The Face of Racism

As I often do, I woke up this morning thinking of my grandpa. Why this particular incident percolated to the top of my consciousness I do not know, but I think it was an incident that helped define the person I would become, so I thought I’d share it.

When I was 8 years old, my family moved from Overland Park, KS (a suburb of Kansas City) to West Bloomfield, MI (a suburb of Detroit). It was a big move for me because I was leaving all that I knew and loved for someplace totally foreign.

Shortly after we moved, my grandparents (on my mother’s side) came to visit. I was very excited about this because I loved my grandfather. His death just a few short years later would devastate me, but that’s a story for another time. He was definitely someone I looked up to, and tried to emulate in every way. Well, until he showed me his ugly side.

My grandfather was looking out the kitchen window, admiring our nice new back yard, and the pond that we shared with our neighbors. Then he saw them. Black people! He flipped out, using every racist term I’d ever heard in one big nasty verbal puke. He insisted that we had to pack up and move, because “they” were dangerous! We couldn’t live in a neighborhood that would allow “niggers”.

Fortunately, my parents had always taught me to treat everyone with respect. Race, color, religion, or anything else people get bent over was never even discussed. It was understood that you just treat everyone with respect. Period.

So what did I, an 8 year old, do the first time I saw the ugly face of racism? I looked out that window, saw the people my grandpa was ranting about, and noticed they had a pool. A pool!

I went and changed into my swimming suit, grabbed my towel, and walked over to their back gate. Where I stood, not saying a word, and watched them swim. That is, until they looked over at me, smiled, and asked if I wanted to swim too.

And I had a blast! Turns out there was a boy there my age (named Paul), and to my grandpa’s horror, Paul and I became good friends.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I later learned), my grandpa continued to watch out of our kitchen window. Fuming. While my grandpa boiled, my mom tried to calm him, and I just had fun. My mom finally walked away, telling him, “calm down and just let Joe have fun…you might learn something”.

He did. No, he didn’t change his ways. He was born racist, and died racist, but he did soften a bit. He even grew to like Paul. Well, maybe “like” was a stretch, but he wasn’t visibly uncomfortable about us playing.

I guess that was when I learned that I can do what I believe is right without worrying about what others think. Damn the consequences. This has been one of my guiding principles throughout my life. Just do what’s right.