The sole similarity between Huckleberry Finn’s childhood and mine was the frequency and ease with which people in both children’s lives used the word ‘nigger.’ Here's a list of typical statements I recall hearing from the white people among whom I grew up during my 1970s childhood and 1980s youth in a mostly white, mostly working-class, very conservative, very Republican, very religious part of the American Midwest. (If you don't find at least some of these statements deeply offensive, there's something seriously wrong with you.):
Look at that big fat nigger woman.
I don’t want my kids goin’ ta school with no niggers.
He’s a nigger, so of course he drives a big Cadillac.
I ain’t livin’ next to niggers no matter what the goddamn gover'ment says.
That’s the kinda shit happens in niggertown.
Them niggers’ll steal ya blind.
Ah ’member this lil nigger boy, oooooh doggies, he sure could dance.
I may be poor but I ain’t no nigger.
Look at that, a white woman with a nigger.
That’s nigger music, change the station.
She’s just a nigger-lovin’ lunatic.
Niggers an’ queers an’ women libbers an’ fairies an’ bleedin’ heart lib’ral nigger-lovers, that’s all this country’s got anymore, I kid you not. Ain’t a man’s country, not no more, not since Martin Luther Nigger and the nigger-lovers took over; that’s why I’m celebratin’ James Earl Ray Day, hee-hee, get it? James Earl Ray Day.
Sometimes the usage was more descriptive than derogatory ( e.g.,“I was talkin’ ta this ol’ nigger man in Bob Evans other night…”), but this is not to suggest that the user was not a racist. Of course he was a racist, they were all racists, my entire family and just about everyone we knew, brain-dead racists from before the Flood, antediluvian creatures slogging through twentieth-century life with a worldview that would have embarrassed the nineteenth. In the world of my childhood, ‘nigger’ was a shibboleth, a password by which racists positively identified each other. All racists assumed that all other white people were equally racist, because racism was, in their minds, simply common sense, like the knowledge that the sun rises in the east (which it doesn't, of course; the Earth turns). But certainty about a stranger’s worldview could only be attained by hearing him speak those two magic syllables. White liberals offended by the word were despised as cowards who concealed their racism behind a façade of smarmy compassion. ‘Nigger’ was the ‘open sesame’ to labyrinthine caverns of stupidity as yet unexplored.
Somehow, for reasons I can't explain, I understood from an early age that the racism of all these people around me was fundamentally ignorant and false. Maybe this realization had something to do with the cultural contradictions on display in my home. My racist family enjoyed Good Times, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons; my honky brothers and I funked-out to Soul Train (preferring it to that whitebread staple, American Bandstand; I also perceived very early that Dick Clark was as phony as a Nerf football and probably lived up to his first name when the cameras were off); I stared longingly at glossy color magazine photos of the Funkadelic stage show, which looked way, way cooler than anything Led Zeppelin ever did; and Benny Morris, the only black kid in my second-grade class, was neither better nor worse than any of my other classmates. And there was also the matter of my childish crush on Christina Cortez, the daughter of migrant farm workers (the ‘tomato pickers’ my family placed a micro-notch above ‘niggers’ but still well below ‘white trash’ in its system of all-American apartheid), who was the smartest girl in the first grade, and whose turquoise bracelet, blue as a cloudless sky on a thin gold chain around her brown wrist, was possibly the first art object I ever admired.
So I was viscerally convinced of the stupidity of racism long before I learned (not from any of my teachers (who tended to be as racist as all the other resentful adults in my petit bourgeois milieu) but from a James Michener novel) that skin color signified nothing more important than the place where one’s ancestors happened to have lived in a time beyond history, that disliking someone because of the color of his skin was even less rational than imprisoning a man because his 40-greats-grandfather accidentally trespassed on the king’s land in the 8th century. In adulthood, I came to consider this knowledge one of the great revelations of my life. It would have meant little, however, had I not used the knowledge as a pick to dig into the densely packed earth of myself, breaking off the hard chunks of racist opinions and patterns of thought that I had drunken in my mother’s milk and learned with my father’s language. This was the difficult and essential task, to eliminate the racist implantations from a personality that already, at age 12, appeared coherently formed. I had to interrogate myself, tie my thoughts to the rack and twist them until their racist cartilage came into view. Only then could I knowingly and finally reject them. Today I am uncertain as to how consciously performed this process was, but I remember that by age 14 I was able to look at strangers without mentally identifying them by skin color and automatically applying to them all the racist bullshit I had imbibed since birth. This was a minor, private victory, but I allowed myself to be proud of it.
Racism is learned behavior--there's no gene for it; it's not encoded in our DNA--and therefore it can be unlearned. Each of us can educate him- or herself out of the racism into which we have been miseducated. And an important part of this education must be the scientific explanation of 'race.' That is, American public schools need to teach, beginning at the youngest possible age, the evolutionary explanation of variations in human skin color. It boggles my mind that this knowledge is reserved for undergraduate college courses in Physical Anthropology. Most Americans don't attend university, so the information must be taught in public primary and secondary schools. The fact that it is not, that most Americans even today have no idea that evolutionary theory has elegantly and compellingly explained the question of why some people are white and others are brown, is yet another dubious triumph of the right-wing anti-evolution movement. Their kneejerk opposition to anything Darwinian in our schools has had the unintended effect of perpetuating the miseducations of our racist culture. This shit needs to end, and the tools to end it are in our hands. We need only the intelligence and the courage to use them.