Photo of a black man and white man shaking hands
Every week on Monday morning , the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day. This week’s question:Have you ever personally seen or experienced racism?
What happened? How did it affect you?
The Razor: Back in the 1990’s I spent 5 years in Japan. I had arrived in the country after studying it intensively for 2 years in college so thought I knew what I was prepared for. It turns out I didn’t have a clue.
Technically what I experienced while living there was not racism. It was xenophobia. I knew that Japan had been a closed society for 300 of the past 400 years of its history, but knowing that and experiencing that as a foreigner are two different things. Since Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” opened the country to the West in 1853 Japan has modernized, but while much has changed such as the introduction of a capitalism, a lot has not. At its heart Japanese society remains completely closed to foreigners.
In Japan foreigners are called “gaikokujin” – literally “outsiders.” This is usually shortened to “gaijin” – which is a slang and derogatory term in the Japanese language. You will hear the latter more than the former, and most Japanese don’t even consider gaijin a derogatory term. As a foreigner in Japan I took the label in stride at first, but the stares and unwanted attention begins to lose their novelty after 3 months. Sometimes the Wife and I would sit down in restaurant and wait to be served. No one would come to our table. We would ask for service in Japanese (the Wife speaking the language fluently), and were told the kitchen was closed, or they had run out of food. For a white kid from the Midwestern suburbs it was an “interesting” experience.
What was not so interesting was trying to find a landlord who would rent to us. A Japanese friend helped us but after being refused by 12 landlords she had resorted to asking them the first question “Would you rent to a married white American couple?” Eventually a place was found, but in a run down neighborhood where other foreigners lived, including 4th generation Koreans, and the unspeakable caste of Japanese society known as the “Burakumin.” These areas tended to also have Yakuza activity since the Japanese mafia recruited heavily from the lower castes including the Koreans. Their headquarters were public knowledge and local police usually stationed a police officer in a car outside to discourage attacks from rival gangs. The idea of a police officer protecting organized crime has no modern day American counterpart unless you go back to the Prohibition Era in places like Chicago and New York.
After living in a place for several months without a shower, I had grown accustomed to the public baths. Living in a neighborhood where Yakuza hung out meant bathing with men wearing elaborate and amazing tattoos. But a “man rule” in the public bath was you could look but don’t get caught doing it. During “AIDS” scares foreigners were refused entry to the bathhouses for fear that they would spread HIV in the water. I had never had a problem, but I knew which bathhouses accepted foreigners and which didn’t. Some of the famed “onsen” in the Japanese interior and the coast of the Japan Sea were definite “have a Japanese friend call before you go” to avoid a wasted trip.
Yakuza were no friend of the foreigner. They recruited from the bosozoku, the biker youth gangs, and these gangs had a reputation for attacking foreigners. One of the teachers who worked at another branch of my office was dating a Japanese woman. They were walking along the Kamo River in Kyoto one evening, and were set upon by bosozoku who shouted “Gaijin girai!” as they beat him. He spent 3 weeks in a Japanese hospital before he returned home to Canada for further treatment.
Women looked at me suspiciously when I entered subway cars, gripping their purses a little tighter. A crime involving a foreigner would make the local papers all over the country while the crimes done by biker gangs went unreported. Children would be terrified of me, cowering behind their mother’s legs as they stared. This changed in high school where their fear became contempt and led to insults hurled in broken English.
When our child was born, I swore that I would not raise him in that environment. We left the country 5 months later.
I still dream about the place, stress dreams such as needing to buy a train ticket and opening my wallet to find dollars instead of yen, or teaching students bored out of their minds the same lesson I had taught hundreds of times, bored out of mine. I wake up relieved.
Five years is a long time to spend there; most foreigners lasted about a year, with nearly all leaving within two. A select few hang on for longer, and still others like a primatologist I know have lived there longer than they did in their home countries. They think of themselves as Japanese, but yet they carry the same “foreign registration card” that all foreigners must carry at all times as I once did. Unless you are a famed sumo wrestlers, it is almost impossible to get Japanese citizenship.
I don’t regret my Japanese experience. Quite the contrary: I would recommend it to liberals who think “all people are the same” or white supremacists who think they are special. The Japanese are completely different from us, and I respect them for it. They don’t pretend to be a multicultural society or a “melting pot.” They are what they are, and once you accept that you can live there for a very long time as I did, learning as much about yourself and your own people as you do the Japanese.
