I have never eaten in Mr. & Mrs. Walter Bellingham Goodyear’s dining room. I haven’t even seen it. But I often imagine the room as I think it should be, with warm, creamy walls, lofty ceilings, and a long mahogany dining table. I try to picture this old-money, Birmingham, Alabama setting, and how my relatively liberal Mom tiptoed through dinner conversation there, avoiding anything controversial on the evening when she first met my sister’s in-laws. I know so little about how the dinner went, and it probably doesn’t matter, but Mom tells a disturbing story from that night about Mrs. Goodyear’s mother, the elegant and ancient Mother B. I know Mother B, and I can picture her clearly in my imagined version of the Goodyear’s dining room. I can see her talking with my Mom, with one of her long, bony hands wrapped around a wine glass. I can picture clear polish on her perfect oval fingernails, blue veins glowing underneath translucent skin. But the only real detail I have is a snippet of conversation. According to Mom, Mother B told an earful of entertaining stories about past generations of Goodyears and Bellinghams, about their role in the development of the great city of Birmingham. With each anecdote, she flaunted her charm, her Southern flair for conversation. After all the stories of good old days were exhausted, Mother B rested her delicate hand on Mom’s sturdy shoulder. “You know, Gail,” she said, her animated voice now hushed and serious, “Birmingham has fallen under nigra rule.” Mom kept her mouth closed, she nodded her head. She didn’t do what I know she wanted to do: she didn’t roll her eyes, didn’t say, Oh, come off it, Mother B!
Whenever Mom tells that story, everyone in our family laughs. We laugh because Mother B is out of touch; she’s an old Southern lady who hasn’t changed with the times. Or maybe we laugh because we are numb, because we’ve lived with this breed of hate all our lives. Growing up in the still-segregated part of the Deep South that belongs to upper middle-class whites, specifically growing up in New Orleans, I’ve seen racism that’s thicker and uglier than anything Mother B could ever have said or done. I could tell true stories of popular New Orleans bars that still won’t serve black people. I could tell stories of Ku Klux Klan meetings held behind our local gas station. Or of my own childhood neighborhood, where the only black people I ever saw were maids and garbage men dressed in their white employers’ hand-me-down clothes. But with all the things I’ve seen, all the things I’ve been part of, I can’t get Mom’s story of Mother B out of my mind. I can’t stop picturing that opulent dining room, the elegant china Mrs. Goodyear must have, the tall irises and calla lilies arranged perfectly in the center of the table, the old-money elegance of her crystal chandelier. These images of the Goodyear’s home come easily. They’re a composite of memories from my own childhood landscape, a setting filled with the large, civilized New Orleans homes of white doctors and white lawyers and white bankers, of my family and my relatives and my friends. On the outside, these homes ooze with Southern hospitality and charm. But on the inside, many reek with the ignorance of overt racism, with jokes and lamentations about the “nigras,” the “cullahds,” the “cornbreads.”
The truth is, fragments of this kind of ugliness permeate the dark corners of too many of our “genteel” Southern homes. Of course, there are many Southerners—including my parents, my sisters, and me—who don’t believe in the culture of hate that often surrounds them. But most of us keep our lips pressed tight. We don’t get angry or argue for equality. We don’t turn tables upside down or work to change attitudes. Only a small minority of the Deep South whites that I’ve known would have the nerve to stand up to their beloved grandmother or their brother-in-law or even their friend and say: Don’t use those words in front of me.
And the words that Mother B uses do matter, because they embody the overt racism that still cloaks much of the Deep South. The kind of racism that’s still acceptable in polite circles as part of a casual dinner conversation. But perhaps my mother’s reaction to Mother B matters even more. Because it typifies the unarticulated beliefs of many “enlightened,” accepting whites: Tolerate the racists in your family, they know not what they do.
