December 21, 2013

Oprah & My Racist Grandmother. ~ Rachael Anne Hetrick


Don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Before we get too quick to judge, my grandmother was not a racist bigot. She was not full of hate speech and contempt for others, unless you crossed her, (but that’s a whole other story—and had nothing to do with skin color).

She was a woman, born in 1919 and raised in rural Georgia, where she tended the cotton fields and looked after her younger siblings. She was a tough lady, but a good mother. The kind of grandmother who kept the candy dish stocked with butter mints for her grand-babies, while carrying around a wooden spoon in her apron, just in case they got out of line. This was her way of life, and as an observer of older people from her generation—I can say that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with it.

She lived in a world where religion and myth blended together to instill fear.

So much so, that when she was a young woman, just reaching the age to begin her womanly cycle, she was warned, by her own parents, not to get caught in the rain during her monthly—or she would die by the hand of God.

Sure enough, the day came when she thought the good Lord was going to strike her down as she ran bleeding through the cotton fields trying to find shelter from the rain.

That said, it was no surprise when a young man came knocking on her door preaching Jesus and promising a good life, that she ran away with him, (also another story, as my grandfather’s experience as a Mormon Missionary began with his first Mission in Georgia, and ended the day meeting grandmother).

They moved to D.C. to start a family, but ended up eventually settling down in Jacksonville, Florida. It was there that she and my grandfather built their first home, based on Craftsman blueprints ordered from a Sears catalog.

They spent every free afternoon building that house. When they finished the first room, they moved into it with the new baby, and then continued building around that room until that house was a home. That home still stands today, seventy-five years later. They were good, church going people, who raised two sons and lived a humble life.

She was a proud, and capable woman—whom I both feared and admired. But, by today’s standards, she was also racist. I understand this without prejudice, and take no offense. It does not dishonor her memory, nor does it condone her way of thought.

It is simply how she was.

Oh, Oprah…

In November, Oprah Winfrey made headlines for stating that ”there were 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.” As expected, heads were set to roll.

First off, let me state that I agree with Oprah, but only in the appropriate context.

When you are looking at racism as a conditioned/learned behavior which came to be through the constant exposure to racist thought and action in the home, church, school, and community—Oprah’s statement simply acknowledges that such behavior cannot be completely unlearned by those who have been immersed in a racist upbringing past a certain age of development.

It may dissipate, but the only solution to overcoming racism is over generations, and hopefully it will indeed die off as people evolve behaviorally.

Racism, fear-based hate, homophobia, and racial/religious stereotyping are not just a white problem. They are cultural problems, which are slowly improving because people are progressing away from the negative behavior, while older generations of all races and belief systems, are simultaneously dying off.

Cultural progression happens because people who stand in the way die, then new generations stand up in their place, and the scales slowly start to tilt.

Now, in 2013, marriage equality is slowly being accepted in the same manner. Each generation, in theory, becomes smarter and more compassionate—and as Americans we need to be proud of this progress.

We are merely enacting our Constitutional rights, and getting better at being Americans. As painful as it may be for some to accept, this is part of our evolution as a culture.

While the rest of the world laughs at the disgraceful battles taking place via corporate owned media , we are desperately trying to rise above this ill-formed reputation. We are growing, we are changing, this is happening.

Just as I am not my grandmother, my daughter will not be me.

My grandmother was raised in an era when the ‘N’ word was common, and Klan activities were as regular as Sunday mass. In a world where racism was no more a topic than it was a way of life.

Even so, to her standards, referring to a black person as ‘colored’ was polite. I often had to scold her and remind her that times had changed.

In her own defense, she thought of herself as progressive, which she was compared to the people of her generation. And it is because of her slight divergence from her upbringing that her children, and children’s children, grew up to be better people.

In one family, over the course of three generations; the ‘N’ word became colored, colored became African American, and African American became friend.

I hope that someday my granddaughter scolds me for referring to a gay couple as same-sex, and says, “Grandma, people don’t say that anymore. They are just married.”

I don’t hate the old racists, I pity them—I understand them, and I keep fighting for fairness and equality, while volunteering at the nursing homes that house them. I listen to their stories, treat them with respect, and accept their role in history. I fear the new racists, the Westboro’s of society. Yet, in the same breath I laugh knowingly, because we are stronger than they are.

As long as good people keep trying to be better people, hate will never win.


Loosen the Chains

There is always room in your life for compassion and understanding

There is never a place for hatred or cruelty.

Those that treat you unkind

Are the ones who need your compassion most.

Never carry their hatred home with you.

Never show them cruelty with your own words.

Treat them with dignity and grace;

forgive them,

then walk away.

For if they cannot be kind

they will be toxic.

But your forgiveness, will loosen the chains of fear that shackle them.

It will keep those same chains from binding you

to your own suffering.

Love them,

and let them go.

Want 15 free additional reads weekly, just our best?

Get our weekly newsletter.

Assistant Editor: Richard May/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr.

Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Rachael Hetrick