Thursday, December 27

White Christmas

THAT most wonderful time of the year, when you're reminded, once again, that the renewed hope one finds in the promise of increasing sunlight is balanced by the sheer number of blind racist idiots out there, and the recognition that you share a closer genetic link to some of them than you're really comfortable with.

I think I've mentioned before that my Poor Wife and I used to play a game with family gatherings and racism. It had a single rule: you had to look at the other the minute somebody made some wholly gratuitous racial remark, and the object was to be the first to get there.

I suppose we started playing about twenty-five years ago, and the great attraction of the thing was that it wasn't a game we'd invented, rather, it was one that developed organically and was then codified. If either of us was of a more scientific bent it might have involved plotting Cracker Comments over Time, or versus Phases of the Moon or corollated with Bill O'Reilly career highlights, but we're Arty, so it was just another excuse to sigh knowingly. And if there's a sort of Oprahesque smugness about the thing, it's a mistake to think we imagined the issue was limited to our parents' generation, that Brokaw-limned bunch that fought the Nazis and the integration of public schools. It's just that they were a lot more likely to make unguarded comments, seeing as how they saw no reason to be guarded in the first place, so that back when more of them were alive you might spear a line drive from any corner of the room. It kept you on your toes.

As they grew less ambulatory, or even stopped being animated, the game grew less exciting. If our dwindling number of elders didn't understand the need to couch their racism in more acceptably up-to-date terms, still the process which fed them ammunition--Brokaw's nightly Songs of Encumbered Speech, for example--did. So eventually racism was replaced by crypto-racism, the way skinny ties give way to wide ones, the way Movement "Conservatism" replaced the klavern, and the acceptable locus for the expression of racial opprobrium, at the family dinner table or on the local "news", became public education.

This was around the time my wife returned to teaching, and got a job in an urban district. For a couple years the game was suspended because she became a sort of human batting cage, and it took us a while to catch on. She'd be asked some innocuous, chit-chatty sort of question about how the school year was going, then be prodded about classroom troubles, and she'd answer innocently enough about some fight, or a miscreant caught pulling fire alarms, and be met with, "Were they black?" So she just started avoiding telling those stories. (Like any good game there are some worthy off-field anecdotes. It was around this time that we moved from a half-gentrified area of downtown to one which was more of a raw canvas, which caused her father to offer to foot the cost of a Rottweiler, and culminated in a visit from her baby brother [now in his early 40s] who spent the entire time surreptitiously looking out the front window to see if the darkies were stealing his hubcaps.)

There probably were some points scored in the past few years, but the game was as dull as a denial from Mark McGuire's lawyers until the Indianapolis Public Schools Dress Code brought some new, if unwelcome, vitality last year. The promise that forcing them into Best Buys vestments was going to turn those ghetto punks into fine young scholars thrilled our family members the same way it thrilled local teevee "news" producers, in the same way "Bomb Mecca" sounds like a reasonable course of action to people who imagine their tiniest synaptic event counterbalances the 5.9736×1024 KG mass of the earth. School uniforms, of course, are an idea so appealing to the authoritarian mind that they've had the opportunity to have been proven meaningless time and again over the course of the last couple decades, but this time the intended victims were as Black! as the headlines the IPS superintendent hoped to generate. The latter part of the program was a success.

Now, let me point out here that between the two families precisely one person--my Poor Wife--was actually affected by this. No one else pays anything beyond state and federal taxes to support IPS (and every other school in the state or nation), no one works inside the city limits, no one lives anywhere where they're likely to catch a glimpse of Dangerously Low-Riding Ghetto Pants. Except on white kids. But it was almost universally hailed as the solution to Domestic Unrest.

SO this Christmas morning we spend an hour with the remains of my mother, then head over to my sister's for breakfast, or, as I like to call it, "breakfast", and the plates haven't all been cleared yet when we have the first score of the day, or what would have been if I could have turned my head while seething, when my sister's mother-in-law starts in about how some teacher or neighbor or second cousin of hers had said something about all the IPS students who get free school lunches but wear designer clothes (see I'm White and I Don't Have a Teevee That Big)! And I have to admit, dear reader, that I sort of exploded about it before catching myself, not that I didn't believe she deserved a punch on her 78-year-old snout, regardless, but because I don't want to be the source of disharmony in someone else's home, and it sure would be nice if everyone else felt and acted the same.

And by now you will have noted that what was such a great idea last year is now the source of a new complaint--the Coloreds are dressin' all uppity! It just fucking does not matter. I thought I made a reasonable save by mentioning that a lot of the students were also wearing clothing that had been provided (with much fanfare) on the grounds that they couldn't afford a complete change of wardrobe at the whim of that same heroic administration which was so highly praised the Yuletide previous. It was not a response to her comments--they didn't deserve a response, just an expletive--but an opportunity for someone else to take over the conversation, which allowed me to object to dress codes in general and not the unspoken underlying urge to see all black people in stripes.

So then it was on to my cousin Jane's place, to see the rest of my father's family, where we are treated to a) the tale of all the trouble they're havin' at the school where my cousin Pammy teaches, Redacted High, in the formerly all-white hillbilly enclave of Deletedville south of town, and how this is all the fault of the IPS students who are there illegally because they lied about where they lived in order to escape the New IPS Dress Code ("Weren't never a speck o' trouble in Cracker Township til these undesirables showed up.") and b) the rather ironically amusing sight of one of my third cousins, home from his first semester at college, pimp-rollin' his way through the living room with his jeans buckled at the knee.