Liberty’s Spirit: The first time I had ever seen or experienced racism was as a 7 year old. My father ran the local Jewish center in a Georgia town, near an army base. The base was a way station for soldiers going to Vietnam. Every Sunday the Jewish soldiers would come for a day at the center, swimming and relaxing. One day when the soldiers came there happened to be African-American Jewish soldiers among the group. That day only the soldiers and my family went in the pool. My parents report that the President of the Center told the janitor to drain and clean the pool after the soldiers had left. I had never experienced racism among Jews before. The Jews we had known had always been on the side of civil rights. It changed by entire perspective towards the Jews as a “people.” I had never experienced Jews who did not adhere to Jewish concepts before. My parents say that these people were more interested in being “White southerners” than Jews.We moved from that town very soon after this incident.
Growing up in the Deep South however, I also experienced bouts of anti-Semitism. Because my sister and I were the only Jewish students in the entire school, our public school, contrary to the Supreme Court rulings still read from the Bible every morning and put on a Christmas show. When one day the teacher read how the Jews had killed Jesus, I spoke up and said that that wasn’t true. She told me to “Shut up” and I didn’t know what I was talking about. During the Christmas pageant, because my sister and I wouldn’t participate we were segregated out from the other students and not allowed to sit with our class. The teachers put us in the back of the auditorium. The next year we were left in our classrooms all alone and not even allowed to attend the Christmas show.
Racism also did not dissipate as I grew up. There was also the continual discussion on the school bus about how bad black people were and how they were sexual predators against white women. I specifically remember one gruesome story told over and over again. The inculcation of racial hatred starts at an early age. Funny I simply put those stories in the back of my head and actually never thought about any of it. It seemed fantastical and unimportant to me at the time. I was only 8.
One year as I got older, a classmate (7th grade) told me how she attended meetings where they burned a cross and her parents told her that she couldn’t be friends with Jews or black people. But that she liked me and wanted to be my friend anyway. I said Ok and we tended to sit together in class. Being a child I had not understood that her family were Klan and that for her to say that to me was a big step for her to acknowledge that her family was wrong. I also know that she could not have ever invited me to her house or come to my house to play.
As I grew up we moved back up North and many of the anti-Semitic and overt racist issues that I had seen growing up became subtler. Hubby tells the story of working in a supermarket in Boston for years. Once one of his regular customers found out he was Jewish, whenever he was in the store, she would not enter. At another job during high school, his boss wouldn’t let him have off for Yom Kippur, so he had to quit his job instead. It was widely believed that the man was an anti-Semite. Hubby had been the only Jewish student hired by that fast food restaurant as long as that individual was the manager.
He also tells stories of working with people in the federal government. Once when they were having a discussion about the economy, a co-worker quipped, that hubby was going to be the Jew that solved the economic problem. Another co-worker told him that the USA was a Christian nation and that anyone else was a guest. Not one of those in his section challenged these ideas or statements. The interesting issue is that none of these people thought of themselves as anti-Semites.
Presently, there have been issues at our local high school, where lockers have been adorned with swastikas and Jewish students IDs have also been desecrated with Nazis symbols. However, there were also several racist incidents against African-American students over the years (though gladly these seem to have disappeared) and even an anti-Moslem incident against a student who was actually a Hindu. The students in this incident said they were joking and were friends of the student. Somehow I wouldn’t think that perpetrating a racist incident against a “friend” to be something funny.
Even last year at my sons’ college there were reports of racism. We purposefully sent our sons to this local school because it is designated as the most diverse college on the east coast. We felt that it would get them out of their comfort zone. A true realistic vision of the world where everyone isn’t white, or Jewish. In fact, this school was highly recommended by their high school guidance counselor for this reason as well as the academics. For them this college has been a great experience. Yet the racist incidents that occurred marred everyone on the campus. The administration held meetings and teach-ins about the type of society the school was promoting. Consequences were dolled out and it was made plain to everyone that racism would not be allowed at this school.
How did these incidents affect me? Well as far as the anti-Semitism it definitely made me angry and determined to be proud of whom I was as a Jew. Instead of making me cower and ashamed it made me more determined to live life as I chose. But what it also took from me was my security as an American. The idea that there are those in this nation who no mater what my family or I have done for this country, they will never accept me as a citizen of the United States is simply deplorable. Honestly, if it weren’t for meeting my future husband (who despite crossing paths with anti-Semites never felt unwanted in the USA), I had plans to move to Israel, where I felt I would be welcome.
The racism I found in life, makes me simply sad…just terribly sad. That even in areas with highly intelligent and educated people stereotypes and such ignorance still exists. But on the other hand, I do believe that society has grown and developed since my incidents in school as a small child. And no it’s not about electing the first African-American president; it is about the everyday intermixing of cultures, races and ethnic groups that abounds throughout the USA. Perhaps its because I live so close to NYC where the melting pot is a reality. (Of course there are those who say that NYC has racist policies. I wont’ get into that here.) But it’s the daily interactions I see among strangers of all walks of life and how determined most people are to simply live their lives with respect and dignity that holds out hope for the future.
