Memoirist Lynne Hakes joins us today with her story of turning away from her family culture of prejudice and elitism. This is a story for today, as our world becomes more and more divided. When did you realize hate isn’t the answer?
I grew up in a family of bigots. I was led to believe we WASPS were superior to other races, other beliefs, other anything. No one needed to act out to prove it because it was just true. The grown-ups sometimes used derogatory terms for the “others,” but not in public and not in anger. It was like saying, “Of course white bread is the best.” We were taught to be kind to everyone, and rudeness was never tolerated.
My dad didn’t talk about race or social classes. He grew up on a small farm in Illinois where everyone was the same. His father, grandfather and other ancestors were Masons who, historically, had no use for Catholics or Blacks, but as a teenager he left the farm to escape asthma and moved to Southern California. There he blended in with the local culture.
Mother grew up in New Mexico and Southern California where there were Latinos but few Blacks. Her parents were nice people who treated everyone well, and I never heard any talk of other races in their home. But there was Aunt Inez, Grandad’s sister, who was an elitist and lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills. As little girls, Mother and her sister spent a lot of time with their aunt and learned bigotry first-hand.
Aunt Inez grew up modestly in Kansas. But when her husband struck oil in Oklahoma in the 1920s and became a millionaire, they joined the “upper crust” in Southern California. Aunt Inez took on airs and lived up to the Hollywood stereotype of “rich people.” A self-absorbed woman with no children, she was close to my mother, her niece.
Superiority was one of Aunt Inez’s less endearing qualities. One should be kind to everyone, but one should know her superior place in the world. Mother and her sister were groomed to be bigots.
When I was a teenager, a black woman named Annie cleaned house for us. She was treated well in our home, but of course we knew she was “different.” I went to a small high school, where there were a few Latinos, but no blacks. We were a small, close-knit class in our sheltered little community. Racial bias never came up.
Until I was a freshman in college, the cleaning lady was the only black person I knew. There were a few on campus, but I didn’t have any contact with them until my philosophy teacher, Miss Rose, decided to give us alphabetically assigned seats in the large classroom. I was an “H” and right next to me was another “H” and she was black. We introduced ourselves and shared a common fear of taking a hard class like philosophy.
As the teacher took her place in front and we settled down, an imaginary bolt of lightning struck.
Next to me, chatting with me was a black girl. And it didn’t feel any different from being next to the white girl sitting on the other side. What was the big deal? We were two frightened freshmen, wondering how we would get through this class. How could I be better than she? I was puzzled. I admit to having some biases, but the one against race left me that day. It didn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. Do any prejudices make sense? My life is richer for having friends and acquaintances of other races and cultures.
Thank you, my black classmate, wherever you are. I’m glad you were an “H.” And thank you, Miss Rose for giving us assigned seats and forcing me to face up to my training in bigotry.
Sorry, Mother, it didn’t work. I adjusted my attitude. No, I guess “H” adjusted it for me.