Trying hard not to be a racist

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Who are we? This essay is part of a continuing focus on the issues of identity—such as struggling to fit in, having a sense of place, and practicing tolerance. It is also the final article in a three-part series focusing on Brian Copeland’s book Not a Genuine Black Man.

Trying hard not to be a racist
If you made it to the end of part two, you may remember that it concerned the story of The Ugly Duckling as a metaphor for racial profiling. A paragraph before diving into this symbolic pond of racial intolerance, I was sitting on a bus in the East Bay area of northern California and the year was 1969.

It was a hot day, and I could feel the bottoms of my thighs sticking uncomfortably to the leatherette seats. The trip seemed long, both time-wise and psychically, as I traveled south from a black neighborhood along San Pablo Avenue through equally black East Oakland and on home to superwhite San Leandro. As we paused at every bus stop along the way, I had plenty of time to torture myself with the question, “Am I a racist?”

I didn’t think so or at least I didn’t like to think so. But I kept pondering what I had learned that year in college about overt and covert racism. After all, you didn’t have to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan to show racial bias. You could, for example, just be oblivious to the lack of African-American mannequins in the display windows of department stores.

My conscience nagged at me as I sweltered on the bus. Some 30 years later, the “Jiminy Cricket-like voice” of Brian Copeland’s conscience wouldn’t stop chirping in his head as he sweltered on his daily jog through his still very white San Leandro neighborhood.

A Hamlet-type moment
To report or not to report? That was the question in Copeland’s mind that sunny day. He had set out for a run, but noticed a suspicious vehicle about a block from his house.

Reasoning that he was the Neighborhood Watch chairman, Copeland thought maybe he should call the police to tell them about the unfamiliar, beat-up old sedan in which two men sat. The problem was that the men were black.

Had I been so brainwashed by white society, so indoctrinated by the negative images I had seen in the media, so influenced by the barrage of pictures and news footage of black men in handcuffs and on wanted posters that I had become one of ‘them.’

In short, he wondered whether he was racially profiling.

“Consumed by guilt,” he didn’t notice important clues until it was too late. The car lacked a license plate, and while one man sat in the front seat, the other sat in the back.

Trying hard to be good
When he learned that his neighbor had been burglarized, Copeland was angry.

I try so hard to live a good life. I try so hard to be a good person, husband, father, and citizen and all of that can be erased and painted with a brush of suspicion because of the actions of two black men I didn’t even know. What they do makes me look guilty in the eyes of the police and white America.

Still, Copeland didn’t feel validated about his action. He knew deep down that the fact of the burglars’ skin color “gave aid and comfort to the prejudiced and the bigoted. It gave them the smug confidence to say, ‘See how they are?’”

One way that Brian’s mother tried to be good was to out-white the whites.

Overtipping for “leakfast”
Copeland’s mom enrolled him in the Boy Scouts so he could become a “ ‘normal, red-blooded, all-American boy.’” Forget those Bible-thumping Southern Baptists! She converted to Catholicism and encouraged Brian to be an altar boy.

She also kept up with the latest white trends such as going out after church one Sunday for “brunch” at a time when few people had heard the word. Confused by the contraction of “breakfast” and “lunch,” his little sister asked why it wasn’t called “leakfast.”

As so many African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians have written, proving yourself in white America means excelling in the extreme. It was this kind of thinking that led Copeland’s mom to counter the actions of a rude waitress by leaving her an excessively large tip.

If a black customer goes to a restaurant and gets bad service, part of the evening is spent wondering, consciously or not, whether it was simply bad service or whether it was racism.

She defied the stereotype that black customers didn’t tip in hopes that “the next black family this waitress serves will be treated a little better.”

Flusteration and Assassination
Roll back the camera to at least five years before the Copeland family brunch.

Similar to the Copelands, my family seldom went out to dinner. “Brunch” was not a word in our vocabulary. Even the phrase “French toast” was out of place in our blue-collar household; we ate “egg bread.”

It took an upwardly mobile African American family at an American Friends Society retreat to introduce me to the exotic dish of lasagna. They shook their heads in disbelief at my limited culinary experience.

Another black participant, who lived in a poor neighborhood and was built like a football linebacker, told me about his “flusterating” experiences with racism. Well, I was flusterated, too. I thought he had coined just the right word for the times.

How did I ever get permission to attend that retreat? If my parents had known that I was going to be sitting side by side with blacks discussing the need for peaceful change in America, they might not have felt so very peaceful. It was a fearful time all around.

My father was a gentlemanly southerner who never used bad language let alone the “N” word. He had resisted an offer to join the Klan when he was a teenager. I mistook these facts for racial tolerance. I learned better a few months later when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Although my parents weren’t pleased, they weren’t sad either. I was stunned by what I saw as their passive approval.

A hug from George Wallace
The nationwide race riots on the evening news scared many.  I guess they pushed my polite, law-abiding parents over the edge. I was mortified when they supported one of our nation’s most famous racists, Alabama Governor George Wallace, for president.

Wallace was the “law and order” candidate of the American Independent Party. During his 1962 gubernatorial election Wallace said, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

When the U.S. Justice Department ordered the integration of public schools, Governor Wallace defied the federal government and assigned the Alabama National Guard to keep black students from entering white schools.

Governor Wallace needed 66,000 Californians to become American Independent Party members. He got 100,000 including my staunchly Republican father and my staunchly Democratic mother.

When Wallace visited San Leandro, my friends and I thought it would be a hoot to attend his press conference and create some commotion. But when we got there, we found that few of his San Leandro supporters had been brave enough to show up.

