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

Elizabeth Mulvey

Prejudiced Parents?

   My mom said the word nigger.  I had heard the word before and knew it was wrong.  She didn’t just say the word; she actually called somebody a nigger.  I was in shock.  I had never heard her say such a thing.

   Of course, my mom did not call someone a nigger to his or her face.  Here is how it happened.  I was sitting at the dining room table in our house, doing my homework.  I was about ten years old.  Dinner was cooking in the kitchen; the smell of lasagna was wafting through the air.  Mom was sitting in her chair, dad sat on his couch watching the news and reading the newspaper at the same time.  I am not sure where my brother was.  I was in my typical familiar, warm and safe environment.  We lived in an upper middle class white suburb of Chicago.  The news was on T.V.  There were sirens in the background, indicating that something bad had happened, most likely closer to downtown Chicago where many African Americans lived.  Maybe that was the precursor to what happened next.  It was almost like saying, warning, your whole existence and everything you have believed up until this point is about to change, and we cannot tell you why, but you had better be ready to listen and think carefully!  Then, it happened.  The newscaster was talking about a famous basketball player who had done something wrong.  And, that is when she said it.  “That guy is such a nigger”. 

My dad agreed.  Well, he did not disagree, and to me that meant he agreed.  He looked at me, though, when she said it.  I wondered what he was thinking…Liz just doesn’t understand how the world works.  She knows it is a bad word, we taught her that.  But, her mom is right, too.  That guy is a nigger.  How do you explain that to a ten-year-old child?  Not all black people are niggers.  Niggers are black people who exploit themselves, the black people who are arrested for things like murder or rape, the black people who take their position in life and abuse it.  Not all famous black people are niggers, either.  Just the ones who take advantage of it.  How do you explain this to a ten-year-old child and make it make sense?  Say nothing.  It is not like she asked.  I guess that gives me more time to think of a correct answer.  Maybe next time she will ask…

I never did, though.  Ask, I mean.  There were other times, but I never asked why she said that or thought it was ok to say, even if we were in the safety of our own home and nobody else heard her.  That day, I learned, in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago, there IS a difference in the minds of people, or at the very least the minds of my parents.  There are black people, or even African Americans, and then there are niggers.  It was not a difference in color, and not necessarily a difference in class (as I said, this guy was famous!).  It was a difference in behavior; how people of color held themselves and behaved in society.  For white people who did things like this black guy did, there was not a term my parents used to describe them.  I mean, sometimes my parents would say that a guy was an asshole, or a horrible person.  However, there was not a descriptive term like nigger for these white people. 

I never really thought of my parents as being prejudiced.  Then again, I never really thought of them as not being prejudiced either.  Fact is, I never really thought about it.

It was 1985 when I was ten years old.  I was not very aware of what was going on in the outside world.  I can tell you now what was happening at that time in the Chicago land area, but the real Chicago and my Chicago were two completely different things.  In my Chicago, we drove 45 minutes west to the downtown area.  It was always real busy, people hustling and bustling everywhere.  Typically, we were there to watch the Chicago Bears play at Soldier Field.  We had season tickets.  We would park our car, walk across Lake Shore Drive with droves of other football fans, watch the game, and go back home.  Sometimes we would get something to eat on our way out.  Chicago, at the time, to me, was a fabulous and glamorous place with lots of lights and lots of people.  It was a place to go to have a good time, and yet, at the end of the day, return home to my warm safe house.  I never felt unsafe when I was in Chicago, at least not at age ten.  I was always with my parents, and I knew that that meant I was safe. 

In reality, Soldier Field was about 15 minutes away from the projects on the South Side of the city.  I did not know that until I was into my late teens.  In reality, there were people who lived in Chicago who were fighting racial wars every day.  In reality, not all parts of Chicago were as glamorous as I thought they were.  In 1985, there was a lot of talk about racial profiling in the Chicago area.  At ten, I had no idea what either one of those words meant.  Harold Washington was the mayor of Chicago.  He was the first black man to be mayor of Chicago.  I had no idea that it was a big deal.

In the city where I grew up there lived four African American brothers who had been adopted by a white couple. Looking back, I often wonder about the boys who grew up black in our white city.  I don’t remember them ever being treated differently, and I know my parents were friendly with them and their adoptive parents.  I guess I wonder two things…why at that time and that place did the couple decide to adopt those boys.  Are they happy they did so?  And, how did the boys feel, growing up in an upper middle class society of white people.  Was it difficult for them? To me, they were just the boys who grew up alongside us.  They were essentially just like my brother and me.  I don’t think anyone in our city treated them differently, but I guess since I was not that close to any of them, I would not know that for sure.  But, in all honesty, because they weren’t treated any differently by anyone that I knew, I just figured that that was what it was like to be black.  I did not really know of all the struggles and fights that blacks endured.  That part of the world did not touch me.  

Yet, the question of race did enter my mind when I heard my mom call that ballplayer a nigger.  In this one instant, at ten years old, I realized my parents were prejudiced.  I had always thought they were perfect and could do no wrong.  I thought everything they told me was the absolute truth.  In that one instant, I questioned what my mom had said, although it would be a lot later in life that I actually questioned her out loud.  But, I questioned her that day, in my mind.  In addition, that is when I learned I have my own opinions, and they are not necessarily like those of my parents. 

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