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.