James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama
James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama

It’s only been the last few years that I became aware of the term “haters.” Apparently, it’s common in the black community (maybe others), and its application is fairly obvious:  it refers to people who simply need to hate other people. I am reminded of the many Eskimo words for snow—when something figures prominently in your world, you come up with new and different words to describe it.

We recently watched the PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, who were a group of students, black and white, who decided to travel through the American south in the 1960s to challenge segregation laws of the day. At the beginning was a clip of a white man who said, “I’ve got to hate somebody.” Why? For many years, this made no sense to me. Now, of course, I understand that all hatred is really self-hatred, and this man needed to get rid of it—so he projected it onto other people. Of course, projecting hatred does not heal hatred; it only makes it worse.

I grew up with racism and its effects, and I believe that it is violent not just to the people being discriminated against (although that is bad enough), but also to the people perpetrating it. I once wrote a short story for a writing class (now lost), where I attempted to illustrate this point. It was only two pages long. It was a scene in a store, and a very young black child and a very young white child happened upon each other and began to play happily; they had not yet been taught that they shouldn’t. When the white mother came upon them, she jerked her child away (bruising her) and let her know that she was not allowed to play with people of color—only she didn’t say it this politely. I believe fiction should be honest, so my character used the word she would have used in real life, a word I have heard many times growing up in the south.

Still, I was nervous about this usage, so I asked some friends to read it and let me know what they thought. A black man from the Caribbean read it and objected to my use of the word. We discussed this at length, and he felt that as a white woman, I had no right to write about racism. I disagreed, and I submitted the story to the class.

After reading it aloud, a nice young white man commented that he felt that the white woman in the story was a caricature, whereupon the lone black woman in our class interjected, “I don’t!”

Racism is a touchy subject for white people who don’t want to believe that they could harbor such thoughts. Most white people are not going to use the n-word or take a baseball bat to someone just for dating their sister. But there is a more subtle racism that black people understand and white people do not want to see. It’s the subtle racism that causes a white person not to worry when crossing paths with another white person on the street, yet causes them to wince inwardly if a black person does. The gangsta stereotype lives in the white subconscious…

My own parents do not call themselves racists, but they are. When I was in third grade, I was besotted with a black girl in my class. I have forgotten the names of many people, but I remember hers. I’ll call her Katie. She was funny, smart, and beautiful, with deep black skin. I thought she was great. On several occasions, I begged my mother to let me invite her for a sleepover. My mother was uncomfortable and kept finding excuses why I couldn’t. She didn’t think her family would get on with ours. Or her parents probably wouldn’t let her come. Eventually, I got the message, and I knew what the real issue was. I never had to beg to have a white friend over.

By middle school and high school, we lived in a small town in Texas where there were only three black students. More correctly, there were three biracial students, but in the south that is enough to invite discrimination. Those kids were tough, too. They had to be.

For many years, I had a crush on the oldest biracial boy, whom I’ll call Bob. In my teenage fancy, he was, quite simply, beautiful. He had golden-brown skin, a softly masculine build, and a sharp mind. One day, while talking to my parents, I mentioned that I had a crush on Bob. To my eternal shame, my father exploded, “I ain’t having no black grandchildren!” In my shock, I said nothing, but I thought at him, “That isn’t your call, Dad.” It was a long time before I shared my truth with them again.

It is hard to understand someone else’s experience, and I am surely a privileged white woman in this society. I know it. Still, I wanted to understand, but I found it difficult. In my school years, I encountered many black people who were suspicious of both me and my motives. When I transferred to a larger school with a racially diverse population, I wanted to learn from them, and I also wanted them to know that not all white people were alike.

In my first semester at my new school, I took drama. One day we were working with a piece—I honestly can’t remember the play—that was racially charged. This sparked a discussion, and at one point a black woman erupted, “All white people are alike. They’re all racist!” And there it was, the gift of her truth and her pain, hanging in the stunned silence.

For many black people, there is an inherent distrust of white people. I look at it this way. If a circus clown came into your room and beat you or verbally abused you once a day, you might tend to be shy of circus clowns as a result. I once had a dog whose previous owner beat him with a shovel, so you can imagine how this dog felt about shovels.

Still, I did gain some trust. Kindness and respect go a long way. But it was hard. When a young black man asked me out on a date (truly, it was the sweetest invitation I’ve ever had), I had to refuse. I already knew that my parents would not permit me to date a black man, and I could not imagine dating anyone on the sly. It would just be too difficult, and deception is against my nature. I felt like I had no other choice.

I have heard and seen a wide variety of racist expression in my life against people whose DNA differs but slightly from mine. Some of it was overt, and some of it was very subtle. As we watched the show about the Freedom Riders, I was struck by the naïvetė of the first wave, who certainly expected opposition but not the excessive violence they encountered. Alas, I was not surprised. The second wave riders, and all the others who came after, however, surely did know what they were heading into, and that took amazing resolve and courage. They met violence with nonviolence, just as Mahatma Gandhi had successfully done in India. And ultimately, they succeeded, just as Gandhi did.

A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Hating the haters only increases the hate. Meeting violence with violence only creates more violence. It took guts to ride those buses into the south in the 1960s, and having compassion for those who have none for you also requires courage.

Thanks to the courage of many people, laws have changed and so have attitudes. Biracial couples are more common now. I see this as a good thing. The words of an old southerner come back to me:  “If the whites keep marrying blacks, pretty soon there won’t be no difference.” Well, there isn’t any difference, anyway. Oh, happy day when we can just look upon one another and see other human beings, not “a black person” or “a white person” or a “yellow person.” Oh, happy day when we can just see a loving couple, and not a “straight couple” or a “gay couple.” Oh, happy day when we can consign the word “haters” to the dustbin of history.

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