Not to sound hopelessly naïve but when I followed the horrific events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it never occurred to me that many of the storm’s victims were black. I could see from photographs that the majority were African American, but to me they were just people in pain.
In the hand wringing after the storm, it was alleged these people were abandoned in a catastrophe and did not receive life-saving help, in part, because they were black. Well, if this controversy puts poverty and racism back on the front burner, that’s fine with me. But I still wondered why others didn’t see them simply as Americans, instead of focusing on their color.
Colorblindness must be a rare commodity in this country. It made me thankful that my parents did not pass on prejudice to their nine children. In fact, open-mindedness and tolerance were the greatest gifts they gave us. My dad never acted superior to anybody. He treated down and out people like they were bank presidents. Some of the people he befriended were downright scary to us as kids.
So, we got a head start at being respectful of other ethnic groups before it was even popular. Not that we had much contact with other races in our little patch of Ireland in south Oak Park.
When we settled in Forest Park, we became accustomed to racially mixed gatherings and sports programs and it was no big deal. My children benefited from this. They were less color-conscious than many of their classmates in high school and college. As for me, it got to the point that the only time I was uncomfortable was in all-white crowds. I’d wonder what parallel universe I’d landed in.
But there was still some racism stored in my closet. I heard a minister say that prejudice makes us unsafe. He had just returned from Africa, where tribal prejudices resulted in daily killings. He believed that we first have to confess our prejudice before we can cure it.
So, I looked in the closet and saw some remnants of racism still hanging there and wanted to clear them out. I was thinking of ways to change, and it hit me that in casual conversation many of us identify people by race. We’re telling a story and something compels us to point out the non-white characters. This suddenly seemed so pointless – to pepper my conversation with references to the Mexican guy, the two black guys, whatever. Who cares? Nine times out of ten the person’s race has nothing to do with the story.
Anyway, it’s a freeing experience to relate stories without racial references. I no longer have to add that the two women I met were black, or that some black kids played baseball with us at the park. Of course, some listeners don’t want to hear the story straight. They can’t put things in perspective without knowing the ethnicity of the characters. These are the same people who watched their TV’s and said, “Wow, New Orleans sure has a lot of black people.”
So, let’s keep our conversations colorblind. The only casualty will be the jokes involving three guys who walk into a tavern.