“They just have to die”. Really, Oprah?

“There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die,” said Oprah Winfrey recently. They just have to die? Really, Oprah? You mean then, that no amount of reason, argument, cajoling, experience, anything, can change their minds and their hearts?

My grandmother, Minnie Cook, or Nanna Min to us, was born in 1888, so that would firmly put her in the older generation which Oprah wants to die out. She was born as the illegitimate daughter of a barmaid from Somerset, not the greatest start in life, who as a baby was adopted by a family which ran a sweet shop in Tiger Bay in Cardiff. She became the head of a girl’s grammar school. She died when I was seven, but long before that, I remember her coming to stay and telling us about something she’d seen. A man’s motor bike had broken down, she said. She saw a white man walk right past without helping him. Then another white man walked right past without helping him either. Then, a black man walked past, and stopped and helped him fix his bike. To this day, I don’t know if this story is true, or if she made it up to echo the parable of the Good Samaritan. But what I do know is the effect on me. We grew up in a part of Surrey where the vast majority of the population were white. But I always assumed that what I had learned at Nanna Min’s knee was true: black people were particularly nice and helpful, and it would be good to try to be more like them.

Now, call this racial stereotyping if you insist, go on, I don’t care. Perhaps Oprah would be pleased that this old ‘racist’ school teacher is long dead? It strikes me that Nanna Min was just trying to instil in us a view of black people that would counter some contemporary stereotypes. Maybe the motorbike story was actually true. Anyway, Nanna Min’s ruse worked. Take this little childhood vignette as some sort of evidence. There happened to be a family living around the corner from us, with a white mother and a black father, and two black boys. We would never have played with the boys, because they were, (a) younger than us and, more to the point, (b) boys, but together with my friend Jennifer, who lived next door to these boys, we hatched a plan based upon Nanna Min’s account of the virtues of black folk. We bought, out of our pocket money, some chocolate bars for the boys, and, secretly so we could not be seen (for who would want to be seen giving chocolate bars to boys? and besides which, good deeds had to be done in secret) we sneaked up their front path and slipped the chocolate in through the letter box. Because after all, they were nice people, so they deserved a treat.

But this is just a little amusing tale of the suburbs, and I can see how someone could easily dismiss it. It’s just meant to challenge the view that (ironically) stereotypes all the old as racist. You can insist on seeing Nanna Min, and seeing Jennifer, and seeing me, as racist if you want, if you think we were just stereotyping. So here’s another story. Because the account given by Oprah, and endorsed by many, is that people can never change.

The story’s about the US’s own J. Skelly Wright? You know, the guy who spent a quarter of a century breaking up segregation laws in the southern USA? It’s interesting that when I mentioned him to an American law student, and showed him the extract below from an obituary published in the Guardian, he was really surprised at the extract. I then looked at obituaries and accounts of Skelly Wright published in the US and could not find any account of the story I am about to recount. I wonder why not? It’s a tale worth telling. Here it is, where the obit writer, W J Weatherby, recalls an interview with Skelly Wright from some years previously:

“His was the classic case of a poor Irish-American boy who inherited the segregation background. He told me how he used to drive through the black ghetto with friends who threw rotten apples at any blacks that passed. ‘I don’t know when exactly the change came in me,’ he said. Had his religion helped? ‘No I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I’m a bad Catholic.’

            Then suddenly it came to him and he began to talk about a Christmas party at his office. He looked out of the window at a building for blind people and saw that they were having a party too. But as they arrived the blacks were separated from the whites. ‘They couldn’t see to segregate themselves,’ the judge said.

            He was recalling a memory of many years ago and yet he was so moved that he could not complete the story for several minutes. He turned his swivel chair so that his back was to me and he sat with his head in his hands. ‘That upset me a great deal,’ he said at last. ‘That made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps that made the change.’”

I did wonder about the reason why my American law student, who knew a lot about Skelly Wright and was interested in precisely these issues, had never heard this story of Skelly Wright’s revelation of the absurdity of segregation by colour in the kingdom of the blind, and why I could not find any US account of it (of course there may be accounts of it that I’ve missed). But here is possible clue. I have been immensely moved by this story, and hence, especially since I teach ethics, have often referred to it in class or in conversation. But rarely have I managed to tell it in full, or to use it to raise the issues I wished to raise. Because generally, as soon as I explain how Skelly Wright admitted to all the usual racial prejudices of his time and place, the ensuing story of his conversion is either not heard, or dismissed. Sometimes I’ve been shouted down by those eager to show how non-racist they are by condemning him utterly the second his racist background is explained, and never even get to explain the Blind Society incident. Or if I do, that incident is dismissed as some aberration, as not genuine. ‘But look, he then spent years and years not just being a token non-racist, but actually working really hard to undo racism!’ It does not necessarily sink in.

Maybe this is one reason why so many people think that racists don’t ever change their spots, because they can’t see past thinking that if a person is at all bad, they’re bad. In the case of something like racism, where often there’s a fear that one might be discovered, ‘outed’, as a racist for something one hadn’t ever really thought about, some casual remark, some lingering stereotype, there’s a great temptation to prove how non-racist you are by being especially vigilant about spotting racism in others. But there’s bad in all of us, and good in all of us. Tease out the good, and nurture it any way you can. And you can start to nurture it, by recognising it wherever it flowers, and in whatever form it flowers.

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