Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Racism in America (Part I): The Good News

When I was growing up in Canada, I had always thought that racism was a quintessential American problem. I remember watching the movie Mississippi Burning and feeling thankful that I had been raised in Canada where we did not have such problems (or so I thought). The movie Jungle Fever caused me even more consternation: my wife and I are an interracial marriage (she is black, I am white), and our kids are half and half. And, I know that no matter how much the rednecks out there may hate black people, they would probably hate an interracial couple even more.

It is difficult to describe the mental transformation you go through when you are in a mixed-race marriage. Like any marriage, part of your spouse rubs off on you, and part of you rubs off on her. First of all, you stop thinking about yourself, your spouse, and everyone else in terms of race: I do not look at my wife as black, and she does not think of me as white; we are both just people. My wife has become comfortable in situations where she is the only black person around, to the extent she doesn't even notice unless someone points it out. Likewise, I am very comfortable in situations where I am the only white person in a large crowd to the extent I usually won't notice. However, as the husband of a black woman, and the father to mixed-race children, I find I have become much more sensitized to callous remarks someone might make about them.

About five years ago, when I was living in Canada, I had a job offer to move to Atlanta, which after a good deal of discussion with my wife and family, I decided to accept. I must admit, my interracial marriage really made me apprehensive about making that move. After all, Atlanta is in the "Deep South", an area where many people proudly fly the Confederate flag, and within a two hour drive of Birmingham, Alabama (the location of several violent incidents during the 1960s civil rights movement).

In the two years we lived in Atlanta, my fears all proved to be unfounded. My wife and I received nothing but true Southern hospitality everywhere we went. We both attended a very large and predominantly white Southern Baptist church (my wife was actually the one who picked the church after the kind reception she had received when she had first visited there), and all of us felt very welcomed throughout our time there. In our church, my wife was one of only three or four black people in a congregation of nearly two thousand, and yet despite that, she felt completely at home in that place, and was never made to feel otherwise. In the entire time we lived in Atlanta, we did not experience a single racist incident: no hostile stares, no rude comments, no shoddy service in restaurants, nothing. Not even once.

A few months after we arrived in Atlanta, we decided to take a day-trip out of town to visit the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham (a very worthwhile trip for anyone interested in the subject). I admit, I was a bit apprehensive about traveling to Birmingham, knowing what had happened there in the 1960s, but again, my fears proved unfounded. I was welcomed like a friend at the Civil Rights Museum, and even had the privilege to shake hands with the father of one of the black girls who had been blocked from attending a white high school by the governor of Alabama himself in the 1960s. On the way back to Atlanta, we stopped for dinner at a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside Birmingham, and received very good service and a welcoming environment. Our waitress (a 20 something blonde-haired white woman) even made a comment that it was nice to see the two of us there together, and that we made an attractive couple. I remember driving back from Birmingham trying to imagine the mentality that led to the violent confrontations in the 1960s, and thinking to myself how far that place had come. My family and I visited Birmingham a couple of times while we were living in Atlanta, and like Atlanta, we never experienced a single racist incident: no hostile stares, no rude comments, no shoddy service in restaurants. Not even a single incident.

The one thing that was noticeable in Atlanta was that people working in restaurants and other service establishments would tend to notice my wife and I, and would tend to remember us the next time we visited that establishment. In most cases, this resulted in us getting better service: the places we frequented were more likely to recognize us as regular customers and give us preferential treatment because of this.

About three years ago, we moved to New York, and found more of the same. In fact, my wife and I have traveled through many parts of the United States and have generally received a very warm welcome everywhere we have gone. As a mixed couple, we are a lightning rod for racism, and have felt that lightning strike us a few times. However, in all our travels in America, we have only been to one place where we received a negative reaction towards us (which will be the topic of a future post).

I personally think the United States, and in particular the "Deep South" gets a bad rap when it comes to racism. From my own personal experiences, most of this reputation appears to be undeserved. While America is not a perfect place, it has made a huge amount of progress on the front of racism, to the extent that an interracial couple like my wife and I can travel around to many different places and not be made to feel different from any other married couple.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I have a Dream" speech, in which he dreamed, "that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood," and, "that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers." While I cannot speak for all of Georgia and Alabama, the parts of both states my wife and I spent time in seemed to have fully achieved Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. This is truly an admirable accomplishment, for which these Southern communities should be very proud.