What My Mom Taught Me About Racism

Racism. Those six little letters make up a small word that has had such an enormous impact on our nation. The idea that someone could literally think that they are better, more talented, more intelligent, or more worthy of value simply because of a skin color that they had nothing to do with, completely baffles me.

Sitting here writing this, I am so confused as to why this mindset, and the kind of behavior that comes along with it, even exists. What is it that makes some people feel like this is okay? Are we really that different from each other? This rhetorical question is one that I understand will never be answered in a way that will make any kind of sense to me. To be totally honest, this post is not being written to even indulge in a conversation along those lines.

Instead, I want to offer the advice I received concerning how to deal with those who would belittle someone simply because of the color of their skin. This advice was given to me over 30 years ago when I was about 7 years old while at my very first bowling tournament at Rynish Lanes in North Chicago, IL.

I clearly remember being so excited about bowling at a new place, along with the possibility of winning a trophy with my team.

As we were putting on our bowling shoes, we began trying some of the awkwardly hilarious introductions you would expect from a group of ten 7-year-olds, whose parents had tried to teach them how to act in public at events like this. So, everyone is shouting out “Hi, my name is _______” and doing their best imitation of a handshake with each person from the opposite team.

My handshake game was pretty strong, and everything was going really well for me. That is, until I got to the last kid on the team. I walked up to him and threw out my introduction that had worked so well on the other members of his team. I said, “Hi, my name is Jay,” and I stuck out my hand. The kid looked at me, paused for a second, and then said, “We don’t like niggers here.”

Now, at 7 years old, I didn’t have a clue of what a nigger even was. All I knew was that the kid didn’t tell me his name, he wouldn’t shake my hand, and on top of that, he was calling me some name I didn’t recognize. So, I did what any 7-year-old would do when coming across someone who didn’t want to be their “friend”; I went and told my Mom on him.

I remember walking back behind the half-wall that separated the lanes from everyone else who was there to watch the event. My mother said that she could tell by the look on my face that something was going on, so she asked me what was wrong. I instantly began telling her what had just happened, repeating what the kid had said to me. Then, I ended my story by asking her “Mom, what is a nigger?”

I can’t even fully explain the look that came over my mother’s face. However, anyone who knew her well knows that she had “The Look”.

See, The Look was a superpower she had that would instantly make you stop whatever it was you were doing and wish you had never started doing it in the first place. “The Look” was one I had literally seen make dogs stop barking, babies stop crying, grown men stop talking, and ice cream stop melting in the middle of a hot Summer day. OK, maybe not the ice cream part, but definitely the others. At this moment, she had the intensity knob on FULL POWER as she stared daggers in the direction of the child I had told her about.

I can only imagine the things that were going through her mind right then, and there were probably a lot of things that she wanted to do in that moment. However, what she did and what she said at that critical time has stuck with me since that day.

After a few moments of glaring a baseball-sized hole through the boy, she leaned over, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Jay, a nigger is what stupid people call other people when they don’t have someone like me in their life to teach them any better.” As she spoke, her voice began to fill with an emotional tenor that had me riveted and hanging onto her every word.

“A nigger,” she said, “is a word that means stupid, or ignorant. Now, there are some people you are going to come across who will use that word to talk about black people. And you know what? Some black people are stupid and ignorant. You know what else? Some white people are, too!” She threw a glance in the direction of the little boy who was talking to his father not far from where we were standing. “So, remember that a nigger can be someone of any shade or skin color. But that is not a word that we are going to use to ever describe anyone, OK?”

“Jay, a nigger is what stupid people call other people when they don’t have someone like me in their life to teach them any better.”

I nodded my head as she continued, “Now, he may have called you that, but you are not stupid, are you?” I told her that I wasn’t. “And you are not ignorant either, are you?” Again, I answered, “No.”

“Then you are not a nigger. And anybody who would say something like that to you has proven that they don’t know you at all. Those are the people that you ignore, because their opinion doesn’t even matter.”

She gave me a hug, lifted my head up and said, “So, I need you to do two things for me: Number one, don’t listen to anything else that kid has to say about you. Number two, you go down there, knock every pin down in this entire bowling alley and BEAT…HIS…BUTT! Give him a real reason to not like you.

There’s something about having your mom give you the pep talk of the century that ends with a command like that. Plus, I had no desire to get The Look turned in my direction. So, needless to say, I had a great day of bowling and my mother was one of the loudest cheerleaders in the entire place.

Even more importantly, in the middle of a crowded bowling alley, she had taken the time to teach me two crucial lessons that have helped define my life for the past four decades:

Lesson #1: Never allow yourself to be incarcerated by another person’s negative definition of who they think you are. Their definition in itself proves that they do not know you. Listening to them will only put you into a prison of the mind you can’t escape. Instead, be defined only by those who have proven their unconditional love for you and whose number one desire is to see you succeed.

Lesson #2: The best revenge against those who would try to negatively define you is to achieve success in the very arena in which they have opposed you. DO NOT BACK DOWN! As my cousin Tressa says, “Don’t let discrimination stop you, let it start you!” Use that same opposition as fuel to achieve what they didn’t believe was possible for you. As my mother so eloquently put it, you figuratively “beat their butt” by being successful in their own arena and providing them with a “real reason to not like you” that now has nothing to do with your skin color.

There is not a day that goes by in which I don’t think about the impact my mother had on my life. It deeply saddens me to know that my daughter will never have the opportunity to know this incredible woman in person for herself, to hear her incredibly loud laugh, or to even experience having “The Look” thrown in her direction. However, I have stories galore to share of the things that “Bobby Jean” taught me, and the headlines of today have only helped remind me of how relevant those lessons still are.


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