Some conversations I have with my extended family contain an element of racism. My inlaws, too, often make racist comments. I don’t think they always mean them in a racist way. They just say things without thinking. These comments are not the blatant racist comments one thinks of from around the time of the civil rights movement, but more subtle. Generally, they take the form of an observation about one or two people of a particular race which gets generalized across the whole race.
For example, my mother made the comment to me that she’s noticed a lot more hispanic lawn crews in her neighborhood. “They’re doing the work blacks used to do,” she said. Because, she goes on, “Blacks are too lazy to do it.” What has she based this theory on? The fact that the kid she hired to do her lawn work is lazy (and black). I suggest that maybe blacks have found better jobs as they’ve gotten more educated. “No,” she says. Again, she bases this on the fact that her yard worker hasn’t gone out and pursued a job actively. I suggest that he’s 18 and not sure how to pursue a job, might need training or guidance and has nowhere to turn for it. Maybe, she concedes.
This kind of thing drives me crazy. And it sweeps under the rug the institutionalized racism that is rampant in many southern areas. Not to mention the history of segregation and racism, the aura of which has not disappeared. And I never know what to say to these kinds of comments. I’m never armed with enough information to diffuse the argument. And I’m usually blindsided since I’m just not around racism that much anymore.
No one in my family or Mr. Geeky’s is going to tell a racist joke in front of us. (We’re considered the wacky liberals who actually take recycling seriously.) But they will make these broad comments which are hard to respond to. It’s hard to diffuse these comments with a discussion of the complexity of the socio-economic fabric in America. My relatives nod politely without really listening. And it’s even harder to answer the kids’ questions. What’s a conscientious mother to do?