In the fall of 1951, I was a freshman from the supposedly last all-white high school in Detroit.
Andy was a sophomore from Royal Oak who lived two doors down in our west quad dorm. He was a handsome Adonis who dove for Michigan’s swim team and marched in its bad. An all-around good guy, he was the first Black man I had ever known.
The guys were having a typical “bull session.” Andy made some remark and my mouth blurted out “that’s mighty white of ya.” There was only a momentary pause and the conversation continued, but like a bolt of lightning I was struck by the realization I had said something hurtful. I can still feel that horrible feeling and how I wished I could be sucked through the floor. My thoughtless mouth was racist while I’m sure my heart and soul were not. A gracious Andy seemed to remain my friend.
That 2 seconds and those five little words have haunted me for almost 70 years. Though innocently spoken, it was blatant racism to any man’s ears. As I was growing up I had occasionally heard that expression without giving any thought to its implication. In my young mind, “white” simply represented good, purity and innocence.
More than at any time I can recall our society is vexed and frustrated by semantics, “the science of meaning,” according to Webster. It is said the best way to resolve differences is through conversation, but if words mean different things to different folks, we might as well be speaking different languages.
Any benign, well-intentioned utterance can be misconstrued or misinterpreted as racist, sexist or politically incorrect. Those words are so abused and overused they are losing definition and credibility. How about the absurdity that teaching math and grammar is racist?
In vogue these days is another implication with which I take exception — the accusation that Caucasians are systematically racist, as if there has been some genetic aberration that precludes white folks from brotherly love and programs others to act otherwise. Since I don’t recall hearing that phrase from African-American lips, I assume it must emanate from those who sense something within themselves.
Like all human flaws — such as hatred, dishonesty, greed, amorality, prejudice and persecution — sexism and racism may be widespread, but certainly not attributable to one gender, profession, nation or color. We must all share some guilt and work within ourselves to minimize such inequities.
Before pointing fingers, sincere introspection of our own thoughts, words and actions might be constructive.
John E. Morovitz