Simply Jews: As a kid and a youngster in the late and unlamented USSR, I was quite frequently exposed to antisemitism. But no less frequently to other kinds of racism, especially where Russian attitudes to the minorities are concerned. The Russian ability to invent derisive and degrading terms for the minorities is, most probably, second to none – although I cannot pretend to be an expert in that domain, of course.
The Independent Sentinel: When I was 4 years old, I was on a ferry in Florida while on vacation. There was a little black girl running around. I remember thinking how cute she looked with her braids tied in pink ribbons.
I ran up to the water fountain where she was drinking to initiate a conversation. She was about 6 years old. I thought she was older and prettier than me – I looked up to her.
She wouldn’t talk to me and within minutes, my mother pulled me back.
My mother said that I couldn’t drink out of the same fountain. I asked why and she said it was not allowed. She said to me, look at how angry those men are. I looked around and saw angry white men glaring at us.
She pointed to the wording on the fountains and bathrooms. They were marked white and negro she said. I went into the white bathroom and remember being angry about it.
My mother was angry at the men and made some nasty comments about them, but she felt helpless to take them on.
Years later, Martin Luther King Jr was scheduled to march on DC. I was just a kid but I took off by myself and joined the blacks on a bus leaving from a Queens church.
I marched with MLK Jr. on August 28 1963.
I did it for the little girl with the pink ribbons in her hair.
Half of my career was spent in special education, 9 years of which I spent working with minority gang kids. They were labeled handicapped but they weren’t. I thought about that little girl and saw her face in the gang kids.
How did the bigotry affect me? I was heartbroken and felt powerless to resolve the injustice.
I was treated badly for being a Christian working in a Jewish Synagogue early in my career, but I won everyone over by proving myself.
Career-wise, I was a woman in a man’s world and I didn’t care about that either. I just felt I had to work harder and be better.
That’s what I taught my handicapped and gang children. Never let anyone define you. Be the best you you can be in whatever way possible and good things will happen. It makes you stronger. It challenges you to rise above it.
JoshuaPundit: I admit to coming from an interesting place on this one. My parents were typical FDR Democrats, as were many Jews of that era. They both grew up in a part of East Brooklyn known as Brownsville back in the 1940′s. The neighborhood was Jewish back then, but it bordered Bed-Sty, so my parents went to school and mixed to a degree with blacks and Puerto Ricans on terms of relative equality. In other words, they had no baggage of racism -or white guilt – to pass on to me one way or the other. I inherited their ability to be comfortable with people of different backgrounds, although they also passed on to me a certain amount of what I’ll call tribal consciousness, the idea that we were Jews, and we were therefore different.
I got an interesting sense of that difference when I went to look at my parent’s old neighborhood on my own back in the early eighties. The neighborhood is no longer Jewish (almost entirely black), it took me 3 cabdrivers to find one that would take me there, and he refused to wait more than five minutes for me to get out and take a quick look around. From what my parents told me, while it was poor, it was never anything like the combat zone it is today when they lived there.
The neighborhood I grew up in Los Angeles was predominantly blue collar, mostly Latino with a slice of Asians ( mainly Japanese) and a sprinkling of blue collar whites. I don’t remember experiencing any overt bigotry except the occasional fights with Latinos to ‘prove ‘ you had a right to be let alone, and I don’t consider those racial but tribal. Any male had to throw down once in awhile, especially if they weren’t Hispanic. Never stopped anybody from being friends afterwards. There weren’t any blacks who lived in my neighborhood (interestingly enough, the only kids I remember using racial slurs about blacks were Hispanic kids) so I pretty much grew up without any baggage one way or the other.
The only real exposure I had to Jew hatred as a kid was a positive one, courtesy of my dad ( Z”L). Some of you may have heard this story from me before. Of course, that was when the Holocaust was a lot closer in living memory, and before Jew hatred became fashionable and acceptable again. A lot of that going around these days.
The only time I experienced racism as a white person was when I applied once for a job with the City of Los Angeles. I scored in the top 3 on the exam, and since there were 7 openings I figured I probably had a decent chance of getting hired based on my background, exam score and experience. I duly received an appointment for my oral interview and went in. When I walked in the room, the three interviewers were all black, two men and a woman. The minute they saw me come through the door they exchanged a look and a smile between them. They asked me something like three questions, something along the lines of how I’d heard about the job, where I lived, why I wanted the job, stuff like that. I was there less than five minutes before I was told I could go and someone would get back to me.
