I am a recovering racist: I was somehow taught hate as a gift of love
I grew up in the segregated South. It took a question from an 11-year-old to teach me how I really felt about it
By Jonathan Odell
It was obvious they had been studying Rosa Parks.
I was still off balance from the first question, editing my race history to include the fact that I liked segregation for the feelings of superiority it gave me. The thought was disorienting.
“Yes!” I answered, and knowing where she was going with her question, I continued. “I liked that, too. To see a grown man offer me his seat because I was more important than he was a good feeling.”
Before I entered the classroom that day, I felt it was enough to have condemned my past, along with those old white men who had created my racist world. After all, I was born into that society. I didn’t have a choice. I had to follow the rules. I’m certainly not to blame for it. I figured a little liberal guilt was enough to buy my redemption.
But the kids’ questions presented me with a moral dilemma. I was not a neutral or innocent bystander after all, even as a child. My enjoyment of the privileges testifies to that. In addition, it became clear to me that I got my seat because someone was forced to give up his. For every meal I was served in the pristine restaurant, somebody had to eat hers in an alley. My college scholarship came at the expense of some field hand’s son who couldn’t afford to finish the eighth grade. Each time I benefited because of my whiteness, an African-American paid because of his blackness. Guilt or moral repugnance is not enough. There is a real debt to be paid.