I will admit it, my family was racist. We try to whitewash it, but my grandmother’s generation talked about black people in a way that could only be considered racist. They were born just before or after 1900 in Philadelphia. One great aunt, who never married, lived and worked in the city until she was about ninety years old.
I would pick her up from her home in Olney (pronounced Ol-eh-nee, like Ack-a-mee [Acme] by locals) for special events and visits to our house in the suburbs. As we would turn onto Olney Ave., she always commented, with a sweeping wave of her hand, “Olney used to be such a nice neighborhood, but now it’s all black.” We forced her to leave the city after she was mugged a second time, breaking her shoulder. Her neighborhood was too dangerous. She blamed the “blacks.”
Another great aunt lived a few blocks from us. She was not at all happy when a black couple moved into the home next to hers. She couldn’t believe “blacks were coming to Lansdale.” She had a “there goes the neighborhood” attitude, sure that “blacks didn’t take care of their homes.” But over the first year of being neighbors, her attitude changed. She didn’t receive any race-relation education or had any sort of spiritual awakening. What made the difference were the black people living next to her. They were really nice. They took good care of their home and offered help with hers. They were kind to her, and their kindness and character changed her. Dr. King would have been proud.
My mother’s generation wasn’t as overtly racist, and I am sure my mom never taught us to be racist. But I don’t remember her ever teaching us that people of other races were no different than us and should be treated as such. She did have one mantra that I remember, “kill them with kindness.” If someone mistreated you, be kind in return.
The town I grew up in simply didn’t have many black people in it. There were none in my elementary school. Then in sixth grade a new student joined our class. He was from Uganda, East Africa. Wow, I wondered why he came to live in my small Pennsylvania town. It didn’t take long to find out. Our teacher asked him to share why his family had moved from Africa to the United States. He said that in his home country, a very bad man, Idi Amin, was killing people who, in his opinion, didn’t have dark enough skin. Since this boy’s family had lighter skin than the average African, his father decided it wasn’t safe for them in Uganda, so they escaped and fled to the United States.
I remember thinking how awful to be at risk of being killed because of the color of your skin. They were able to bring their whole family with them. At least they had each other to start a new life in a new country—a country offering freedom for people of all skin colors. This experience changed my thinking toward black people. My family was wrong. A person’s skin color didn’t make them any better for worse than anyone else. It was their character that counted. Racism in my family was losing its grip.
My family’s come a long way in just a few generations. Racial barriers have been demolished as people of different races became family members. I think my grandmother’s generation would be happy about the change, because they would have the privilege of knowing and loving other races as family. I believe our country has come a long way too, but obviously we still have work to do. Like any family, Americans won’t all hold the same political, spiritual, or moral beliefs, but we can still show love and kindness to one another because that’s what family does.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Ephesians 4:31-5:1 ESV)