January 12th, 2010

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#148 – Dick Bernard: Harry Reid and me.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

So, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid is being drawn and quartered for remarks made about candidate Barack Obama in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election. “There but for the grace of God go I”, and probably most everyone else, of any ethnicity, anywhere.

As a good friend of mine is wont to say “give me a break!”

Let’s take two days ago, just for instance.

It was Sunday, and I was at Church, this particular day taking care of a social justice table about my particular passion, Haiti.

A few of us were visiting at the neighboring table, including a man of, shall we say, very dark complexion, and an interesting accent to his English. “Where’re you from?”, I asked, since I was curious.

“Minnesotan”, he said…and it took awhile for his puckish grin to appear. He’d heard this one before.

It was awkward for a bit. He was Ethiopian, he finally said, had been here for quite a long while. There are plenty of Christians in Ethiopia, and also, as I began to insert foot in mouth once again, Jews as well – I’d seen a group of these black Ethiopian Jews in Israel in 1996….

Upstairs in church my long-time and great friend John was ushering. We said ‘hello’ as usual, and I got to thinking back two or three years ago when he and another friend of mine in another state were helping me set up an earlier rendition of this blog. I sent a brief e-mail to the other guy about my African-American friend, John, but by mistake I copied John on the e-mail.

I immediately apologized to John for the stupidity – his ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with anything I was talking about with the other guy – and the matter was over in an instant. My guess is that John is used to gaffes like mine on the race issue. But it has stuck in my mind. And perhaps in his, too.

The one who says that they’ve never thought, or talked, negatively or apprehensively about someone who looks different than they do is not being truthful. I’ve been to homogeneous countries where most everybody looked alike (except for we tourists) and we were all white.

We grow up with said and unsaid messages that are imprinted.

I do family history, and I was taken aback when Aunt Mary on my German side, born in 1913 and lifelong North Dakotan, wrote in the early 1990s about the horses she remembered on the North Dakota farm. King, Queen, Kernal, Sally, Nelly, Sylvia, then “I think Old George and Nigger were part bronco”, Prince, Lady…. Horses were truly a part of the family in those old days, and, I suppose, “Nigger” was a black horse, but….

(I picked these words out of the family history I wrote. Initially I was going to edit out that word, but I’m glad I didn’t…some years later we found a batch of letters from 1905-06 from the farm kin in Wisconsin where on occasion “nigger” and “Jew” popped in as well.)

It’s a problem, and Harry Reid will survive it – since, after all, it’s rank hypocrisy for anyone to cast judgement on the man for such a statement in our still race-sensitive society. Similarly, it is unfair to “judge the book by its cover”…being white, or black (or blue or green or whatever) is no criteria for goodness, or badness.

This goes all ways, and it’s no fun to experience it first hand.

I remember my first trip to Haiti in 2003. I’d been there all of two days, and we were being briefed by victims of heinous crimes in the slums of Port au Prince during the 1991-94 coup time. It was very, very powerful. At the end, we went around to shake hands with the participants, men and women. One of the men refused my hand. I hadn’t said a word in the presentation, and I knew nothing about Haiti. I reminded him of someone, I’d guess. I wonder who.

Best we all learn by bits and pieces. It’s all we can do.