I later received a letter from the city that I had only scored a 40 on the oral interview, and would not be hired. I didn’t exactly stutter in the interview. There’s no doubt in my mind that my being white was all the interviewers needed to see. Racism comes in all colors.
In this context, I perhaps should mention that I’ve had a pretty fair amount of interaction with blacks, both during my time as a musician and later as clients and employees in the real estate business, and that those interactions have mostly been very pleasant. And that not getting hired for that particular job turned out to be a real stroke of good luck in the end.
I fully agree with Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, that there are really only two races, the decent and the indecent – but I’d add that a lot of people are capable of crossing that line in both directions. In that sense, culture matters and affects where people stand, rather than race.
When the culture is toxic and when everything is seen through a prism of race and grievance, people tend to stay mired on the wrong side of that line..because they feel they’re victims and thus entitled.Again, there’s a lot of that going around nowadays.
The Glittering Eye: Over the course of my life I’ve had mild experience of religious bigotry. Although the city in which I grew up, St. Louis, is a very Catholic town, it has nonetheless different social strata for Catholics and non-Catholics. So, for example, when I was a kid there were distinct social organizations for Catholic and non-Catholic teens. Since I tend to be socially rebellious, that didn’t have much impact on me.
I witnessed religious and ethnic bigotry experienced by others. I recall once when I was, perhaps, ten years old seeing one of my neighbor kids tell another neighbor kid, a pretty, charming little Jewish girl, that her mother wouldn’t allow her to play with her because “she could only play with little blue-eyed girls”.
I also saw racial bigotry of a more systematic and institutional sort. On spring vacations we frequently went South to the Gulf Coast in search of spring weather. On those trips we passed through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida where “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs were prominent in public restaurants, hotels, restaurants, drinking fountains, and the like. I don’t know if I can convey to you the fear and stress that they imposed on a kid, even when you weren’t the target of the bigotry. I was always terribly afraid of transgressing, or making a mistake. Blacks were clearly held in subservient roles. There really is no mistaking that kind of institutional racism.
Sadly, I still see some of that today, albeit covertly and in private.
Lest I give the impression otherwise, I find religious bigotry is alive and well, if that’s the proper expression for it, on the Internet. Hardly a day goes by without an encounter with anti-Catholic bigotry. Initially, it frequently takes the form of anti-clericalism, something with which I am not unsympathetic, but almost inevitably veers into anti-Catholic Knownothingism. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive but I find the accusation that I condone child sexual abuse hurtful and unfair.
Virginia Right!: Growing up in Virginia in the 1950′s and 1960′s, segregation was an accepted fact of life. As a kid, you really don’t start to question things beyond the scope of being allowed a treat or not. Things like race and politics were just accepted. Other than an occasional janitor which we were taught to ignore, we rarely encountered black people in the “white” world I grew up in.
And by today’s standards, it is sad to realize that my parents taught me to be a racist. All blacks were inferior. And if you hear that all your life, that is what you believe.
Now there was no hatred, unlike the racism we see today. And that statement might seem at odds with the accepted belief that all blacks were inferior. But it was out of ignorance, not hatred.
We were taught, not only by our parents, but our Grandparents, Pastors, and even our teachers that blacks were simply not on the same evolutionary level as whites. They were more like animals than humans.
Looking back now on the accepted thoughts of the 50′s and 60′s it is hard to believe that we never questioned such ridiculous assertions. But since we were completely segregated, there was no interaction to help us realize that what we were being taught was simply wrong.
Imagine if you were taught from birth that the sky was green. And if everyone you interacted with each and every day told you the same thing, you would just accept it.
We were taught that blacks carried diseases. Eating, drinking or using the same rest room would result in sickness or possibly death.
Blacks were not allowed in restaurants because whites would never eat off of the same dishes or use the same utensils for fear of getting sick. I heard many times that you can never clean a dish good enough if a black person ate off of it.
I still recall the “White’s Only” signs on restaurants, water fountains and even rest rooms.
I worked at the University of Richmond back in the late 80′s and early 90′s and the old Academic Computing computer room was located in what used to be called the “Colored” bathroom. The bathroom tiles were still visible under the raised floor tiles.
When the Civil Rights Movement started, the “trouble” was mostly in the deep south. Richmond, Virginia was relatively quiet and most of us started questioning what we had been taught from birth.
Martin Luther King, Jr. not only became a Civil Rights Leader for the rights of Black People, but a beacon of truth to all of us that were raised in ignorance and lies our whole lives.
