William K. Wolfrum's picture

    An Open and Honest Conversation about My Racism

    “You see, you’re one of the good Blacks,” I told my friend Al, at a high school graduation party. “It’s the bad Blacks that are the niggers.”

    “I think I hate you now, Bill,” said Al, walking away.

    It was 25 years ago when that scene took place, and his words still haunt me. Partly because I haven’t spoken to Al since. But mostly because that those words started me on a path toward acceptance and enlightenment that I remain on to this day.

    Racism toward African-Americans was instilled into me from birth. I never got a sex talk, but I got plenty of racism lessons. And until that night, those lessons formed my opinions of African-Americans.

    Being racist was an unnatural fit for me, especially since the vast majority of my experiences with Black people were positive. Al, in fact, was one of the few people who I felt close to in high school from freshman year through senior year. But mind you, my casual racist mindset was on display more than just that night. And regardless of how I got that mindset, I take responsibility for every racist word that ever came from my mouth.

    Plain and simple, I was an extremely ignorant boy, swimming in his own privilege. I knew nothing of the African-American community. In fact, I knew nothing other than the limited culture of an upper-middle class white home. So while I feel I’ve never been deeply racist in my heart, I grew up being deeply racist in my mind, and thought little of it.

    In the 25 years since that horrible conversation, I have had myriad experiences and travels that have helped me understand my own racism. I have learned that - while I can never fully understand a culture that I am not part of - the cultures of all minorities are a vital part to American culture as a whole.

    Nonetheless, I cannot ever bury that ignorantly racist 18-year-old. He exists inside me as a never-ending lesson to myself. That boy teaches me that education and experience have helped me get on the road to becoming the man I always felt I should be. He teaches me to never become self-satisfied on issues of race. And he teaches me that the road from racism to acceptance is a road that will never end.

    I am an imperfect man and I always will be. But the 43-year old writing this post has a much more open mind and much more open eyes than the 18-year-old who ended his relationship with a close friend with a racist diatribe.

    This is for you, Al. Someday I hope to apologize to you face to face. But I want to thank you for your words that night, because they helped turn me around and put me on a path of acceptance and self-examination.

    The path I am on today began that night, a quarter-century ago. And that path has made my life better in so many ways. Accepting and learning about the cultures and lives of other races and nationalities has made me a better husband, friend, writer and man.

    So along with my apologies, I send you my thanks, Al. Because of you, I aim to create love, not hate.

    –WKW

    Crossposted at William K. Wolfrum Chronicles

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    Comments

    A beautiful heartfelt piece of writing and one that touches my heart in so many ways.  I was raised by a grandmother who believed in lynching and was verbal in her absolute distrust and apparent hate of all people who did not look and act like she did.  How sad for her.  We had no minorities in the schools I attended until highschool and then the only minority was  an Indian.  Of course he was called Chief.  I can only imagine now how that must have hurt him but at the time I thought it was his name.

    I confess to taking part in and repeating many 'minority jokes' and tales.  It seemed natural to me for it was natural to all my peers.  How I bow my head in shame for that now.  The school system in my town started 'bussing' many many years after my graduation.  I remember saying with some amount of importance - I don't think we should have bussing.  I think if 'they' can afford to live in our school district then 'they' should be able to attend our schools.  'They' should not be 'brought in'.  Now I bow my head in shame for that as well.

    Somehow, and I think I can easily give my grantmother full credit, I have no known feelings of racism. I resented everything she thought or did and so of course I acted in a manner I considered opposite of what she would like or approve.  But still - I joined my peers in jokes and opinions.  How weak I was.

     I owned and operated a restaurant for 28 years and employed many - Mexican - Pakistani - Blacks - Iranian - one incredibly intelligent fellow from Iran spoke six languages fluently and was taking a seventh in college (Spanish).  I so admired them, they were all college students with the exception of the Mexican men.  During their employment we managed to obtain green cards for seven of the Mexicans.  We were so proud.

    I never walked in their shoes.  I know their faces were those they chose to show me as their employer.  However, I truly believe that I gained their respect and I know they all gained mine.  We were not alike.  How flat would our world be if we were all alike.  I know that I have much to learn - much to feel - much to improve - we are all a work in progress I think.  But I cherish the part of me that is willing to continue the work in progress.

    Your article inspired me to learn more - feel more - and for that I thank you.


    Wolfie, you have managed to surprise me! Not because I doubted your ability to reflect but because you've addressed an issue that is difficult, if not impossible, for most white people to articulate and you've done it with eloquence, sophistication, and a great sense of personal responsibility.

    As a straight white woman who grew up in overwhelmingly white communities and didn't experience anything close to cultural diversity until college, I have many of my own stories to tell about my walk on the path to acceptance. But the thing that resonates the most with me is your "aha" moment. I had a similar "aha" moment that forced me to face my childhood homophobia! The movie Torchsong Trilogy came out when I was in my first year of college. I had just moved to Los Angeles from a small town in Indiana and some of my new friends who were native to the city asked me to go see the movie. I made a face and declined. "I don't have a problem with what 'they' do in private," I said, "but I don't want to see it." I've returned to those words over and over, as it sounds like you have returned to yours, as I let go of the negative things about gay people that I heard growing up--in my family's case, mostly "harmless" jokes, meant in humor but based in fear.

    Over the years, I've had the privilege to know co-workers and friends from different races, cultures, languages, countries, sexual orientations, and other backgrounds from mine. Each experience has helped me, whether the helper knew it or not, to overcome stereotypes and prejudices. And yet, my mind still throws up old and new stereotypes on a fairly regular basis, for me to face and move past. So, when you say the road will never end, I wholeheartedly agree with you.


    I had similar problems when I was younger, O. I won't go into details, but at a time when I had no time seeing the silliness in racism, I still was disgusted by homosexual male couples, even when they were just holding hands.

    What helped me out of it was becoming a ballroom dance instructor (it paid my way through college). As a heterosexual male, I was the exception, not the rule, so it allowed me to see things from a different point of view. Luckily, I was not treated by them the way I had treated them.


    Thanks, Orlando. It honestly makes me feel good to see that others have read this and thought back to their youths. A lot of us have had to overcome mindsets drilled into us, or just casually accepted. But it feels good to progress, as it were.


    Many months ago I decided to stop posting on blogs. I continued to read but stopped posting. There are many reasons but not one in particular that truly stands out and I still do not feel a need to comment...at least until I read your post.

    This comes from a 57 year old Black woman who grew up in the south and whose heart you have touched more than you will ever know.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart. If all sides of the divided could be as honest and introspective as you, maybe things would finally be different. I hope you get a chance to see Al again one day but if you don't, I'm going to be presumptuous and answer for him, apology accepted.


    Thank you so much for your amazingly kind words, HTWT. I truly appreciate them, and they make up for the knot of pain in my stomach I feel when revisiting the event.

    Bill


    Beautiful post, Wolfie.


    Thanks, DC.


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