Lately, however, I’ve been less willing to accept this credo. And yet, at the same time, I’ve also been afraid to break it. While I wish I could say I’d have done something different if I’d been in my Mom’s situation, the scary truth is, I probably would’ve done the same thing. Although I don’t live in the South anymore, I visit often, and when I’m home, I still find myself unable to stand up to the overt racial intolerance that I confront there. Like most of the white Southerners I know, I remain quiet, frozen silent by something I can’t understand. And this troubles me. I can’t stop wondering why my mother, my father, my sisters and I have been unable to stand up to the racism that swirls around us at dinner parties, country clubs, Mardi Gras balls, bars, and school yards. And, perhaps more importantly, I can’t understand why we don’t say anything to the racists who join us at Christmas and Thanksgiving—the racists whom we love, the racists who share our family blood.
I ask my father. He talks about the country club “macho men” he plays golf with, tells me how they rant about “the blacks” taking over New Orleans, Baton Rouge, the entire state of Louisiana. He listens to them. “I don’t want to be in an argument every week of my life,” he says. “I can’t change them anyway. It’s useless.” And so he doesn’t disown them as acquaintances or golf buddies, and he doesn’t harangue them every time they use the word “nigger.” But secretly, he admits that he doesn’t respect them. “I can tell you this,” he says, “education doesn’t equal knowledge. And money doesn’t equal class.” Still, my father plays golf with these ignorant doctors and lawyers and bankers, these white men without class, these “macho men” golf buddies of his. He calls them “semi-racists.” They don’t fly the Confederate flag in their front yards, after all. They’re not members of the KKK. Some of them don’t even use the word “nigger,” and those who do use the word don’t at least, use it all the time. They’re not your stereotypical racist “hicks.” They don’t spit on black people or burn crosses in front of their homes. But they’ll fight to keep black people off their well-manicured golf courses and out of their all-white Mardi Gras krewes; they’ll fight like Confederates of old to hold on to their insular, segregated world.
Yet there are many other people like my father, good Southern folk who have made a decision to live harmoniously with the different levels of ugliness that permeate their culture. Partly, this grin-and-bear-it attitude has to do with the dysfunctional manner system of the South, In a world dictated by etiquette and upbringing and polite acquiescence, we don’t want to offend our racist friends, and so we listen to them. But is our desire to be the right kind of person socially—to be polite, to avoid heated debate and confrontation—a good enough justification for being the wrong kind of person morally? For making decisions that seem wrong, that seem like they could be more right?
I don’t know if I can buy into my father’s racist-labeling techniques, don’t know if I can believe in “semi-racists.” But I can understand why he makes such distinctions: for him, for my mother, and for me it’s not just about etiquette. The acceptance (at least outwardly) of “semi-racist” behavior has worked for us—for many Southerners—as a kind of survival instinct. It’s a way to tolerate people that we feel we have to tolerate, or people that we want to tolerate. She’s not as bad as some people, we can say. He didn’t put a David Duke for Senator sign in his front yard (although we probably suspect, even as we’re saying such things, that he secretly voted for Duke). In the Deep South, we create “levels” of racism for our family, friends, and acquaintances, and we make justifications for these racists, and for the way we act (or don’t act) around them. It’s a way to ride through the tumult that surrounds a place we can both love and castigate, a place we’ve always called home.
Mother B, and others like her—both old and young—are part of my home. And I can’t stop thinking of her because she is also my grandmother, my great aunts, my parents, my sisters, me. At different points in our lives, everyone in my family—both immediate and extended—has exhibited some type of racist behavior. And I don’t know many middle-class, Southern whites who can honestly assert that they grew up without ever saying or doing or thinking hateful things. The truth is, nearly 140 years after the abolition of slavery and almost 40 years after the establishment of civil rights, racism is still a part of our Deep South legacy. It’s still a part of our heritage. And while some of us would like to believe that we’ve worked our way out of these deep-rooted prejudices, I have begun to wonder whether we ever can. In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written 35 years ago, Margin Luther King, Jr. points his finger not at the overt racists like Mother B or the “semi-racist” country-club-macho-men, but at people like me, people who think the right thoughts, but do nothing. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion,” says King, “that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Like King, I wonder if believing in equality is enough. I wonder if my silence in the face of hatred and ignorance, and my tolerance, for whatever reasons, of the overt racism that permeates my life is its own, more subtle, breed of hate.
