When was the first time someone pulled the prejudice card on you?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Busy month, these Februarys of our lives.

Groundhog Day, Black History Month/Negro History Week/Valentine’s Day/Lincoln’s (AND Darwin’s) birthday and Washington’s birthday, too.

Punxsutauney Phil arises — or doesn’t — each February 2nd. Lincoln’s dead. Washington’s dead. Darwin’s dead. Saint Valentine is long dead even as he is a consternation to some and a reason to love somebody to others but celebrated wherever television (or is it just Hallmark?) has interfered. Lincoln’s ideas of egalitarianism, Washington’s of a country free of monarchy and religious intolerance, Darwin’s brilliance of evolution, Valentine’s pushing of romantic love — none of these ideas are dead. Even the hope of spring signified in P. Phil — there is hope.

All of these February remembrances are so alive in us.

What is most alive in the social affairs of our country right now has to do with African Americans vis a vis us, we who think we are white (who are actually pale — pink, beige, tan, yellowish, grayish).

What started out as Negro History Week in 1926 and grew into Black History Month at our country’s 200-year-mark is not dead. It may be more alive now than ever — since the Civil War, when African slaves got their freedom; since the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education when “Negroes” were by law integrated, slightly (no more “colored” schools over there and “white” schools right here); since the Black Panthers of the ’60s tried to equalize the country; since this past year’s seemingly endless reporting on police killings of black suspects.

This is now — the striking back against the new Jim Crow of Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, a dozen towns and prisons where bad stuff goes on if you are African American. Black History month is celebrated but Jim Crow still lives. We could pay more attention to both of these facts.

We are all black. The Human Genome Project that President Reagan started in the 1980s and which took about 15 years to complete — across the world, with many countries contributing — has presented us with unshakable evidence that there is the same amount of genetic variation within a race of people as there is between two races of people. Which means, ironically, that there are no individual races — there is no Black race, Caucasian race, Asian race — there’s just us, the human race.We. Are. All. The. Same.

All of us who think we’re white came from black, came from Africa, came from a series of increasingly sapient humans walking, talking. Folks who think they’re all “black” came from the same place but by now have more European and Asian in them than African.

I believe that the sooner we all get this, the sooner we will be able to let go a ton of hatred, fear and stupidness. What is the problem here, folks? If my skin is darker than yours, what does this mean? If your skin is lighter than mine, what does this mean?

It means nothing. Do you think so? Or do you think, “Well, it means something!” Like what? What does it mean if my skin is darker than yours? Or whiter? Or yellower? Or redder? Pulleeze explain it to me.

I was asked recently if I could pinpoint a moment when I was ostracized, pointed out as being different, teased or ridiculed for things about me I did not understand as different. The question came at a dinner table where there were two African Americans, and I knew I did not have a story to come close to theirs, whatever they were going to tell. But, the hostess said, “Whatever it is, it’s as big a deal as any story around this table, so just tell it.”

Mine, I thought, was not big. I grew up in Jefferson, Iowa in the 1950s, for heaven’s sake. But as it came my turn around the table and I told my tale, I could feel the emotion rise. The heat of surprise when it happened in 1962 came right back to me as if a day — not more than 50 years, but a day — had not passed. The weigh-on-my-shoulders feeling of assault, of attack, the vulnerability of me in my ignorance that made me speechless sat on me like a stone I could not carry. The story is this: the friend home from wherever he had gone — college? a job? a trip? and I a senior in high school, uptown in Jefferson on a Saturday morning before Christmas, meeting him on the street, I happy to see him, — he calling to me, “Hey, Col, you little mackerel snapper, you.” I stopped in my tracks. I had no idea what he was saying. But I knew something. He was not calling me cute, or smart or even his friend. I said, “Hi,” turned around and walked back up Chestnut Street to my house.

At lunch I was telling my dad who I’d seen home for the holidays . . . and what this one particular person had said to me.

“That was a derogatory term, Collie,” my dad said, with that look on his face that meant he was ready to talk too much and we girls were not going to escape it.

I rolled my eyes at my sisters, a kind of pardon for starting him off, and looked at him, waiting.

“It’s a slur against Catholics,” he said, pausing in his histrionically Irish way.

And I leaped in before he could launch into his soliloquy. “What’s a mackerel?” I asked.

He laughed. Really, it was a guffaw. Big laugh. My sisters sighed and bit into their sandwiches. He settled down and explained in a normal voice the bigotry against Catholics in some places in this country, the names folks came up with to deride those they were afraid of — Catholics. “For example,” he said, “we Catholics are not supposed to eat meat on Fridays, so we are sometimes called ‘fish eaters,’ ‘mackerel snappers’ and other such names.”

“But why would anybody be afraid of a Catholic?” I asked.

I think Dad gave us a history lesson about the English and the Church, the Papists and the Anglicans, but by then I was drifting off. I was still confused, a little ticked off at a friend for calling me a name and unable to understand why after all these years of knowing this guy I was suddenly a derogatory term.

Tell this story at a dinner table with two African Americans who have maybe 122 of these stories — from the neighbors, friends, the meat market guy, the bus driver, their teachers, to Any Body on the street . . . and one might get an idea of what it’s like to be continuously ostracized, ridiculed, made fun of because you’re considered different and it’s not a difference you can hide.

We who think we’re white have nothing to compare.

Black History Month/African American History Month. Really, one whole month a year that we have to think about it . . . and now (since 2002) in a whole new way: it’s our month, too.

Print or share article:Print this page
Email this to someone
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Facebook