to their attitudes on race came when I was 8 and attending Bobbin summer camp in Nyack, New York, a green retreat miles from where I grew up and lived in the Bronx. The camp asked the parents to help their kids pick out a character from television or movies or books and dress them in a costume so we could participate in a summer-ending play.
My parents for some ungodly reason thought I should be Topsy, a little black slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous abolitionist novel of the 1850s, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
They coated my face with charcoal, concocted a silly wig made to resemble a black girl’s hair, and put a raggedy dress on me. I imagine they must have thought the costume made me look adorably funny. I was given a line to say from the book that Topsy used to answer the question, “Where were you born?” Topsy’s answer was, “I wasn’t born, I just growed.”
I look back in horror at the fact that I was in blackface at a young age playing a character right out of the racist tradition of nineteenth-century black minstrel shows. The fact that I believe my parents were oblivious to the terrible bigotry they were exposing me to makes the experience seem all the more disturbing to me now.
Theirs was the accepted racism of the 1950s, a decade that introduced white audiences to the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” television show where black people were portrayed as dim-witted and worthy of ridicule.
Sadly, my parents saw absolutely nothing wrong with what they asked me to do. They believed, as did millions of other Americans watching “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” that black Americans were here to provide white audiences with amusing examples of their inferiority.
Now politicians who are exposed for having worn blackface in college, like Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia and Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, are forced to admit that what they did was wrong and apologize for their racist behavior. Northam, however, later denied it was him in that infamous yearbook photo.
Back in the 1950s, people like my parents would have no reason to apologize or admit that they were wrong. Viewing blacks as simpleminded fools who were not entitled to the same respect society paid to whites was taken for granted.
Today political correctness, a form of social scolding for racially and culturally offensive behavior that I support, would force employers who found racist remarks on their employees Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat pages to quickly terminate their employment.
My parents never asked me to disgrace myself by appearing in blackface again. It was an isolated, albeit awful, one-time incident. I didn’t grow up to be a racist. Reading about the inhumane treatment African- Americans were subjected to from early slavery through to the Jim Crow laws passed in the 19th century, and the public lynchings which continued until midway through the 20th century, ensured that wouldn’t happen.
The nature of our division around race has changed in the 66 years since my parents introduced me to racism.No self-respecting white person today would consider coming to a costume party dressed in blackface. Ditto for using the infamous N-word.
Ironically, that practice has been co-opted by African-American males who playfully and promiscuously call each other by that name. Call it racial revenge. A word that once stood for white hatred now represents black defiance. “We own it now, you don’t, we can use it any way we want now, you can’t,” is a message sent by black men reminding white people that being powerless and excluded really sucks.
The word we need to pay attention to today is color-blind. Once it meant ignoring the color of a person’s skin. Today it means ignoring the lives being led by people of color. Being profiled is one way that racial minorities are discriminated against today. Profiling includes a host of humiliations tied to skin color. Examples include shopping while black, hailing a cab while black, being stopped by police while black, walking through a white neighborhood while black.
My parents’ participation in racism is what put me in blackface. Our benign neglect of the racism which still exists is what perpetuates that shameful legacy today.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.