But whether my Southern friends and family are labeled as overt racists or semi-racists or subtle racists, one thing remains constant: none of us think that our behavior is hateful. Or prejudiced. My beloved Great Aunt Mary doesn’t think of herself as a racist, but as a child, I remember listening to her talk about the “little nigger boy” who mowed her grass; how he was nice and honest, how he hadn’t tried to steal anything. The man was more than 40 years old. And I never thought I was a racist, but as a college-bound 17-year-old, I distinctly recall how I fretted for months when I learned that my new college roommate, Sonja Henderson, was a black woman. What kind of tacky decorating ideas would she have for our dorm room? What kind of odd friends might she invited over? It was racist and petty, yes, but it was also a fear of the unknown: I’d never really known a black person. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. I went to a Catholic, all-girls high school that was more than 99 percent white. In 17 years, I had never had a black friend; I can’t even remember, at that point in my life, having had an extended conversation with a black person. And this bubble of a world that I lived in—that still remains unpopped in much of the upper middle-class South—was bloated with shiny whiteness; it did not lend itself to knowledge or understanding.
As it turned out, Sonja was more mature, tasteful, and beautiful than me. She was many of the things that I wanted to be. My then-boyfriend had an explanation—albeit unsolicited—for my admiration of Sonja, who may have been the first black person he’d ever known and who certainly transcended his prejudices and stereotypes. “Sonja’s not a nigger,” he said. “She’s a black. There’s a difference.”
I’d heard this kind of argument before, and I’ve heard it numerous times since. This is how the logic goes: if you are poor and uneducated and live in the ghetto, you are a “nigger.” If you have some money and some education and fairer skin and less-kinky hair—if you can blend in, somehow, with the whites—then you can simply be black. But when my boyfriend made this assertion about Sonja and about all the millions of black Americans he didn’t know, I fought him. For the first time, I felt unable to accept silently our ignorance, his hatred, my white culture’s intolerance; I challenged his audacity for making such distinctions. I don’t remember what he said back to me, I only remember the heavy frustration that hung over our argument. How we talked in circles and ignored each others’ points and got angrier. And angrier. Until I felt my throat swelling with sadness and defeat, with my inability to make him listen. And I remember how I hated him at that moment. How I hated his thick mind, hated the way racism shrouded his judgment and his rational thinking. I hated what I saw in him, for it was the same thing I’d seen in myself and the majority of people I knew, many of whom I’d once respected, some of whom I still loved.
Perhaps this moment with my boyfriend was an epiphany of sorts, a moment when things shifted for me. But it is not the end of the story, nor does it fully explain the culture of racism that continues to breed in the antiquarian homes of Deep South whites. And it doesn’t address the full gamut of methods we use to deal with such racism. I fought with my boyfriend, sure, but the argument had no winners. And would I have fought at all if the same comment had come from my Great Aunt Mary? Probably not. At age 17, although I’d found a way to be impolite with my boyfriend, it wasn’t so easy to challenge one of the dearest and grandest matriarchs of my family. In the presence of Aunt Mary, I felt powerless to speak up. Besides, I didn’t believe my words had the power to change anything, although I wonder, now, if they could’ve. I also wonder how seriously I’d really believed in—or even thought about—the need for change.
On the outside, at least, nothing changed in the wake of that fight with my boyfriend. Overt racism didn’t disappear from my world. My moment of assertiveness, which inevitably ended in defeat, didn’t convince me that speaking up was always the right answer. The truth is, the decision to speak out against racism remained an intricate and complex choice for me, one which required an analysis of the different relationships I had with various offensive people. The importance of respecting my elders—an idea that had been pounded into my head since before I could even think—kept me from confronting people like Aunt Mary, or my parents’ friends, or my friends’ parents. The concept of demure and nonaggressive social behavior held me back when strangers in bars said hateful things. And a sort of acceptance of The Way Things Are Here continued to anesthetize me against much of the ugliness I faced. Perhaps I hadn’t really been so offended by these Southern racists, at least not in the way a Yankee, or some other outsider, may’ve been. Like my father, I didn’t disown every racist acquaintance; instead I considered their level of racism, and for a while, I allowed myself to live with it.
