[content warning: this blog contains outdated and offensive language]
My grandfather had a colorful vocabulary. Thanks to him I knew all of the English and Italian curse words by the time I was three. I also knew all of the derogatory slang words for ethnic groups. When he talked about people he always referred to them like he was talking about teams. The Yankees, The Dodgers, The M*cks, The Poll#cks, The Ch*nks… they all sounded the same to my untrained ears.
He had stories about every group of people. He repeatedly said ‘The Ch*nks are trying to kill us.’ The whole team. All Chinese people. They were one huge collective who were all in on the conspiracy.
I wasn’t exactly sure how they were trying to kill us, but at that time there were a lot of stories about lead poisoning on the news. I had heard that toys from China contained lead. So my young mind thought that maybe they were trying to kill us with toys. I began to notice the Made In China marking on things and question their safety. But it didn’t make sense that lead could be the culprit, because my grandfather owned a gas station, and he pumped leaded gasoline all day. So how could it be? I was confused. But I was only six. What was his excuse?
He wasn’t a bad person. He ran a business and treated his customers fairly. He loved his family, in his way. He was an excellent cook who enjoyed preparing food for other people. Food which he would wash down with lots of red wine. Then the story telling started.
We would all sit around the huge dining room table, and listen to his anecdotes and jokes about people of other ethnicities. I didn’t understand all of the words, but I appreciated the laughter around the table. The grownups seemed to think the jokes were so funny. Surely, some day I would understand them, and laugh along.
While I didn’t get his jokes, I could easily understand the silly songs he would sing about those ‘teams’ of people. The tunes were simple, with basic rhyme schemes and uncomplicated lyrics, easy to sing, catchy and sticky. The grownups thought it was cute when I repeated them.
Sometimes, I’m sad to say, those awful, hateful sing-songs pop into my head for no reason at all. Just because they still live somewhere in my brain. Those seeds were planted deep by my grandfather, whom I loved and looked up to as a child.
How many people do you know who are like my grandfather? Decent, honorable people who continue to sow those tiny seeds of bigotry. They tell or email racist jokes. They make comments based on racist stereotypes. They clump people together into groups and choose to use offensive slang to describe them, to mark them as different, as other.
We have all known people like that. All our lives, tiny seeds have been planted in our brains by these people. Seeds of separate and different. Seeds of better than and less than. Seeds of difference and indifference.
Those seeds grow into prejudice and unconscious bias. Often times and luckily, they die out before they grow into anything more. They are weak seeds, easily overpowered by knowledge, by education, and more than anything else, by direct exposure to people from other cultures.
Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, without education and exposure to other cultures, the seeds will thrive. They will grow into a vine of racism so invasive, so poisonous, that it can begin to choke everything else around it. And sometimes, it will kill.
We have the power to plant an unlimited number of these tiny seeds throughout our lives. Every word we choose to use is a seed planted. Every joke we laugh at, every hateful comment we ignore is a seed planted. Every email or meme we choose to forward or share is a seed planted.
Just as every time we shut down hurtful language a seed is planted. Every time we speak out against racism a seed is planted. Every time we choose openness and acceptance a seed is planted.
We have the power to always do the right thing. We have the power to choose, every moment, to help others or to hurt others. To make moving through the world easier for others, or more difficult. Every single thing we put out onto the world has consequences.
This is karma- action causes reaction. This is not censoring or cancelling. This is choosing to examine what has historically been hurtful or hateful to others, in our own lives, and in the world, and trying to make it right. For everyone.
This is doing everything within our power to cultivate a culture of common courtesy, consideration and compassion. Then watching it grow.