Each of us has a unique ethos, or set of mental impressions, made up of our accumulated beliefs, ideas, values and thought and this ethos underlies every thought we have and every action we take. Beginning the moment we are born, the world impinges on us, shaping and forming each of us so that we come to be good representations of the cultural milieu in which we were raised. Some of what shapes us is overt including the direction we receive from school, family, religious institutions and the media. But, there is a great deal of covert shaping as well.
I began thinking about this recently when I read a short story assigned as part of a Carnegie Center workshop titled “Exploring Kentucky Writers.” The short story in question, “Blackberry Winter” was written by Robert Penn Warren. Warren, a Kentucky native, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel All the King’s Men and also won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making him the only author to win the Pulitzer in both the fiction and poetry categories. He is widely considered to be one of the finest American authors. I remember reading All the King’s Men in seventh or eighth grade and being impressed by the fine prose.
I first read “Blackberry Winter” when I was eight or nine. Over the years, my memory of it became fuzzy; in my mind it was the story of a day in the life of a nine year old boy in late spring somewhere in the south. I remembered it included a shady and possibly malevolent stranger and some interesting scenes of the aftermath of a storm. When I began reading the story for this class, I was struck by what was in the story that I didn’t consciously remember, particularly the portrayal of the African-American characters. Poor tenant farmers, the black characters are divided into “good” black people, labeled “clean and clever” and “bad” black people labeled “shiftless.” While southern dialect is used sparingly for the white characters, the black characters speak entirely in dialect. In addition, the physical descriptions of the black people are stereotyped and racist.
Now, one can argue that when this story was first published, in 1946, attitudes were different and it’s not fair to judge by today’s standards, and perhaps that’s true. But that is an argument for a different essay. The point I am getting to here is that I read that story when I was a child. I don’t remember thinking there was anything odd about these characters or anything wrong with the way they were depicted. They seemed natural to me; real and true. There were several African-American students in my class and they read the story too. I don’t know how they felt about it. It never occurred to me to ask. I don’t know if they absorbed it without question, or if it was discussed in their homes. Did it make the African-American children more wary of white children? Did it make the white children more wary of the African-American children? I don’t know. I didn’t occur to me to think about it. I just took it in without question.
I didn’t grow up in an overtly racist home. My parents leaned left and my mother was a member of the International Workers of the World in her youth. They supported the civil rights movement and I never heard them utter racist comments in front of me. Yet, I don’t know how many short stories and novels I read, how many TV shows and movies I watched, how many print and broadcast ads I viewed that reinforced a racist notion of black people. Casually, quietly, covertly, these notions became part of the fabric of my mental impressions. This is not just true for me, but for everyone raised in this culture. We are inculcated with cultural ideas before we are old enough to realize what they are, or are able to question them.
As adults we can learn to question received wisdom and learn to think differently, but we have to be willing to do the work. Racism is alive and well in the United States. It flourishes because few people care enough to do anything and because, underneath most white people are racist. Pundits argue that Donald Trump’s run for the White House is so popular because he is expressing what many Americans believe, but are afraid to say out loud. His racist, xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric is cheered by Neo Nazis and White supremacists—those who are overtly racist. Yet, his rhetoric is also championed by those who would be shocked to think of themselves as racist. Many people get tired of comparisons to Nazi Germany, but the truth is totalitarian and genocidal regimes are created and flourish not just because of the small cadre of those who actively believe the mission of the totalitarian leader, but also because of the unwillingness of the average citizen to care. One only has to read Mein Kampf to see that Hitler clearly laid out his beliefs long before he took power. People didn’t take him seriously. People don’t take Trump seriously either. I’m not telling anyone who to vote for in the presidential election, that’s a personal choice. But, it would behoove all of us to think about what kind of future we want and how we want to get there. In the words of philosopher Stuart Mill, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Ask yourself, if you are willing to do something or would you rather just look on and do nothing?