You don't visit us often enough! someone is sure to tell us at every family get-together.


Brendan said...

Another home run, Doghouse. You on steroids or something?

pookapooka said...

I never regretted leaving my kinfolk to moulder in Jersey way back in the day to seek my fortune in Hawaii. ("Fate" is what resulted rather than "fortune" but that's OK. I'm Living in Hawaii!!!) The bitterly schizo Jersey-style dysfunctionosity which my forebears manifest so openly doesn't play too well in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, I was blessed with marrying into a wacky family of Chinese descent, all of whose members up to the generation of my nieces were soft spoken and polite. What family feuds that came about during my watch were memorable. (E.g., cryptic tale of an Uncle visiting Family in San Fran, a long uneventful car trip to the boondocks of some inland County, a stop at a Scenic View atop a wide valley, the California Relative's finger-point at a house way on the other side, accompanied by "See that house? Your Greatuncle Stanley lives there. We don't talk to him." An uneventful ride back to the City.)

Indeed, the only thematic tension playing out in our Honolulu holiday gatherings (and Chinese tend to gather at any excuse for a holiday -- Brother going to Mainland; Auntie coming from Mainland; Groundhog Day, Arbor Day or at least their Chinese equivalents, etc) is inadvertantly provided by bachelor Uncle Benny, the guy we had to quietly monitor when our kids were little. Being (natch) of a churchgoing bent, he fills the role of "preacher" in the family, and as a result, always delivers the pre-feast Doxology, in a voice that would rattle the foundations of High Heaven if not for his unique family DNA that translates loudness of voice into hoarse, mezzopiano squeakitude.
Through the years, the squeak has gradually found an accompaniment of spittle, which proved to be a bit of a problem vis-a-vis the waiting cruets of food, since he felt Doxologies should be properly done whilst reverently hovering over the table. Various strategies unfolded -- nephews surreptitiously bumping him to a more remote locus; the "holding hands whilst praying," the whole family ascting as human antirubberbands sproinging one and all (including Benny) away from the exposed comestibles, etc. (My personal strategy was to let the greedier members serve themselves first, thus exposing a pristine lower layer of yummies.) Final solution was to leave the Saran & Reynolds Wrap covers on the platters, so Uncle could exhort away with more and more hoarseness & precipitation, with no hygienic compromise.

This is so much better than my own blood -- one uncle raving about teh blacks, another sending chain letters with dire apocalyptic consequences if I didn't pass on the good news to 5 Others, etc. And this is just surface stuff that I allow to seep into public discourse.

I love my wife and her family. I remain, happily, poor and content in Honolulu.

punkinsmom said...

I'll trade you my family's conscience-wincing Jewish jokes and liberal use of all non-WASP derrogatories for your family's relative subtlety any day.
I'll even throw in the in-laws who are decidedly open-minded about race/religion for suburban white folks, but just plain batshit insane.

Julia said...

I just talk about donating rollover minutes to soldiers at Walter Reed. It's unreproachable, and none of them really wants to discuss soldiers sitting in Walter Reed who can't afford to call their families, or why that might be so, so we all move on to how much we love Costco.

CB said...

My Spousal Equivalent's Mom and Dad, both in their 80s and from right outside of Pittsburgh, have an irrational fear of all brown people. They came to visit us in Maryland, Prince Georges County to be precise. They stayed in a nearby hotel, and were terrified that their car would be stolen at night. Mom actually said "Boy, there sure are a lot of black people in this neighborhood. Are there any white people here?" "Yes, Mom. Us."

She's sure that all "mexicans" are illegal, and that all Hispanics are "mexicans." And that brown people are all criminals, on welfare, and will shoot you if you flash your lights at them to tell them their lights are not on. She's convinced that brown people actually TRY to get locked up in prison because they get good health care. I could give you more examples, but... it makes my tummy hurt.

yellojkt said...

In my grandfather's waning years, his diatribes against the "n____rs" became so frequent that your game with your wife would have given us whiplash. In the past year, I have heard my dad's anti-illegal immigrant tirade so often it's now almost rote in my brain. I fear for myself in my later years.

And I tell everybody that school uniforms are a solution in search of a problem.

Anonymous said...

The "glance game" is one that I have been playing for six years and didn't know I was getting good at.

Thursday said...

I see as much of my family as I want to - anyone who tells you that "you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family" is a flat-out liar.

Anonymous said...

Riley: You are a national treasure.

Anonymous said...

One day my nephew went into a frenzy over the Jews. They are greedy! They run the world! I hate Jews, etc.
I told him that he was a Jew.
His name is Dickmeir. It's a lie, he's not a Jew, since my sister was a Gentile. He's too stupid to know that now. But every once I laugh about how much he hates himself. Did I mention that I'm the evil Uncle in the family? You probably figured it out, right?

Anonymous said...

Also his Dad wasn't a Jew either.
I just figured he'd think that Dickmeir was a Jewish name, since I'm also the Smart Uncle.

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