My parents and grandparents suddenly realized that what they were taught and passed down were all lies. The only difference between the races was the color of the skin. Blacks were ignorant not because of genetics, but because of a lack of access to education. A fact that is still, sadly, widespread today.
How many inventions, how much art and how many major contributions to society were quashed simply because blacks were treated like they were less than human?
When I graduated from High School, there were only a hand full of blacks that were my classmates, but I am proud to say that even though the black race was miserably underrepresented in my class, those that were there were leaders that we selected not because of the color of their skin, but because of the content of their character. That was in 1972. And after that, I served in the Navy alongside people of all races and I am happy that we have come as far as we have.
Racism is alive today but it is born out of hatred, not ignorance, although hatred and ignorance go hand in hand. And the racism I see today is a two way street. There are whites and blacks that hate each other simply based on skin color. And I am sure we have made great strides, but the hatred variation of racism is far more virulent and violent than the ignorance based version I grew up with.
And my personal journey through the evolution of racism is one I am proud to have made. While there are still people I dislike, it is based today entirely on their character.
People can be jerks no matter what color they happen to be.
Bookworm Room: I have personally experienced racism three times in my life. Two of my experiences happened in England and one in Texas. All took place in the early- and mid-1980s.
The first time racism came my way was in England, in 1981, when I was introduced to a bovine, 18-year-old who had left his neighborhood near Sheffield for the first time ever to attend University.
When he saw the Star of David I wore, he asked “Are you Jewish?”
I replied, simply, “Yes.”
He thought a moment, and then asked a follow-up question, “That means you’re rich, right?”
I didn’t feel attacked. I felt instead that I was on the receiving end of profound ignorance. I politely explained to him that not all Jews are rich, and that was the end of it.
The second time also happened in England, in 1982, and I am still embarrassed by my response — or rather, my lack of response.
One of the young men in the circles in which I traveled during that “study abroad” year was an Arab who had been born in Lebanon, but raised in England at posh boarding schools. He was an extremely charming and likable young man. One evening, when a group of us was gathered in someone’s flat, people started telling jokes. Most of them were a little smutty since this was, after all, college. His contribution was a short, disgusting Holocaust joke. My brain simply froze. I’d never experienced anything like this, and had absolutely no idea how to handle it.
The third time I experienced racism was in 1986, in Texas. I was doing a summer clerkship at a law firm, and one of the associates there took me out to lunch. He knew I was Jewish, and spent the entire time attacking Israel and Jews because of the USS Liberty incident. I knew nothing about it, so I could only sit there as he ranted on. I do understand that there are many current and past Navy personnel who believe that it was a deliberate strike. Israel has always contended that it was an accident. All I know is that, to the extent I was a young American who had absolutely no relationship to an event that happened when I was 6, his only reason for hammering away at this subject was because he finally got the opportunity to “give it to a Jew.” (Thinking back, I do wonder whether one of his relatives was among the dead or wounded.) After lunch, I immediately spoke to another attorney at the firm, explaining I felt this associate’s conduct was inappropriate. They talked to him and he apologized to me. End of story.
Rhymes With Right: Some years ago, as an idealistic 20-something, I took a job working for a substance abuse rehab facility run by a black-owned business. I was one of two white senior staffers at the place — the rest of the upper-level staff and much of the line staff was African-American — and we were intent upon creating a top-of-the-line program In a matter of months, the whole thing came crashing down due to problems involving finances and licensing, and we all found ourselves without jobs. We were all told we would receive our paychecks via mail within one week, but when that week passed the center director and I received letters telling us that the company had no funds to pay us. The common thread? We were the only two members of the senior staff who were white.
Both the US and state labor departments found in my favor after the company’s owners failed to respond to the complaints I filed, and I was awarded the full amount of pay I claimed. However, the junior partner in the company — the head of the local NAACP — used his pull with elected officials to get both decisions overturned. A second state hearing resulted in a finding in my favor on the spot, with the hearing officer saying that he did not understand why the case was even reopened and that even the records and witnesses presented by my former employer demonstrated that we had been subject to discriminatory treatment. As we stood to leave, in the presence of the hearing officer, my former employer told me that I could take him to court if I ever wanted to get a penny from him — and pointed out that I would be doing so in the 80% black community where the company was based and that it would be two white guys faced with a parade of black witnesses before a mostly black jury. In the end, I was ultimately offered a settlement of only about 35% of what I was owed, which I took to put the whole matter behind me. The center director received something similar. We were the only employees to receive less than our full pay — because our black employers decided they could stick it to The Man by sticking it to us.
Well, there you have it.