A Racist in the Family
My grandpa, Grover Ripperton, was loving, and funny, and a complete racist. He bemoaned the integration of his beloved baseball games, calling the players nasty names that must have made my parents wince, but we never talked about it. My mom said once, “I wish I knew some black people,” a good thing for me to hear, but our Davenport neighborhood was so white, it never happened. I had to leave town to widen my circle of friends.
Now I live in Dubuque, a town with its own segregated history. But look. Look at our amazing response to the public lynching of George Floyd, one in a long, brutal list of such murders, and maybe the one that will finally lead to change. I have never been more proud of my adopted city than now, as I see how peacefully, yet forcefully, so many people of all races are standing up to declare, “This is unacceptable.”
My sister-in-law lives in a suburb of Minneapolis. We call Ann the kin-keeper of the family, the aunt who pores over ancient photo albums: Threshers bringing in the sheaves at the family farm. The twins, Billy and Bobby (now my husband), age three, wearing bubble hats as their dad sings “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at the St. Anthony community center. The grandkids and their kids, carrying the family forward. She sends out periodic group emails to the far-flung family, asking everyone to check in.
In March, she asked how we were coping with the coronavirus, and everyone reported back on learning to Zoom, ordering groceries, and coping with the Great TP Disappearance of 2020. Maybe this was her sneaky way of making sure we were all being smart and not marching to demand bars and casinos open long before it’s safe. That’s fine; that’s what family is for.
She wrote again to report on the violence marring the Twin Cities’ protests against racial injustice. One nephew described helping to clean up broken glass and tear gas canisters. Others checked in from Georgia, Chicago, Seattle, where protests had also gone awry. My children live in Davenport and Omaha, two cities rocked by deadly gunfire, reportedly at the hands of a few local white men with criminal records. Both cities were put on curfew, and of course I worried for them.
Sitting down to write my reply from Dubuque, I realized how well we are doing here. I do not mean things are great because there was no looting. That misses the point. In fact this brings to mind a powerful statement someone posted on Facebook about white privilege: “You keep saying ‘It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.’ Try saying, ‘It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.’ You’re prioritizing the wrong part.” Read that again.
I told the family that Dubuque’s response to Floyd’s murder had been peaceful, strong, and thoughtful. I took issue with the term “riot,” pointing out that, at least here, the gatherings and walks seem to be true demonstrations of concern over racial injustice, not an excuse to go out and break things. I said I thought the anger has been tempered because the police at our demonstrations have been walking, or on bicycles, wearing yellow shirts and black shorts, rather than suited up like the military, and how they have been participating as much as monitoring. I said that yes, some stores chose to board up as a precautionary measure, but there was no vandalism. And now we have had a beautiful Juneteenth celebration – a joy, tempered with deep concern.
I told them that a friend of mine was walking into Hy-Vee when the woman in front of her said, “Isn’t it terrible that they have to do this?” waving at the boards over the windows. My friend just said, “Um hmm,” and as the woman turned to look at her, her eyes narrowed as she saw that my friend was wearing a mask. That’s a discussion for another time, but good grief. How do we respond to our neighbors about the need for protests, for masks, about anything at all without starting a fight – but also without hiding our own intelligent convictions?
One of my husband’s nieces wrote from far away, “I still believe the majority of people are good,” and included a photo of Fred Rogers with his famous advice to children: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
That’s lovely, but white people who never hesitate to ask the police for help need to understand how it feels to be a black person in this country, especially a black man or teenager, who can never know if this cop stopping to question him is a helper, or a killer. The good far outnumber the bad, I know. In my domestic violence work, I befriended some police officers and sheriff’s deputies I will always count among the best people I have ever known.
I was thinking that, in my first column after a three-year break, I would write about lighter things, like the artisan bread I’m baking, or the orioles and scarlet tanagers gracing our back yard. Since we can’t visit, we’re making goofy movies for our 4-year-old twin granddaughters. But Vera and Jane deserve a country that is safe and fair, where the helpers can all be trusted. We all do. So in my first new column, I could not write about anything but this.