SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Nicholas Kolb

Troubling Thirst

   The incident happened when I was around five years old. The way I remember it is my brother, James, and I were out with my grandfather at a grocery store. After shopping for some things and checking out, James and I were thirsty. We saw a drinking fountain by the exit and we started to walk over to it. While we were on our way over, a young black man was getting a drink. As my grandfather saw us walking over there, he caught up to us and stopped up before we got there. What he said to us has apparently stuck with me to this day. After the young man had finished drinking and had walked away, my grandfather said to us, “You don’t want to get a drink from that. A nigger just drank from it. I’d rather buy you a drink.

   I can’t remember much about the trip after that point, but I remember us telling our mom when we had gotten home. James, about eight years old at the time, told my mom, “Grandpa wouldn’t let us get a drink after a black man drank from the fountain, and that’s wrong.” It is amazing how easily innocence could potentially be corrupted. Luckily it didn’t work that way this time.

   My mother had to be completely livid after learning about this incident at the water fountain. I spoke with her on this issue recently, and learned a great deal about my grandfather (he passed away about six years after the incident). In a way, she always knew that he was sort of racist ever since she got to know him when she married my father, but she had enough faith in him to believe that he would not say anything to us concerning race or expose us to the type of things that he did. Obviously, she trusted him too much. Something that I didn’t know at the time was that at his funeral, there was a group of very secretive men, who all happened to be white. They were called the Masons, and they stood primarily for a pro-Darwinism outlook on life. In this case, the idea of “survival of the fittest” appeared to apply to race rather than biology. This outlook apparently led to the racist standpoint that my grandfather had adopted and lived with until his death.

   I still don’t remember if he ended up buying us a drink or if we just waited until we got home; I don’t think we cared about it at that point. The damage had already been done. The incident was already embedded in our heads. This taught us exactly what kind of person my grandfather was. I never really got to know him, which I still think of as a shame. Maybe I could have reasoned with him, but probably not. As they say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

   This situation sticks with me because it is the first overtly racist situation that I had been exposed to, as far as I remember. When I try to rationalize to find some logical explanation, it just doesn’t work. Maybe it is due to the difference in generations.

   I believe this event has helped to shape my personal outlook on life and my environment. After being exposed to this type of outlook, I realized that people have been raised much differently than I have been, as was the case with my grandfather. His upbringing was much more strict than mine, and he also had grown up with an assumption that black people were inferior to whites.

   There are many factors that have shaped me as a person. My being the typical white all-American heterosexual middle class male has obvious advantages, many of which have been made clearer to me by taking this class. In this situation my grandfather may have tried to instill in us a stereotypical white supremacist attitude while my brother and I were still young. Evidently my grandfather thought that he possessed this superiority.

   Every time I think of this episode with my grandfather it makes me shake my head in disbelief. I still can’t believe that someone could really be that racist and uncaring toward other human beings. This episode makes me see how far people have come in the fight against racism. Of course, there is still a long way for people to improve to be able to honestly view all others as equals. Still, I believe that our generation is much better than the previous on this topic, and I think it will only get better.

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