The Easiest Explanation: Racism
American Butterfly Chapter 17: Prejudice…It Goes Both Ways
I had one bit of unfinished business before graduation: winning the RDS Book Fair poster contest.
As ridiculous as it sounds today, we looked forward to the book fair each year. Not digital, nor dynamic, nor online, books at the time were a source of adventure. Big books, small books, wordy books, and picture books took over our tiny auditorium for a week. The smell of new paperbacks and the sharp edges of fresh-cut pages remain etched into my mind.
There were always a few special books each year that grabbed students’ attention. Fifth grade it had been Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course we all imagined ourselves Charlie. None of our families was as poor as his, but we thought ourselves equally deserving of a golden ticket to tour Willie Wonka’s factory.
Sixth grade was our last year at RDS, our last Book Fair. It would be my last chance. My golden ticket was going to be a first place poster.
Art was my one activity. Mom and Dad didn’t have the time around work to sponsor children with multiple interests. Each one of us was allowed a single activity, be it a sport, a club, or a class. Mine was just about always an art class. My brother and sister joked that the happiest day in Mom’s year was when one of us said we wanted to stop our activity.
For years I had entered the RDS Book Fair poster contest. My reward: second place. Always. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t win.
It was not as if my nemesis was a single student. In our grade there was no Leonardo DaVinci, the great artist philosopher, or a David Ogilvy, the leader of American advertising. Every year I was bested by a different classmate.
In the summer before sixth grade I had looked back at my past efforts and settled upon the importance of a catchy phrase and a good illustration. In the fall I pondered the phrase and settled upon
A Student Without Books Is Like a Knight Without Armor!
Since the mascot for the school was a knight, since we were all students, and since it was a book fair, one phrase tied it all together. Over the Christmas holiday I worked on the lettering and began the illustration of the knight in the spring. A sure winner!
Finally the day came, in one of our last weeks of 6th grade. I missed announcements at assembly while working on a newspaper project. My home room teacher ran into me and proudly announced, “Congratulations! Your poster came in second!”
Senora Lopez saw that I could barely hold back the tears and chided me for being a poor loser.
As soon as we were dismissed, my despondent steps carried me to the book fair to view the winning poster: Hot Air Balloons by Anthony Britt. A couple of balloons colored blue and red with a few more in the background. A stick figure in a basket underneath was yelling: “Race you to the RDS Book Fair!”
A year or so later, in a genuine conversation among friendly but competitive schoolmates, Anthony laughed, “I saw your face that day. You couldn’t believe I won with balloons! I had looked back at the past winners, and I saw they always picked hot air balloons!”
With the benefit of time, it was clear that Anthony was right. In contests it is most critical to understand the nature of the challenge. If possible, to grasp the motives and interests of the judges.
Looking at my poster years later, it was easy to see big shortcomings. The illustration was precise but hardly engaging. The not-so-catchy tag line was long and excruciatingly printed in ornate, Old-English block letters. As pretty as they were, they were not easy to read or perfectly-executed. My poster represented an enormous amount of effort, but it was not that effective.
After my parents understood my great disappointment, each of them had a “this is the way the world really works” conversation with me. They declared my poster definitively better. Mom said she had compared them all.
They both explained that “best” does not always win first place.
To them, the reason in this contest was clear: Anthony was Black. He was the only African American child in my grade and one of the few minorities in the school. I was White and had won a number of other contests over the years. Now was someone else’s turn.
Mom and Dad consoled me by saying, “The school awarded the top prize to a minority. There was nothing you could do. This is the way the world works today.”
I was confident that neither Mom nor Dad had any real knowledge about what had truly happened. It was just a kids poster contest, after all.
It is hard, though, as a child, to completely ignore the deeply-held beliefs of your parents.
The two of them agreed on little. But about this, each of them was 100% certain. Racial prejudice was growing, they thought. In the world of 1980, White people like us were suffering from it more and more. They were certain that prejudice against Whites was real, and it was only going to get worse, they told me.
From the vantage of four more decades of life, it is easy to see that my parents, in the eyes of 2022, were racist. Me too, though less so.
Mom and Dad imagined things in much the way it was described in a sometimes-cringy but still thoughtful paper from the American Journal of Sociology: “The Psychology of Race-Prejudice.” It was published in 1906.
AJS remains a prominent sociology journal today, and its author, William Thomas, is a long-dead but not forgotten leader in the field.
In his paper, Thomas sought to explain the psychology behind racism, calling it “race-prejudice.”
In the first pages, the paper declares concepts that kinda disturb us today:
- Arabs, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Whites and others are distinct racial groups.
- Race-prejudice is a “normal” thing.
- Race-prejudice is so normal that we can see it rooted in biology.
The paper then recounts “lived experiences” to demonstrate how groups across the world exhibit race-prejudice against one another. Along the way, the reader can’t help but observe examples of the snobbery of imperialism. The paper was written a decade before World War I, after all.
Towards the end, the paper tackles White racism from the perspective of southerners and northerners in America. It highlights the “caste” system prominent in the South, saying “…it was impossible for a southern White to think the [Black person might move] into [their] own [White] class.”
Reflecting on my parents’ assertion that the reason I lost was due to “reverse racism,” it was saddening to see that the problem of racism had been so reasonably described 74 years earlier.
Despite this understanding, my parents slipped into the same unfortunate sea of anger and misperception as people who lived 100, 200, and 1000 years before them. They were certain that I needed to be dragged in, too. To protect me.
At the paper’s end, Thomas goes to a place we might not expect. He declares that race-prejudice is solvable…that people can overcome the normal, biological urges that lead to racism.
His language of 1906 is a little awkward, but the meaning is powerful:
“…[Racism] tends to become more insignificant as increased communication brings interests and standards in common, and as similar systems of education and equal access to knowledge bring about a greater mental and social parity between groups and remove the grounds for ‘invidious distinction.’”
Invidious distinction…the need to see others as different…as frightening…as dangerous…as members of a lower (or higher) caste.
Racism is something we can make insignificant…through communication, education, and shared knowledge.
I can still remember the despair of that moment thirty years ago. Today, as challenging as the times are, I have a very different feeling, one of hope.
We have a legitimate chance to win a golden ticket to better the world. It’s up to each of us.
Deeper connections are one of the recipes for a better tomorrow. Please follow J. Andrew Shelley.
The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.