As my married sister in Birmingham does. We are more than a thousand miles away from each other, talking on the phone, when I ask her how she deals with the prejudices of the people who surround her. “Should I stop being friends with someone because they have different views than I do?” she asks. “Just because someone thinks differently about an issue—like abortion, or something—doesn’t mean I’m never going to speak to them again.” I listen quietly to her arguments, but when I hang up the phone, a question lingers in my mind: is an entire race’s identity—and their dignity—really an “issue,” something to be obliquely argued, or taken up by the debate club?
My mother says she can’t do it; she can’t remain friends with racists. She says she tries to avoid them, and yet I’ve seen her sit silently, like the rest of us, when their rants have begun. When I press her about this, she seems annoyed. “Racism is not just a Southern issue,” she says. “It’s everywhere. Besides, things are so much better here than they used to be. When I was growing up, black people couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountains.”
Perhaps she’s right. Things in the South are better. But if a black man still can’t drink at the same bar with my father’s country-club-macho-men, if he can’t drink from the water fountain on their golf course, then I wonder how much progress we’ve made. My mother’s right, of course: racism is not just a Southern issue. But this is the racism I’ve grown up with; this is the racism I know.
I don’t know if racism is what drove me away from the South, but when I graduated from college, I left New Orleans and moved to San Francisco. I left the solace of arching oak trees and blue-ceilinged porches and syrup-thick swamps. I left the pretenses of white-gloved tea socials and coming out parties and Mardi Gras balls. And I also left the dusty, time-worn culture of ladies who can call men “niggers” while gently sipping Chardonnay from a Waterford wine glass, and of gentlemen who hold car doors open for their dates while complaining about “porch monkeys” infiltrating their towns. But leaving the South didn’t allow me to altogether escape racist fear or hatred; in San Francisco, its emphasis just shifted and became more covert. Of course, racism still existed in my liberal San Francisco world. But in San Francisco, a white woman and a black man could walk down the street holding hands without as many stares. And I didn’t have to worry about what I’d say or do if a friend of mine called a black person “nigger.” I knew, in San Francisco, it wouldn’t happen. It was simply unacceptable in my circle of white, overly-educated friends. And yet across the country in New Orleans, in the city I call home, the same types of overly-educated whites with their fancy degrees and Pottery Barn homes continued the Deep South’s long tradition of racial intolerance, ignorance, and hate. They still do.
Perhaps this helps explain why my family visits to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have become more unnerving the longer I’ve lived outside of the Deep South’s black-and-white confines. Perhaps it also explains why I can’t move back. When I return home, my tolerance level is down. In San Francisco and now, in Tucson, Arizona, I don’t have to confront the glaring racism that’s a part of my past—from my own slave-owning ancestors to the Deep South’s current-day divisiveness. Outside of my Southern identity, I can live in a kind of denial; I can hide behind my newfound liberal mask, and no one has to know the person I used to be.
During a recent visit to New Orleans, I met up with some old college friends at a popular uptown bar. We stood cramped and sticky in a dark corner, swilling beers and talking about old times. Inches away from us, another group of bar patrons stood talking, and a beefy, pink-skinned boy—his hot skin nearly rubbing against mine—told his polo-shirted friends about some kind of wreck he’d been involved in. “Hit by some damned nigger,” I heard him say.
Some damned nigger. He spoke those words and I wanted to scream. But before I could, other voices came back to me. The voices of my sister and me as children: Eeny, meeny miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe.
Let’s go nigger-knocking. My voice.
Ha! Your bicycle’s nig-rigged. My sister’s voice.
