Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Life lessons from a racist

When I was teen in the early 70s, I learned valuable life lessons from my grandfather. One day he showed me his Snap-on toolbox while I was spending time with him at his garage in Compton. He pulled out an odd looking wrench and told me that because he had learned how to use this new tool, he was able to take his wife, my grandma, to a fancy dinner once a month. I do not remember what he paid for the tool, but it was dear; all Snap-on tools are. He also paid for a training course and spent his free time practiced on his own cars. He was smart about business and converted a service that he outsourced to other mechanics, back in house.

He showed me other tools too, each with its own story and each offering a new service that helped put food on his table. He explained that I should get my own tool box and learn how to use the tools so that I too could take care of myself, and eventually, take care of my own family. I did not realize he was speaking metaphorically until much later. I have a large metaphorical toolbox these days and I use it all the time.

He gave me once more piece of advice, “Lock your tool box. You never know when those sneaky coloreds will come around and steal you blind.” I can still hear his voice in my head.

I knew then that he was a racist. So was my grandmother and virtually evey other adult in my life at that time. I would go my own way eventually. I left behind the racist parts of my grandfather and family, and embraced a life rich with many people, experiences and cultures. I bring this up now because I just read a story about a man and his ideas, which are mostly good, but he’s under attacked for comments he made that offended others. It turns out the man is a bit of chauvinist. My problem, as with all things these days, is that I do not see the problem with a chauvinist/racist/misogynist as an all or nothing game. Just because a man (or woman) holds an opinion or an attitude which are at odds with my own, does not mean I reject all of his ideas out of hand. Ideas stand on their own merit. I do not understand those who reject the whole over a part that is rotten, or use the rotten to justify killing the whole.

I eventually confronted my grandfather over his racism. It was hard, but he eventually softened. He had to. His exposure to better ideas left few other options.