Walking into a nearly empty room we lost our resolve at the same moment that Governor Wallace saw a photo opportunity. I wonder if we blushed when he hugged us.

A no-nonsense Alabaman
Copeland’s grandmother, Lena Arbee, also hailed from Alabama, just more quietly. She spoke her mind, but not to white people, because a lifetime of experience had taught her that wasn’t safe. Copeland describes her as being a “capable, no-nonsense” woman who was wary.

Grandma was paranoid. She was always looking ahead to what white people might accuse us of. When she would start to go off like that I would say, “Come on, Grandma. This isn’t Birmingham. This is Northern California. This is the 1970s.”

But Grandma was paranoid. Take Halloween. We were allowed to go trick-or-treating until Grandma said, “Some white folks might say y’all was involved in some devilment. If you here with us, they can’t say you did nothing.”

One too many times, Copeland discovered that Grandma Lena was correct. For example, on the day of the  brunch, his family returned home to angry white neighbors pounding on the door of their apartment.

The neighbors kept accusing Brian of throwing their cat in the pool despite his mother’s calm assurances that he was allergic to cats and had been with her all day. They wouldn’t stop until Grandma Lena furtively tossed a pan of boiling water at their backs.

Grandma stood in the doorway looking strangely satisfied. She’d been vindicated. She wasn’t paranoid. That day, for the first time in my life, I learned the difference between paranoia and legitimate concern….

I think this was a defining moment for Grandma, being able to strike back like that. Don’t get me wrong. My grandmother has never been anybody’s doormat, but pouring hot water on irate white people? You don’t do that in Birmingham.

Later that afternoon, the apartment manager delivered an eviction order that was eventually overturned. Lena Arbee stood her ground and lived in that same apartment for more than 20 years.

A foreign country called Oakland
A few years before the Copelands moved to San Leandro, a single African-American student from Oakland was brave enough to enroll at Pacific High where I went to school.

James knew how to stir up conversation while also making the football team and student council love him. He was a funny guy. We weren’t friends, but I saw the civil rights magic he could perform.

“This is good,” I thought. I began talking with a group I belonged to called the Nobody Club, a group of slacker philosophers who liked to hang out in the journalism room. We discussed the possibility of developing a student exchange program with Oakland—it seemed like a foreign country to us. Like an ambassador, James met with us on occasion.

Lots of students were enthusiastic and signed our petition, which we planned to present to the San Leandro School Board. Then the local newspaper interviewed some of us. Somehow, I became the leader. Sometimes leadership happens by accident.

Almost immediately, bashful looking students, including some of the Nobodies, approached me and asked to have their names removed from the petition. Their parents were angry with them.

I suggested that maybe they should stand up for what they believed in. My parents had always let me do that even if they disagreed with me.

Standing my ground
I can’t remember how much I told my parents before the newspaper story appeared. Maybe I told them zero. Sometimes teenagers do that, especially if they think they will meet resistance.

When they began receiving accusing phone calls from other parents, it was their turn to be mortified. They told me to take my name off the petition or move out. My mother even wrote an apologetic letter to the newspaper explaining that they didn’t support the petition. I loved her anyway and understood that they were hurting, too.

Things weren’t comfortable at school either, especially since graduation was nearing. Few students were talking with me, including James. Given the racism in my hometown, maybe that was wise.

But I stood my ground. I gave my speech to the school board, and they resoundingly said, “No.”

My sister made it all possible by allowing me to stay at her apartment for free. We stood our ground together and in our own small way for a better America. Then, when the summer was over, my sister kicked me out and my parents invited me back home.

Lives mirroring his own
As I mentioned in the first part of this article, Copeland’s book was inspired by his play, Not a Genuine Black Man, which he has performed off Broadway, in Los Angeles, and off and on for many years in San Francisco.

The acting and the writing, as well as the response from audience members, has helped him to feel more comfortable with his own identity.

… I met so many other black men whose lives have mirrored my own…. I met Asian men and women who have been castigated by those who share their race because they’re “too white.” … I’ve met elderly women who endured extreme isolation as the first Jews in their Midwestern suburban neighborhoods, and Latinos criticized for too readily embracing European culture and values.

Copeland eventually decided that similar to his mother, grandmother, and his forefathers from the days of slavery, he is genuinely black because he is resilient. And he notes that his community has become a healthier place to live.

San Leandro has gone from a place where whites desert their churches because their pastor has the effrontery to engage in fair-housing practices to a place where members of all races worship side by side in the pews of churches of all denominations.

Positive change happens
It can be difficult to see how far we have come unless we take the time to look back. That is what I have discovered. I was sorting through cartons of letters and mementos last fall that dated all the way back to my adolesence. I found a yellowed newspaper clipping reminding me about my summer of exile.

A local businessman had written an “open” letter to me via the “editor’s mailbag” of the local paper. It was published shortly after the school board turned down what I had thought of as my clumsy, ineffective petition.

Lloyd was upset that he had been out of town and couldn’t attend the meeting. He yearned for our city to “make even a small effort to shoulder some responsibility in solving the problems of today.” He embarrassed me with words like “valiant” and “courageous.” But he heartened me, because it was a long letter and I figured that he might really do something about the city’s racism.

Lloyd Stateler did. As did the Copelands. As did so many others whose names I wish I could remember or could have met. The power of one is that it leads to the power of many.

Each time I have ventured back to my hometown, I have felt awed and gladdened by its increasing diversity and vibrance. It took a lot of brave people to help it change for the better. I think this is the story of many American suburbs.

I also think a lot of people ought to read Brian Copeland’s book. You can find it at the library.


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