These words peppered my childhood vocabulary before I ever comprehended their weight or meaning. “Nigger knocking” just meant knocking on doors and running away. “Nig-rigged” just meant a shoddy repair job. At age eight, or nine, or ten, I didn’t perform a rhetorical analysis of “nig-rigged.” When I used that phrase, I didn’t consider what kind of statements I was making about blacks and their place in Louisiana society. In fact, the phrase was so common, I didn’t even know it was racist. Or hateful. Or ugly. I didn’t realize how language formed an instant identity for me, and others. And it never occurred to me that kids in other parts of the country might not have grown up with the same words.
Those words. They link me to a club that I’ve tried, since college, not to belong to—a club that some of the family racists associate me with merely because we share the same blood, the same skin color. I hear stories, to this day, about the ignorant, racist comments of old Aunt Mary, and I fantasize about gripping her shoulders, looking into her eyes and saying: wake up, Aunt Mary! The world has changed. But I know better. I know this will never happen. Because I am still afraid to confront the elders of my family. I am afraid of losing pieces of their love, pieces of my family. Besides, I am practical enough to know that the world hasn’t changed for Aunt Mary or Mother B; and there are many others like them, for whom the world will never change.
Perhaps leaving the South was the best way for me to change my own world. But mere avoidance does not absolve the white moderate of her sins. As I write this essay in Tucson, Arizona, I am haunted by the words of Martin Luther King, written more than three decades ago in that Birmingham jail cell. “We will have to repent in this generation not only for the hateful words and actions of the bad people,” he says, “but for the appalling silence of the good people.” I wonder if King realized we’d have to repent for my generation, too. For my inaction. For our appalling silence.
When I visited Birmingham this year, I lunched at the country club with my sister, Mrs. Goodyear, and Mother B. The club’s dining room looked out over the rolling greens of a perfectly landscaped golf course dotted with white carts, white polo shirts, white faces. In the distance, old brick houses lofted atop tree-studded hills. Inside the club, we chatted lazily, drinking tall crystal glasses of iced tea poured by a black man in a starched white uniform. The tables around us brimmed with other white ladies with their tasteful jewelry and their well-made clothes, and the room hummed with the comforting sounds of soft conversation, clinking forks, gentle laughter. As we waited for our giant salads to be served, Mother B told me all about her work as a board member of a charitable organization, and about the scholarships they’d instituted for Alabama women. I listened, nodded and smiled, genuinely impressed and interested in the words of this poised and beautiful Southern lady. Her pale skin glowed pinkishly, her teeth were perfect and bright. Ninety-two years old. She had such energy! Such charm! Being a well-trained Southern lady, Mother B didn’t go on about herself; instead, she turned the conversation to me. How did I like living out there in the desert? How did I like graduate school? I told her about my position as a composition instructor at the University of Arizona, and about the training I’d received to help me through my first year.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve been properly trained,” she said. “Seems they’ll let anyone teach these days. Even the nigras. . . .”
The smile fell from my face and my throat swelled and stuck. I didn’t know what to say. Or do. I looked to Mrs. Goodyear and my sister for some type of help, but I saw only blank faces, tinged, perhaps, with a slight shadow of shame.
I turned back to Mother B and faced her. She waited. I wanted to be brave; I wanted to confront her. But she was an old lady, and my sister belonged to her matriarchy. Instead of speaking, I looked away from her, staring intently at my half-eaten salad. As it turned out, the Caesar hadn’t been all that good. I picked up my heavy silver fork and used it to push around the wilted lettuce in my bowl. A clunky silence hung over our table and it seemed to last for a full minute, a minute filled with the possibilities of yelling or crying or walking out of that gorgeous and disgusting dining room. A minute pregnant with the opportunity—my opportunity—to do the right thing. But I remained frozen. I didn’t turn over our white-tableclothed table and I didn’t walk out on our luncheon; I couldn’t even consider walking out on my sister, and besides, I had nowhere to go. But I couldn’t nod at Mother B’s comment, either. And I couldn’t smile. All I could do was wait, alone in a place where I no longer fit in. For a moment, the silence was uncomfortable and ugly, filled with unspoken words, embarrassment, tension.
And then I noticed that Mother B had changed the subject.