It was in college when I first participated in the United States Census. And on the question of race, I checked the “other” blank along with all the other ethnic types listed. The poor Census guy standing at my door was not amused one bit when I said, “Dukes Mixture is not listed here”.
I’m ashamed to say I was treating race as a joke. That’s easy to do when I have never been judged daily by the color of my skin, hindered or not allowed to follow my dreams because of that.
Two years ago I spit into a tube and mailed it out to get tested for my DNA results. I will probably find out that I’m the “Duke’s mixture” my grandmother Taylor always said I was. Of course that was a family joke meaning that I am a mutt. I would venture to say that the vast majority of us are just that…..no matter what the pigmentation level of our skin is or what we claim to be or been lead to believe.
The Long way home
As a young teenager during the summer, I would work for my father at the Dallas Museum of Art when it was at Fair Park in South Dallas. After a long day of working for my father, he would drive me home the long way through South Dallas. This was in the mid 1970’s.
I believe the reason why he did this was two fold.
First it was to tell me his own history of coming to Dallas in the 1940’s and a brief history of an area of Dallas that was a flourishing Jewish community during that time.
“When I first came to Dallas in the 1940’s I would take a trolley car down to South Dallas to visit friends. South Dallas was the home of a lot of the wealthy Jewish population of Dallas. These houses were as beautiful as the houses on Swiss Avenue,” my father said.
He drove us down decimated boulevards where you would see rows of once grand houses that were now either boarded up or broken up into multi family housing. The poverty was like none I had ever seen before.
It was hard to reconcile my father’s stories of the South Dallas grandeur with dire poverty of the African-American community that I witnessed as my father drove us the home in the mid 1970’s.
Secondly I believe, he wanted me to understand that I lived a very privileged life.
“Dad, why are we driving this way home and why do people live this way?” I ignorantly asked.
His response was, “because Son, you need to understand the “White Privilege” that you have benefited from daily since birth and that you have a leg up in the world that these people never have known or benefited from. He then said something that I had never thought of, “Son it is difficult for people to dream of a life beyond poverty, if that is all they have ever known.”
Here my father spoke of “White Privilege” before it became a phrase in our current vernacular. He also talked to me about Jim Crow laws, redlining and systemic racism that had been built in to just about every institution to keep people of color from making strides and gains that a white person generally never had to deal with.
I sat in silence with my face pressed to the car window as we drove home to dinner on the table, in our air conditioned house, in our quiet little tidy white neighborhood.
That was one of those life lessons passed on to me from my father that have stuck with me through the years.
One would hope that Jim Crow and systemic racism might be a thing of the past but it can be argued that the over 200 voting restriction laws popping up around the country after the 2020 Presidential election is nothing more than Jim Crow revisited. The issues these new laws claim to want to solve are virtually non existent and does nothing but make it harder for people of color to vote.
Colorism: the other side of the color coin. When you aren’t the right shade of ……White
I knew someone who grew up in Beaumont Texas in the late 1950’s and 60’s. One day while visiting my grandmother in Beaumont, he got stuck with me. I was a couple years younger and he had a driver’s license. We were driving around in his car and he popped in an 8 track of some really hot blues I had never heard before.
“Who’s that? ” I asked.
“Oh that’s Johnny Winter” he said, “He grew up here in Beaumont and attended the same school I went to.”
This person had attended elementary school with Johnny and Edgar Winters way before they got discovered by the world. He said that while he and his friends played out on the playground, Johnny and Edgar were often seen playing guitars or ukuleles together underneath the trees to keep out of the sun. Johnny and Edgar Winters had the congenital disorder known as Albinism.
Edgar and Johnny Winter outside KBMT, where they won their first talent contest in 1953.
“Wow it would have been cool to have known them back then”, I said.
“Yeah it probably would of been,” he responded.
I was more than a little puzzled by his response.
“Yeah, they were too white, we treated them like we treated the “colored kids” in our school back then.” he said.
I think about that story when I listen to Johnny Winter’s blistering slide guitar version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” There in the fourth verse, Johnny Winter must have thought he found the perfect song.
Now, the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
“My complexion,” she says, “is much too white” He said, “Come here and step into the light”
He said, “Hmm, you’re right, let me tell the second mother this has been done” But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61
(Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited)
I finally got my DNA results and the results prove my grandmother was right……I’m a “Duke’s mixture” and am about as white as white bread.
Great Britain 60%
Western Europe 6%
European Jewish 1%
Most disappointing for me was that there was no significant Italian ancestry that my last name might suggest. My father use to say jokingly that his grandfather who immigrated out of Naples, Italy, married a German and it all went to hell from there.
Ignorance has never been bliss as the old adage suggest. Racism has always seemed to me a sign of Ignorance, whether from a lack of education, or lack of exposure and appreciation of people who look different than you. Then there are those who are just being willfully ignorant despite being educated and allow themselves to be manipulated to believe that they are somehow superior because of the color of their skin.
Ignorance and racism is dangerous plain and simple. The level of ignorance and racism at this moment in our country is abhorrent. We can do better, we must do better.
I would say that anyone who raises their children to hold these ignorant and abhorrent views are hobbling their children to thoughtfully interact in a world that is quickly becoming more and more diverse……..thankfully.