When Your Racist Beliefs are Challenged….

When I was in the 7th grade, I went on a weekend trip with a new friend. Drew was Jewish and, as she explained, because her grandmother was with us on that Passover, we would be observing. We went to what I, a young girl newly minted from Mississippi, called the coast, and they called the beach. I remember it as a remote island. I’m sure it wasn’t. We lit candles at dinner and ate matzo bread (without mayonnaise, which was the way we ate it at my house (!)). During the course of the weekend, Drew and her mother sat me down and told me something I had said to Drew was racist.

I remember being astonished. I also distinctly remember thinking that they were viewing me and my ways through a stereotypical view of what a Mississippi girl was (my mother was an iconoclast in the state, for heavens sake, refusing to buy into its racial hysteria).

I could have been right. Or I could have been two steps behind the curve in my understanding (like when I wrote an essay about my float parody of Gone with the Wind and was shocked when a woman from California said she was surprised they let me parade in public using such a racist theme; ten years later, I was grateful when the Orpheum Theatre dropped Gone with the Wind from its lineup).

Or I could have been going through one of the stages of emotional reaction I’ve seen play out over and over again when someone’s racist statements are challenged.

First, there is embarrassment and contrition. This can last during the full encounter/event, or it can be as fleeting as a look on the face. Self-justification quickly follows (you misunderstood, there’s nothing wrong with what I said, everyone says that.) This reaction gives way to anger and lashing out at the one who pointed out the belief lurking behind what was said (you ruined Thanksgiving; you upset him; you can’t say that to my family in my house.)

Contrast that with Robb Pate. Robb was a member of the Door of Hope writing group who had experienced long-term homelessness. One Martin Luther King Day, Robb wrote an essay on his mother and Dr. King. He loved his mother, and she was a racist. She raised him to be a racist too. But when he was exposed to Dr. King, he decided his mother was wrong. Dr. King was right. He should keep loving his mother and quit being a racist. And he did.

This Martin Luther King Day, please join me in asking myself the question: when my racist beliefs are challenged, do I make excuses, lash out, and blame the one who wants me to reexamine what I think? Or do I consider it, research the issue, bump it up against someone whose views I respect? Am I more like the typical me? Or am I more like Robb Pate?

Robb Pate, Elvis Presley impersonator and writer extraordinaire

Dr. Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Day, Martin Luther King Day 2020, Martin Luther King Day of Service, Martin Luther King Jr., Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Comments (8)

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you, Luanne. And, honestly, that’s what I thought. If I can recognize what is going on with me, I will take it less personally. I can intercept my own reactions; note them; and move on to the subject at hand, rather than being stuck with my emotional reaction. At least that’s the hope!

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Oh, Floridia, from now on I will remember Robb as Jesus impersonator. <3 He would love that! (And you're welcome--I wanted to do something for this day)

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thanks, Joe. I think people do us a favor when they ask us to look at something differently, though we might not experience it that way at the time. Hope you are doing well.

  • I recognize myself in that denial you felt when accused of racism. I remind myself of how I was raised and the limits of my experience as I was growing up, so I shouldn’t be surprised when I find myself harboring a racial stereotype, even though I know that is all it is—a stereotype. And, as you suggest, I research and consider how and why I am wrong. It’s a uphill battle these days, especially with racism being embraced and encouraged by our “leaders.” Thank you for sharing your story and your insight 🙂

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I so agree. I have said before that I must be very intentional about race and racial issues because I was raised in the 1960s American South where racial oppression wasn’t just tolerated; it was the law.Thank you for reading and commenting–it means a lot.

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